Theatre on a screen

What's it like to watch Danny Boyle's play <em>Frankenstein</em> at the IMAX? Pretty amazing, actual

The play ends, the audience applauds. But the actors can't hear the clapping -- the audience is dozens, if not hundreds, of miles away. Welcome to NT Live, the National Theatre's series of cinema broadcasts. In the three years it's been running, the project has grown to six annual productions, with each reaching more than 60,000 people via 360 cinemas in 20 countries.

For 2009's Phèdre, which played at the 890-seat Lyttelton Theatre, the single NT Live showing doubled the audience for its run. "As a national theatre, we have an obligation and a desire to reach as many people as possible," says the NT's head of digital media, David Sabel. He is eager to quash comparisons with other live filmings, such as those done by the New York Metropolitan Opera.

"Everyone has this bad idea that when you film live performances, it becomes extremely static, deadening," he says. To counter this, the NT uses between five and eight moving cameras, adjusts the lighting and gives the actors radio mics. (For the latest production, Danny Boyle's Frankenstein, there was another concession to the filming: a loincloth on the previously naked Creature.)

Having seen this play in the National's Olivier Theatre with Benedict Cumberbatch as the doctor and Jonny Lee Miller as the monster, I jumped at the chance to see the roles reversed. I'd been wondering whether the Imax screen could compare with the live experience; to my surprise, I enjoyed it more.

I had missed the subtleties of the actors' facial expressions from the rear stalls and the performance was much better for seeing them. (Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that most actors are TV-trained these days and expansive theatre acting doesn't come naturally.)

Sabel says mine is not an unusual reaction. "We thought it would be a second-best experience but what we found is that aesthetically it's really worked. You can never replace the feeling of being there," he adds, "but you get an incredible intimacy with the performers and there's a real sense of event."

The next NT Live is "The Cherry Orchard" on 30 June. See nationaltheatre.org.uk/ntlive

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?

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3D cinema without the glasses: a potential new technology could change how we watch films

Early-stage research success hints at a visionary future in which an immersive glass-free 3D experience could be possible at the cinema. 

The rise of film-on-demand streaming sites such as Netflix and MUBI threatens to make visits to the cinema a redundant pastime; why head out to watch a film when you can just watch one from the comfort of your own home?

A deterrent for many has been the influx of 3D blockbuster films released in theatres. An all-too-familiar routine has developed that causes audiences to let out a big sigh at the thought of 3D films: get excited about the latest Marvel flick, travel to your local cinema, sit through previews of future releases and then as the film is about to start...stick on a pair of flimsy plastic 3D glasses.

It’s an experience that has come to feel lacklustre for people who hope to experience more from 3D technology than just a gimmick. However, recent news that researchers at MIT have developed a prototype screen which can show 3D films without glasses may be just the development needed for the medium to attract fans back to the cinema.

A team of scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab paired up with the Weizmann Institute of Science from Israel to create “Cinema 3D” – a model cinema screen which could potentially allow cinema-goers to have the full, immersive 3D experience sans glasses, no matter where they are sitting in the theatre.

Detailing their research in a paper, the scientists outlined the technology used, which includes “automultiscopic displays” – a 3D enabler that presents “multiple angular images of the same scene” and doesn’t require glasses. The research has had to build upon conventional automultiscopic displays that alone aren’t sufficient for a cinema setting; they don’t accommodate for the varying angles at which people view a film in a generally widely-spaced theatre

Wojciech Matusik, an MIT professor who worked on the research said: “Existing approaches to glasses-free 3D require screens whose resolution requirements are so enormous that they are completely impractical. This is the first technical approach that allows for glasses-free 3D on a larger scale.”

Cinema 3D aims to optimise the experience by making use of the cinema setting: the fixed seat positions, the sloped rows, the width of the screen. 3D televisions work as a result of parallax barriers – essentially a set of slits in front of a screen that filter pixels to create the illusion of depth. Traditional parallax barriers tend to fail with anything larger than a television, as they don’t recreate the same image when viewed from different distances and angles.

The researchers have combated this by using multiple parallax barriers in conjunction with slanted horizontal mirrors and vertical lenslets – a small but crucial change which now allows viewers to see the same 3D images play out, whether they’re in the middle row, the back row, or far off in the periphery. According the paper, the design “only displays the narrow angular range observed within the limited width of a single seat.” This can then be replicated for every seat in the theatre.

Cinema 3D will require a lot more work if it is to become practical. As it stands, the prototype is about a pad of paper in size and needs 50 sets of mirrors and lenses. For the researchers though, there is reason to remain optimistic as the technology works in theory at a cinema-scale.

It’s important to note that 3d technology without glasses isn’t new; it has been used in a limited way with televisions. What is new with this research is its potential application to the film industry along with improvements in picture quality. Matusik has stressed that “it remains to be seen whether the approach is financially feasible enough to scale up to a full-blown theatre”, but went on to say “we are optimistic that this is an important next step in developing glasses-free 3D for large spaces like movie theatres and auditoriums.”

It could take a while for the technology to get to a stage where it can be used in multiplexes, and the market may need convincing to adopt something which is expected to cost a lot of money. It could prove to be attractive to the advertising industry who may want to use it for billboards, allowing the technology to be introduced at incrementally larger stages.

The thought of seeing James Cameron’s next Avatar instalment or the latest high-octane thriller played out in 3D without glasses could push the technology forward and get people to return in droves to the silver screen.