A steady stream of stories emanating from the Consumer Electronics Show, held in January in Las Vegas, heralded the arrival of 3-D TVs to retailers and living rooms towards the end of this year. In fact, El Segundo, California-based iSuppli, a consumer electronics researcher, estimates that roughly 4.2 million 3-D capable TVs that require viewers to wear compatable glasses, with an average price of US$1,700, will find their way into US homes by the end of this year. The number is tiny compared to the country’s install base of regular TV sets. However, iSuppli is predicting that number is going to shoot up to 78 million by 2015, with market pressures cutting the unit price tag in half.
To be sure, the buzz surrounding the resurgence of 3-D at movie theaters around the globe reached its peak just after James Cameron’s opus Avatar opened to boffo box office returns last December. Now that the film is poised to enter the home entertainment market on Blu-ray DVD this month (with smash 3-D hit Alice in Wonderland not far behind) and with a few trendsetting broadcasters readying the launch of 3-D TV networks, the race to create 3-D content specifically for TV is on.
As with the early days of HD, there is a group of kids TV producers forging into the unknown of creating content in stereoscopic 3-D for the small screen. So we’re going to peel back the Wizard’s curtain of 3-D hype and reveal a few truths about the mechanics of this new form of production, the distribution hurdles and the immediate costs associated with being a forerunner in this new dimension.
The Avatar effect
The ‘new 3-D’, as it’s now known, is not based on the same anaglyph technology that brought the world those iconic blue-and-red glasses. Embraced by movie-goers in the 1950s, anaglyph 3-D offsets two superimposed images made from two color layers to produce the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional screen. Recently utilized during the Michael Jackson tribute performed at the Grammy ceremony held in February, it’s about as outdated as hardcopies of the Encyclopedia Britannica and rotary telephones.
‘Anaglyph is a four-letter word now,’ says 3-D pioneer Jonathan Dern, co-founder of L.A.-based SD Entertainment, an award-winning production company specializing in filming live events in 3-D. ‘Everything is real stereoscopic now.’
Thom Chapman, director of sales and marketing for Toronto, Canada-based ToonBox Entertainment, which is currently in production on fully stereoscopic animated series Bolts and Blip, agrees. ‘It’s the difference between getting a signal on your old rabbit ears and fully digital HD,’ he says. ‘It’s that big a change.’
Technically, the difference between anaglyph and stereoscopic 3-D is that the former uses color to create the illusion of depth and the latter employs two separate images, each designed for viewing via a single eye at a rate of 60 frames a second, not the standard 30 frames. The result is the creation of depth and what can most accurately be described as a full immersive effect.
While DreamWorks and Disney entered the fray with Monsters vs. Aliens and Up, repectively, in the first half of 2009, the real coming-out party for stereoscopic 3-D is undoubtedly Cameron’s Avatar.
At press time, the film had made more than US$2.5 billion worldwide, ranking as the highest-grossing single film of all time. And creatives toiling in the new space are more than generous with their praise and reverence director Cameron’s technical achievement.
‘I had the feeling that I was living a historic moment when I saw it,’ says Sergi Reitg, CEO of Barcelona, Spain’s Imira Entertainment. Reitg’s company is currently in development on two fully stereoscopic animated series. ‘Simply, there is a time before and a time after Avatar,’ he says.
And Reitg is not alone in seeing Avatar as ushering in a new era in film and ranking with Gone With the Wind and Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer as both a technological and cultural milestone.
‘He created the grammar of stereoscopic action,’ says Aton Soumache, CEO of Paris-based Method Animation, which has just gone into production on 3-D stereoscopic series The Little Prince. ‘After Avatar everybody – producers and broadcasters – is looking at 3-D in a serious way.’
Chapman argues the film proved to be a defining moment for 3-D production. ‘The industry took a wait-and-see approach,’ he says. ‘But with Avatar’s success, no one can really sit on the fence anymore.’
Leap of faith
As is the case for a number of different technologies and entertainment innovations, it’s content producers who are assuming the initial risk and leading the way. Producers, in fact, are often tasked with looking into the future and trying to fill a need for platforms that might not yet exist. Broadcasters, on the other hand, are more apt to follow suit once conditions for technological innovation have been established – why spend the money to buy content before there’s an audience in place?
It’s not that broadcasters aren’t cognizant of the looming tech. Steve Grieder, SVP of Nickelodeon and program sales at MTV Networks International, for one, says Nickelodeon is committed to developing breakthrough creative across all mediums and technologies. ‘We’re absolutely working on plans to enter the 3-D space shortly,’ he adds. Similarly, when
contacted, Cartoon Network said it was looking at providing 3-D services in the future.
However, broadcasters who’ve made official public declarations to enter the 3-D realm remain vague when it comes to providing details. For example, Sky Channel (UK),
Canal+ and Orange TV (France), Japan’s NHK and a Disney/Sony/Discovery Channel JV have all committed to broadcasting 3-D content (primarily based on live events at this point), but no set plans have been unveiled.
So, while broadcasters are starting to get active in the space, they aren’t exactly eager to commission content, and it’s in this environment that producers find themselves taking the initiative to create 3-D TV series because they believe it’s where the market is going, not necessarily knowing when it will materialize. They found themselves in a comparable spot a few years ago when they moved to full HD production, long before broadcasters started demanding it.
‘We have been doing HD for six or seven years, and there are still broadcasters who do not ask for an HD delivery,’ says Bill Schultz, co-CEO of Moonsoop Entertainment, working out of its L.A. office. Schultz, like many producers, is preparing for 3-D in advance of having landed a specific 3-D deal. ‘In the US, especially in the kids space, what we are seeing is producers trying to get out in front of this.’
Kids and animation
Many producers are putting kids TV and animation at the forefront of 3-D production. Technically, animation is well suited to creating the impressive, eye-popping effects 3-D has become known for. It’s also believed kids will be more receptive to the extra dimension provided by stereoscopic production than their adult counterparts.
‘Action and preschool look like the best choices,’ says Carlos Biern, EVP of co-productions and worldwide distribution for Madrid, Spain-based BRB Internacional, which is currently producing a 3-D version of Zookaboo, a preschool-targeted series slated for broadcast this fall on Televisio de Catlunya.
‘Animation is relatively easier to render in two cameras,’ agrees Alexander Lentjes, a leading stereoscopic consultant for Bristol, UK-based 3-D Revolution Productions. He points out that it is easier and less expensive to create 3-D animation than live-action 3-D programming, and the most impressive effects are better suited to an animated universe. He insists that ‘animation will be the sandbox for 3-D in the home.’
The use of vibrant colors and imaginative settings typically found in children’s animated series seemingly provide the perfect conditions to explore the power of the new tech.
The nuts and bolts of the new 3-D
Those looking to take the initial dip into the 3-D pool should be aware that it takes more production time and a larger budget than a standard CGI animated affair, costing between 20% and 30% more to create content in true stereoscopic 3-D. Added to that estimate should be the initial outlay for 3-D-ready equipment, such as monitors that can properly playback 3-D footage. All tolled, it’s reasonable to expect a first-time budget to ring in at 150% of that of a similar CGI-animated series.
Full stereoscopic 3-D is produced in ‘two passes,’ either shooting or animating material separately for each eye that will run at 60 frames per second instead of the
standard 30 frames required by HD. The extra renders obviously take more time, and then there is the added expense of finding and hiring a well-trained technician who knows the ins and outs of creating proper 3-D experiences, from the storyboard process right though to production.
‘It’s not easy,’ says SD’s Jonathan Dern. ‘You are producing for both eyes and it’s extremely important that it’s precise.’ Imira’s Reitg agrees, noting even 3-D preproduction requires much more time and more investment than regular CGI. ‘You need to build the environment first and then set your action in it.’
Reitg goes on to stress the importance of the setting for any 3-D production, saying that the environment itself comes alive thanks to the new technology.
After making that initial investment in 3-D equipment, producers incur a lot of expense during the planning process, says Chapman. ‘You certainly have to think about the environments differently,’ he says. ‘You need to plan and have a really competent technical director who will walk you through your steps.’
Some tips the producers we interviewed offer on entering this nascent area relate to minor details that the inexperienced might just overlook. ‘For example, we have found that certain color schemes don’t work,’ says Chapman. ‘White and yellow don’t work well for some reason. These are the things you learn by doing it. And that is why you have to count on more planning.’
However, testing things out via short-form animation isn’t really an option at this point, either. Because of the higher budgets, Reitg, for one, says it just doesn’t make sense to produce short formats. ‘You have to invest a lot into it and the preproduction would be almost the same for five minutes or five hours, so I don’t see the point,’ he contends.
Indeed, most producers in this space are pursuing the standard half-hour series format, including two untitled projects in development that Imira is hoping to unveil at Cartoon Forum in 2011. A CGI version of ToonBox Entertainment’s Bolts and Blip, meanwhile, will be delivered this spring to France’s Canal+ and Teletoon Canada, and Method’s 52 x half-hour Little Prince should launch on French airwaves in time for Christmas 2010, going into regular rotation come September 2011.
Interestingly, the broadcast deals for both Bolts and Blip and Little Prince currently only cover their regular CGI versions. ‘We are discussing the 3-D version now,’ says Soumache. ‘All the broadcasters who have optioned the CGI version will have a 3-D option.’
‘Some broadcasters are pushing and some are not,’ says Chapman. But that certainly doesn’t mean producers are regretting their decision to make 3-D masters.
‘I think as a producer you are trying to sell, and 3-D is a unique selling point right now,’ says Schultz. ‘Producers always want to say ‘Hey, we have something unique.” Chapman seconds that emotion. ‘It’s good marketing to have your series in 3-D,’ he says. ‘There is just so much you can do with it.’ Chapman points to interactive possibilities engendered by 3-D, including MMOGs and 3-D virtual worlds.
Reitg is confident the series that capture audience attention in the next few years will all employ new 3-D technology, and for that reason the initial expenditure is very much worth it. ‘It’s clear that the shows that have more licensing potential and toy partners are going to be the 3-D shows,’ he says. ‘This is important and certainly something that we take into consideration.’
That said, there are well-founded concerns that might be keeping 3-D producers targeting the kids market awake at night. In fact, the specific medical concern surrounding the production of 3-D for children is such a hot topic that SD’s Dern is spearheading a taskforce to look into the issue (see ‘Standard definition,’ p.80).
Potentially problematic is the difference in size between adults’ and children’s faces – particularly where eye placement comes into play. Lentjes says that unlike regular CGI production, the people producing 3-D, namely adults, don’t see it or experience it in the same way as their target kids audience does.
‘Children have a smaller intraocular gap than adults,’ he says, explaining that the space between one’s eyes actually plays an important role in how an individual perceives the illusion of stereoscopic 3-D. ‘So, if it looks good to you during production, it just might not look good to the children who end up viewing it.’ Additionally, content produced for the large screen can’t be reduced in size to fit a small screen, and vice versa, very easily.
Altering resolution and aspect ratios of a 3-D production to fit a different screen size could actually prove catastrophic for the eyes of the viewer, say Lentjes. ‘You could literally rip the eyes out of the sockets of the viewers,’ he says. Come again?
Because the frames are produced for each eye, mistakes can draw the viewer’s eyes in two different directions at the same time – extreme cases can even cause tearing of delicate eye tissues. And ocular catastrophe aside, Lentjes adds, 3-D won’t really work on smaller screens like does on big ones. ‘It won’t be effective on an iPod, for example,’ he offers.
And there are other considerations. Broadcasters often add a scrolling frame to the bottom of the screen or channel ID watermarks to the bottom corner of the picture. And when the credits roll, some broadcasters minimize the screen to make room for a promotional trailer. All of these seemingly minor add-ons can diminish the 3-D effect, if not completely destroy it.
According to Lentjes, the new conditions and the precise nature of 3-D reproduction means content producers are going to have to be more hands-on and protective of their work. He is also calling for standards to be put into place to make the production and distribution of the new form of content safe. ‘It is true, the technology is here,’ he says. ‘But producers are going to have to take responsibility for their content. It’s virgin ground now, so the studies and the rules that come out of them will certainly set up the standards.’