Will 3D tools catch demand?

April 10, 2008
By Carolyn Giardina

Hollywood?s rush to embrace 3-D is posing multidimensional dilemmas.

With no fewer than 25 3-D features in the pipeline, the industry clearly has embraced the format. But several roadblocks threaten that momentum.

Critically, the tools are not in place to meet growing production requirements.

"There is enough equipment right now to do maybe two big (live-action) pictures if you were shooting them all in 3-D," says Art Repola, executive vp visual effects and production at Disney and producer of the studio's recent 3-D release "Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert." "I believe there wouldn't be enough to go around for a third. There needs to be more equipment available to us as an industry."

Increasing the availability of 3-D equipment will be on the minds of attendees at the National Association of Broadcasters show, which opens today in Las Vegas. Experts differ on the extent of the needs, but everyone seems to agree that more must be done to ensure the format's success.

Most of today's 3-D production infrastructure is developed in-house at such studio-owned animation and FX units as Sony Pictures Imageworks/Animation and DreamWorks Animation. A few independently owned companies also service live-action needs. Pace, for example, offers 3-D camera systems developed by James Cameron and the company founder, cinematographer Vince Pace, that have been used in such projects as "Hannah Montana," "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D" and the NBA's recent live 3-D broadcasts. Pace also has built a 3-D broadcast news van.

But many independent manufacturers haven't ramped up their own 3-D capabilities to service the films. This has left a shortage of 3-D production services at the exact time studio demand for the projects is booming.

"The manufacturers need to know that Hollywood is serious about 3-D production and postproduction, and we need the resources to work on these projects," Disney vp production technology Howard Lukk says.

The current 3-D boom has caught some toolmakers by surprise.

"I think manufacturers didn't think it was real -- and it's exploding," DWA's Jim Mainard says. "It happened faster than they thought."

Editing is one area that most agree needs attention. Lukk says that "Hannah Montana" was edited in 2-D, and the team had to wait until the finishing sessions to examine the cut in 3-D. "The Avids and Apples of the world really need to come up with something as fast as they possibly can for something for editorial in 3-D," Lukk says. "And not just standard editorial, but multicamera stereoscopic editorial."

Cutting and viewing 3-D in an edit room might not be so far off. Avid Technology previewed its research in 3-D editorial capabilities this week to a group of customers in Los Angeles.

Monitors that will support 3-D still are relatively rare; further development of the key technology is needed.

"The display systems have to have the ability to let the filmmakers do their jobs," Mainard says. "It's probably a year or two out, but I think we'll see a lot of innovation in the flat-panel technology."

There already are a few finishing systems that have been used for 3-D post, including Quantel's 3-D option for its Pablo and iQ finishing systems, which are in use at such companies as Pace and Fotokem; or Assimmilate's Scratchcq and 3Ality ("U2 3D").

While the market for postproduction technology remains limited, it might be poised for quick growth. 3Ality CEO Steve Scklair says the need is there.

"Most of the post houses are being asked to do stereoscopic work, and they don't have tool sets to do this work," he says.

Quantel says that it has sold 10 3-D systems in Los Angeles and three in the U.K., while Colin Ritchie, founder of technology resources business Aarmadillo, expects that more new 3-D post suites will be installed in the Hollywood area in the next few months. Quantel is set to unveil additional 3-D technologies and related tools at NAB.

Among the manufacturers targeting the 3-D market and planning to make technology introductions at NAB are Digital Vision and Iconix.

"I think any company that is seriously trying to stay in this business is going to have to have products that are 3-D compliant, if not 3-D specialized," Mainard says.

But 3-D capability requires more than just technology. "My biggest concern would be that we get folks out there who aren't well-educated in how to make a 3-D film," Mainard says. "And they go out and they either have unsuccessful projects or they have successful projects that turn off the audience because they are too hard to watch."

"The main issue is training," Sony Pictures Imageworks' Buzz Hayes says. "3-D is not a production technique that a lot of people are familiar with and have experience with. There is a science and an artistry behind it. And they can't be at odds with each other."

Meanwhile, broader cost and technical issues are dominating the 3-D debate, including how subtitles should be handled and how to "version" the films for different formats. "Different versions will be needed based on the size of the screen," Ritchie says. "Some believe the industry doesn't have the backbone financially to create these different versions."

Hayes estimates that the incremental costs of producing a 3-D version of a computer-animated film is typically 8%-15% of the below-the-line costs of the film; a live-action 3-D feature costs about 15%-25% more. Converting a 2-D film to 3-D, he added, is estimated to cost $75,000-$125,000 per minute depending on the complexity of the material.

There might, however, be upside at the boxoffice because exhibitors are in some cases charging 20% premiums for digital 3-D features. Disney's 3-D "Hannah Montana" demonstrated boxoffice potential, earning a domestic take of $64.5 million on only 683 digital 3-D screens.

Extending 3-D to the home entertainment market has become another major goal for stakeholders.

"There are some significant pieces to that puzzle that are waiting to be filled in," says Hayes, adding that delivery mechanisms in particular are a key topic. "It's not impossible, it just hasn't been dealt with yet."

While 3-D is welcomed with enthusiasm by many, there is another camp that still believes the format is a fad.

Universal supports 3-D, but the studio's vp cinema technologies Wade Hanniball offered words of caution in a recent speech. "There are clearly major technical and business issues to address," he says. "Let's agree to stop saying that 3-D will be the savior of the theatrical business. Theaters need to compete on the basis of long-term quality of service, not on the temporary uplift that 3-D may grant."

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