Phil “Captain 3-D” McNally Is DreamWorks’ Animated Megamind

Nearly 33% of movie earnings are now generated from 3-D films. In 2010, six of the top 10 highest-grossing movies were shot in three dimensions. But the tech has not caught on as fast on TV as many thought it would. So the guy with the legal middle name of Captain 3-D can’t rest yet.

Kung Fu Panda


When DreamWorks Animation’s Phil Captain 3-D McNally first entered Wednesday’s Samsung showcase in New York City, he wasn’t drawn to many of the shiny gadgets blanketing virtually every wall, floor, and ceiling. Not the Maxell blow-your-hair-back display of the latest and highest-definition TVs, tablets, or smartphones. Rather, McNally immediately made a dash toward the three screens playing Megamind–a film he was intimately involved in as DreamWorks’ stereoscopic supervisor–and began fiddling with the settings. A company rep later told me later that Phil “wanted it to look good–he didn’t want someone to look at the 3-D and say this doesn’t look right.”

As his (legal) middle-name suggests, McNally lives and breathes 3-D. He’s been working in the field for decades, long before James Cameron made it the mission of every exec in Hollywood. With his earrings and flowing hair, the Irish-born animator looks equal parts Bono and David Foster Wallace–a definite standout among the event’s Samsung suits.

McNally’s work in 3-D (Shrek Forever After, How to Train Your Dragon, Monsters vs. Aliens) has no doubt seen huge success at the box office, but at home, the third-dimension has been less of a hit. Despite hot holiday predictions, 3-D televisions have yet to catch fire among consumers and have failed to meet retailers’ expectations. The technology has not translated from the big to small screen, making DreamWorks and McNally’s presence at the event all the more noticeable (sure, McNally’s teal-leather shoes might’ve helped). This was especially true as Samsung execs peddled the company’s latest gadgets on stage, promising to bundle the products with Megamind and Shrek.

But “Captain 3-D” is far from losing faith in his own namesake. While understanding the drawbacks and limits of the medium, McNally is still gung-ho that 3-D will become ubiquitous, both in theater and on TV.


“It seems like if you don’t sell a bazillion units in two months, it’s a failure–it’s partly the fault of Wall Street, that you have to deliver every quarter,” McNally says. “The expectation is so short-term. Because of those stupid iPhones and their fantastic sales, we have gotten into that mentality!”


Skeptics have also pointed to 3-D glasses as being one obstacle to mass
consumer adoption. “If we could snap our fingers and have fantastic 3-D
content without any glasses, everyone would agree that would be better,”
McNally says. “But the best 3-D experience you can get right now is with
glasses–it’s no more unusual than wearing headphones to hear really good

McNally recognizes that it’ll be years, maybe even decades, before 3-D “just becomes part of our normal content,” and realizes that with such a big push for the technology, there’s the potential for consumer fatigue. “We have to be careful that we don’t exhaust everyone, turn things over so fast that everyone ends up like, well, I’m just going to wait for the next new thing,” he says. “That can actually be pretty fatiguing.”

Phil McNally

Even for someone who writes “Captain 3-D” on his taxes, McNally isn’t immune to this fatigue himself. “It’s kind of an irony,” he says, ticking off the devices his family has at home: a 5-year-old projector, a kitchen-size TV.

“I don’t actually watch that much content at home–if we’re just watching the news, it’s on this little TV, an ancient 13-inch TV in fact,” he adds. “A lot of people that work in places like DreamWorks are surrounded by the latest technology all day–you don’t want to take your day job home.” (McNally says one of the higher-ups who worked on Megamind doesn’t even have a computer at home.)

But for the rest of us, the technology clearly hasn’t caused too much fatigue–roughly 33% of earnings are now generated from 3-D films. In 2010, six of the top 10 highest-grossing movies were shot in three dimensions. Regardless of its slow adoption outside Tinsel Town, there’s no question 3-D is in the early stages of what likely will be a long boom.

As McNally told me recently: “3-D isn’t going away until we stop seeing with two eyes.”


[Images from Kung Fu Panda 2 and Megamind courtesy DreamWorks Animation]


About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.