James Cameron Says Brightness Is The Biggest Problem Facing Theatrical 3D

Tonight Michael Bay and James Cameron talked the state of the 3D art at a TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON promotional event. Badass Digest was there.

This evening Michael Bay and James Cameron took the stage at the Paramount Theater (on the Paramount studio lot) to talk about 3D movies, mainly as a promotional event for Transformers: Dark of the Moon. We were shown some footage and the new trailer (I don’t do reviews of footage presentations anymore, but let me say that if the whole movie is anything like the first five minutes, which we were shown, it’s a flat-footed, horribly expositional and tedious production), and Bay and Cameron talked a lot about the state of the 3D art.

We weren’t allowed to bring recording devices (this event is exclusive to Hollywood Reporter. Whatevz), so I took some notes but was unable to really keep up with the great conversation. What was interesting is that Bay sat on stage as a not full convert; a couple of years ago he called 3D a gimmick at ShoWest, and while he shot the new Transformers in 3D, he isn’t afraid to talk about what a pain in the ass the process could be.

The most interesting anecdote he told was about how his first day shooting in 3D, shooting footage for an opening sequence on the Moon, was amazing. He was getting incredible shots and loved how the 3D worked for him. “It was great to sculpt with space,” he said. He went to bed a believer. But in the morning he awoke to the news that the hard drive on which the shots were stored had been corrupted, and they lost everything.

Bay remains a film purist; he says that digital doesn’t look right to him. He shot many of the close-ups and character stuff in Transformers: Dark of the Moon on film, post-converting it; his estimate is that about 20% of the movie is post-converted (20% is completely digital creations and 60% is digital native 3D). Cameron, however, has been all about digital since he finished Titanic (he made the statement that he hadn’t shot on film since 1997, but if you look at his filmography that isn’t the most impressive claim).

What was interesting to me was the difference in perspective between the two men. Cameron, the evangelist of 3D, shot his lauded 3D movie on incredibly controlled conditions, and most of Avatar is digitally created anyway. Bay, on the other hand, shot his film in the real world. He remains a director who prefers to augment reality with CGI whenever possible. For Bay the 3D rigs were clunky, and not quite tough enough to meet his needs as a run and gun director who shoots fast and (sometimes literally) dirty. “You need to make [the rigs] more robust,” Bay snipped at Cameron.

Bay estimates that shooting 3D added 30 million to the budget of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which Cameron waved away, saying a movie like this will definitely make that much extra money with the 3D bump. You have to assume he’s right. Still, Bay isn’t fully sold on the expense and effort required; while he feels that 3D was the proper way to make this movie, he says that it’s only right for certain films. Cameron, however, said he thinks every movie could benefit in some way from 3D.

The men did eventually touch on what has long bothered me about 3D - the fact that it’s sort of utopian. It’s hard to get a good 2D theatrical experience, let alone the more demanding 3D experience. “It’s the Wild West out there,” Bay said in reference to theatrical presentation of 3D.

“Brightness is the biggest problem” facing 3D theatrical exhibition, Cameron agreed. There are projectors that can show 3D movies at brightness levels that make them look terrific, he claimed, but theater owners don’t use them right. “They turn the bulbs down,” he said. “They think that they’re saving money, but they’re hurting business.”

It’s ironic - at the beginning of the presentation Cameron said that 3D was bringing people back to theaters (a statement that I find disingenuous at best), and in the end he blamed theater owners for making the experience poor.