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Sharks, sea lions swim into close perspective


James Judd watched intently as the menacing swell shark slid through the water. He squirmed as the shark swam closer, then bolted up when the animal brushed against his face.

Swimming in the Caribbean? Snorkeling on a great reef? No, Judd's swim with the shark occurred while he was wearing sleek goggles and watching a 3D film inside the Maryland Science Center yesterday, where he got a sneak preview of the IMAX theater's latest attraction.

"It was way beyond normal," he said of the experience. "I almost jumped out of my seat."

That's the appeal of IMAX 3D, the three-dimensional version of the popular IMAX format theater. The huge IMAX screen, which is five stories high, swallows up viewers, and the 3D enhancements can make people feel they are in the middle of the action.

Yesterday, Judd, a member of the Baltimore Tourism Association, and other test viewers went "Into the Deep," a 35-minute underwater exploration of a giant kelp forest 100 feet below the surface. The moviegoers' 3D glasses - which look like wraparound sunglasses - acted as diving masks as they got close-ups of a lobster molting and sea lions cleaning their teeth.

Science Center officials said they hope the new theater will draw more visitors and heighten learning. According to Toronto-based IMAX Corp., the United States has 49 IMAX 3D theaters. Science center officials say it is the first of its kind in Maryland.

"There's always been this need to transform the visitor so that they can experience things they don't normally experience," said Gregory P. Andorfer, executive director of the center. "Television and movies do that a lot, and 3D represents the next level in trying to bring experience to people."

That experience is created with a 228-pound camera that records images on two separate strips of film, one for the right eye and one for the left. When shooting, the camera's lenses are spaced 2 1/2 inches apart - the average space between people's eyes - to simulate how they see the world. The two films are then digitally edited for 3D viewing.

Once in the projector, the prints travel parallel to each other in synchronization. The images pass through a pair of polarizing filters, which separate light, at the front of the projector that keeps the screen images apart. Without the glasses, the viewer would see two separate images on the screen.

Another set of polarizing lenses on the viewer's glasses takes the images and blends them together to create the illusion of multidimensional sight.

"The experience is one of astonishment and awe," said Hugh Murray, vice president of technical production for IMAX Corp. "Instead of looking through a window, you're actually in the picture itself. It's that sense of being there."

Although the process uses the same basic concept, it's a far different effect than the "red and blue" method employed by the motion picture industry during the 1950s. That method required the viewer to wear cardboard glasses with red and blue plastic filters that created the 3D effect. The colors were not as sharp and the images lacked high definition, said Chris Mayhew, founder of Vision III Imaging Inc., a Virginia company that specializes in imaging technology. "We just use better tools today."

The screening was the culmination of a privately funded $1.5 million renovation of the theater this month. Worn red chairs were replaced; new carpet and flooring were installed, and the 13-year-old IMAX screen was sliced into pieces and removed.

The new screen arrived on a flatbed truck in 53-foot-long crate at 6 a.m. Monday. While blocking one northbound lane along Light Street, installers used a crane to lift the cargo through a 3-foot-square hole in the side of the theater.

The 3D films will start appearing Oct. 7, between showings of regular IMAX fare such as "Dolphins." Not many IMAX 3D films are available because of the high cost of producing them. They can cost up to $15 million, three times more than a traditional IMAX film.

"Into the Deep" is one of two 3D films that will premiere next month. The other, "Journey of Man," is a 38-minute film that features Cirque du Soleil, the performance troupe.

"Boy, that was exciting," said Betty Meyer, a Brooklandville resident after yesterday's screening of "Into the Deep."

"It's hard to fathom that we could sit here and be so close to nature. The kids will love this."

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