Stock’s new dimension

As 3D increasingly becomes part of television programming, a small number of stock footage licensors are testing the waters. But does the level of current demand warrant the expense in producing and storing the footage, or is it an investment in a 3D future?
January 1, 2011

Dreamworks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg has been convinced for years. Count Discovery Communications founder John Hendricks, IMAX CEO Richard L. Gelfond and Sony Corporation chairman/CEO Howard Stringer, all partners in the 3net joint venture 3D network due to launch this year, and ESPN and Sky as early 3D evangelists as well. Now, it seems the stock footage world is slowly taking steps into the third dimension.

While the number of stock companies carrying 3D footage available for licensing right now may be able to be counted on one hand (perhaps even half of one hand), a growing number is looking to enter the 3D fray this year with dedicated collections. An even larger number is watching the trajectory of demand for the new technology to see if a profitable business model will emerge, given the advanced costs in producing, storing and distributing the material.

Clark Dunbar, founder of Evergreen, Colorado-based Mammoth HD, says he committed to expanding his offering into 3D about four years ago. “We started seeing the toolsets coming out – beam-splitter rigs were getting better, cameras were getting better,” he says. “We started hearing rumors of things like Avatar being shot and knew that would bring interest. TV manufacturers had started implying that their 3D TVs would be available and affordable.”

Dunbar took the plunge late last year, he says, rolling content out just before NAB. Currently, Mammoth HD has seven cinematographers contributing footage, and “another five or six that are committed to submitting material to us,” he says. The aim is to have “between 40 and 50 by the end of next year.” Mammoth’s 3D collection, hovering somewhere between 700 and 800 clips according to Dunbar, is mostly live-action footage, with a few clips of 3D animation also in the mix. Just as he’s looking to grow the number of shooters by close to tenfold, he’s expecting the number of 3D clips on offer through Mammoth by the end of next year to be somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000.

Denver-based Thought Equity Motion has been licensing select 3D content for over a year, with material ranging from sports-oriented content, supplied by partners such as the NCAA and Australia’s National Rugby League, to footage from Japanese broadcaster NHK, which has been a world leader in 3D broadcast research and production. But while the content is available for licensing, as Thought Equity CEO Kevin Schaff puts it, “I think it speaks to demand that you don’t see it highly promoted on our site.”

Both Schaff and Dunbar say the largest amount of 3D footage isn’t being sold to broadcasters dealing in the 3D space, but rather to corporate clients who need the material to demonstrate new software and hardware at trade shows and corporate presentations. As a result, it’s what Dunbar calls the “eye candy” content that’s in demand: content that, as Schaff puts it, has “the right angles to put people into the screen.”

“It’s like the early days of HD stock footage, as everybody wants to show something that’s really beautiful,” says Dunbar of the current market. “As we grow, we’ll see more use in editorial and storytelling, but that’s just about the maturity of the marketplace.”

Paula Lumbard, founder and president of FootageBank HD, agrees that as the market grows beyond the technology manufacturing sector to a wider number of producers and broadcasters, “more dramatic interstitial segments and stories whose purpose is to drive the physical and emotional 3D experience will be in demand.”

FootageBank is now bringing its first 3D clips to market, after studiously watching the technology behind creating 3D content evolve. Beginning with material from longtime FootageBank HD supplier Randall Dark, the company also plans to expand its offering with an educational component – a format guide being prepared for the first quarter of the year that will “be similar in concept to our previous HD format guides, listing and defining different camera configurations, camera interoculars, camera convergence and tips for end use encoding,” says Lumbard.

Like the advent of HD, the foray into the third dimension brings with it a steep learning curve for both cinematographers and footage licensors. “We had to get up to speed on 3D, editing in 3D, working with the shooters on their knowledge and getting it all synced in to how we edit and prep material,” says Dunbar of the process. Different codecs, file types and ways of viewing the content are all part of the equation when it comes to operating in the 3D footage field. “You kind of have to learn the language and which [solution] is best suited for your clients,” says Dunbar, who admits, “It’s like HD quadrupled.”

“More important than even the type of shot, is the technical quality of the shot,” offers Lumbard. “Footage providers must offer final clips that are perfectly muxed or [that] have high resolution, perfectly-synced right and left eye files so no one walks away with queasy stomachs.”

Unsurprisingly, all the extra equipment and care needed in shooting, editing and storing 3D content results in a significantly higher price than HD footage. “[Arriving at] pricing was interesting, as it’s always, from an economic standpoint, based on production value and scarcity,” explains Schaff. “So there’s definitely a premium because there’s not a lot of good 3D content out on the market to license. It will typically carry a good 2 to 3X multiple of normal rights-managed pricing.”

Both Schaff and Dunbar say the chief concern they have regarding their 3D catalogs is in effectively presenting them to potential customers. Schaff says Thought Equity relies on “custom field solutions,” such as 3D-enabled monitors at their offices and presentations for clients at post houses, and Dunbar says Mammoth is striving to find the best way to “present the full amount of color-correction and the full 3D effect.”

With the number of international broadcasters diving into 3D ramping up over the course of the next year, one would expect demand for 3D stock to grow accordingly. After all, there isn’t a wealth of 3D native content out there and every step that could be taken to drive down the cost of producing 3D programming should be an attractive proposition. Indeed, one of the cable companies entering the 3D space this year, Discovery Communications, will eventually offer some of its 3D content to producers via its own archive resource, Discovery Access, according to vice president of footage sales Jocelyn Shearer.

Still, there are different levels of optimism concerning the demand for 3D content over the years ahead. Schaff, for his part, sees a demand coming from the gaming sector as well as from the home theatre set. But for general, at-home adoption of the format and its content, he sees 3D being leapfrogged by other technologies, mentioning interesting research being conducted into holographic delivery.

“I would project that it can be and will be a profitable licensing line item,” he says. “If the question is more about a good growth market for 3D, we have not seen one mainstream television or broadcast request to date.”

Dunbar is more optimistic, citing Apple’s recently approved patent for a glasses-less 3D projection system as an encouraging step towards mainstream adoption.

“HD took forever, but I don’t think 3D will take as long,” he says. “The big broadcast players are starting to launch projects. As those start to succeed others will fall into line.”

Time will tell whose outlook was closer to reality. Look for an update in our 2014 footage report, accompanied by a look at the latest developments in holographic stock.

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