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Another Dimension

The Baltimore Sun

Seeing and hearing Bono, the lead singer of U2, sing "Pride (In the Name of Love)" on a 70-foot movie screen in 3-D, his arms reaching out as if to grab yours, may sound pretty awesome. But one of the men responsible for putting him up there insists audiences haven't seen anything yet.

"My gosh, we could put somebody in the middle of the field at the Super Bowl, with four 300- pound guys about to crush them," says John Modell, a producer of U2 3D and co-founder of 3ality Digital, which developed the technology that made the film possible. "That would be cool."

It makes sense that, for Modell, the ultimate 3-D experience would somehow involve football. As the son of former Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell, he comes by his passion for the game honestly.

Since his father sold the team in 2004, John Modell, a former Ravens vice president, has turned his energy and enthusiasm from defensive linemen who reach out and grab quarterbacks to movie technology that reaches out and grabs audiences. U2 3D, opening in limited release today at IMAX theaters nationwide, is his company's first major film project.

"This is a very natural progression, a natural sea change in cinema," Modell said last week from Park City, Utah, where he and his younger brother, former Ravens President David Modell, were preparing for the film's Saturday night premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. "Now that we've got the technological challenges licked, and we can show good-looking 3-D imagery, we think this is a change that is very much akin to when cinema went from silents to talkies, or went from black and white to color."

Granted, Modell, 47, may be exaggerating a bit. 3-D, a two-camera process that gives film an added dimension of depth by presenting two slightly skewed images to the eye, has been the next-big-thing in cinema since the 1950s. And there's still the matter of the funny glasses audiences have to wear to make the process work.

Still, the technology Modell and his company have pioneered, which involves using computers to coordinate the two cameras so as to replicate human eye movement as precisely as possible, is a major improvement in 3-D technology. That, combined with the snugger-fitting glasses that are being handed out during the film's run at the Maryland Science Center's IMAX Theater, helps cut back on, if not eliminate, the headaches that have long bothered filmgoers looking for that added dimension.

"Each camera is essentially two cameras, there's a left eye and a right eye, and they need to operate as closely to how your eyes do as possible," says John Modell. "If they don't, your eyes ... are going to be fighting to resolve any problems. That's why it used to give people headaches, or it made them dizzy. The cameras have to perfectly mimic the physiology of human sight."

Do that, he predicts, and 3-D filmmaking could become the norm.

As far back as the 1920s, films were being made in 3-D. During what fans view as its golden age, roughly 1954 to 1956, dozens of films were presented with the added dimension. But problems persisted, mostly with synchronizing the dual projectors needed to show them. Even during a brief revival in the 1970s, the process continued to be seen as more a gimmick than an advancement, geared more toward cheap thrills - enhancing Jane Russell's cleavage in The French Line (1954) or having an eyeball shoot out of the screen in Friday the 13th Part III (1982) - than any substantial improvement in the movie-going experience.

But recent advancements have both improved the 3-D effect and made it more palatable to audiences. Instead of being seen as a gimmick, Modell predicts, 3-D will bring an immediacy and vitality to the movies.

"Can you imagine Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and you're a fly on the wall in that room, with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor?" he asks. "You're feeling the vibe and the intensity of that, as they're moving around the room and you're moving around the room? That would be amazing."

Adds David Modell, an executive producer on U2 3D, "It can gain you entree to a proximity of people, places and things that you ordinarily would never experience. ... I'm not sure a Merchant-Ivory film needs to be in 3-D, but can you just imagine the Fantastic Four, or Spider-Man 3, in 100 percent 3-D?"

John Modell, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1981 but rented an apartment in Baltimore during his stint with the Ravens, dates his interest in video production to his earliest days with the team. He headed the group charged with finding a properly impressive scoreboard for the new Ravens stadium when it opened in 1998. (His father sold the majority interest in the team to Steve Bisciotti in 2004, but retains a 1 percent share.)

"We wanted to create a multimedia sensory experience for our fans, so we went and found the biggest video screens," Modell says. "We actually had to design them, because they didn't exist at the time."

Around the same time, Modell says, representatives of U2 also were poking around the latest technology, looking for ways to enhance the band's live stage shows.

"Catherine Owens, who was the director on this film - I have e-mails from her going back to 1997," he says. "She was a visual consultant to the band, and also consulted on content for the stadium. I knew her before this project was a twinkle in anybody's eye."

Once band members saw what was possible with the 3-D technology, thanks to a six-minute test tape, they enthusiastically signed onto the project, Modell says. "We knew U2 was always about embracing the new, embracing progress, finding new and cool ways to present their music and their show to the audience.

"They're also very brave guys," he adds. "To blow yourself up onto a 70-foot-high screen takes a lot of chutzpah. They're kind of fearless."

His company's first big-time production behind it, Modell and his partners are anxious to move on. They're considering a project with music producer Quincy Jones, to be shot during Carnivale in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

And there's still that dream of putting football on giant 3-D movie screens. So far, all they have is some test footage shot during Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004, when the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers. Modell says 3ality is still working with NFL Films to find the right project and the right way to film it.

An enthusiastic Modell, however, is already jumping ahead. A few decades from now, he insists, the public's cinematic memories will include this third dimension.

"That's the cool thing about being immersed in this," he says. "They'll be able to go and experience events as if they were there. I would have loved to have done that with Jimi Hendrix. To see him burn his guitar at Monterey in 3-D. ... Wouldn't that be something?"


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