Q&A: Which is the Best 3D Format?

Lets face it, 3D movies are not going away any time soon. Every year we’re seeing more and more films being released and re-released in 3D. So why not experience the 3D in the best way possible?

There are several 3D formats. RealD? Dolby 3D? IMAX 3D? XpanD 3D? Which is the best 3D format? I attempt to answer that question in this weeks edition of Q&A. We’ll take a look at the technical differences, and the advantages and disadvantages between the four big choices. We’ll show you why your local multiplex picked one format over another, and we even got some of the top 3D filmmakers and 3d experts to comment.

The two basic 3D techniques used in theaters right now are Active and Passive.

  • Active-shutter 3D glasses feature LCS lenses that alternately flash the images for each eye at high speed. The glasses are thicker and heavier thanks to electronic components and require rechargeable batteries. The shutter is synchronized through an invisible infrared signal that broadcast in the theatre and picked up by the glasses.
  • Passive 3D glasses use polarized lenses, which filter the projection, allowing one eye to see only one image. Passive glasses require no electronics or batteries.

In the US, there are four big choices in theatrical 3D projection — IMAX, RealD, Dolby 3D and Xpand.

  • Dolby 3D: Passive glasses use color filtering of primary colors of light to produce a color-shifted left and right eye image which the eyewear filters out. The technology uses a single projector and a white screen.
  • RealD: Passive glasses featuring circularly polarized lenses. The images are projected from a single projector onto a silver screen.
  • IMAX digital: Passive glasses featuring linearly polarized lenses. The images are projected from two projectors onto a silver screen.
  • IMAX film (large format): Passive glasses featuring linearly polarized lenses. The images are projected from two projectors onto a silver screen.
  • XPAND: Active-shutter glasses that feature left and right lenses that open and close alternately. The images are projected from a single projector onto a white screen.

I’m lucky enough to live in a city (Los Angeles) that has a bunch of theaters which offer a variety of different 3D format options. I’m sure many /Film readers live in small towns which offer only one of the formats. Before we look at which of the formats are better or worse, we should first take a look at why a movie theater owner (exhibitor) might choose one of these formats over the others.

US readers may not have heard of XpanD, as the company has a small marketshare in the states but is a huge player internationally. The technology has been adopted by more than 3,500 cinemas worldwide, and is sold as a “cost-effective solution and doesn’t require silver screen.”  Their active shutter glasses are reminiscent of the glasses that are used for home 3D televisions. In fact, XpandD produces a set of universal 3D glasses that work both in theaters using the XpanD 3D technology and select 3D televisions. (See a list here.) XPand even produced a 4-minute cheesy informercial about this, which you can watch below:

While the format isn’t as popular in the US as it is internationally, its worth talking about for a variety of reasons:

  • XpanD has partnered with a bunch of the top film festivals, including Cannes Film Festival and Venice Film Festival. (Again: international.)
  • XpanD is the 3D format of choice in Hollywood’s most liked movie theater chain: Arclight Theaters.

Xpand’s X101 3D glasses use battery-powered LCD active shutters that open and shut. They are costly, around $35-$50 a piece, but are said to have a lifetime of up to 5000 shows. At five showings a day, the glasses are rated to last nearly three years. At that rate, the glasses have an end life cost of about a penny per screening — but that doesn’t include the costs associated with charging and cleaning the glasses in-between each showtime. (Which is a lot more work than it sounds.)

The technology also does not require a theater to buy and install a new silver screen. So while XpanD has some big upfront costs for glasses, charging and cleaning equipment, it might be the most affordable in the long term for an exhibitor. On the other hand, the charging and cleaning come at the cost of man hours from theater staff throughout the day.

RealD works on 5,000 screens worldwide, and is endorsed by master 3D filmmaker James Cameron. The technology uses circular polarization which requires a silver screen that reflects the polarized light to be installed in the theater. The glasses are cheap and cost only 50 cents each. They are essentially disposable, requiring no cleaning, which also means that new glasses are purchased for each and every screening. RealD can deliver quality 3D on a screen up to over 80 feet wide with a single digital cinema projector (Other 3D technologies would need multiple projectors to project quality 3D on a screen of this size).

Dolby’s 3D technology is being used on 2,200 screens worldwide. Dolby glasses are reusable and cost exhibitors around $12 per pair. Unlike RealD, Dolby 3D can be projected onto a normal white screen, requiring no equipment change for the exhibitor in that respect. While the eyewear doesn’t require charging, it does require cleaning after every screening.

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