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Three cheers for a 2-D Harry Potter, but 3-D is here to stay

Last Friday's announcement that Warner Bros. was scrapping plans to release next month's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 in 3-D is a milestone, the first time a major film has cancelled a previously announced 3-D release. Aha! you say - the Emperor of Smudgy Films That Give Us Headaches has finally been exposed as a naked fraud.

Well, not quite. Though the decision will cost Warner Bros. a lot of money (Variety estimates a $45-million hit in the domestic market alone), the industry and trade-press reaction to Warner's decision has been positive. Variety welcomed the decision as an "evolutionary step" in the development of three-dimensional filmmaking. Rather than taint its prestigious Potter franchise, the studio has taken the high road, acknowledged that high-quality 3-D takes time and skills that are in short supply. Shoddy 3-D conversions like Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender just won't do.

As veteran industry pundit Anne Thompson wrote on her indieWIRE blog, Warner should be commended for recognizing that "the bloom is off the 3-D rose" and that the technique should be reserved for "cherry-picked" films, including animation and such special-effects movies as Disney's upcoming Tron: Legacy.

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Some film lovers, such as Roger Ebert, aren't that tolerant. In a Newsweek article last April, he called 3-D a "waste of a perfectly good dimension" and Hollywood's rush to embrace it as "suicidal." More recently, the film website The Wrap claimed to prove with a downward sinking graph that fewer and fewer viewers, given the cheaper and more comfortable 2-D option, are choosing 3-D.

In the larger picture, it's probably time to concede the third dimension is here to stay. The popularity of the new format reversed the downward trend of global box office in 2009 and, according to DreamWorks animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg, 3-D may be a barrier against movie piracy. The final Harry Potter movie ( Deathly Hallows, Part 2), due next July, will be among 30 Hollywood films next year released in 3-D. Coming in 2012 - and taking lots of months to do things properly - we have three-dimensional versions of both George Lucas's Star Wars: The Phantom Menace - Episode 1 and James Cameron's Titanic.

On a parallel front, 3-D television sets are available in Best Buys now and the new televisions are predicted to make up between a third and a half of all sets sold in the next five years.

At the risk of speaking heresy to cinephiles, 3-D filmmaking could even help renew some of the lost arts of traditional cinema. Buzz Hayes, the chief instructor for the Sony 3D Technology Center in Culver City, Calif., says contemporary filmmakers are going to have to master skills that have been in decline for decades.

"When you think about some of the world's greatest cinematographers of yore, like Greg Toland who shot Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, they used very deep-focus photography. Every aspect of the image was in focus, so instead they used lighting to direct the eye and shadow to sculpt objects. ... We're starting to find with filmmakers working in 3-D, that it is like theatre. In theatre we can't simulate out of focus, so we use lighting to direct the eye - and we're starting to lean back toward that method."

When an acknowledged modern master such as Martin Scorsese chooses 3-D, as he has with his upcoming children's film, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, that counts as another evolutionary step for the format.

"We see in depth, for the most part," Scorsese says. "We go to the theatre - it's in depth. Why couldn't a film like Precious be in 3-D? It should be.

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"It just seems natural that we'd be going in that direction. It's going to be something to look forward to, but to be used interestingly."

FILMS OPENING NEXT WEEK

Carlos (Oct. 21) The centrepiece of last year's Cannes Film Festival, Olivier Assayas's Carlos is a three-part epic that covers the globe and more than 20 years of dirty Cold War politics in the story of the Venezuelan mercenary terrorist named Carlos (Edgar Ramirez). The 5½-hour version will open in Toronto on Oct. 21. The 2½-hour version will open in Vancouver on Oct. 22, and in other Canadian cities throughout the fall.

Score: A Hockey Musical (Oct. 22) The opening film of this year's Toronto International Film Festival, Michael McGowan's story follows a sheltered kid (Noah Reid) who turns into a hockey sensation but finds it hard to play competitively with his pacifist upbringing. Think Glee, but with headshots.

Paranormal Activity 2 (Oct. 22) A sequel to the bargain-basement horror hit, in which a family sets up security cameras to try to catch burglars and ends up discovering something much scarier.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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