3D: Third generation or last chance?

If cinemas are to upgrade their digital screens to 3D, and if we are to spend our hard-earned cash on 3D TVs — never mind persuade our families to don active shutter glasses at home — we need content to suit all tastes. Are producers, directors and DoPs embracing the format? Is the technology available to help them produce stereo 3D cost-effectively? Can we expect to see the explosive growth in stereo 3D that many are predicting?

According to the MarketSaw website (www.marketsaw.com), there are 38 stereoscopic movies scheduled for release in 2009-2010, or roughly one every two to three weeks. Perhaps as many again are either under wraps, or still at the ‘rumoured’ stage. Apart from James Cameron’s Avatar, A Christmas Carol, starring Jim Carrey, G-Force with its live-action animal ‘stars’, half a dozen new horror films and a re-released, ‘dimensionalised’ horror ‘classic’, courtesy of 2D to 3D conversion specialists InThree, the scheduled releases are either animation or CG, with some Hollywood ‘names’ voicing.

Why aren’t more live action features being made in 3D? Many big-name directors still like to work in a way that’s familiar and has served them well. That means shooting on film, and not touching any form of digital cinematography, whether 2D or 3D.

“It’s like asking an oil painter to switch to a light pen,” suggests Dave Monk of the EDCF (European Digital Cinema Forum). “Film directors are steeped in their art.”

These directors consider shooting digitally as making video, and inferior to film, no matter what anybody tells them. “The big players in the community are the most reluctant to change a winning formula. Some people get it in a micro-second; young guys like Robert Rodriguez, with no baggage,” says Monk.

Cinematographer Geoff Boyle, whose 3D credits include Thomas Jane’s The Dark Country, which is released in late 2009 and Devil’s Commandos, which is scheduled for 2010, thinks, “producers are scared of past blips [with 3D]. Every 20 years it comes and then it goes.” Boyle says directors and DoPs can also be scared off by the choices involved when switching to a new and unfamiliar shooting format [3D]. These are mainly decisions about camera configurations and shooting style, which includes lens choice.

Technology in its infancy
Boyle is enthusiastic about new, lighter and more portable stereo rigs that are in development, literally being invented to meet cinematographers’ needs to shoot 3D in all manner of situations. To create the perception of depth, the correct interocular (or interaxial) distance between lenses is essential, and adjustments to the stereoscopic convergence have to be precise so we are able to pick up all the visual cues we need to enjoy the 3D effect. We will see new, more compact cameras with much smaller lenses that are configured in pairs to work like our eyes, and developments in software encoding that make the stereoscopic effect smoother and more comfortable.

Boyle’s style uses light and movement rather than stereoscopic effects to create the 3D illusion. He believes the results are more realistic, but he admits using lots of fast tracks and pans goes against the prevailing style. This style can create frame edge errors that would probably make audiences feel sick if they weren’t fixed in post production. However, if the action is riveting, he believes you can get away with breaking frame edges, which would normally destroy the stereo illusion. Other cinematographers prefer to limit the amount of movement in the frame and use ‘depth grading’ to create the three dimensional illusion.

Animated films like Dreamworks Animation’s Shrek and Pixar’s Toy Story were given volume using light. It was a big step. Monk points out that these films were “born out of cyberspace”, as they relied on no physical assets. This way of making animated films was driven by one primary goal, to tell a story better.

“The live action community is primarily interested in storytelling, Does the new [stereo3D] medium and the new technology that accompanies it enable you to tell a better version of the story?,” asks Monk.

“Studios have a responsibility to push 3D,” says Boyle. “Directors and DoPs will adapt, just as they did with widescreen, sound and colour. Shooting 3D should be routine. It is in danger of being left behind, though, as filmmakers who should be getting excited about it get put off by the cost and the time involved.”

Red’s Leader Of The Rebellion, Ted Schilowitz, says “connect with the talent, but don’t interfere with creative choices,” adding that Red don’t think about how filmmakers use their cameras. They build them and make them available and leave it to the users to do the rest. Schilowitz thinks the mavericks will pick 3D up soon enough (“The days of 3D being looked at as a gimmick are over”), but he doesn’t necessarily see it as being a limited to purely linear filmmaking. For him, gaming could provide more impetus than movies.

Ted Kenney is head of Production at 3D production company 3ality Digital, and was the man behind the camera for the groundbreaking live transatlantic interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg at IBC2008. Kenney thinks the studios are to some degree in crisis right now, and that they are less likely to try a new format like 3D on films that have to succeed.

He believes producers and directors want to shoot 3D, but it has to be “the right property, at the right time. With every emerging technology there’s a period of nervousness. Avatar is being met with lots of expectation. In one to two years, we’ll see more mainstream movies in 3D. Right now, there?s a lot going unsaid.” Kenney says there’s a new cinema language with 3D, one that involves lots of nuances and subtleties. “The longer you let 3D live in the frame, the more information the viewer receives. It’s not a small, narrow language.“ He also points out that the visual language will mutate as different directors use 3D in new ways.

We may see entirely new genres develop as a result. For Kenney, it’s a bit like the transition to HD. The more people were trained on it and exposed to it, the more popular it became. Everything 3ality does is based on what TV camera and film camera operators already know, things that are familiar and comfortable and allow them to work the same way they’ve always worked.

He rejects the suggestion that A-Listers who work in front of and behind the camera are put off by 3D. 3ality has done tests with a least ten of each at the start of 2009 and Kenney confirms they seem to enjoy the experience. He’s optimistic about stereo 3D’s future, and currently has at least six budgets for stereo 3D productions on his desk. Studios are looking at their archives to find suitable properties for conversion to help things along. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s enthusiasm for the format is helping, but “just doing 3D is not enough. It has to be perfect,” warns Kenney.

Pace of development
Arts Alliance Media equips, installs and maintains digital cinemas throughout Europe. It also distributes, manages and promotes ‘alternative content’ and masters films for digital presentation. Paul Chesney, who was until recently VP of Business Development at Arts Alliance Media, cautions against trying to artificially accelerate the pace at which stereoscopic content is introduced into the market.?

For him, 20 films in 2009 (“3D’s first proper year”) feels about right. Nor is he concerned about the diet of animation, horror and ‘alternative content’. 3D is in its infancy. “Growth is organic, and we’re getting what the studios and producers feel audiences want”, a view shared by 3ality’s Kenney. Chesney reminds us that the 3D films released so far have generated more revenue than the 2D versions (Beowulf stands out), and that the model whereby films play for a lot longer in a small number of 3D cinemas is working.

Schilowitz reminds us that drinks brands Pepsi and Sobe gave away thousands of pairs of 3D glasses ahead of the 2009 Superbowl so viewers could watch a trailer of Dreamworks Animation’s forthcoming stereo 3D release, Monsters vs Aliens on TV at half-time.

Both Kenney and Schilowitz are also both quick to mention that the US comedy spy hit Chuck was transmitted in 3D in the US on Superbowl Sunday, February 2. So, will we look back on 2009 as the year stereo 3D began to take off? The content appears to be coming through steadily. Cineworld proudly announces it has ‘more 3D screens than any other cinema’ in the publicity for Bolt in 3D, and, if the stories are to be believed, companies like Sky have successfully tested stereo 3D over their existing HD infrastructure. The prospects are good. It’s the pace of development that is crucial.

By Colin Birch, TVB Europe