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Director Cameron warns it takes time, effort to create good 3-D conversions

The high-quality conversion of 2-D movies to 3-D is slow, painstaking, hands-on work that costs at least $15 million per film to do “reasonably well” and much more to do perfectly, said director James Cameron, who is in the middle of converting his “Titanic” feature film to 3-D.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Cameron said the field of enhancing existing 2-D movies with 3-D elements is emerging, and that the handful of special effects companies that do such work “have been low-balling their bids … to get a foothold in the market.”

These conversions are so painstaking to complete correctly, Cameron said, because “there’s no magic-wand software solution for this. It really boils down to a human, in the loop, sitting and watching a screen, saying, ‘OK, this guy is closer than that guy. This table is in front of that chair.’”

The director of “Avatar,” the feature film that launched the current 3-D revolution, said it’s impossible to do a good conversion as part of a post-production process on a major film because no one is willing to spend the two or three or four months necessary to do it right.

For the 3-D conversion of “Titanic,” due for rerelease in 2012 on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ship, Cameron said he had approached seven companies about working on the film, testing each by asking it to convert about a minute of footage before he chose the best two or three efforts. “All seven of the vendors came back with a different idea of where they thought things were spatially,” he said, “so it’s very subjective.”

The confluence of trends in 3-D technology, which includes the growing number of movie theaters offering 3-D projection, the emergence of 3-D TV and increased proficiency in 3-D conversions, will lead to movie studios’ scouring their film libraries for older features that can be released in 3-D, Cameron said.

“But they’ll pick the best titles to spend that kind of money on,” he said. “If it costs you $15 million to convert a movie reasonably well, more to do it perfectly, you’re not going to do that with every film.”

There is a strong chance that Cameron will shoot his next feature in 3D, but an “Avatar” sequel has not been set. “We still haven’t worked out our deal with 20th Century Fox,” Cameron said. “It’s a big piece of business, and I’m trying to map it out as a game plan that stretches forward 10 years. They don’t like to think that long term.”