Living in stereo

An overview of new developments in post and broadcast research that intend to usher in a new era in 3D entertainment
November 1, 2009

Audiences have always been thrilled with moving pictures, even in the earliest, sound-free days of cinema. The technological advance of synchronized sound then ushered in the ‘talkies,’ which in turn relegated ‘silent’ films into the realm of nostalgia. Today with the 3D revolution in our immediate future, at some point the terminology for the moving image will flip again, and what we know as today’s 2D offerings may be known as the ‘flatties’ as we fully embrace the world of 3D.

While it seems like much of the current 3D revival is hinging on the much-awaited James Cameron 3D feature Avatar, as well as Dreamworks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg’s well-publicized fervor for the technology, the broadcast and post-production realms have been making bold steps forward in stereoscopic 3D. Territories around the world are currently busy experimenting and testing the various equipment and methods that exist, to perfect the stereoscopic formula. As 3D box office revenues for certain projects are climbing well into the millions and a new technological advance is announced practically every week, it is widely acknowledged that 3D is here to stay.


Many of the innovations being developed by certain post companies are aiming to facilitate ease of 3D production. Global visual entertainment services group Prime Focus has recently announced a new 2D to 3D conversion system, called View-D. Rob Hummel, North American post production CEO for Prime Focus, maintains that their new system – with a technology only invented this past summer – is a solution to common problems associated with filming stereo 3D productions, such as bulky two camera rigs making traditional shots difficult and the reliance on digital when many filmmakers prefer shooting on film. And while it’s still not a cheap process, Hummel says tech advances in conversion such as View-D are bringing costs down. ‘Generally the cost and time involved has relegated these 2D to 3D conversions to only the highest profile [films], either library titles or something like Disney’s G-Force,’ he says. Currently the company is quoting, on a case-by-case basis, about $35,000 to $40,000 per minute, on average.

Mike Fink, president of Prime Focus, VFX Worldwide, says that the system has gained interest from Europe, Asia, India and the U.S. and Prime Focus is busy doing tests with many studios. ‘It is practical to shoot a movie on film and do a 2D to 3D conversion after the film is shot,’ he says. By way of example, he mentions a shot that’s easy to do with traditional gear – a camera sliding past the wall and the doorway to see down a hallway. A typical stereoscopic two-camera rig, however, can’t just slide through that doorway. ‘These are really traditional film language types of shots that filmmakers have been using for 80 years and then suddenly [for 3D projects], do you just give up those shots?’ says Fink.

Quantel, a UK-based manufacturer of high-end visual effects and editing systems for film and television, has also provided tools for the stereo3D filmmaker’s tool box, which have been used on films like Wild Ocean 3D and Hannah Montana 3D. Ken MacNeil, president of Toronto-based, Quantel-equipped 3D stereoscopic post facility Studio Upstairs credits Quantel’s system offerings as being a large part of what’s propelling new 3D work.

Steve Owens, Quantel’s director of marketing, estimates the company has sold around 50 3D systems in the past 18 months and counts the UK, Spain, Italy, Japan, Canada and the U.S. as being territories actively involved in creating 3D content. Among the 50 Stereo3D-enabled Quantel systems sold is the Pablo, which handles color correction, and the Sid, a Stereo3D workstation. Costs for the Pablo are an estimated US$400,000 while the SIP2100 Stereo Image Processors, which can analyze stereo content and correct faults, cost $100,000.

Owens says that Quantel’s innovations have helped make stereo3D post a high quality, cost-effective workflow. ‘We have the hardware power in the boxes to show full quality 3D in real time and be able to adjust it in real time to make it great,’ he says.

Owens considers 3D and film ‘a done deal,’ but was taken by surprise by increasing interest from broadcasters. ‘If anything, the interest in 3D this year from broadcasters was greater than last year, and I think we’ve got quite a few major organizations that are looking at taking 3D from the experimental stage to being a real service,’ says Owens.


Enter Sky, the UK pay service that made waves when it announced this past July it’d be launching a 3D TV channel in 2010. Brian Lenz, director of product development for Sky, explains, ‘Once we figured out how to put 3D through the existing infrastructure of the [Sky] set top box, suddenly the 1.3 million HD subscribers we have can get 3D if they buy the [3D-ready] TV.’

He expects the audience to be the usual home cinema enthusiasts, but also expects 3D to be more of a ‘family time’ offering. As for the content, Lenz says that Sky is looking to air quality 3D programming across a range of genres. ‘In terms of priorities, [we're looking mainly at] family entertainment and sports, but you’ll see an emphasis on arts and music content as well,’ he says, adding that nature and travel with strong visuals will also be a welcome addition. He predicts that over the next 12 to 24 months, there will be a lot more full-length content coming out.

Despite the fact that Sky lays claim to leading the 3D broadcast revolution in Europe, Lenz states that not a lot of broadcasters are following through on initial interest. ‘I think there were a lot of people fighting to be in a position to do something, but very few people willing to actually take the leap and that was what we decided to do,’ says Lenz. ‘Because Sky is a vertically integrated company, we can find a route to the business model much easier than a broadcast channel can, or a platform on its own can.’

He also cites the culmination of 10 to 15 years of digital revolution as being the reason Sky can launch a 3D TV channel. As for 3D TV becoming mainstream, Lenz sees a three-to-five year window for how it’ll evolve. ‘It will stay as an appoint-to-view type proposition and it won’t mirror the idea of 100 HD channels turning into 100 3D channels,’ he says. ‘You’ll see it easily growing from some limited linear and transactional content to a couple of full channels and as many as five to 10 channels in five years’ time.’

Someone else who is enjoying the buzz around 3D is Telcast International GmbH’s CEO Thomas Hohenacker. The German-based company’s 3-D International division specializes in 3D TV events, which have aired on 50 broadcast channels around the world, including Discovery Channel, ORF and ZDF.

Hohenacker has been working in 3D since 1992, and is also an innovator, creating a system that removes the pesky double lines that viewers watching imagery produced for 3D see when watching it in 2D, while also maintaining the 3D effect for viewers equipped with special Telstar-produced glasses. The company also produces non-fiction in 3D, and its catalog includes blue-chip wildlife such as Mega Shark in 3D, 3D Safari Africa and 3D Safari Indonesia, as well as The World in 3D, containing 100 global locations in 3D. Hohenacker believes non-fiction lends itself very well to the 3D treatment. Simply put, ‘the more dimensions you have, the better it is to show,’ he says.

Despite Sky’s upcoming 3D channel, the advent of new post systems and 3D TV events gaining in popularity, Studio Upstairs’ MacNeil says that 3D still has relatively few people working on it on a commercial level. Presently the post tools have jumped ahead of the camera technology, he says, and now it’s about waiting for camera technology to get to the ‘point and shoot’ capability of shooting in HD.

‘I think the best 3D film of the future very well could have 50% 2D, with 2D filming techniques,’ he says. ‘When you see a blend and as a viewer it becomes irrelevant to you, that’s when the industry will mature to the point where we can mass produce for the medium.

‘The goal of 3D, when it’s done very well, is that you forget that you have the glasses on and you forget that you’re watching 3D, and it becomes more of an experience, [as if] the viewer is standing there,’ he says.

NHK in Japan has been working actively in three dimensions for some time, having made 300 3D HDTV programs to date. NHK’s Science and Technology research laboratories are among those working on glassless 3D TV solutions, as well as electronics manufacturers such as Philips, LG, Alioscopy and Samsung. NHK’s 3D-ready television project, dubbed Integral 3D Television, made its exhibition debut in January of this year. The system applies Super Hi-Vision (SHV) ultra-high resolution imaging technology, which NHK has been developing for several years. Dr. Makoto Okui, senior research engineer on the project, says Integral 3D Television ‘integrates all of the elements that contribute to 3D perception in human vision, including not only binocular parallax and convergence but also motion parallax, accommodation and so on.’ (For those wondering what parallax is, line up one finger in front of a faraway object, close one eye and move your head from side to side. Your finger appears to move, and that’s the parallax effect.)

The NHK specialist team has set the target of getting the Super Hi-Vision system used in broadcasting by 2025, although it’s already been displayed at exhibitions. It is estimated that SHV will be applied to cinema screens and video-ready billboards before 2025. ‘It is extremely expensive for the time being, because it handles such a massive volume of image data,’ says Okui. ‘Solutions to the cost issues will have to be found before this system can enter practical use.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.