2008 HPA Tech Retreat: The Future is 3D

"Is the current 3D renaissance poised to leverage a full-blown transformation of movie-making technology? That was the story coming out of this week's Hollywood Post Alliance Tech Retreat in Rancho Mirage, CA, where hundreds of the proverbial brightest minds in the business gathered to get a jump on the future of the industry.

Speaking at the 3D "super session" that opened the conference, Iridas COO Patrick J. Palmer said that increased numbers of 3D projects were likely to drive an entirely new category of post-production tools in the coming years. “All manufacturers have to jump on this,” he told attendees, predicting that compositing and animation tools will one day be available in special stereo-ready versions that will allow artists to view their work in 3D as they make changes. “I don't know any sound editors working in 5.1 and listening to their work one track at a time,” he said.

The Math Starts to Make Sense
The HPA Retreat took place with two groundbreaking new 3D concert films in theaters — U23D doing solid business in a few dozen theaters, and Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour doing absolutely phenomenal numbers in a few hundred. And while those two releases may seem like an anomaly in 2008, 3D will be a common multiplex technology by 2010, Disney's Chuck Viane underscored that point by showing a list of upcoming 3D films with release dates, including the Toy Story trilogy (reissues of the first two films in '09 and '10 leading up to the release of what may well be titled Toy Story 3D). "3D shifts the filmmaking process more toward post," Viane observed, noting that 3D introduces numerous opportunities to manipulate the way depth is perceived by audiences after the fact of principal photography.

The 3D "super session" that opened the HPA Retreat took place at a local multiplex with stadium seating and a generously proportioned, 60-foot screen lit to a little more than four foot-lamberts by a single projector. That's still a small fraction — just about 30 percent — of the brightness generally specified for 2D exhibition (14 foot-lamberts) but for 3D on a screen of that size, it's a breakthrough. The installation of a new "light doubler" from Real D made the difference — but not without introducing some new potential issues for 3D post-production. H. Loren Nielsen, co-founder and president of Entertainment Technology Consultants, noted almost as an aside that, as screens get bigger, so does the actual parallax between projected left-eye and right-eye images that provides the illusion of depth. "That implies that ... we have to master for different screen sizes," she said.

One limitation for 3D's expansion, according to Millard Ochs, president of Warner Bros. International Cinemas, is that the perception within the studios themselves is that 3D movies are necessarily animated films. But he said the fast-approaching golden years of the baby-boomer generation represents an unmissable opportunity to reissue live-action films in 3D. "There's a lot of archive material in there. Start taking a look at it," he urged. The point was underscored by a brief demo reel shown by David Seigle from In-Three, which has in years past exhibited compelling "dimensionalized" footage from the original Star Wars film (although an announced theatrical release never materialized). This year, In-Three showed footage from Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith and the 1978 zombie classic Dawn of the Dead. (For more information, see Seigle's white paper on "depth-grading.")

Max Penner, a co-founder of Paradise FX, also underscored the importance of broadening 3D's appeal away from kid flicks and special-interest documentaries. He described the tapeless 3D workflow for Dark Country, a low-budget thriller directed by Thomas Jane, which relied on Final Cut Pro, After Effects, and Iridas products. “I applaud all the higher-end philosophies, but we have to have that lower-end content,” Penner said.

Cost Analysis
So you want to shoot 3D. It'll cost you — but maybe not as much as you think. Buzz Hays of Sony Pictures Imageworks offered a cost analysis of 3D production. For a CG animation project, Hays said, 3D will add between 8 and 15 percent to your below-the-line costs. The first three projects done by Imageworks came in on the high end of that scale mainly because they weren't created with 3D in mind; Beowulf, which was produced in 2D and 3D simultaneously, came in at about an 8 to 10 percent premium, Hays said. (Later in the day, Jim Mainard from DreamWorks Animation expanded a little, noting that rendering becomes about 30 percent more costly on a 3D film, adding something like $2 million to $3 million to rendering costs on a typical DreamWorks animated project.)

On a live-action shoot, the production premium jumps to anywhere between 15 and 25 percent of below-the-line costs, although that's expected to drop, Hays said. "The real cost is the impact on your shooting schedule," he noted.

Finally, creating a 3D version of an existing 2D production will run somewhere between $75,000 and $125,000 per minute, Hays said. Obviously, this tactic will make sense for some types of content, but not for all of it.

Once you know how much it all costs, how do you figure your chances of recouping? Well, the market is still nascent, so even though there are finally enough 3D-capable digital cinemas in the U.S. (about 1000) for a given 3D project to make money without a 2D version released in parallel, don't expect miracles in the short term. "Does the business model work?" asked Peter Dobson, CEO of Mann Theaters, thinking about the investments required by exhibitors to keep these movies on 3D screens — which tend to be larger auditoriums — even as admissions drop steadily following strong opening weekends. "So far, no." The release of 10 3D movies in a single year's time, Dobson said, "would just about make it work."

But as long as the exhibitors can figure out how to show the movies, studios are starting to get excited about making more of them. Don Tannenbaum of Warner Bros. noted that $35 million of Beowulf's $82 million domestic box-office haul came from 3D engagements, representing 3.9 million admissions. The studio reaped $7.8 million from increased ticket prices for the 3D version, and estimates that it generated about $22.5 million in incremental revenue — that is, money from patrons who would not have seen the film at all if it were released only in 2D. That's a lot of money to leave on the proverbial table, so expect 3D production to ramp up over the next few years. Hays said "the floodgates will open" in 2009, when a new release is scheduled roughly every six to eight weeks.

Behind the Scenes for Hannah Montana
Representatives from Quantel and Fotokem were on hand to show clips from the Hannah Montana film, which was captured with 14 cameras on seven stereo camera rigs. Fotokem relied on Quantel's juiced-up, 3D-enabled Pablo for immediate playback of stereo footage as well as the ability to work on both left-eye and right-eye footage simultaneously. “Being able to lift, cut, trim, slip and slide whilst you've got the glasses on is huge,” said Quantel's Milton Adamou. For Hannah Montana, Adamou said, it was still necessary to ingest one eye, then the other eye, and then marry the two in the Pablo. But the latest version of Quantel's product allows reading both eyes in 4:2:2 via dual-stream output from HDCAM SR tape. In the future, it should be possible to ingest camera metadata along with the footage. "There's no standard for this," Adamou warned. "We're still wrestling with where to embed this in the DPX header."

Fotokem started work on Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus on November 1, according to Senior VP of Technology Paul Chapman, with a goal of DCP delivery in January. He stressed a few lessons learned from Fotokem's experience in those 3D trenches: it's important to look at all your material for both eyes to see any problems early in the process. 3D convergence — the term generally refers to tweaking the image to move objects forward and backward on the Z axis — needs to be reviewed in the context of the edit to make sure the shot-to-shot flow is pleasing to viewers. It's important to work live — to be able to see the effect of changes in 3D as you make them. And, if possible, it's a very good idea to test your DCP in a real venue to avoid unpleasant surprises later.

Making the Grade in 3D
In the HPA demo room, Palmer was manning a demonstration showing Iridas Speedgrade DI working in full 3D mode with footage from Dark Country (shot with cameras from Red and Silicon Imaging) playing back on a 120 Hz Samsung LCD screen.

Much grading work can happen in 2D, but the difference in the image once you put on a pair of active stereo glasses is dramatic. For one thing, the amount of light that you see through the glasses is reduced, meaning that a color-grade that looks overly harsh or washed-out in two dimensions suddenly looks moody and dramatic when you pop on the glasses. It's easy to imagine colorists making decisions to bring color saturation up or down depending on a particular object's position in Z-space.

Too Much Too Soon?
Is there any downside to 3D exuberance? Wade Hanniball, VP of cinema technology at Universal Pictures, took a more cautious tack than most, arguing that managing a comprehensive move to digital cinema, of which 3D is only a subset, is still the most critical task. If the industry swoons for 3D in the coming years, Hanniball warned it could take its collective eye off the more pressing issue — a complete, rather than piecemeal, digital transition. "Stop saying 3D will be the savior of the theatrical business," Hanniball urged. "Fundamentally, it isn't in need of saving. Theaters need to compete on long-term quality of service, not on the temporary uplift 3D may grant. ... Let's not let 3D distract us and take the focus away from the advantages of 100 percent digital-cinema conversion."

Universal plans digital releases of its entire 2008 theatrical line-up, save In Bruges, Hanniball said."

By Bryant Frazer, StudioDaily