Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wait and see for 3D

While digital 3D technology is gaining popularity with local cinema audiences, further applications will only materialise once demand grows. This is according to Mike Buckland, technical producer at local animation studio, Triggerfish. by Lezette Engelbrecht
“It's very early days for the 3D industry in general,” says Buckland, adding that demand will only pick up once people become aware of 3D again. “It's a technology that raises its head every so often and then goes again.”

Films were initially offered in 3D in the 1950s, but some viewers found the experience uncomfortable, as processing the 3D images could cause headaches, eye strain and nausea.

In a recent report on 3D technology, Stephen Prentice, VP and fellow at Gartner, explains that modern equivalents of the cardboard red and green 3D glasses use high-speed LCD shutters or polarised light to send different images to each eye. Each image appears from a different perspective, creating the stereoscopic vision the brain translates into a 3D effect.

According to Vidya S Nath, senior analyst for digital media at Frost & Sullivan, modern 3D technology breaks several barriers to true virtual reality and recreates an almost “live on-site experience”. “For instance, in an ideal situation, a viewer watching a football game will get transported to the actual field and watch the ball being kicked around him,” she explains.

Learning curve

Mark Harris, Nu Metro content and marketing executive, says film studios are committing billions to the production of 3D films worldwide. “At this stage, there are no fewer than thirty 3D movies scheduled for release over the next three years. The new generation of digital 3D has been hailed as the most vital and exciting development in cinema since the advent of colour film.”

Both DreamWorks and Pixar have stated that all future animation releases will be in 3D, with films such as Toy Story 3, Rapunzel, A Christmas Carol, and James Cameron's sci-fi fantasy, Avatar, set for 3D release.

Ster-Kinekor acquisitions and scheduling executive, Paul Burton, says the company has seen between four and 13 times uplift with a 3D film, compared to a 2D version. There are currently five Ster-Kinekor 3D-equipped theatres, in centres in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town, with plans for additional screens, adds Burton.

According to Harris, digital conversion worldwide has generally been slow-moving in the cinema industry for the past few years due to costs. “However, 3D has recently become a catalyst for exhibitors to convert to this new technology. As with all new technology, there is always a price tag.”

Harris adds there are already advances in SA, with Nu Metro planning to add more 3D screens. “By the end of the year, Nu Metro would have installed a further five 3D screens at two new cinema complexes, taking the 3D screen count to 14 screens over nine complexes,” he says. The two new cinema complexes will be located at Emperors Palace in Johannesburg and Galleria in Durban.

Reel to real

According to Nath, the move to 3D is still in early stages, with complex technical and production requirements providing a challenge. “There are a limited number of cameras, especially digital 3D cameras, for producing content. Large screen projects require specialised editing, and products for the same are not evolved optimally. Secondly, technical expertise to handle equipment for 3D production is limited.”

Buckland says the biggest consideration in using 3D is that there is double the amount of data. “This has a considerable impact on storage and processing power as you need twice as many machines to render frames and store data.”

He adds that the challenge is financial rather than technical. “There are stereographic experts who can advise us and initial tests indicate it is definitely achievable technically. It just means that one has to be more careful with cutting corners – everything has to be that much more precise.”

Besides the financial implications of double the rendering, there are also cinematographic elements to consider, according to Buckland. These include the framing of shots and editing between different depths of field. “Filmmakers are still learning the best way to present images and push the boundaries.”

Tracey-Lee Troskie, from 3D animation and graphics company, DXF Extreme Effects, says local studios aren't behind in terms of getting hardware or commercial software used for high-end 3D. “Where we do lack is the knowledge to apply all of these tools and the big problem comes in getting sufficient funds for huge projects. Overseas, they have a lot of R&D teams to develop new tools and push boundaries. This is where we lack.”

But Buckland says the tools are evolving. “As more studios produce in 3D, we'll develop better workflows, improve the way of doing things and it will become easier. It's uncharted territory, so there are lots of new techniques for storytelling and we're still figuring out how to give the audience a better experience.”

While 3D offers more immersive viewing, Buckland stresses that it doesn't necessarily offer value for every film. “Personally, I think 3D is a tool for telling a story. In some films it really serves the story, but it's not for every movie.”

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