Harry Potter and the Trouble with 3D

Warner Bros, the Harry Potter films, and the assorted struggles with 3D...

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince. The film was also the second in the series to be released partially in 3D, after the ending of Harry Potter & The Order Of The Phoenix had enjoyed/suffered a post-production overhaul of its finale with certain screenings. With Avatar still just around the corner, Warner Bros was experimenting with 3D more than fully committing to it at this stage. Through its New Line subsidiary, it was backing 2008’s Journey To The Center Of The Earth, starring Brendan Fraser (that would prove a surprise hit). But with the 3D on its Potter films at first, it was tying up with IMAX to present certain sequences in the format.

In the case of Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, it was the opening Millennium Bridge sequence that got a post-production 3D bolt-on. However, it’s a very dimly lit sequence, and one that needed very carefully curated work to bring the best out of in 3D. Most would agree that it didn’t really get that. Instead, it was all a bit of a best-forgotten mess. Notably, the assorted home releases you can buy today of Harry Potter all omit the 3D footage.

Between films six and seven, though, Avatar happened. It grossed over $2.5 billion worldwide, to become the biggest film of all time at the box office. And that was powered in large part by the premium it attracted for its 3D ticket price. As such with a fresh interest in 3D and the chance of making some extra cash, studios were tumbling over themselves to quickly convert anything they had to take advantage. And in doing so, help themselves to the extra revenue they’d get from a premium 3D ticket.

Warner Bros was notably one of the first to do so, with its infamous 3D bolt-on conversation of Clash Of The Titans. That particular remake’s release date was delayed by a few weeks to accommodate the work, but it was such a rush job, even director Louis Letterier was in the queue to suggest that a good job had not been done. To this day, Clash Of The Titans remains the poster child for cynical use of 3D, with the process if anything detracting from the film rather than adding to it.

Ad – content continues below

The stench of that work certainly had ramifications. Warner Bros originally had plans to release 2010’s Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – Part 1 in the 3D format. Again, the film hadn’t been shot in 3D, and thus this would be a post-production conversion that needed to be done.

The problem, though, was that the decision to try and add 3D to the whole film was made fairly late in the day. The movie was set for release in November 2010, and Warner Bros again partnered with IMAX on the 3D work. However, the ink on that deal wasn’t in place until May 2010, and the formal greenlight wasn’t actually given until the August, allowing just shy of three months to get the 3D work done. To add an extra layer of complication, the film itself wasn’t complete at this stage. While the cut was locked, a lot of effects work was still being undertaken. Still, all things being equal, it may still have been possible to get the 3D conversion done. But there was another problem Warner Bros and IMAX came up against.

For this was in the midst of the 3D land rush, with companies stumbling over one-another to quickly convert already-shot movies. As such, there were a finite number of effects houses that could do the work, and they were hitting capacity. So much so, in fact, that Warner Bros and IMAX struggled to find a company that could handle the Potter project in enough time. Capacity had become as big a challenge as the ticking clock.

Work did commence, however, and Warner Bros announced that the film would get a 3D release. But it became clear that as work progressed that the deadline was ridiculous tight. By the start of October, it was apparent that the whole film’s 3D couldn’t be completed in time for the November release date. A decision had to be made.

Warner Bros executives were inclined at first to do what they’d done with the previous two Potter films. If they could present 20-30 minutes of the film in 3D, they could still charge an upgrade price, and keep to their 3D promise. But, wisely, it realised it couldn’t really do that again, especially as the 3D playing field had so dramatically changed. Post-Avatar, a token 20 minutes or so would look just that. And with the criticism still ringing from Clash Of The Titans, Warner Bros – with a month to go – abandoned the idea of releasing Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – Part 1 in 3D theatrically. Instead, the work was completed, and the 3D conversation made it to the eventual disc release instead.

The studio was determined not to be caught out again, though, as instead it pressed ahead a lot earlier on the 3D conversion for Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – Part 2. This time, it was completed in good time, and as such, the final Harry Potter film became the only one to get a full 3D release in cinemas. Not a particularly loved 3D conversion, granted, but at least one that spanned the entire film. 43% of American moviegoers who saw the film on its opening weekend opted for the 3D version, and so Warner Bros, financially at least, benefitted to a degree in the end.

Ad – content continues below

Still, James Cameron for one had harsh words for the studio. A few weeks after the announcement that Part 1’s theatrical 3D release was being dropped (a decision estimated to have cost Warner Bros around tens of millions), he took to the stage at a Blu-ray conference and slammed Warner Bros. It was already on Cameron’s shitlist following Clash Of The Titans, and with Potter he stormed that “the same studio, making the same mistake, except really getting spanked for it now because they didn’t get the film done. They announced it in 3D, they threw a bunch of money at it, trying to convert it to 3D in post-production – and it simply didn’t work. They just didn’t get it done.”

In recent times, consumer enthusiasm for 3D has dwindled, and many have pointed the finger at the botched job many studios did with post-production conversions, dampening what advantages the format was supposed to bring. Ironically, Warner Bros, with Gravity, would prove to be one of those that deployed it the best.

The bubble, though, duly burst, with 3D audiences in the minority. However, with James Cameron back making Avatar films, and believed to be experimenting in ways to make 3D movies without the need for the audience to wear special specs, there’s a sporting chance that the cycle may begin again…