Entering the third dimension; The home-entertainment biz seems confident 3-D is the future. Do consumers have a reason to buy?
Sat Sep 18 2010
Byline: Raju Mudhar, Section: Entertainment
The first part of the future of 3-D is trying to make people forget its past. Depending on who you ask about 3-D, it is ‘the beginning of the rest of history of film,’ a cash cow or a confused mess for consumers – and right now, it promises to be all three.
At the moment, the push is definitely on. Electronics manufacturers, film studios and broadcasters are lining up to embrace the latest wave of depth-enhanced viewing. Things are happening quickly, and this week, at the 3D Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles, those stakeholders discussed what’s next. Sony, Samsung and LG all have 3-D TVs in stores, while Panasonic recently released the first full HD 3-D camcorder, which could start a new wave of lower-cost 3-D production. Studios and theatres love the technology because you can charge more for three-dimensional movies and right now, it is piracy proof.
Closer to home, two developments signal that the age of the 3-D documentary is here. Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams hit TIFF this past week in three dimensions to good reviews and sparked a bidding war for its theatrical rights. Also, on Monday night, the CBC is airing Queen Elizabeth in 3D, a documentary which is the first time the nation’s broadcaster is using the extra dimension.
Yet Nielsen recently issued a report that stated prohibitive cost, a lack of content and in particular, having to wear glasses were huge challenges working against consumers embracing it for their homes.
“I think it will be the new high definition, I have no doubt about that,” says Mark Starowicz, CBC executive producer in charge of documentary programming. “Why are we doing this? The short answer is future-proofing. We needed a project where we could train the cameramen, train the editors, graphic designers and ourselves as producers. What does it take to produce a 3-D thing?”
“But also, if I expect something to be selling five years from now, which is usually when you recoup your money when you make an expensive film, you want to future proof it. Just like 10 years ago, you did the same with HD, although high definition was extremely expensive then.”
In order for it to be broadcast on all types of TV set, CBC chose to use anaglyph – the old technology associated with sometimes-wonky ’70s 3-D – this time, which doesn’t sit well with some in the industry.
“Because of its past, the experience has to be phenomenal, which digital 3-D is. We never recommend to our clients to do anaglyph, although I do understand why people choose to,” says James Stewart, a director and founder of Geneva Films, a Toronto-based company specializing in 3-D commercial productions. “We’ve all done a lot of work in the past two years trying to change people’s perceptions.”
Stewart points at Herzog’s doc about the Chauvet caves in France (which contain the oldest rock drawings in the world) as an example of the future. Access is strictly controlled, but this doc allows people inside this forbidden zone.
“The fact that they did it in 3-D means that people forever will be able to have the experience of being in that cave in a way that you couldn’t in 2-D. So every concert, every sporting event, every historic event really needs to be captured in 3-D, so for example, when musicians die you can go to one of their concerts and feel like you were actually there. And with the stereoscopic data, who know what you’ll be able to create with that?”
Stewart is admittedly an evangelist for the technology; he feels that everything should and will be shot in 3-D. Herzog himself is a bit wary. At TIFF, he reportedly said that 2-D has “permanent merits” that the new rival can never offer.
Stewart is in the first wave of people with a great deal of experience filming in 3-D and is very busy shooting concerts, commercials and more. At an industry panel on 3-D at TIFF, he implored independent filmmakers, especially of documentaries, to pitch content-hungry networks like Discovery. However, his biggest concern with 3-D is keeping the quality up.
“My biggest concern is the production of very bad 3-D and it will be coming . . . whenever a film comes out and it doesn’t look great, it’s not good for the whole industry.” he says. “People who don’t know how to produce it properly are going to start shooting 3-D. The indie film world is going to start shooting 3-D, but they need to understand how to produce proper 3-D so it doesn’t hurt people’s eyes.”
Ali Kazimi echoes that thought. A filmmaker and associate film professor at York University, he is part of a Toronto-based group called 3-DFLIC, which teams filmmakers and vision scientists to study the technology and its effects. 3-D requires a new visual grammar that filmmakers are learning and still working out. He says the organization’s work has shown that human brains process a 3-D image completely differently than 2-D.
“With 3-D you actually have the responsibility of the comfort and, to a degree, the well-being of your audience as well,” he says. “To shoot 3-D really requires a fundamental understanding of stereoscopic depth perception, and how the human brain works mechanically and optically. If you don’t have that then you’ll get bad 3-D,” causing many problems such as eye strain, nausea and headaches. (Herzog’s shakier footage, including flipping the camera upside down at one point, felt briefly dizzying.)
One good reason to want it to succeed is that Toronto is poised to be an important centre for 3-D production. The Ontario Media Development Corp. is funding 3-DFLIC and local businesses like Brash 3-D Studios, the 3-D Camera Company and Spatial View (whose a glasses-free 3-D approach has already yielded an iPhone product and an iPad prototype) are doing well and hoping to cash in as 3-D acceptance continues to grow.
But the cash won’t last if there’s no audience. Content wise, there are currently only six 3-D Blu-rays available and most are animated and aimed at children; incredibly, Avatar is not one of them. There are plans to launch 3-D channels in the Britain and the U.S. in the next year, but no one knows about Canada.
The Nielsen study found that while consumers are impressed with the image quality, many saw problems: 68 per cent cited prohibitive cost of the 3-D TV set, 57 per cent objected to having to wear 3-D glasses and 44 per cent cited the relative scarcity of 3-D programming/content. The result is that people are adopting a “wait and see” attitude.
“I think it was the same thing with HD, 3-D will grow (as) more content comes,” says Matt Levitan, directing of marketing and public relations, Sony PlayStation Canada. “One of the thing that Sony Electronics is saying right now, it’s that these 3-D TVs are amazing 2-D TVs. I think there’s a consumer impression that if I buy a 3-D TV, and it only plays 3-D, there’s not a lot of content out there, so why would I do that?”
In some ways that’s the stealth approach. 3-D will likely eventually be a standard feature on future HD TVs, and as the price comes down, more people will buy them, and it will just be a feature people can toggle on and off.
In the meantime, many of 3-D’s backers pin their hopes on gaming as the killer app. The PS3 can already play 3-D games, although currently the offerings are smaller games from the PlayStation Network or updated additions to games like MotorStorm: Pacific Rift. Blockbuster games like Killzone 3 and Gran Turismo 5 are coming soon. (The PS3 cannot now play 3-D Blu-rays, something that should be rectified with a software upgrade in four to six weeks.)
The game changer, as it were, could be Nintendo’s portable 3DS. Coming out next year, it was announced and shown off at this year’s E3 Gaming conference and uses a glasses-free approach that elicited rave reviews from journalists who saw it.
The industry understands the confusion. This week, Spatial View launched a web portal called 3deecentral.com, which aims to be a one-stop spot where consumers can buy 3-D content. What is a trickle of content now will likely eventually be a flood.
I recently tested out 3-D TV set, PlayStation and PC games, and I can say the technology has definitely matured – I have seen some amazing concert footage, and watched intriguing snippets of sports – but the lack of content is evident. The end-user support is also definitely lacking. I tried four video stores and couldn’t find any 3-D Blu-rays to rent. While there are 3-D displays in Sony Stores (and Panasonic had promotional tents in public squares during TIFF), I got an incredulous look from a Sony Store employee in the Scarborough Town Centre who couldn’t believe that I had a 3-D Blu-ray player at home. It was very clear nobody had bought one in that store.
While the 3-D push will get underway in earnest this fall and in the holiday season, Screen Digest, a U.K. research firm, recently estimated that by 2014, 28 per cent of U.S. homes will have a 3-D TV. Considering how many people have just upgraded to HD, that looks to be a sensible timetable.
After all, 3-D in its many iterations has waited this long. This time, while the technology is getting there, everything else about it still needs to work out the kinks.
© 2010 Torstar Corporation