Woods Hole Expands 3D Production Unit

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is expanding its 3D HD production unit and has embarked on a major effort to make the lightweight 3D camera rigs and other technology developed by its labs more widely available to outside producers and groups.

"We have been working on 3D for over 20 years," said William Lange, research specialist at the Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory at the Woods Hole, Maine-based facility, which bills itself as the world's largest private non-profit ocean research, engineering and educational organization. "Even though we've been working with sports and entertainment and broadcast and documentary groups for decades, people could only really find us by word of mouth, so we decided to be more public with what we are doing."

As part of the expansion of its 3D HD production services unit, Woods Hole Imaging Systems, Lange said the institute is working to train "a new generation of video stereographers" and to make its production expertise and technology more widely available.

Woods Hole Imaging Systems can provide a wide range of services and technology, whether it's supplying just a few 3D rigs with equipment or doing all of the production work, according to Lange. The unit is also considering producing some of its own 3D projects and has been talking to some companies about licensing their rig designs.

A key selling point is Woods Hole's longstanding experience, Lange noted. On the HD side, Woods Hole units have worked on a number of high-profile HD natural-history projects, such as Blue Planet and Deep Blue, and have been involved in a number of documentaries on the Titanic. The unit also has many years of experience at underwater 3D shoots for scientific imaging, mapping and surveying projects and is currently involved in a number of 3D productions.

Over the years, the organization has also developed over 30 3D production rigs. Designed for hostile environments ranging from deep ocean shoots to outer space, the equipment has also been used for less demanding terrestrial shoots because it overcomes a number of problems facing sports, natural history and documentary producers who need lighter, extremely rugged 3D gear.

"Over 10 years ago, we started getting requests to do HD 3D and we worked with a number of groups in Hollywood on developing some of the early 3D tests and rig designs," Lange recalled. "What we realized early on was that the large beam-splitter rigs were fine in studio environments and probably have a place in sports but using them in a natural history environment or underwater is very problematic."

To overcome those problems, the group has developed a number of lighter, smaller rigs - some of which "are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand," Lange noted. One of its 3D rigs was used by regional sports network MSG to produce its March 24 telecast of a New York Islanders-New York Rangers National Hockey League game. Placed on the net, the small rig "allowed the viewers to connect to the action in a way that was different from the other cameras and positions," he said.

Demand for Woods Hole's 3D technologies and production skills has come from sports, entertainment, natural history and documentary producers, as well as government and educational institutions, who use the 3D shoots to collect valuable mapping data and then turn the footage into educational content to visitors to information centers.

While 3D equipment remains pricey - more than double the cost of traditional HD gear, because two cameras and lenses are required for each rig - Lange notes that cost differentials between 3D and 2D for high-end natural history and documentary production aren't a major factor in deciding which format to use.

"In the world where we mainly work, which is scientific imaging or remote and hazardous underwater locations, the major production cost is getting the team and gear there, not the media or capital equipment," he said.

Because 3D camera and production equipment adds little to the large costs of taking a research vessel and crew into deep ocean waters or deploying submersibles to film an underwater wreck, "three or four years ago, we practically stopped our 2D HD filming and switched over to 3D," he added. "For us, with the rigs we have, it has really gotten very easy to shoot 3D underwater."

By George Winslow, Multichannel News