Cinema purists have never much liked the innovations Barry Sandrew has brought to the movies.
Based on his work on scans of the human brain as a neuroscientist at Harvard Mass General Hospital in the ‘80s, Sandrew quit academia to invent a technique to digitally ‘colourise’ black and white films.
The breakthrough won the attention of investors (colourise a public domain film and you own the copyright on the colour version as a derivative work), and the ire of film buffs.
“It created a great deal of controversy, but controversy was pretty much irrelevant. I mean the more people that complained, the more revenue went into the coffers of my investors to be frank,” Sandrew says on a Skype call from his home in San Diego.
And there were lots of complaints. Sandrew says some people “felt that the colour actually distracted them because all of a sudden they were seeing things and detail that they never saw before and it caught their attention and it took away from the story”. Famed film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert called colourisation ‘Hollywood's New Vandalism’. Protecting Citizen Kane from colourisation was reportedly one of director Orson Welles’ dying wishes.
“Frankly, I felt who wouldn’t want to watch a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life in colour?” Sandrew, who reinvented the colourisation technique by adding greater automation in 2000, says.
Purists were equally as against Sandrew’s next technical breakthrough for movies: 2D-to-3D conversion.
Sandrew – who is speaking this month at the Magnify World AR and VR summit in Melbourne – becomes increasingly animated as he describes the three dimensional effects the studio he founded in 2001, Legend3D, has brought to scores of films.
“When we did Poltergeist there are so many subliminal things in there to make it more exciting to actually recruit different parts of the brain. Because what you’re doing in many cases is you’re infringing on the personal space of the audience in a very real sense. You’re not only opening up the whole screen and removing the fourth wall and making the screen as deep as infinity. But you’re actually bringing all the action into the theatre,” he explains.
When describing some of the effects on The Final Destination 3D, Sandrew recounts a scene in which during a race track accident a girl gets decapitated by a loose wheel.
“And we place that girl in the row right in front of you. You can’t get much more immersive than that,” he says.
Again, 3D films received a mixed reaction. “There are people who were scared enough. They didn’t want to become part of the movie,” he recalls.
Others love them. When Sandrew left Legend3D in 2014, it was working on around 70 3D conversions. Avatar – widely released in 3D – was the first film to gross more than $2 billion worldwide.
‘No mass market’
Many have tipped virtual reality to be cinema’s next big disruptor. There are increasing numbers of headset options on the market – Samsung Gear VR, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive for example – as well as movie-makers experimenting with both virtual reality and 360 degree video.
The Emmy awards are now recognising the category of content. Earlier this year a VR space documentary secured a seven-figure deal at Sundance. So will we all one day be watching movies at theatres like the Virtual Reality Cinema which opened in Collingwood last month?
Well, no, says Sandrew: “It’s not going to create a mass consumer market”.
The main issue with VR in cinema is that going to the cinema is a “social activity” Sandrew says.
“Frankly taking all the lessons I’ve learned from colourisation and 3D…VR is great for gaming, it’s great for eSports, location based VR is definitely going to do well. But in order to create a mass consumer market, it’s going to get into entertainment and it’s going to have to get into sports. And one of the things about entertainment and sports, especially movies, is that those are social activities,” Sandrew explains.
“You don’t go to a movie alone; typically you go with other people. You go for the group dynamics. Once you put [the audience] into a VR headset, it changes virtually everything. It’s totally immersive,” he says.
Even set-ups like 360 degree projection spaces like Igloo – within which groups can view video on all sides – have issues, Sandrew says.
“They’re creating all this extraneous stuff, 360 degrees and that’s very expensive to do especially when none of that stuff matters. If you can’t direct the audience attention, all the other stuff, it’s extraneous,” Sandrew says.
His comments are echoed by Life of Pi director Ang Lee who said: “I'm a filmmaker, my virtual reality is better than real VR”. Steven Spielberg agrees: “The only reason I say it is dangerous is because it gives the viewer a lot of latitude not to take direction from the storytellers but make their own choices of where to look,” he said.
“Really I don’t want to be burdened with creating that story. I want to be told the story,” Sandrew says.
Augmented and mixed reality, however, has more promise for movie-making, according to Sandrew.
Our smartphones are “an extension of ourselves at this point” and viewing scenes through them, embedded in reality, with other people is “not foreign and it’s not awkward”.
Pointing to examples like Enter the room, commissioned by the Red Cross, Sandrew said: “That’s where the mass market is going to go”.
“It’s social, it’s collaborative, it’s real. It merges your reality with a virtual type of reality. I got a chill. It’s very very powerful,” he said.