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3-D: The New Normal?
by Graeme Steel

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By the time 3-D draws its audience literally into the antics of Woody and his buddy Buzz, after the Beast sweeps the beauty off of her feet and twirls her around the dance floor, when they’ve poured sweat and blood with gladiators of the gridiron and followed every move and every pitch of U2 in concert, the entertainment world will be well-primed for the next move. 3-D is coming home to stay.

We see the world in three dimensions so why don’t we view Mad Men, Lost or Saturday Night Live in 3-D? Only one reason: the technology didn’t exist until now. And some think that within the next 10 years, 3-D will be the new normal. From silent to sound and black and white to colour, the arrival of digital 3-D marks the third benchmark in the evolution of the film and television industry.

James Stewart is a Toronto-based producer/director and owner of Geneva Film Co. who has been promoting modern 3-D since he viewed early tests while working in Japan in 2002. He is convinced that 3-D is the future of all digital media. “Children born today will grow up with 3-D as their normal way of viewing digital content. Whether it’s on the web, on the computer, mobile phone, on TV or cinema, it’s a natural way to see content,” he says.

The concept is not new – filmmakers have been experimenting with 3-D since the first public exhibition at New York’s Astor Theater in June, 1915 – but this isn’t your grandfather’s 3-D. Or your father’s. Or your older sister’s for that matter. Recent advances in digital production have enabled filmmakers to create a product that is closer to real-life than ever before and the results have an entire industry woozy with anticipation.

“Today it’s digital. It’s shot digitally, edited digitally, transferred and colour corrected digitally,” says Stewart. The result is a picture that is so clear, so real, so deep and rich and immersive that it’s closer to a dream than a film-going experience.

A screen that can double as a window is both curious and appealing and after fighting 50 years of bad PR, audiences seem ready for it. A joint study from the Consumer Electronics Association and the Entertainment and Technology Center at the University of Southern California found that interest in 3-D increases as consumers experience it first hand and, for most, that experience starts in theatres. “The technology is more sophisticated than it was two or three years ago,” says Neil Schneider, president of Meant To Be Seen, a leading 3-D advocacy group. “The cinema is taking off and we’re seeing a lot of traction there. I think it’s very positive and I think 2009 will be a very strong year for 3-D.”

Indeed, 2009 could be a breakthrough year. There are 14 3-D films slated for release, about twice as many as in 2007 and 2008 combined. Both Pixar and DreamWorks have announced that all future animation projects will be in 3-D and all six major Hollywood studios will have released a 3-D production by 2009.

But Hollywood and theatres aren’t relying solely on new content. There are methods – albeit expensive ones – to transfer legacy films into 3-D. First up for Disney is Toy Story, which is scheduled for release in October 2009. Disney also plans to convert Toy Story 2 by February 2010 and Beauty and the Beast by 2011. “Animation is a lot simpler than live action,” says Jay Ankeney, a California-based freelance editor and post-production consultant who also writes for TV Technology Magazine. “Modern computer-generated animated movies already have a depth element in the computer generation. Extracting it and getting it on the screen is not that difficult.”

While computer generated animation can be converted automatically, at least in part, the process of creating an entirely new point-of-view – two inches over from the original – requires painstaking diligence. George Lucas is considering a 3-D version of Star Wars while FOX is midstream in its conversion of Titanic. A mix of live-action and digital CGI presents a much greater challenge. Because the second view was never filmed, editors have to make it from scratch, at a cost of $100,000 per minute.

A lot has to happen before the industry is ready for full immersion. The rollout of expensive digital equipment to accommodate the growing demand is underway with approximately 2,000 3-D enabled screens in the U.S. and Canada. That number is expected to climb even higher by December 2009. The cost of converting the nearly 40,000 screens in North America is approaching $2 billion but with 3-D movies delivering double the attendance at premium ticket prices, theatres know there’s extra incentive to make the switch.

Gone are those cardboard glasses with colourful plastic lenses. California company, RealD, which has a huge market share in North America, makes 3-D glasses that use circular polarization. Instead of stretching lenses left to right or up and down, as it’s done in linear polarization, there are undetectable circles that curl clockwise and counterclockwise to differentiate the views. This variation allows audiences to move their heads without losing the polarized images.

XpanD debuted its newest incarnation of Active Glasses at ShoWest – the leading industry event for motion pictures – last March. Its more stylish model utilizes an undetectable shutter effect in which one lens blinks while the other lens is open. “They are slightly heavier but they have addressed the fact that people don’t want to wear what used to be referred to as “the date killers” – those goofy, ugly glasses,” says Stewart.

Chris Chinnock, of the 3-D@Home consortium, is on a mission to speed the commercialization of 3-D into homes. “The way we see it, 2009 is a really important year for 3-D digital cinema and by 2010, I think the stars start to align for consumer 3-D TV in the home,” he says. With the expectation for good 3-D and the pent up demand to bring it home, the vision for 3-D as the new normal doesn’t simply apply to big screens but to all visual production: gaming, broadcast, mobiles and Blu-ray disc.

With 50 to 60 per cent of Hollywood revenues coming from non-theatrical releases, studios are highly motivated to find a path for 3-D to the home. Their present dilemma stems from a business model conflict: studios routinely get their DVD releases to the public within six months of the theatrical release, which has forced them to distribute their digital 3-D in anaglyph.
“It’s not as good as what we see in theatres,” says Ankeney. “That’s specifically what James Cameron was warning us about: the only thing that will kill 3-D is bad 3-D.”

While 3-D discs are on the precipice of a mainstream arrival, other means of delivering 3-D content to the home are in the pipe. Cinemas equipped with digital projectors and 3-D capability have been showcasing concerts and prominent sporting events for over a year. Thanks to growing demand and burgeoning technology, Chinnock thinks it won’t be long until we’re watching at home.

“Think pay-per-view or video on demand,” he says.

No longer will sold out events be a problem, says Dave Schultz, marketing manager for Sony projectors. “In the future, they’ll be able to offer front row seats to select sporting events, etc., and with 3-D technology, it could be even better than being at the live event.”

For some, it’s important to remember that 3-D is already in the home. “Unlike the movie industry, which depends on having special camera rigs, creating the movies from scratch and then finding a way of transmitting them to the home – which hasn’t been established yet – gaming is here to stay,” says Schneider, who wants to use the video game playing community and leverage its support to generate interest in stereoscopic 3-D technology. “We’re going to start seeing a lot of new content and not just content for the theatre but content for the home as well.”

There are, however, significant obstacles standing in the way. Chinnock believes the secret to bringing it into the home is fiber optics. “The barriers for delivering 3-D over the Internet are much lower than for terrestrial broadcast or cable or satellite because you don’t have as much infrastructure and bandwidth limitations. So we’re pretty bullish that Internet delivery of 3-D content will be one of the leading platforms,” he says.

If 3-D is the new normal, we won’t know it for years. It’s not a stretch to say that the third coming is in its infancy, and implementing the miscellany of new technologies will come in a series of unveilings. James Stewart sees it starting small. “It will be on mobile first,” he says in reference to 3-D overlay for iPhones. “Then glasses at home for television, which are currently available and will be widely accepted.” The majority of HD TVs have come 3-D ready since 2007, but with a lack of content and little attention, most people are unaware.

One technology that everyone is waiting for is autostereoscopic television, which is true, clear, immersive, glasses-free 3-D TV. The 3-D effect works by delivering unique content to each eye, but while standard stereoscopic 3-D requires polarized glasses, the autostereoscopic approach works by shining individual pairs of views out of the screen. The technology isn’t quite ready for mass consumption – it will be another eight to ten years before it’s as prevalent as HD – but the 46-views offered by the latest Philips model is a marked improvement on the earlier 7 and 11-view prototypes.

However, that timetable is less clear now than it was six months or even a year ago. Recent announcements point to a dark period in the production and adoption of autostereoscopic television. Despite a reputation as the leader in glasses-free technology, current market developments have led Philips to discontinue operations at Philips 3-D Solutions. While stereoscopic 3-D TV has strong momentum, the industry is looking for a new champion and will likely need more time to introduce the ultimate 3-D experience to the home.

Those working to make 3-D a significant and lasting part of the overall entertainment experience continue to push forward, undaunted. For people like Stewart, it’s less about the technology and more about what it represents. “In most cases it accentuates the content and it makes the story more interesting and more intimate,” he says. For 3-D advocates, it’s about creating a viewing experience that is closer than ever to reality and the proof is in the testimonials.

After the world premier of U2 3-D, Bono told Stewart that seeing the film was the closest he’d ever get to seeing U2 in concert. As Stewart points out, Bono has no conception of what it’s like to see himself in concert.

“He’s powerful when he speaks and powerful when he sings. He’s got this incredible presence but he has no clue because he’s just a guy playing music with his high school buddies. But when he sees himself in 3-D – on that stage – he actually has the point-of-view that the people in the audience have. It’s reality.”

Stewart says going back to 2-D is like living with one eye closed. “When people ask why I shoot in 3-D, it’s like, ‘why not?’ You can still shoot all your films on 16-millimetre if you want, you can shoot them on 35-millimetre if you want… but why would you do that if you can shoot them in 4k digital, which looks as good as film. Why would you shoot a concert in 2-D if you can shoot it in


Fine Cut 2009