Taking the 3D plunge

As more networks enter the 3D fray, more producers are also taking the plunge and working to create content for the burgeoning medium. But the road to making 3D programming can be fraught with bumps and detours, and many of them can prove costly.
March 1, 2011

As more networks enter the 3D fray, more producers are also taking the plunge and working to create content for the burgeoning medium. But the road to making 3D programming can be fraught with bumps and detours, and many of them can prove costly. Realscreen talked to two producers working in the format to find out what to watch out for, and to get their impressions of where the 3D market is headed.

The producers:

Anthony Geffen, executive producer and CEO, Atlantic Productions (London):

Geffen’s company recently produced the epic 3D natural history program Flying Monsters with David Attenborough for Sky, which will be coming soon to theaters in the UK and U.S. Geffen says that while 2D “remains the backbone of the company” there are several other 3D productions currently underway, with another project for Sky, focusing on penguins, currently shooting in Antarctica. The company currently has an in-house 3D unit of approximately 10 people.

David Pounds, CEO, Electric Sky (Brighton):

Electric Sky produces and distributes 3D content from assorted suppliers for numerous networks around the world, including 3net and Sky. To date, Electric Sky has produced six hours in 3D and has another 22 hours in production.


Geffen: [Flying Monsters] was an unusual job in that the expectations were enormous, and we knew from day one it was going to be one of the key films launching Sky 3D. We knew that it also had to work in cinemas around the world and in IMAX. So it was quite a tall order. We knew that because it was going to cinemas and because it was a potential landmark for television, we’d need the graphics to be on the heels of Avatar. Again, that was a tall order because we pretty much had nine months to make the whole production. That included filming around the world and getting the graphics to the level we needed, which meant building a large team.

We built a unit from scratch, because there still aren’t a lot of people who’ve worked in 3D. So we handpicked some of the best stereographers and some of the best camera people from around the world. We were running right on the edge of the technology in terms of what the cameras could do, working with manufacturers to redesign cameras so that they’d work better for us.

Pounds: We started shooting Extreme Sports [for 3net] in October of last year and we delivered the first episode the end of January. So it was quite a fast turnaround, and we’re delivering on a regular point from now on. There’s not much difference between that [time frame] and 2D.

That’s something we’re coming across as more and more networks get involved – should 3D really be that much different than 2D in terms of how it’s paced or edited? I think opinion is beginning to move towards it being not much different at all. Early 3D documentaries tended to be quite lingering in their shots, but with TV you’re dealing with an audience that’s used to 400-500 edits per hour. I think we’re now moving towards what the audience is used to, quite fast cuts. They don’t have to be madly fast, but they don’t have to be slow either. The idea that 3D is a lingering, ponderous format… I don’t think that’s where it stands [now.] The audience still wants to have an experience that is in some ways similar to their normal TV-watching experience.


Geffen: It was more of a small feature film budget – you couldn’t really compare it to a documentary film budget. The model will work – by marrying television 3D with theatrical means that the film will be an economical thing. The question at the moment is how do you finance 3D.

Pounds: When we were given the chance to do something with extreme sports, we had to address it in a way that was first affordable, and also accessible. You can’t record extreme sports in a way that means anything to the audience with large, clunky kit that is immovable and difficult to get from point A to point B. We had to be much more on our feet and flexible, so we had to come up with an armory of smaller camera technology, some of which hadn’t been used before. That provides its own issues, particularly in terms of sitting down with the network and making sure that what they’re trying to achieve editorially can be balanced with the technical specs within which you have to work.


Pounds: The whole thing with 3D at the moment is partnerships. You have to be quite close to the network that you’re working for to understand what it is that they can and can’t do. The other side of partnerships is working with technical companies that are going to give you the best advice. 3D is almost impossible to do as a stand-alone production company at the moment. You have to form creative, technical and editorial partnerships with your broadcaster, your post house and your production teams, to a level that we really haven’t had to do for quite some time, if ever.

We’ve been lucky because we have a post house that has been working in 3D for some time. BTV Post is very established and we’ve had that to fall back on, but we know some companies haven’t had that and some very painful, costly lessons have been learned. Teamwork and collaboration is everything in terms of making 3D work.

Geffen: The way you shoot, the camera positions, the editing language is completely different. Attenborough has been through all of them – from black and white to color, [from SD] to HD, and he said of all the transitions this is the biggest one. Anyone can go out there and shoot a surface in 3D, and it’ll look cool. But is it really thought through and is the potential fully realized? My belief is that if this medium is to really work, people have got to switch on the television and find enough programs that will really blow them away.


Geffen: It’s very early days. I’m told that Christmas didn’t really do the numbers in terms of television sales on both sides of the Atlantic. And that doesn’t really surprise me because there wasn’t a lot of content. Just because there are a couple of football matches, the Ryder Cup and Toy Story 3, that’s not enough to convince people to go out and spend a lot of money on a television set.

I think it’s got great scope and potential but it’s going to need investment in good content, and that’s a big risk for broadcasters in downturned economies, when they want their stock prices to remain high.

Pounds: There are about 60 outlets around the world looking for 3D content in one way or another. It is a market that has developed – a year ago there might have been just over 20. From the viewer’s perspective, it won’t be long before any plasma [TV set] you buy in any store will have 3D capability anyhow, whether you want it or not. The actual cost of having the 3D technology in the screen isn’t that significant. The main opportunity for broadcasters, I think, is in appointment to view – you can use the 3D channel as an add-on benefit to your normal HD channels.


Geffen: You really need to think about whether your production needs to be 3D. If it does, then you need to be ready to plan for your production like you’ve never planned for anything before. The slow speed with which you can move these cameras… it takes an hour to change the lenses, let alone move the camera.

Number two: it’s about partnership. You don’t only work with a cameraman – you work with a stereographer, you work with technicians. You have to be prepared to collaborate with a lot of people. And you need to be prepared for a lot of teething problems You always have to have a plan B.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.