3D Grabs Spotlight at NAB

The debate over what constitutes good-quality 3D is turning out to be the opposite of what is often said about indecency: Some can define it, but few know it when they see it. The importance of quality 3D content and the difficulty of achieving it -- or even defining it -- became a theme of the weekend's Digital Cinema Summit at NAB Show in Las Vegas.

Even when there was agreement on what constitutes quality, there were harsh words about theaters that fail to deliver it. The debate was fueled by Daily Variety's April 9 interview with DreamWorks Animation topper Jeffrey Katzenberg, who warned that the industry is in danger of driving auds away from the premium format with substandard offerings; and by an article by Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern, who warned that 3D theaters, especially those with active-shutter 3D glasses, are proving unreliable and giving viewers a bad experience.

Regulars at the Summit, which years ago evolved into a 3D-centric event, were abuzz over the large crowds, which had organizers scrambling to add seats. That was credited to the recent popularity of 3D movies and a hunger for information about the emerging 3D TV format.

Panelists and keynoters agreed 3D has become a critical opportunity. Presenting SMPTE's annual report on the rollout of digital cinema, Michael Karagosian, president of consulting firm MKPE, said 3D has become critical to adoption of d-cinema, especially outside the U.S. But he added, "The reason we have all this adoption of digital cinema today is driven by the fact we have quality 3D going into theaters." He went on to support Katzenberg's position that poor-quality 3D could stymie the d-cinema rollout.

But it is also clear from the Summit that 3D biz remains in its infancy. Disagreement ranges from differences over obscure tech issues to such basics as what defines "quality 3D." Neither filmmakers nor auds seem sure yet what they want from the format -- a subtle, immersive experience? Or "wow!" moments that jump off the screen?

French expert Bernard Mendiburu suggested that problems with projection in many theaters make some 3D films unwatchable. "Twenty miles outside Hollywood you can't watch a 3D movie in a theater," he said during Saturday's final panel on 3D storytelling. Following the panel, Mendiburu told Variety he'd received worn-out 3D glasses at Universal Citywalk's Imax screen, saw Bolt projected underexposed in Paris, saw Monsters vs. Aliens incorrectly cropped at Annency, and described other 3D horrors.

"We need to educate projectionists about 3D, and I think that will come from audience outrage," he said. Bad 3D, he added, is effectively no 3D at all. "It's not like if the soundtrack is not good. It's like when they put on the wrong language, like Chinese or Japanese. You don't get it."

Speakers and members of the audience at the packed gathering offered a variety of barbs about recent releases Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans 3D. Meanwhile, some of the creators of those pics offered explanations of their conversion process and, in some cases, a spirited defense of their craft.

Christopher Bond of Prime Focus VFX, in a much-anticipated presentation on the conversion of Titans, said his company was given 10-12 weeks at the outset, but the picture was not locked until more than halfway through the process. While he did not directly address the controversy over the quality of the pic's 3D experience, he said the timing and other decisions led to "lots of effort on the cutting room floor," that could have gone into improving shots that were seen in the movie.

In the same panel, former NBC exec Warren Littlefield told the gathering he saw the hunger for 3D TV years ago when the Peacock did a "3rd Rock" 3D stunt. "I'm here today to say the future has arrived," Littlefield said Saturday, predicting that "3D will be the killer app that says to the public I need Blu-ray in my household."

Littlefield, perhaps inadvertently, offered a subtle echo of Katzenberg's concerns about quality. He warned that TV content owners will need to get their shows converted or else cable operators or chips inside TV sets would do it for them. In effect, he warned they may lose their financial opportunity unless they provide the best quality 3D for their legacy products -- just as Katzenberg is warning studios to create the best quality 3D for original content, lest they lose their own opportunity.

By David S. Cohen, Variety