Summer 2010

Is 3D TV for Real?

Manufacturers are marketing 3D TV sets in hopes that content will follow. In the meantime, directors are learning the ropes with sports and live concerts.

Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham

Technology - 3D TV

Three-dimensional images can transport viewers to other worlds or place them courtside at a basketball game, but making 3D for television presents a unique challenge for directors. Robert Duncan McNeill discovered this when he directed an episode of the series Medium in 3D in 2005. He worked with old cameras that had to be hand-adjusted, and felt the limitations of the equipment hindered the storytelling process. “I was not a fan,” he says.

He reluctantly tried again a few years later on a 2009 episode of Chuck called “Chuck Versus the Third Dimension.” “I was adamant that we shouldn’t abandon the fundamentals of storytelling just because we were doing 3D,” he says. This time the cameras, provided by 3ality Digital, were user-friendly. McNeill could manipulate them from a base station, and even directed a sequence from the roof of the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles in which two vixens throw 3D knives at Chuck, who dives off the roof to evade the attack. “There really aren’t any limitations,” McNeill says, now impressed with 3D’s potential. “Anything you could imagine doing in 35 mm or HD, I think you could do with 3D."

Does this mean there is going to be a rush to make 3D product for television? The manufacturers certainly hope so, and to some extent are pushing 3D TV sets in hopes of creating a demand for 3D content. Avatar stimulated interest in 3D TV. “At the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show, the 3D TVs were off the floor,” says Sandy Climan, CEO of 3ality. “But by 2010 you couldn’t turn around without being hit over the head with something promoting 3D. Now you’ve got the consumer electronics companies—Sony, Samsung, LG, Panasonic, all of them—putting nine figures each into the launch of 3D TV and 3D Blu-ray. They’re really your earliest source of sponsoring 3D programming. It’s a great way to get people to buy new TVs.”

Panasonic North America, for one, reportedly expects Americans to buy more than 1.5 million 3D-enabled TVs this year. But others aren’t so sure. A March 2010 Gartner Research study (“3D TV, Larger-Than-Life Expectations?”) predicts 3D TV will remain a niche market for five years. And Mike Vorhaus, the president of Magid Advisors, a consulting and research firm, says that while consumers are interested in 3D, prices—from $2,000 to $7,000 for TVs and up to $199 for glasses—are too high. “I don’t think the average consumer who owns a non-HD TV, which is still roughly 60 percent of the country, will go out and buy a $2,000 3D TV rather than an $800 HD when they own a 26-inch No-D.”

Of course, before buying TVs, people need to feel there is something to watch. DirecTV, Comcast, ESPN, and Discovery have all created 24-hour 3D channels, although many network executives are still trying to decide what to put on the channels. Live sporting events and concerts are the starting points. ESPN 3D debuted on June 11 and aired the first of 25 FIFA World Cup soccer matches (Mexico vs. South Africa), broadcast by DirecTV and Comcast and sponsored by Sony.

In July, Fox Sports and DirecTV aired Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game in 3D. But there isn’t enough equipment yet to broadcast ten baseball games and four basketball games on the same day. Climan says one action sports company has more work than it can handle. “As fast as we can get them craned up, they will be working constantly for a year.” Director Andy Rosenberg, a 15-time Emmy Award winner, is one of the few TV sports directors to have worked in the medium. He directed the NBA All-Star Game in 3D three years ago, which aired in a Las Vegas hotel theater.

“It’s a whole new dimension,” says Rosenberg, who worked with DP Vince Pace, part of the Avatar team. “All of the sudden, for the first time you feel like you’re sitting courtside in Jack Nicholson’s seat. When a player is flying at you in 3D, people are ducking.” Rosenberg made several adjustments to shoot the event. “When you take viewers from one camera to another, you’re taking them to a different seat as opposed to a different close-up,” he explains. “The composition of the shot changes, the pace changes and it’s more experiential for the viewer. As good as hi-def is, side-by-side with 3D it doesn’t compare.

“There’s generally less cutting between cameras,” Rosenberg continues, “because the picture tells you so much. Your camera placement has to be really well thought out because if things come into the foreground that are way closer than the 3D object, they’re very distracting.” While Rosenberg was directing the game, TNT was doing the regular 2D broadcast. He was on a handheld shot underneath the basket when TNT’s crane came down into his shot. “As it came down, people in the theater who were watching it all ducked because they thought they were going to get hit over the head with the crane.” Live concerts, such as U2 3D in 2007, directed by Mark Pellington and Catherine Owens and produced by 3ality for theatrical release, are another potential source of 3D content. In the future, concerts and other events could simultaneously be streamed in theaters and aired on pay-per-view.

Last March, Ted Kenney, 3ality’s head of production, directed a Black Eyed Peas concert at the Staples Center, which went live to a theater across the street. Kenney shot it with just five cameras and held some shots for up to 60 seconds. “You don’t need 20 cameras for a concert,” Kenney says. “The hardest thing for directors who direct in 2D to learn in 3D is the use of restraint. We tend to cut in 2D to create the energy in the scene. Now the energy is within the frame. It’s like going to a concert and you’re in the 10th row.” But many directors aren’t sure what to make of the 3D TV hype. Some are excited by the creative potential, while others are apprehensive. “A lot of directors and DPs are justifiably terrified of this new format,” says Buzz Hays, senior vice president and chief instructor at Sony’s 3D Technology Center. “It’s new and they don’t know a lot about it. So we try to dispel some of the myths.”

Sony created the 3D Technology Center to encourage production of “good” 3D as opposed to “bad” 3D, which can cause headaches and nausea. “As we say here, it’s easy to make 3D but it’s hard to make it good,” Hays says. “We’ve been converting the 3D world to 2D for over a hundred years. It’s become its own art form, but 3D storytelling is quite different. On a very basic level we’re working with filmmakers who quickly realize that in 3D their audience may feel more like a participant than a viewer. I think directors find that pretty exciting.

”Hays believes 3D will work well in almost any genre, from documentaries to episodic TV. But others say widespread use of 3D on TV won’t occur until manufacturers standardize everything from cameras and TVs to postproduction equipment. For now, shooting in 3D, which requires additional crew members, equipment rental and longer postproduction, does increase production costs. “The landscape changes every day in our business,” says Kenney.

“We don’t know what the future is, but we know 3D is here. We know we are going to see a lot of it.” McNeill thinks 3D, with its ability to emphasize a moment in time, can really work on TV. He points to a character from “Chuck Versus the Third Dimension,” who was known for eating donuts, as a perfect example. “He could reach out and admire his donut in 3D space.” But will such scenes encourage people to wear those funny glasses at home? “I think it’s a fundamental shift in the way people are going to start thinking about TV,” says McNeill. “There are a lot of people, who, if they saw the images of some of those events, like the Super Bowl, concerts, award shows, or episodic TV, they would be willing to do it.” Stay tuned.

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