One of the pioneers of 3D digital cinema, today RealD’s technology has a place in theatres, in the home and on the go. Peter Knight explores a company that adds real depth to the viewing experience.
RealD traces its roots to 2003. a time when digital projectors were relatively uncommon in cinemas. Founded by Michael Lewis and Joshua Greer, in 2005, RealD acquired Stereo Graphics Corporation, one of the largest providers of 3D technologies — that year saw the release of Disney’s “Chicken Little” in 100 3D screens. The company expanded — 2009 was significant as it marked not only the millionth 3D customer but also the release of “Avatar” in 5,000 RealD-enabled screens globally, at the time one of the largest ever 3D releases.
RealD is a leading global licensor of 3D and other visual technologies. RealD pioneered digital 3D cinema and today has the world’s largest 3D cinema platform. RealD’s extensive
industry-defining intellectual property portfolio is used in applications and products that enable a premium viewing experience in the theatre, the home and on mobile devices.
Released this April, “Avengers: Endgame” went on to smash box office records in various markets. Worldwide, it set the record for highest-grossing film of all time and the fastest cumulative grosses through $2.5billion. It was also the highest-grossing film released in 3D, with the highest-ever 3D opening weekend gross of $540 million.
The chequered history of 3D
3D films have existed in some form for over a century, but were relegated to a niche in the cinema business because of costly hardware and processes required to produce and display a 3D film, and a lack of a standardised formats. Nonetheless, 3D featured prominently in 1950s America, and enjoyed a worldwide resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s, driven by IMAX and Disney-themed venues. 3D films became increasingly successful in the 2000s, peaking with the success of 3D presentations of “Avatar” in December 2009, after which 3D films again decreased in popularity.
Accordingly, the mission when RealD was founded in 2003 was to create a technology that gives directors and visual artists the ability to reimagine what was thought possible on screen and immerse audiences in extraordinary new worlds more deeply than ever before. Over the past decade, Cameron, Cuarón, Favreau, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Ang Lee and many others reimagined the cinematic experience, and audiences took note. All of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time have been released in 3D.
However, 3D cannot be an afterthought. As productions are carefully crafted from beginning to end, 3D needs to be imagined from the start and be a part of the creative process from capture to delivery. 3D films need to be made properly and with purpose, thoughtfully marketed and always presented with technical excellence in theatres.
RealD realises that one bad experience in 3D could affect a moviegoer’s preferences for life. This is especially challenging because not all 3D is created equal. As a science and technology company, RealD is constantly researching and developing new technology to make the experience better. This includes the glasses, the screen, the projector and every aspect of presentation. Today’s audience is savvy and values stellar presentation.
Competition in the cinema now comes from the ways audiences consume entertainment. We need to remind a new generation that the collective experience of seeing a film with optimum visuals is second to none. And we need to dazzle them with the best experience imaginable. For many, 3D remains a fantastic differentiator from what’s at home or on their mobile phone.
A View from the top
Michael Lewis, founder, RealD
The 3D format has been through many changes. The modern form started with the advent of “Chicken Little” and removed the need to have two projectors running side-by-side in sync. RealD was at the forefront of the latest wave, producing the first systems used in cinemas, but a lot has changed since. Systems are more light efficient now, the glasses lighter and they have higher stereo contrast ratios, however there are limits to what we can do as a supplier. The 3D system and glasses are a vital but small part of the cinema eco system that helps provide that premium 3D experience. A raft of other factors impact how much a consumer enjoys a movie in 3D. These factors fall into two camps. First is the technological infrastructure in the auditoria, second is the content quality. The cinema itself can have a massive influence, be that through the type of projector, the age of the bulb, the porthole glass — not only how thick it is, but whether it’s been cleaned recently — the layout of the screen, the screen itself… I could go on. One of our key strategies is to work with our partners in exhibition on technical delivery — helping in ways we can to ensure the 3D experience justifies the ticket premium. We constantly work on projects and initiatives — for example, our U3D is the latest 3D system from our tech gurus in Colorado. It uses a triple beam system to ensure the exhibitor gets the best picture from their projector.
We also have the Ultimate Screen, which we believe is the best screen for 2D and 3D presentation. Almost a decade ago, we looked at the full technological chain and realised that screens were a limiting factor. Silver screens do a great job, but they can be improved. They manufacturing process has changed little in nearly a century — spraying a piece of vinyl or canvas with silver paint. Whilst the materials and techniques have improved dramatically, there are inherent problems with painting a surface which the Ultimate Screen eliminates. Think of it like a car. If you spend thousands on a new engine, but you don’t upgrade the gearbox to cope, you’re not going to get the optimum performance. That shiny new projector is the engine, the screen is the gearbox — they are interdependent. The Ultimate Screen has been around for a couple of years now with over 200 installed worldwide and another 100 on order. In EMEA, there are Ultimate Screens in many premium venues in countries including Germany, France, Norway, the Netherlands and the UAE, with more added all the time.
Other initiatives we work with across the globe help keep standards high. We have Luxe in a number of markets — our own brand PLF — and more recently we have launched RealD Cinema, currently in Asia and North America. Between the two brands we have around 100 screens in operation, with a number confirmed to follow. In China, they have the 6fL project, which aims to guarantee that the screen has a high light level in 3D. On “Alita: Battle Angel”, 20th Century Fox took steps to demand a minimum 4.5fL in North America. As result, several cinemas weren’t able to show the film. In Europe, the studio wrote to cinemas write asking them to play the film at a minimum 4.5fL in 3D.
That brings us to the content. There are two types of 3D — native and post conversion. The former is rarely used, except for a few exceptions like “Gemini Man” and “Alita”. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing. We work with stereo supervisors like Chris Parks at Vision3, who has worked on movies like “Gravity” and “Fantastic Beasts”. The level of skill, artistry and execution is breath-taking, and the result is 3D content that delivers a director’s vision perfectly. The real issue is the time and budget given to that conversion. If a studio invests in the conversion, and the director considers 3D as part of the film-making process, it will have fantastic results. It’s also crucial that the talent — be that directors, actors or even the studio itself — include the 3D message in their marketing. They need to let the consumer know why this is a movie that must be seen in 3D. RealD is part of this content improvement journey. We have TrueImage™ and TrueMotion™ which have been used by directors such as Peter Jackson and Ang Lee. TrueImage™ clears up artefacts inherent in capture — they look like dust on screen — and if they differ in the left eye and right eye image, can make the 3D effect harder for the brain to process, which contributes to eye fatigue. The process looks at each pixel, forward in time and backward to determine what it should be, rather than what it is. This is a complex algorithm needing incredible processing power. The first time we ran it on a feature, it actually slowed down one of the well-known cloud-based processors to such a degree that they called, asked what we were doing and could we inform them before doing it again! The results are spectacular though and worth the effort. We use a clip from the first “Hobbit” in demos — it shows Gandalf smoking a pipe. Only after the process are you able to see that there is smoke dancing in and out of his beard. TrueMotion™ is about replicating real life on screen. We see strange effects on screen that you wouldn’t see if walking down the street. One such is the wagon wheel effect, when a wheel or a propeller on a plane appears to spin backwards. Caused by the camera shutter, this is eliminated by our software.
We’re venturing into new territory on content and technology. Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” is exclusively available in high frame rate 3D. Paramount is even calling it 3D+. I’ve seen the results and it is astounding. The action is so clear and the HFR really adds to the experience. The other factor impacting the quality is that most of those presentations will be seen using a laser projector. Combining HFR and laser is a game changer. Laser projectors are great for 3D, and our equipment is already optimised. With a consistently bright light source, it feels like the technology is finally getting to the point where the experience lives up to the promise initially offered. Our challenge is to let consumers know this is the next wave, and when they try it again, they won’t be disappointed.
We at RealD must continually remind the industry of the financial benefits of 3D and put wonder into the customer’s experience. “Avatar” did that, but we all lost focus and, as Katzenberg said at CineEurope a few years ago, we “gimmicked it… instantly, we lost good will”. I’d add that the whole industry played a part. 3D is an experience that cannot be replicated in the home, and our research shows it’s a product that young consumers really enjoy. In markets such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, 3D % figures are still high, relative to the UK, Italy or Spain. The consumers are not that different from each other in those markets. The main difference is that countries still enjoying strong 3D numbers are reaping the rewards of support for the format.
If we let the 3D business slip away, then we lose the opportunity to offer variety, a format you cannot replicate elsewhere, as well as significant financial benefits of increased ticket prices and eyewear sales. As an industry, we would have collective responsibility for letting that happen.
RealD originally created the ‘Z Screen’ 3D filter, one of the most popular 3D systems installed in many screens. It requires a polarised screen, such as a silver, precision white or Ultimate Screen. The original RealD ‘Z Screen’ polarises light and has a controller to synchronise the Z screen to left and right eye images. Glasses are passive, with a filter for each eye. The subsequent RealD XL system works on the same principles but uses mirrors to make use of the light that would otherwise be wasted, making it more suitable for use on larger screens.
RealD Ultimate Screen — The RealD Ultimate Screen™ is a sophisticated, scientifically engineered screen that delivers incredible images in 2D and 3D formats. RealD called it “Ultimate Screen” because it delivers the ultimate experience for moviegoers. Designed to be more light efficient, have a wider viewing angle, higher stereo contrast, provide a more uniform image, reduce or remove the hotspot, truly replicate colours and is cleanable.
XL — The RealD XL Cinema System is the ultimate 3D Cinema Solution for DLP Cinema Projectors. XL maximises user viewing experiences in larger-than-life formats. There are two versions of this range — the XL and XLW.
U3D — RealD’s newest 3D cinema technology is a triple beam system designed to be its most light efficient product yet. With a wider throw ratio, from 1.0, for auditoria that require it, whilst having higher ANSI and Stereo Contrast ratios. The U3D comes with built in motorisation.
TrueMotion — RealD TrueMotion™ post-production software uses a “synthetic shutter” allowing creative control of the look of motion. TrueMotion™ adjusts sharpness, judder and motion blur to replicate what the eye sees or to create any motion look desired in all output frame rates.
TrueImage — Another proprietary post-production software, TrueImage™ utilises cloud-based technology to run on a vast number of CPU cores at once. It removes grain from images, which can make the 3D illusion difficult for the brain to process.