3D: How to make it work

It needs saving, and here's our we plan to do it...

With TV sales poor, films poorer and the 3DS’s price slashed, T3 has a plan to turn 2011’s fad into tech’s future

It was in December of 2009 that Avatar seemed to signal a new dawn. James Cameron’s bloated fantasia wasn’t the first of the new wave of 3D films by any means; various schlocky, ahem, “classics” such as My Bloody Valentine 3D had already been and gone. But it was the first 3D film that had a huge budget, a (mostly) coherent narrative and genuinely mind-blowing visuals. It was, in contemporary parlance, the first of the 21st century 3D-revival flicks that didn’t suck. Who could have suspected that it would also turn out to be the last 3D film – to date, at any rate – that was actually any good?

It’s not just in the movie world that the initial fanfare for 3D has petered out into a shuffling silence. Even if you own a compatible telly, do you ever use its 3D functionality? There’s still next to nothing to watch, and with most manufacturers going down the “active 3D” route, buying enough glasses for the whole family is an expensive exercise.

“People aren’t really that engaged with the 3D experience,” says analyst Adam Thomas. “They’re interested in one-off events and novelty things, but they don’t want to watch it that much. Having to wear glasses is a big factor and 3D TVs are still really expensive when you consider how many people have recently shelled out for a HD set.”

Similarly, the way the Nintendo 3DS renders an extra dimension without the need for glasses may be very clever, but it’s ultimately a gimmick – and a battery-draining one at that – which can’t disguise the handheld’s lack of great games to date. All the best titles so far are ageing Nintendo classics that have been “3D-ified”.

But it’s the movie world that best exemplifies 3D’s creative near-bankruptcy. While 3D movies are certainly making money – after all, ticket prices are higher to view them, and they’re almost all big-budget, family-friendly, tent-pole movies – there is the inescapable feeling that they are forgettable, middle-brow movies with 3D effects that are either barely discernible or obnoxiously show-offy, added simply for cash.

3D: How to make it work - 3D at the movies

June 2011 signalled another landmark moment in the short history of the modern 3D movie. When given the option of watching the summer’s bigscreen family hit, Kung Fu Panda 2, in 3D or 2D, the minority of cinema-goers – 47 per cent, in fact – chose to watch in the former. That compares to 87 per cent for Avatar.

It was the first sign that parents, hard pressed by inflation and looming recession, might not want to spend an extra £3 or so per ticket, especially if they have had unsatisfying experiences with 3D in the past. After all, eye-strain, nausea and more low-level niggles such as the 3D effect being under par have filled newspaper column inches all year.

Indeed, Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of 3D at Dreamworks Animation, has some harsh words for the industry. “Hollywood, in its rush to capitalise on what was a fantastic new opportunity, took the low road and put out a whole bunch of movies that were not, in fact, the best representation of what this technology has to offer,” he says. “It was not designed to be a low-end gimmick but rather a creative filmmaking tool that, put in the hands of great artists, would create an exceptional and new film experience.”

Of post-Avatar releases, only Tron: Legacy stands out as a shot-in-3D success – and even that was pretty turgid if you tried to experience it as a film rather than as AV overload.

There have been duds aplenty, most of which were shot in 2D, then made 3D in postproduction: Clash of the Titans, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Jackass 3D, Gulliver’s Travels, and Greens Hornet and Lantern spring to mind.

“I think it’s horrible and absolutely the wrong way to go,” Avatar director James Cameron has said. “It’s the studio making the decision and then handing it over to some company to process it through a sausage grinder and come up with some kind of faux 3D, or ‘2.5D’ mess.”

Despite this, Cameron still plans to put his Titanic film through the same sausage grinder – it’s okay, it’ll be “like 2.9D,” Cameron says.

“I think the reason Avatar was super successful in 3D had nothing to do with the fact that it was new and cool,” says Ziah Fogel, an artist who worked for Pixar for eight years, including roles on Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. “It was because James Cameron set out with the intention of making a 3D film.

“When you shoot with stereoscopic cameras and you’re thinking about that 3D space, it changes the way you make choices about how to lay out shots. A lot of the films shown in 3D were never intended to be. The director is making a 2D movie that he’s used to making and people are used to watching.”

Furthermore, thanks to a “super pain in the ass” process called rotoscoping, images often appear fuzzy to the eye. “If a film wasn’t meant to be 3D, it’s often weirdly jittery and things are skippy,” adds Fogel. “It actually starts hurting your brain and your eyes. People would rather watch a fl at screen than have a headache.”

Nick James, editor of cinefile magazine Sight and Sound, says that watching 3D is intrinsically unnatural: “According to [film editor on Apocalypse Now] Walter Mulch, 3D asks the brain to do something it has never done before: focus on one point, but converge our eyes on a different point at the same time. Nothing in nature has ever asked our brains to do that. Maybe that’s why the headaches?”

It cost Dreamworks a reported $30m to turn Kung Fu Panda 2 into a 3D movie but thanks to the 30 per cent ticket hike, it’s still a sound business model. Studios also perceive that creating a movie in 3D guards against piracy; camcorder bandits can’t bootleg 3D movies by videoing them in the cinema.

Part of the reason the multiplexes are overrun with artificial, low-rent 3D films is that few of the Hollywood elite have rushed to embrace the technology. The 3D event of summer 2011 isn’t a more thoughtful spectacle from Christopher Nolan, JJ Abrams or Matthew Vaughn. It’s Michael Bay and Transformers 3. Why haven’t more critically lauded auteurs been rushing to follow Jim Cameron’s lead?

“I think filmmakers aren’t really sure what they’re supposed to do with this yet,” suggests Fogel. “Most of those big directors are more interested in building a narrative and creating effective characters. They believe it’s not worth bothering if it’s not going to further the story.”

3D: How to make it work - 3DTV as it stands

In the UK TV market, Sky has jumped ahead of the movie industry in terms of producing 3D content. Each week, it features hours of sport, movies and arts as part of a colossal investment in the new medium, bringing armchair viewers everything from Swan Lake 3D to Leeds Rhinos’ rugby league games.

Despite this effort, recent forecasts from Informa Telecoms and Media suggest that 3D TV will still be considered a “novelty” for many years to come. Informa puts this down to the expense of sets, the glasses factor and the resistance of viewers to really engage with the limited content currently on offer.

There are currently about 150,000 3D tellies in UK households. Informa says that will rise to 11m by 2016, but fewer than half will be used to actually watch 3D. Sales will be driven not by the desire from viewers to be 3D Ready, it says, but by manufacturers packing the tech into all new sets; 3D by default.

One thing that certainly needs to change before home 3D becomes more popular is the expense of the glasses. Television has always been a more social communal medium than film, with viewers interacting with each other as well as what’s on screen. For that to happen with 3D, everyone watching has to have specs on – and prices of £60 per pair, escalating upwards quickly, do not make that easy.

To combat this, Sky kick-started its 3D assault by showcasing the tech in hundreds of pubs, each equipped with LG tellies that use passive 3D tech, which means much cheaper specs. However, even with Sky giving the glasses out for nothing, according to one landlady, patrons weren’t too enthused by 3D.

“No one’s bothered really,” says Helen Langley, who runs The Beacon in Shrewsbury. “When I ask customers if they want it in 3D they just say no, leave it in HD. We still have one 3D TV set up, but no one watches it.

“People want to come down to the pub to socialise with their friends, have a pint and watch the football, but when it’s in 3D they say they have to concentrate too hard.”

The BBC has also recently made its first real foray into the market by broadcasting the Wimbledon tennis finals in 3D through Sky, Virgin, Freeview and Freesat.

However, according to Danielle Nagler, the BBC’s head of HD and 3D: “We’re at a very early point in the technology’s development. Very few people have 3D in the home and 3D production is very expensive. It’s still not clear whether this is something that’s going to be a television fad or the long-term future.

“The move from HD was a much more obvious upgrade for viewers. Does 3D really make things more real? We have a responsibility to not throw lots of money on something that could be pretty peripheral in the long term.

“At the moment I think there is very little understanding of what an audience actually wants to see in 3D as opposed to what is currently being offered to them in 3D.”

The BBC says it has no plans to trial shooting a drama in 3D and that any further tests will be done to appeal to the widest possible mainstream audience.

3D : How to make it work - 3D gaming

It’s a similar story in the gaming world. The PS3 is the only one of the big three consoles to offer 3D gaming at present.

Including games in development, there are 108 3D titles, many of which are PSN downloads, for the console. These include heavy hitters such as Call of Duty: Black Ops, Gran Turismo 5 and Virtua Tennis 4.

However, rumours that Microsoft’s Xbox 360 was to introduce 3D firmware at E3 in June proved unfounded, and to date 3D is about the only gimmick Nintendo hasn’t attempted to add to the Wii. It’s also not going to be part of the forthcoming Wii U. That decision may have been affected by the poor early performance of the Nintendo 3DS, which took almost 13 weeks to pass a million sales in Japan – the original DS did it in four – and this month saw its price slashed by a third in all territories.

However, video-site behemoth YouTube now has a dedicated 3D section, and the massive success of such sites has always been driven by user-generated content. Could the same happen with 3D? A Currys/PC World Group spokesperson tells us that although it’s increased its range of 3D camcorders and cameras, customers don’t appear to be biting.

“In imaging, 3D has had a much slower start than TVs,” she says. “It feels like it will track a year or two behind TVs as price points remain at a premium – it’s similar to what happened with hi-def. Recent market info suggests that at the moment, 3D as a feature doesn’t feel like a trigger to buy imaging products.”

The spokesperson adds that brands are not yet investing heavily in advertising their 3D tech. “There has been and will be few, if any, abovethe- line campaigns to promote the technology outside of the specialist press,” she says.

Another area likely to remain niche is mobile phones. So far, only LG and HTC have released 3D handsets. Samsung’s UK head of project management Jim Powell says: “We are world leaders in 3D, but we haven’t seen a need for 3D on mobiles as yet for UK customers.” Motorola, RIM, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Apple also have no plans to invest in 3D phones, so mobile-wielding citizen journalists won’t be filming – or watching – breaking news in three dimensions for the foreseeable future.

All this goes some way towards explaining why 3D content remains so sparse on YouTube. The site’s 3D channel has had only 1,614,806 views and boasts just 55,000 subscribers. There are fewer than 6,000 3D videos available in total.

3D: how to make it work - All about the money

So we can agree that, viewed from a certain direction, things look bad for 3D right now – just like on a Nintendo 3DS. So what, you may ask, is going to cement 3D in the mainstream? And, in turn, what is going to make it into an artform rather than a fairground ride? What, in short, is going to make 3D not suck?

The answer to the latter questions we’ll come to on the next page. The answer to the first one is rather simple: money. And lots of it.

If you think after spending ten years making Avatar, James Cameron plans to retire quietly to spend more time with his money, you’re very much mistaken. In April this year, he and Vince Pace, Avatar’s director of photography, formed the Cameron/Pace Group to offer “slate to screen” support to would-be 3D filmmakers. The Group is lowering some of the barriers to 3D by offering workshops on how to use the kit and how to plan productions.

Patrick Campbell, chief technology officer for the Cameron/Pace Group, tells T3: “By supporting the filmmaker, we go beyond simply renting a rig and enter into the philosophy of successful 3D entertainment by supporting the entire process from first point of capture through editorial, visual effects, post production and broadcast.” Campbell is keen to spell out just how much cash 3D movies are already raking in.

“We’ve all heard it’s a fad and the 3D box office results are bad,” he says. “One of our recent Fusion 3D productions, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, was slammed for ‘not performing well’ in 3D. This production had a $250 million budget. It has made $985 million and become Disney’s biggest release of all time at the international box office. Tron: Legacy had a $170 million budget and resulted in $400m receipts.”

Could a “eureka” moment be just around the corner, where mega box office and critical acclaim combine for 3D? Bob Whitehill, Pixar’s stereoscopic supervisor, thinks so.

“As talent and interest pour into the medium, the results will continue to improve,” he says. “Who saw the ‘bullet time’ camera technique used in The Matrix coming? I have little doubt that there are genius visual and storytelling techniques that lie ahead in 3D, if it is given the time to breathe and develop.”

“I’m looking forward to The Amazing Spider-Man next year,” adds Chris Hewitt of film bible Empire. “That’s a character that swings towards the camera and does things at great heights. That means you can do lots with the depth of field and play with perspective, so it’s going to be tailored for 3D.”

The most important factor to safeguard 3D’s artistic future – as opposed to its moneymaking potential – is that truly visionary filmmakers start to use the tech.

Already we’ve seen European arthouse favourites Werner Herzog (My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done, Grizzly Man) and Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, Buena Vista Social Club) try their hands. Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams made good use of 3D, with unprecedented access to the cave paintings in Chauvet, France.

Wenders’ Pina, however, was a true revelation of the possibilities of 3D. Although not for everyone in terms of its subject matter – contemporary dance – what was undeniable was that it showed off the beauty and skill of the dancers’ movements. The 3D allowed you to fully appreciate their use of space in relation to each other and the surroundings.

It gets better. Martin Scorsese is currently directing 3D children’s film Hugo Cabret, for which he has enlisted the help of – wait for it – the Cameron/Pace Group.

Hewitt is impressed. “When great artists like Wenders, Scorsese and Herzog are making movies in 3D, that’s when you sit up and say, ‘That’s not a gimmick,’” he adds. “These are true cinematic artists exploring a different side of the medium.”

Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit will also be shot using 30 Red Epic 5k-resolution cameras, paired up to capture images in 3D. The cameras will shoot at 48 frames per second – twice the normal movie frame rate – giving a never-before-seen smoothness.

Jackson says of 48fps shooting: “The image has hugely enhanced clarity and smoothness. Looking at 24 frames every second may seem okay – and we’ve all seen thousands of films like this – but there is often quite a lot of blur, during fast movements, and if the camera is moving around quickly, the image can judder or strobe. Shooting and projecting at 48fps does a lot to get rid of these issues. It looks more lifelike and easier to watch in 3D.

“I believe once this film hits the cinemas in 3D, it will change the way future films are shot. 24fps is just too few frames per second for the smooth motion required by 3D film making. It should also help with the eye strain and headaches associated with 3D viewing.”

3D: How to make it work - The solution

You see? The trick with 3D is to look at it from the right angle, with compatible spectacles on – in this case, rose-tinted ones. If the less hacky end of Hollywood’s directorial elite, plus a smattering of European and World cinema auteurs, are beginning to embrace the format, while new technologies queue up to improve the visual experience, suddenly the medium’s future looks altogether brighter.

“The important thing is to make sure that we have great artists and great directors who understand how to use the process, in charge of 3D,” continues Hewitt. “That’s happening now, so I think this slight 3D backlash we’ve seen this summer will subside.

“When 3D is used as an immersive experience to make the world of the movie deeper and to improve the emotional impact of the movie, it’s hugely effective.”

In the home, optimists and evangelists are convinced 3D will be the norm within a decade. As with the film industry, the existence of 3D content on the box isn’t just dependant on whether audiences want it, but on whether it is cost-efficient to create. Shooting in 3D currently costs Sky, for instance, a fortune, with a different set-up for a Premier League game required as well as the standard 2D rig.

Brian Lenz, Sky’s head of 3D technologies, says: “The cost of 3D equipment is going down rapidly, but the real breakthrough, the thing we continue to play with, is how do we move to the point where we can get 2D and 3D out of the same production?”

Sky’s vision doesn’t end there, though. “Where we are now is creating the longterm demand for 3D,” Lenz says. “This is the beginning of a ten-year journey that’s going to culminate in glasses-free 3D on the TV.” The BBC’s Danielle Nagler adds: “If glassesfree displays become available, everything could change again.”

Success breeds success. Three years ago, there was next to nothing to watch in hi-def. Now, you probably feel irked at having to watch anything in standard-def. The same could happen for home 3D. As more content, of higher quality, begins to flow our way, we’ll become more accepting of the form as something more than a gimmick, or being for one-off events only.

That way, when glasses-free 3D finally hits, it’ll just be the final piece in the jigsaw. You’ll know the third dimension is truly accepted not when you see the Olympics in 3D, but when you find yourself watching EastEnders in it.