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3-D gets a C-minus

Did Mt. Olympus forget to pay the power bill?

That was the question rippling through a recent screening of “Clash of the Titans” at Hollywood’s ArcLight Theater. Many in the audience, which included several prominent critics reviewing the film, periodically removed their 3-D glasses, some ditching them altogether, because the movie’s picture quality was so dark and murky.

“Clash of the Titans” has performed well enough at the box office, earning more than $130 million domestically. But the movie, hastily converted to 3-D in post-production to take advantage of the format’s newfound popularity (and higher ticket prices), has been a public-relations disaster for Warner Bros., prompting a level of torch-and-pitchfork outrage and candor rarely seen in Hollywood.

“You cannot do anything that is of a lower grade and a lower quality than what has just been done on ‘Clash of the Titans,’ ” DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg fumed to Variety. “It literally is ‘OK, congratulations! You just snookered the movie audience.’ ”

When contacted by The Times, Katzenberg didn’t distance himself from those comments, adding that the tools of 3-D filmmaking need to held by artists not bean counters.

“Anyone can pick up a paintbrush and paint something with it,” Katzenberg says. “Jim Cameron will be Picasso. Steven Spielberg will be Rembrandt and Marty Scorsese will be Monet. I’m just trying to avoid finger-painting.”

Business has been brisk for this year’s 3-D movies in the wake of “Avatar’s” record-breaking box-office success. “Alice in Wonderland,” “Clash of the Titans” and “How to Train Your Dragon” have all done well to varying degrees, earning roughly half their grosses from 3-D tickets (which typically cost about $3 more than regular admission).

And yet, there is already a slight sense of 3-D fatigue in the air, as well as a debate about the quality of movies converted to 3-D compared to those that were initially created and shot for the format. Katzenberg clearly senses it, which is why he has gone public with his contention that 3-D conversions like “Clash” will kill the format with the movie-going public.

So has movie critic Roger Ebert. “When a movie is filmed in 2-D and retrofitted to so-called 3-D, what, exactly is the audience spending the additional [money] on?” Ebert writes in an e-mail exchange with The Times. “This is a particularly pointed question since most 3-D movies are family films, requiring the purchase of more than one ticket.”

Nobody’s suggesting that 3-D moviegoing has jumped the Kraken. In fact, it’s being embraced by some of the best in the business. Spielberg just finished directing a motion-capture 3-D film, “The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn.” Scorsese has announced that he’ll shoot his next movie, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” in 3-D.

But for a general audience, one question seems especially salient: Have this year’s 3-D movies been worth a premium price? We decided to look at “Alice,” “Clash” and “Dragon,” both in 3-D and 2-D formats, to see what moviegoers are actually getting for the extra few dollars they’re paying per ticket. According to interviews with randomly selected audience members, the films played just as well, if not better, without donning the glasses.

“Alice in Wonderland”

3-D pedigree: Shot in 2-D, converted to 3-D in post-production. “I didn’t see the benefit of shooting in 3-D,” director Tim Burton says. “After seeing the conversion job that was done on ‘Nightmare Before Christmas,’ I found no reason to do it any other way. We were trying to do it faster and, at the end of the day, I didn’t see any difference in quality.”

Added value: Burton’s disinterest in the 3-D format is evident in the unimaginative layering of the technology into Lewis Carroll’s crazy-quilt world. Two exceptions: the moment after Alice tumbles down the rabbit’s hole and finds her size fluctuating after taking a swig from the “Drink Me” bottle and munching on the “Eat Me” cake, and the grinning Cheshire Cat, whose floating presence and slow fades seem tailor-made for the 3-D format.

In the debit column: The added screen depth doesn’t do much to make the imagery any more interesting. If anything, it’s a distraction. And the 3-D version mutes the colors. The Red Queen’s castle doesn’t pack the same pop; the White Queen’s court no longer shimmers.

Comments from customers: Chris and Leslie Heuer took their daughter, Emily, her three siblings and five of Emily’s friends to see “Alice” in 3-D for Emily’s 10th birthday at the Edwards Long Beach Stadium 26. The thinking: It’d be a less expensive alternative to a more elaborate party at home. “So we go to the matinee and for 10 people, it’s $145,” Chris says. “And that’s before we hit the concession stand. Everyone had fun but I don’t know if we had that much fun. Seeing it in 2-D would have been just fine.”

“Clash of the Titans”

3-D pedigree: Shot in 2-D, converted to 3-D in post-production.

Added value: Only to the banks accounts of Warner Bros. and movie exhibitors.

In the debit column: It had been suggested that the ArcLight’s “Clash” screening was marred by a problem with the battery-powered 3-D glasses, so we decided to give the movie a second chance at the Edwards Long Beach Stadium 26. It was 90 minutes wasted. The film’s color palette displayed six shades of gray, neutralizing the fiery oranges of the cosmos in a way that would make the gods weep. In 3-D, actor Sam Worthington’s sunburned skin looks like ground beef left out all day on the kitchen counter. And good luck guessing what happens whenever the sun goes down or the action submerges underwater.

Comments from customers: Three teenagers at an opening-day screening of “Clash” in Long Beach couldn’t have been more primed for a trip into the third dimension. “Here we go, boys,” bellowed Michael Hepburn, 16, donning his RealD glasses as the lights went down.

Midway through the movie, Hepburn and friends Andrew Branch, 16, and Nicolas Grayson, 17, occasionally removed their glasses, glancing at one another and then back to the screen. After the film, their enthusiasm extinguished, the three offered some choice comments about the value of their $14 matinee experience. Consideration of their parents’ reputations and the whole family-newspaper thing prevents us from going into much detail beyond Grayson’s opinion that “even the Kraken sucked.”

“How to Train Your Dragon”

3-D pedigree: Created in 3-D. DreamWorks also brought in celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins as a consultant to pick his brain about camerawork and lighting.

Added value: Young protagonist Hiccup’s vertigo-inducing first flight on Toothless, the black dragon, rivals the banshee aerial sequences in “Avatar.”

In the debit column: The Deakins-influenced naturalistic lighting works better in the 2-D version, particularly scenes featuring interiors warmly lighted by torch or glowing candlelight. This is also true of the sections that take place in the canyon where Hiccup bonds with Toothless.

While not flat-out conceding this point, Katzenberg does say that the darkened imagery produced by wearing 3-D glasses is something DreamWorks continues to fine-tune with its films.

“The tools we’re using for ‘Megamind’ are already a step ahead of ‘Dragon,’ ” Katzenberg says, pointing to his studio’s upcoming November animated release, “and I think you’ll see a continued qualitative improvement that will address those issues.”

Comments from customers: “It’s perfectly fine in 2-D,” says Nicole Jones, following a screening with her two kids at the ArcLight in Sherman Oaks. Pointing at her 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, she adds: “They don’t care. They’re just happy to go to the movie theater.”

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