Jeffrey Katzenberg 1-on-1: Animation's 3-D Evangelist

Jeffrey Katzenberg: 3-D Evangelist

Jeffrey Katzenberg and...Friend

One could say it’s been a good year for Jeffrey Katzenberg. A very good year.

After all, two of the top ten box office films of the year, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar: Back 2 Africa were from his studio.

Better yet, one could say it’s been a pretty solid decade for the man who runs Dreamworks Animation. Newsarama had a chance to talk to the visionary one-on-one.

“Four out of the last five years we’ve had the top animated movie in the U.S.,” claims Katzenberg, who just happens to be the CEO of Dreamworks Animation. Considering that an average of four out of every top ten feature films have been animated since the beginning of the decade, that’s something to brag about.

Not that Katzenberg is resting on his laurels. One could say that he’s on a personal crusade, not only for his next film, Monsters versus Aliens, but for the new animation production process used to make it.

“In the entire history of film, there have been two revolutionary events,” says Katzenberg, “the transition from silent movies to synchronized sound in the 1920s and arrival of color in the 1930s. Now, seven decades later, the movie industry is entering the third period of revolutionary change with the arrival of 3D. The first two, sound and color, were about bringing a better film experience to audiences. This one is about bringing audiences into the film experience. At DreamWorks Animation, we believe so strongly in 3D that we have completely re-tooled our studio for this medium. Beginning next year, every one of our releases will be produced – from the first storyboard to the final release print – using proprietary technology we are calling InTru3D.

“Working with our partners at Intel & HP, we have developed authoring tools that take full advantage of all the immersive storytelling possibilities of stereoscopic 3D. These tools allow us to approach filmmaking in a whole new way. Until now, most 3D animated releases have actually been produced in 2D and then converted to 3D during post-production. This is somewhat analogous to taking a black-and-white movie and colorizing it. By contrast, our 3D films are being created for this medium from the very first storyboard. We have entered a whole new creative world.”

For the record, this process has been around before. In fact, Katzenberg cites another hit animated film for his current zealousness.

“In terms of 3D, I guess the Eureka moment was when I saw Polar Express in IMAX 3-D,” says Katzenberg. “I was riveted by the experience of the film. I don’t remember having seen a film that was as immersive and involving an experience. Even though it was a 2D movie converted to 3D, I felt the potential of it wouldn’t disappear. I literally left that theater, and it was on a Saturday, and called all the senior people at Dreamworks Animation to tell them they got to see this. This is our future. That was really the breakthrough moment.”

Not that Katzenberg is making an audience’s introduction to this development easy. In fact, most experts, Katzenberg included, are warning there will be a $5.00 additional cost to the MvA ticket to offset the extra costs associated with the experience.

“The answer is this may not be for everybody, but that’s why we’re here today,” he said. “I give a lot of credit to people like Zemeckis and Disney for making these earlier generations of movies. I see us as the next step up in the evolution of 3D. It’s a tremendous step both in the making of movies.

“It would have cost us $150 million to make Monsters v. Aliens. By adding this extra step we are adding an additional $15 million to the cost, making it $165 million. These are very, very expensive movies. Also, for the theaters, they are investing a lot of capital in converting theaters to project in 3-D. It requires a premium charge. My feeling is if you offer people a better product, with a higher and more reliable quality, they will pay a premium for it. They will feel they will get value for their money.”

What does this mean as far as the movie experience?

“Let me give you an example of what I mean,” says Katzenberg. “Ever since D.W. Griffith started moving the camera, the pan shot has been a tool for filmmakers to track across the screen, most notably in a film like Lawrence of Arabia, to suggest the vastness of the desert, or in Star Wars to take us from a sky full of stars down to battling starships.

“Now, for the first time, filmmakers can use a pan shot to track into the screen. This is more than just a new camera move because it can also be an important storytelling device. At a moment of high intensity, the camera can bring the audience in closer. At a moment of human isolation, the camera can suddenly back off. This is what the ‘D’ of ‘3D’ is all about: dimensionality. Not just visual dimensionality, but emotional dimensionality.

“It’s important to note that when I say 3D, we’re not talking about what I like to call my father’s 3D ... which used these kind of goofy cardboard, red and blue, anaglyph glasses,” says Katzenberg. “It was pretty terrible. The technology was primitive, the film was blurry, people got headaches and some even got nauseous. It really wasn’t much more than a cheap exploitation gimmick.

“Here’s the difference, even with these most recent movies, 3D was used to make very self-consciously, not for the audience itself. The problem with that, and this goes back to storytelling, first and foremost when it was used it didn’t have to be a very good movie. It was unfortunate, but it was successful. So Monster v. Aliens has to be--first, second, third, fourth and fifth—it has to be a really great entertainment. We had an offering an exceptional way to experience that filming in its 3D presentation. With the old movies, what it actually does is break a convention. When one of the 3D scenes happened, it breaks outside of the story. It stops in the narrative. It makes you think, ‘Oh! There’s a spear coming right at my face!’ or ‘OH! It looks like I can touch that!,’ which is great, but it breaks up the narrative. You’ve broken the wall.

“What you’re seeing here is completely the opposite of it,” Katzenberg claims. “The audience is actually immersed into the world itself. Their feelings are amplified into it, because this is much closer to how we actually see. We see in color and in three dimensions. It really is a total rethink of the means we make movies. The original 3-D movies were B-market crap. I hated a lot of them. The actual point of those movies were to engage the audience into the effects. With our 3-D we are going for exactly the opposite. The moment we just go for the effects, we have broken the bond.

“Look at it this way, when we go to a good theme park ride, we experience them in three dimensions. I should know because I helped make four or five of them. I really feel that’s really the closest experience we have to 3-D.”

Not that there aren’t glasses involved.

“The glasses use state-of-the-art polarized lenses and they’re so comfortable you quickly forget you’re even wearing them,” says Katzenberg. “Projection used to require two side-by-side projectors that were nearly impossible to synchronize; ergo, all the headaches and nausea. Now, a single projector is used that delivers pristine, bright digital images on the screen in perfect sync and flicker-free. Indeed, the key to all of this progress is in the single word: digital.

“Just as digital technology has drastically altered special effects, allowing audiences to feel they’re sailing on the Titanic, leaping buildings with Spiderman or coming face-to-face with King Kong, so too has it completely transformed 3D into a medium that can replicate the most remarkable human sense of all – the sense of sight.”

“To appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment, consider what has been achieved with the sense of hearing,” Katzenberg continues. “In just a few decades, we’re gone from vinyl to 8-track to cassette to CD to digital. Today, we can capture, store and replay sound with near perfect fidelity to our ears.

“Current 2D movies are still in the visual equivalent of the vinyl era. Many of them are outstanding works of entertainment and even art. But they do not capture the essence of being there. 3D does.

3D represents the opportunity to re-energize audiences worldwide about the film medium by offering a dramatic new visual experience that can only be had at their local cinema.”

Nor is Katzenberg and Dreamworks going into this new process alone. A number of big names and theater groups are taking the jump with him. He just happens to be the latest.

“A lot of people are also now working with this process,” says Katzenberg. “I’ve known Jim Cameron for a number of years. We’ve shared what we both were doing. He’s had us down to his studio and he’s been up a number of times. There has been a lot of good collaboration between various studios and filmmakers. It’s something we’d like to see more of. As there are more movies, there will also be more theaters to see them.

“Clearly, the two big movies that are going to define this is us in the beginning of the year and Avatar [James Cameron's upcoming film with realistic CGI "people" in starring roles] at the end of the year. I do think there’s a tremendous amount of anticipation about Avatar. I’ve seen little bits and pieces of it and I hope it’s success will start more titles. I hope it starts a tidal wave.

“Bob Zemeckis, Jim Cameron, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Peter Jackson are all involved in 3D projects,” says Katzenberg. “These individuals have built their stellar careers on consistently pushing the possibilities of the filmmaking medium. They all see 3D as the next great frontier. In a word, they are the best, and they attract the best. In the next few years, they will be making some of the best films, written by some of the best writers, crafted by some of the best production teams and featuring some of the best stars for 3D. Most important is that these films will be created for 3D. It will be an integral and essential element of the storytelling. I expect their films to truly alter and advance the movie-going experience.”

That said, there still needs to be enough theaters in the market to handle this tidal wave.

“They’re making the investment,” says Katzenberg. “It’s a little bit of the chicken or the egg. Why make this investment in this hardware if there isn’t going to be the product? It’s also why make the product if there isn’t going to be the theaters to show it in? It’s why about 1 ½ years ago I bit the bullet and made the commitment to every movie being made, starting with Monsters vs. Aliens, to make them in 3-D. It’s the same thing with Disney making a commitment to making 15-17 movies over the next few years. So there is a momentum going into it.”

Dreamworks Animation is also well-aware of another factor, there’s a major recession effecting the economy.

“The facts are interesting. The economy is probably more challenged than it has been for some time,” says Katzenberg. “Yet movie-wise, our losses have actually been very small in the face of everything else. The answer as to why is if you want to get out of the home, you want a great experience visually, one of the great value/ bargains is the movie theater. You come here for a couple of hours, spend your money and get told a great story. It’s a phenomenal value because many other things have gotten too pricey.

“So is the timing perfect? No. Are there some things that could be considered better values? My feeling is we’re not going to deny people their DV-R’s. Those are a less expensive price. If that’s what they want to do or that’s all they can afford to do, well we’re not going to do anything to stop people or make it less easy for them.

“Movies are holding up particularly well right now. The business is strong. The overall box office gross is up slightly, which is more than a lot of other industries can say. So it’s been a very, very successful year. Yes, total admissions are down maybe two percent. For that to happen in a deep, deep economic recession is a acclamation of how important movies are; what a great value they are and how accessible they are.”

In Part Two: More on the new process, some side benefits and one or two reasons why it won’t work at home…at least not yet.

Monsters versus Aliens is due in theaters March 27th, 2009


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