Wildscreen ’12: Is 3D worth it?

As producers around the world come to grips with the realities of creating 3D content, realscreen looks at whether the shine is wearing off for the burgeoning medium, or whether it's still "full speed ahead." (Pictured: River Monsters)
October 15, 2012

As producers and networks around the world come to grips with the realities of creating 3D content, realscreen looks at whether the shine is wearing off for the burgeoning medium, or whether it’s still “full speed ahead.”

When River Monsters host Jeremy Wade (pictured above) pulls, say, a flesh-eating fish from the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the crew at Icon Films typically has 30 seconds to get the money shot, which is not a lot of time for a 3D stereographer to gauge the depth of field and capture magic.

Earlier this year the London-based production company shot a 3D episode of the series for U.S. 3D network 3net with Campbell Goodwille, a 3D stereographer whose credits include a wildlife shoot in Kenya with filmmakers Mark Deeble and Vicky Stone, and a doc-style shoot with former F1 driver David Coulthard.

“We saw it as a fantastic opportunity to make a 3D production,” says Icon director of production and series producer Andie Clare. “It became an inspiring, exciting project within Icon.”

Inspiring, exciting, and expensive. The 3D episode of River Monsters, simulcast on Animal Planet in the U.S., cost double the amount of a standard 2D episode. Normally, the crew for the series is five or six people. Shooting in 3D required three extra people and four times as much equipment.

Although the advent of lighter camera rigs is making it possible for wildlife producers to shoot more “run and gun” style programs, added production costs, the need to always shoot a 2D version simultaneously, and rights issues are making it tricky for companies to enter the 3D space in a financially viable way.

Two years ago, the rising 3D wave drummed up a flurry of production as networks such as 3net, a joint venture of Discovery, Sony and IMAX, and Sky 3D in the United Kingdom commissioned work to build up their libraries. But after a rollercoaster year, it seems the 3D market has leveled off.

In January, France’s Canal Plus pulled its 3D linear channel and in the U.S., DirecTV scaled back its 24-hour n3D channel due to lack of audience demand in July. BBC’s 3D coverage of the London Olympics failed to generate much buzz, with 66,000 of the 20 million that tuned into runner Usain Bolt’s 100m final watching the 3D broadcast and 0.5% of the 26.5 million watching the opening ceremony in 3D.

“It’s a niche business,” says David Pounds, CEO at Brighton-based producer-distributor Electric Sky, which has produced 50 hours of 3D content over the past three years, including Nature’s Greatest Journey: The Wildebeest Migration, for Sky 3D.

“The challenge is trying to find programming you can make for a budget that 3D TV will sustain. Most 3D TV is commissioned on the basis that you need a 2D version to put it on a normal HD channel in order to help advertising costs.”

Electric Sky is among the production companies that see 3D as viable in the long term. The Consumer Electronics Association reports that sales of 3D-enabled televisions are up. This year, sales are expected to reach 5.6 million, an increase of 104% since 2011 year-over-year.

Shipment revenues are expected to go up 75% to more than $7 billion. The jump in sales means that consumer demand for programming will likely increase – especially when glasses-free 3D technology begins rolling out.

Going forward, Pounds hopes to produce 12 to 15 hours of 3D content per year, predominately with 3net and Sky 3D but also 3D outlets emerging globally in countries such as Hungary, France and South Korea. He estimates that 3D comprises 30% to 35% of his business.

“We continue to see 3D set sales well outpacing HD in its early days when it started out,” says Tom Cosgrove, 3net’s president and CEO. “We’re seeing a lot of interest particularly in programs that take people on some kind of journey to an exciting, exotic destination. Natural history is a big part of that.”

In 2011, 3net produced more than 200 hours of programming. In terms of original content, it’s looking to coproduce higher-end projects. “It varies. We’ve done coproductions on a smaller scale as well,” he says. “It depends on what the project is, who the partner is, and what we’re all trying to get out of the particular show.”

For some of the producers trying to work in the expensive medium, hanging on to rights is an area of concern. It’s unlikely Icon will shoot another Rivers Monsters episode in 3D – at least in the near future.

In the United States, Animal Planet coproduces and distributes the series and  ITV Studios Global co-funds and distributes it internationally. But often with 3D content, a net will want to retain global rights.

“So the funding model doesn’t work now unfortunately,” says Clare.

Hoff Productions’ Michael Hoff concurs. “We’re not making any money. In fact we’re losing money. Is there a way to hang onto the rights, so we can at least have a small chance of recouping?”

From 3net’s perspective, a spokesperson told realscreen that, “to be positioned correctly to take advantage of emerging international markets for 3D, we obtain global rights for our commissions.”

Last year, Hoff produced four hours of content for 3net: the three-hour series Tough Love Garage and the one-hour special Skeletons Inc. During the Tough Love Garage shoot, equipment provided challenges.

“You know when Sigourney Weaver was in that giant robot thing in one of those Alien movies? That’s what the camera rig looked like,” he says. “We had to shoot almost like a single-camera sitcom because you couldn’t run and gun anything.”

Electric Sky shot Wildebeest Migration using a Sony P1-fitted, high end 3D rig in order to capture the grandeur and depth required, but has been using lighter-weight equipment to shoot programs for 3net.

Still, despite the economic barriers, many producers are eager to cut their teeth in 3D. Both Hoff and Clare are eager to continue working in the medium.

“For every 100 ideas we have and develop, we may get two commissions,” says Clare. “It’s hard anyway, regardless of whether it’s a 3D project or not, but I think it’s definitely viable and Icon is definitely interested in moving forward and building on the experience we had with River Monsters.”

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