Life on the Fringe

The 3D Revolution

Wave of the Future or Passing Fad?

by Patrick King

Many film aficionados (including myself) have a soft spot for Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, Randal Kleiser and George Lucas. The creative minds behind (among many other things) Back to the Future, the Terminator franchise, the film versions of The Lord of the Rings, Sin City, Grease (hey, it's the highest grossing musical of all time), and of course, Star Wars are known for their visionary approach to storytelling.

Each of these filmmakers has wrought changes in the way that the industry works and the way that we think of entertainment. Now it's possible that they're on the verge of shaking things up yet again. After years of experimentation, these creators are finally ready to unleash 3D movies on the film-going public.

We've long known how humans are able to perceive depth. Thanks to the magic (well, it's not really magic) of stereoscopic vision, our brain is able to combine a couple of two-dimensional images (one from each eye) into a three-dimensional concept of the world around us. Each eye sees our environment from a slightly different angle, and our mind interprets that difference in terms of proximity.

3D imaging technology works by taking advantage of the brain's natural processing power. It uses two simultaneously filmed images (one from an alternate perspective from the other) and projects them one frame after another. Using special polarized glasses that allow each eye to see only one of the two sides of a shot, the brain is presented with a stereoscopic series of pictures. After that, it does what it likes to do more than anything else -- it makes sense of a confusing mess of information.

With a high enough framerate (made possible with digital technology), movement should appear smooth and sharp. Computers will also be used to facilitate the alignment of the images, eliminating the head strain associated with early 3D films.

One potential problem is the fact that half of a given scene is presented per frame (one for each eye), thus a film running at 24 frames per second (fps) only appears to be moving along at 12 fps. To avoid this painfully jerky experience, early buzz is indicating that cinema-quality 3D filmography will occur around 90 fps -- much faster than the traditional 24 fps of standard films. Since only half of those frames will be actual different shots, it ends up being interpreted as something closer to 45 fps -- a nice, comprehendible compromise.

There's one other important detail to note. As far as I'm aware, some sort of passive hardware (such as glasses) will be necessary to make the 3D technology work; we haven't quite entered the 3D holographic entertainment age just yet. Luckily, the modern polarized glasses will differ greatly from the geeky, color-spoiling, nausea-inducing red and blue anaglyph lenses first used when some of our parents were kids.

Assuming this sort of advancement in presentation technology not only works as well as promised, but is proactively embraced by consumers, I would expect it to find its way onto other venues soon after its theatrical debut.

In fact, I think there exists a good chance the game industry will adapt to take advantage of 3D imaging techniques around the same time 3D films first appear in theatres, if not sooner. Who is my primary suspect? None other than the next generation's mystery player -- Nintendo. This is pure speculation, but given the Big N's track record of reticence, speculating about the company's future is pretty much all fans can ever do. So here's my two cents.

First of all, there's the system's name: The Revolution. Everyone knows that Nintendo has SOMETHING up their sleeve with a name like that, and it's probably not going to be a device as trivial as a touchpad-driven control system. There's likely a little bit of nomenclature-related foreshadowing going on by naming the main processors "Broadway" and "Hollywood."

Furthermore, Nintendo has an undeniable history of innovation in the industry. While Nintendo isn't currently winning any popularity contests, practically every game company uses techniques and technology inherited from Nintendo's innovations. The D-pad, analog control, force feedback, wireless controllers -- everything Nintendo decides to do ends up on another system as a standard shortly thereafter. They've even already tried 3D with the dual-screened Virtual Boy. It ended up being one of their biggest mistakes, but maybe this time, in using more than two colors, it will actually sell some systems. I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.

Even the recent announcement that Nintendo is "reworking" their older titles to add features made possible by the Revolution seems to point towards traveling down this potential pathway. Maybe they're using proprietary software to enhance classic games with 3D effects. They've already created newer versions of a few older titles, such as the Mario games. I doubt they're merely updating the graphics or adding force-feedback. The more I hear from Nintendo about the Revolution, the more convinced I am that they have an inexpensive method to display images in 3D. Just remember, when we finally find out what Nintendo's Revolution really is, do me a favor and don't bring this article up when I turn out to be waaaaaaaaay off. Truthfully, I'm not even convinced that this is the future of Nintendo -- rumors end up being nothing more than the random dreams of a deranged fanboy more often than not.

Honestly, I think 3D games would be easier to create than 3D films. After all, instead of relying on the physical alignment of two lenses, games generate their imagery in real time. It's possible that Nintendo's shunning of HD capabilities is because they've decided to devote additional processing power to generate twice the standard framerate -- giving the Revolution the ability to produce smooth, high frequency 3D motion instead of high-definition flat images. It's a heck of a lot cheaper to provide 3D glasses with a system than it is to design the world's most powerful processor. Why strain the system when you can use cutting edge technology (and a little help from the human brain) to provide a more efficient way to achieve realism?

So what does this have to do with anime? More than one might realize, actually. After all, Hollywood's first major 3D film seems to be locked in as James Cameron's adaptation of Battle Angel. If he can stay true to the tone and themes of Yukito Kishiro's original manga, then he'll produce one heck of a film -- one worthy of starting the multi-film franchise that he so desires.

Moreover, if the film is successful, then it will serve as the foundation of a new standard for immersive entertainment.

Since anime, like video games, is generated one frame at a time, animators could eventually be able to purchase off-the-shelf software tools to add depth-of-field to their 2D images. The effect could be subtle, if desired. For example, they could do nothing more than have characters in the foreground at a closer point on the virtual stage than background characters. They'd still be 2D drawings, but it could be a pretty cool effect if used properly. More adaptable studios such as Gonzo could make the computer-generated elements of their shows in full 3D.

Even more promising/frightening, depending on your point of view, think of what you could do with hentai. Fans of a more ecchi nature should be giddy with the possibilities of 3D hentai.

I couldn't help but wonder; if all new shows were to be filmed (or drawn) in 3D, would the allure of traditional animation fade away? After all, why would anyone want to watch something in 2D when 3D is suddenly accessible and popular?

I can't say, however, that I've spent too much time worrying about the fate of classic 2D anime. After all, most movie buffs can appreciate a film even if it's in black and white. Introducing color to the world of films did nothing to diminish the quality of older movies. If a production is well written and well acted, then I'd like to think it would last as long as modern culture is around, and as long as there's a market for it. The same line of thinking should be applied to anime, as well. If new series were to be produced using 3D tricks, it would not invalidate its ancestors. A good story is a good story, no matter the presentation.

When I first heard that Battle Angel was to be produced as a 3D film, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. It remains my favorite work of Japanese fiction and one of the most influential stories I've ever read. Similarly, last year, when the first rumors of Nintendo harnessing 3D technology for the Revolution began to surface, I couldn't help but think of it as little more than a gimmick. Yet the more I consider the potential, the more I think these people are really onto something. Considering the innovative minds behind its impending introduction to mainstream entertainment -- people like the aforementioned filmmakers, as well as Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo's 2nd and 3rd party supporters -- there's a chance that this just might work. I'm not by any means ready to abandon my 2D library of films, games and anime, but I'm now anticipating the next generation of 3D technology with an open mind.

Even if the accompanying new generation of 3D glasses makes me look silly. Some things are just not meant to change.

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Opinions expressed in editorial articles are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Animefringe or its staff.
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