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Physics In Film

Movies and TV shows, when done right, are great ways to entertain and tell stories. They can be fascinating avenues for experiencing some phenomena we may never actually witness in real life. They can also be ridiculous or laughably awful when scientific liberties are taken a bit too far. Join the CR4 team here in the Physics in Film blog as we explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of the science and engineering we see on the screen.

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At the Movies (with HUSH)

Posted May 01, 2013 10:16 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: 3D 4D film optical technology

When the movie Avatar premiered in 2009, it seemed to usher in a second era of 3D movies from Hollywood-based studios. (For the record I hated that movie; and it was a rip-off of Dances with Wolves, which is awesome.) Ever since then, tons of crappy movies have been produced with the hope that the novelty of 3D would be enough for audiences to lose their sensibilities -- and their wallets. On the flip side, tons of old, really good movies are getting reworked for the 3D format. Studios take just a handful of scenes and make them 3D compatible. Once re-released, box offices charge at least $14 for the 3D experience, 300% more than Jurassic Park's (1993) and Titantic's (1997) original ticket prices.

But 3D films aren't anything new. They gained prominence in the 1950s, after 35 years of obscurity, but fell out of favor within just a few years due to the technical and personnel strains it put on theaters. 3D was largely relegated to niche uses -- theme parks and IMAX -- until very recently.

I'm disappointed by the resurgence of 3D. It feels gimmicky and cheap, and like an excuse to sell a movie to audiences despite its originality or artistic integrity. There is hope that it could fall out of favor again, but that doesn't appear likely with the expected proliferation of 4D.

In 1903, French inventor Leon Gaumont held a demonstration of his chronophone, a sound-on-disc instrument that synchronized sound with films via mechanical interlock. The film industry itself was infantile, so it's understandable that significant drawbacks persisted. It wasn't until 1923 when Lee de Forest produced the first commercially-viable sound-on-film technique. However, Hollywood was hesitant to adapt the technology. Until that time sound-on-film had only been used in short films and music videos. Famed silent comedian Charlie Chaplin said in 1931, "I give the talkies six months more. A year at most. Then they're done." Once sound-on-film had been further improved, there was no going back. Chaplin made silent films through the rest of the 1930s, before finally relenting to voicing gibberish in his appropriately-named Modern Times (1936).

Clearly, talkies were very much the future of cinema in the midst of the Great Depression.

It's difficult to compare the rise of talkies with the popularity of 3D movies. Though both suffered from technical problems and social acceptance when introduced, talkies were perfected much quicker than 3D. In the 'golden era' of 3D movies, films had to have dual projection to create the illusion of depth perception. This made the film reels difficult to splice or repair, and projectionists had to account for two projectors -- a task not suited for careless, minimum wage employees. Even when 3D was moved to a singular reel, it remained sequestered to the studios willing to risk money on the concept. There also wasn't an improvement in the quality of the picture. Some notable 3D films were produced between 1960 and 1985, but for every Jaws 3D, there are three or four Flesh for Frankensteins. It also didn't help that many 3D films could only be screened in adult-themed movie houses.

By 1985 however, IMAX locations had begun screening non-fiction 3D films in stunning resolution. Experts credit IMAX's commitment to picture quality on an enormous scale in re-popularizing 3D. Mathematical formulas were used to render the 3D picture with accuracy, and the screen size of IMAX theaters is three or four times that of a typical theater. Disney Company soon followed by offering similar 3D films at its theme parks.

Disney's 3D film Captain EO, starring Michael Jackson, in reality was the first foray in 4D films. The term '4D' is not equivalent to its geometric definition, but rather refers to additional ways in which the film stimulates the audience. It's more appropriate to call it 4S, since 4 different senses receive stimuli. Anyhow, Captain EO presented a 17-minute program about how Michael Jackson delivers a gift to space-age Anjelica Huston. Added to the experience were seats that rocked and vibrated; fog machines and lasers to simulate a dogfight; and additional displays to imitate a passing star field. At the time of its 1986 release, it was the most expensive film produced on a per-minute basis, at $1.76 million per minute.

Current 4D technologies greatly resemble this original incarnation, albeit without MikeJack. And while many credit Avatar with the resurgence of 3D in films for the North American market, it was also the first feature film ever presented in 4D. In Seoul, South Korea, theater chain 4DX innovated the 4D movie by incorporating another 'track' to be played while the movie rolls. This track dictates when and how seats should move; when fans turn on and off; when to trigger air and water cannons; and when to release scents within the auditorium. Programming a 4DX track takes about a month, and since 2009, 4DX has been able to expand into 63 theaters in 10 countries, with another 80 planned. Converting a theater to be 4DX compatible take about $1 million and now 4DX is looking to partner with American and Canadian theaters.

For what it's worth, CCN rates the 4DX theater in Seoul as the fifth-best movie theater in the world. A few CR4ers may even recall Smellovision, Hollywood's first attempt to put scents in theaters; it lasted for literally one film. The checkered history of innovating films with new dimensions and stimuli keeps me from embracing 4DX. Unfortunately, I may not have a choice someday very soon.


(Image credits: Screenplay Explorer; Wikimedia; Prime Focus World; FanPop; iGeek Trooper)

CNN - 10 of the world's most enjoyable movie theaters

4DX homepage

Time - 4-D Movies...

THR CinemaCon: 4DX Targeting US Market

Wikipedia - 3D film; 4DX; Sound film


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Re: At the Movies (with HUSH)

05/01/2013 5:10 PM

How is Avatar anywhere closely related to dances with wolves? 1800's indian tribes and a white guy with a pet wolf all done with live action acting is the same as Avatar which is scifi moderately far future on another planet with way alien life on all levels and of which the whole movie was created nearly all in CGI?

To me those two movies are about as closely rated as to say Jeff Dunhams Ventriloquist puppets are a rip off of The Three Stooges because some of the fabric that the puppets are made of is similar to that of the materials the Stooges underwear was made of.

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Re: At the Movies (with HUSH)

05/02/2013 8:27 AM

The only relation I can think of is the "plot" where the soldier goes "native" and helps the other guys. ? Other than that, I like the Three Stooges better than most films today!

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Re: At the Movies (with HUSH)

05/02/2013 9:21 AM


A white male character is sent to the frontier by an inept officer on behalf of an aggressive military. He becomes friendly with the natives, who respect him for his relationship with a majestic beast, as well as his hunting prowess. The soldier narrates the film through his diary. This character also has a leg injury, which can be fixed for free when he completes his objective. The character develops a taboo romance with a female of the native community. This relationship, and a new perspective on his old comrades, leads him deeper into tribal life, until he finally leads his new community into battle.

Yes, I just accurately described both Avatar and Dances with Wolves. Wow I should give myself a good answer.


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Re: At the Movies (with HUSH)

05/02/2013 10:54 AM

There are similarities but who cares?

Practically all our movies are unoriginal. Even Total Recall remake was totally different from the Arnie version.

Cops and Robbers.

Cowboys and Indians.

What I find interesting is to see Star Wars fans at a Star Trek movie yelling out "Fake" in the scenes because Chewbacka and Ewoks are real.

A movie that is a real story and funny and tragic is Pain and Gain.

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Re: At the Movies (with HUSH)

05/02/2013 6:53 AM

Avatar was the last movie I saw.

Obviously we have supplanted good stories and acting, with computer aided visual effects. I doubt I'll ever see the inside of a movie theatre again; might as well stay home and watch cartoons.

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Re: At the Movies (with HUSH)

05/02/2013 7:58 AM

The most recent movie I went to see was Jurassic Park in 3D (if only for nostalgia's sake). It was kind of neat, but I had the same qualm with it that I have with most 3D movies. The technology forces you to focus on one point, blurring out everything else, so when my eyes start to wonder around the screen, I'm punished with a headache.

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Re: At the Movies (with HUSH)

05/02/2013 2:24 PM

It's no surprise that folks who grew up on video games like movies that are just extended video games, and are a driving demographic that keeps them coming. I haven't been in a movie theater since... I don't remember the last movie I went to a theater for. The video explosion on to, first VHS, and then DVD, and, now, streaming technology, has drastically changed that for many. Who wants to go to a theater and have people around you talking during the movie? Additionally, there have been good TV shows one can now purchase. Movies aren't the only good video entertainment available. Even mediocre TV can be enjoyed for the memories it evokes, of a certain time in one's life. Of course, this thread is about movies and 3D. Gimmick does sum that up well. I'll give kids (10-16,maybe?) a pass. Enjoying gimmicks are part of being a kid. Novelty is maybe a better word.

It is ironic that for many years we have sought to recreate the theater experience with larger and larger screens and home theater sound systems, and now, we are moving back in the opposite direction favoring the convenience (at least the younger crowd) of watching on a cell phone screen or other smaller device. And music is hardly ever listened to on a good stereo system. It's iPods and mp3's. Crazy, to me. I don't like theater sound systems and usually watch all video content with headphones, driven by a decent stereo amplifier. A bonus of using headphones, is, that some dialog gets slurred and understanding it is easier with them. If I have to, I resort to the subtitles to know what was said. That's just an annoyance I don't understand. How does unintelligible dialog get accepted in the editing room? (Maybe because they know the script and don't test it on anyone who doesn't?)

I certainly prefer movies that don't depend on CGI to carry the film. I'm not against CGI. It is just rarer that a movie that uses a lot of it impresses me with the acting. Similar to what Mizuti says about the distraction of 3D. CGI, too often, becomes a distraction in the movie where it is used. Who pays much attention to the characters and their acting ability? Their emotions play second fiddle to the CGI. There is, usually, one prime emotion in action movies (the most common movie subject to CGI technology usage) that overrides others -- an angry scowl of revenge. Most action movies are about revenge; justice some would say. The Dark Knight as Batman, is synonymous with that scowl. That IS about the only expression you see when Bruce Wayne is transformed into Batman, except when he is hurt.

Chaplin was a Mime artist, which is definitely an art form -- a skill. He just didn't envision that the subset skill of conveying emotions through the face, without words, would not be lost, just because dialog was added. I liked Casablanca, for example, for it's facial acting as well as the storyline. No CGI or 3D needed -- or desired.

I enjoy finding movies that never got much notoriety but turn out to touch me in a meaningful way. One that comes to mind, is Changing Lanes. Many older movies are underrated. My favorite movie channel is Turner Classic Movies. Given a choice between watching almost any of the more modern and popular movies and a movie like, Marty, I'd choose Marty. But there is a connection there for my generation -- our parents were like Marty. A connection to a time before the Information Age. Younger viewers won't have that connection if/when viewing it. Too bad and sad. We may be losing a level of humanity because of technology. Emotional connections don't run as deep in today's world. How many friends does one have? Defined by signing up on a social networking site? Really deep connections. Another "sleeper" movie I liked, off the top of my head, is, Dominick and Eugene. Sometimes, a small section of a film will make it all worthwhile. Context is important. The set up for that small section makes it what it is.

Raiders of the Lost Ark struck a chord, as a well done reintroduction of the feel of the action serial hero -- almost anyone who watched it expected a sequel. But I think we have gotten numbed to it by the plethora of movies riding it's coattails up to the present. Hollywood, is, generally, a "me too" town in most of it's offerings. As Janissaries points out most movie themes were dealt with a long time ago. There is little new under the Sun.

Another, relatively, recent film that I like a lot is Memoirs of a Geisha. But then I have a penchant for movies set in Asian cultures. I loved the TV mini-series, Shogun. And even though I am not, particularly, a fan of Tom Cruise, I enjoyed The Last Samurai, because of the similar cultural setting and depiction of the Samurai era.

Remakes of older action films are usually casualties from the perceived necessity (given?) of utilizing the most modern CGI technology. It overpowers. Give me the original The Day the Earth Stood Still any day over the remake.

As humans I think we will always value human acting, done well, no matter what technical innovations occur for presenting it. Avatar generated characters still can't match real human expressions. Many young people do like music from the Malt Shop era, because they were good, melodic songs, well produced. (Monotonous, booming bass is too one dimensional for my taste.) Same for acting, hopefully. Younger people might get some thrill from all the CGI driven films because it recreates the video games they grew up with, but they will also appreciate films that are classics because of the acting and storyline. I hope. Keeping them available is important for that reason. But do they know about them, or care?

Can anyone here think of a movie with lots of CGI that also had strong character acting? (Do any of these qualify for you?) The unbelievability of the action that takes place in most modern "superhero" movies, detracts from the movie. It's just too unbelievable. Too choreographed. Too perfect. (That was a novelty in Raiders, but we have been numbed to it. It's like first love. There's a glow, a freshness, about that movie -- at least for me.) Now, in most movies with CGI, when the CGI starts, I tend to disengage from the movie, waiting for the real portion of the movie to resume -- the characters and their emotions. I'm sure others find the opposite -- disengaging when there is no action/CGI, waiting for the action to return. Strikes me like being addicted to speed -- from what I've heard.


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Re: At the Movies (with HUSH)

02/11/2019 9:23 AM

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Re: At the Movies (with HUSH)

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