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Maciej Toporowicz / Getty Images

Maciej Toporowicz

The young women snarl and sneer and do battle like street fighters, if stylized ones in blue lipstick and black leggings. Behind them is a special-effects green screen for overlaying movie backgrounds, riffing off 1970s kung fu, The Matrix and a version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

In front of the action, the cameraman dons strange, Blade Runner-like glasses. And at one point, a technician covered head to toe in green holds a metal rod in front of the camera. Once he's digitally removed from the picture, the rod will become a projectile hurtling toward the audience.

The fighters are in fact models wearing clothes made by Toronto-based designer Nada Shepherd, and the film shoot is just one example of the growing use of 3-D among lower-budget productions, particularly in creative hubs such as Toronto and Montreal. No longer the purview of just IMAX and Hollywood blockbusters, 3-D is exploding and hurling toward audiences from all levels of film and video making like never before.

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Shepherd had been looking for a new way to show off her designs and grab people's attention. For months, she had been batting around ideas for a fashion video with Toronto director Grant Padley. Then she saw Avatar.

"I've never had a project go to fourth gear so ridiculously quickly. Once we had a 3-D cinematographer, we had a concept within days," Padley says. The video for Nada Designs is billed as the first 3-D fashion presentation of its kind and will be shown prior to Toronto's Fashion Week at the end of March. At first, the idea was to keep the film hush-hush to heighten anticipation, but now they're talking about it because of another fashion 3-D film due next week: U.K. fashion powerhouse Burberry will be shooting its runway show in 3-D and screening it to fashion insiders in various fashion centres from Paris to Tokyo.

Colour is best used when it is designed properly, and that's even truer of 3-D. If you have a very pedestrian treatment of 3-D, it's like a [garden-variety]treatment of colour. Sean MacLeod Phillips

Driving 3-D's spread is new and cheaper Hollywood-grade 3-D technology, such as the $21,000 (U.S.) stereoscopic camera from Panasonic. And with this accessibility, the prediction is that it's only a matter of time before someone makes the Citizen Kane of 3-D, creating an entirely new 3-D cinematic language far surpassing director James Cameron's alien landscapes in Avatar.

No one is happier than Tim Dashwood. The Toronto-based specialist in 3-D and the cinematographer for the Nada Designs video, says, "We've been speaking to people for about a year and half now, bringing them into the office and talking to them about 3-D and saying that 3-D is the future. No one really got back to us until Avatar started winning the weekends [at the box office, where it has now made $670-million] By that second weekend, everyone started calling. The floodgates opened."

Dashwood says he has since signed a deal with a Canadian director - he couldn't specify who due to a confidentiality agreement - to shoot a 3-D feature film with a budget of only around $1-million, tiny by 3-D standards. Avatar reportedly cost roughly $230-million (U.S.) to shoot. It's also a tiny fraction of the $170-million budget for Robert Zemeckis's 2004 animated film The Polar Express, also released in 3-D. However, short IMAX documentaries and concert films are typically made for under $10-million, although some estimates pegged 2008's U2 3D as having cost around $15-million.

"The perception is that you can't do a [feature-length]3-D movie for less than $10-million. With our technology … we're proving otherwise," Dashwood says, adding that he can shoot in 3-D for as little as 12 to 15 per cent added to the total budget.

The 3-D community still has that old Creature From The Black Lagoon gumption. Dashwood and other cinematographers often custom-make 3-D camera rigs for shoots, for example. Dashwood is also selling 3-D editing software he's developed for $389 (U.S.), far less than the cost of a professional editing suite. The software is a plug-in for Final Cut, the popular editing software that helped transform indie filmmaking by giving home computers the capabilities of a professional editing suite. Dashwood's plug-in allows users to adjust disparities between the two streams of footage that combine to create a 3-D effect. Film editors can now perform the complicated synchronizing of left-eye and right-eye images on a laptop.

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As Munro Ferguson, an animation director heavily involved in 3-D animation at the National Film Board of Canada's StereoLab project in Montreal, says, "What's great for people interested in 3-D as an art form is that there are so many new tools becoming available. ... It's becoming really accessible to independent filmmakers and artists from all kinds of different fields."

The NFB's StereoLab uses a computer drawing system developed by another Canadian pioneer, Mississauga-based IMAX and called SANDDE, for Stereoscopic Animation Drawing Device. An animator wearing 3-D polarizing glasses holds a wand and draws in the air while watching the results in simulated 3-D on a screen. Although it takes many layers of technology to create a 3-D animated landscape, including steps such as digitalizing simple hand drawings if necessary, SANDDE then allows the animator to draw in the environment itself.

The glasses are key. They aren't the flimsy red and cyan kind, which made a comeback in the 1980s. That technology is still used to create cheap 3-D effects on Internet videos. But the current wave is based on polarizing lenses, the kind worn to watch Avatar and used back in the 1950s, which separate and direct two slightly different versions of an image to each eye, creating the stereoscopic effect.

But the biggest, new development, say those in the industry, is the ability to do away the complicated synchronization that used to be necessary in the projection booth. The slightly different left-eye, right-eye images now both come out of the same lens on the projector, rather than two. They flicker too quickly to notice, and all the viewer sees is the 3-D. What theatre owners and distributors see is the wider profit margin of the simplified equipment.

Still, 3-D has one image problem: the hangover from its sensationalist past, like the looming claw rising from the black lagoon in the 1950s. Much of the current wave still plays up the wow factor - from the Art Gallery of Ontario's screenings of Egypt 3D: Secrets of the Mummies at one end of the spectrum to Tinto Brass (Caligula) and other porn directors announcing 3-D projects at the other. Meanwhile, YouTube is introducing 3-D video capabilities. And electronics companies such as Sony are pushing hard into 3-D televisions and home video.

But Sean MacLeod Phillips, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based director of photography who is pioneering new camera set-ups and other 3-D technologies, warns that the creativity now has to match the tools. He stresses that 3-D has to be seen as its own art form, rather than an add-on to 2-D. He makes the comparison to the use of colour film.

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"Colour is best used when it is designed properly, and that's even truer of 3-D. If you have a very pedestrian treatment of 3-D, it's like a [garden-variety]treatment of colour. It definitely adds some sizzle, but it doesn't really help the drama unless the person actually takes charge of it and designs it, the way an art director uses colour in a film, or a cinematographer uses light and composition. Those are all design elements. It's not something where you flip a button and suddenly it becomes 3-D."

Some predict that 3-D will find its true, artistic fulfilment in the lower-budget indie works. The NFB's Ferguson notes that now even the latest films by emerging filmmakers working for the film board's Hothouse apprenticeship will be in 3-D.

"3-D filmmaking was pioneered by a bunch of amateurs working in their basements all over the world. And even a lot of the people who are big Hollywood filmmakers like Cameron and Zemeckis, they started off as 3-D enthusiasts when they were kids. So it's not top-down, it's bottom-up," Ferguson says.

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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