The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Kiss Me Kate, House Of Wax & of course Dial M for Murder are all rightly regarded as 3D classic from Hollywood’s golden age of 3D. But was the 1950’s really the golden age for 3D film? Considering the rudimentary technology for both capture and display; the relatively small number of films produced, and the lack of big name directors involved wasn’t the 1950’s an early experiment, an exciting one, but simply the precursor to where we are now: The Real Golden Age of 3D.
Creating 3D content in the 1950’s was an expensive and often experimental undertaking, so the output was in general limited to studio level features and shorts with budgets sufficient to cover the stereoscopic production overheads. In reality the number of 3D features released in the 1950’s “golden age” was only around 50 odd films, with quite a number of them on the lower end of the budget scale. Not to suggest there weren’t some great and visually stunning pieces of cinema, however the over reliance on 3D as a gimmick to throw objects at a (un)suspecting audience quickly wore thin and only a small number of serious directors got involved in 3D projects.
The current resurgence of 3D has seen a surge in the sheer volume of 3D content; mainstream “big budget” film and documentary features are hovering at around 40-50 productions per year, made up of a mix of live action and animated films. Add to this the vast amount of natural history, live sports and event footage and it’s obvious that the current wave dwarfs the output in the 50’s.
Computer rendered animations using the advanced 3D animation tools and rendering systems were a natural option for stereoscopic production. With the ability to easily generate an accurate second view, these tools offered studios a (relatively) inexpensive route into stereo 3D, with an audience willing to pay more for the enhanced product in limited supply, so it is little wonder that many of the early films of the latest wave were animated features like Beowulf, Polar Express & Chicken Little.
Along with these early new productions, good quality conversions of archive titles promised to deliver additional revenues and more stereoscopic content to the growing 3D audience. Although many conversions are rushed and don’t deliver nearly the quality of native 3D, the likes of James Cameron has proved with Titanic 3D that it is actually possible to delivered a stunning 3D film using cutting edge conversion technologies if sufficient care and time is taken. Indeed in the debacle surrounding the post production conversion of Clash of the Titans much was made of the rushed, hence less than ideal, conversion of the project. Bad conversions abound though, and the studios careless attitude on delivering substandard, quickly converted 3D films continues to threaten the formats future.
Documentary film has also benefited from stereo 3D production with Wim Wenders Pina and Werner Herzog’s Cave Of Forgotten Dreams demonstrating that adding a third dimension to their work actively enhances the experience, increasing the sensory awareness of their subjects. Natural history programming on TV has been bolstered by 3D too, with Sky 3D in Europe showing high production value natural history programmes fronted by David Attenborough whilst the BBC broadcast not only Planet Dinosaur (3D), but the annual Queens speech in December 2012.
Never has such an abundance of 3D material been produced and shown to an expanding audience.
State of the art capture and display technology has also attracted a considerable number of high profile film Director’s. Led by James Cameron’s driving energy, stereoscopic skills and his teams technological developments on Ghosts of the Abyss and Avatar, Hollywood has been dragged kicking and screaming into the new age of 3D. And naturally many Directors when given the opportunity to create stunning new visions, with a whole new range of options and tools, are enthused and thrilled to jump in and get creative. Of course there are plenty who prefer the status quo, and that is their obviously choice to do so.
Beyond James Cameron himself, who will surely be remembered as the figure head of the new wave of 3D, Martin Scorsese in my opinion used 3D to astounding effect on the beautifully presented Hugo. Try watching Hugo in 3D then switch over to 2D and it’s astounding the difference – it’s like watching a different film. The depth and movement are so enhanced by the stereoscopy that it’s difficult how anyone could choose not to allow themselves to languish in Scorsese’s stereoscopic wonderland; a wound up toyshop of mechanical gears and cogs along with some beautifully converted George Melies footage… what an experience.
Ang Lee similarly used 3D to absorb us into Life of Pi with some of the most astounding surreal scenery, vast stretches of open water and an audio visual journey second to none in the third dimension. The “unfilmable” book, filmed and beautifully rendered in a stereoscopic masterpiece of hyperreal illusion.
The list goes on…Peter Jackson taking state of the art even further with high frame rate 3D on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Ridley Scott reconnecting with the Alien universe in the visually astounding Prometheus, and Tim Burton brining his twisted worlds crashing into ours with the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Frankenweenie. Even J.J. Abrahams, who is a known sceptic, is behind the helm at the upcoming Star Trek: Into Darkness 3D feature… how long can others hold out?
Of course it’s ignorant to claim that the Director’s themselves were responsible for the 3D, the brilliant and experienced stereographers currently working in 3D film, the likes of Brian Gardner and Demetri Portelli, are the real heroes here, someone has to direct the Directors!
Advances in technology and increased computer processing power has been another key driver in the resurgence of stereoscopic 3D. Consumer level computers now have sufficient processing power to easily cope with the typical requirements of dual stream stereo video, or to easily render a secondary view from even rudimentary, even free, software.
The likes of the 3d modelling & rendering package, Blender, offers users an incredible array of features for the cost of a download! And of course where you have an entirely digital workflow it’s generally a simple matter to generate a stereoscopic output as the Blender 3D Wikibook explains.
Adobe After Effects, although not aimed at creating the same type of 3d animations, does offer both a built in stereoscopic rig as well as a host of features and plug-ins that make generating stereo 3d a relatively simple task. The power and flexibility of this tool makes it ideal for creating 3d motion graphics; working with live action stereoscopic footage for grading and error correction as well as for considerably tougher task like converting 2D to stereo 3D.
There is a wide range of other software tools that will create, convert and output stereoscopic content, ranging in price from free through to tens of thousands of dollars. It’s this diversity and availability of this software, amongst other factors, that has helped drive the cost of 3D projects from unreachable a decade ago to being within the reach of even a “micro-budget” project.
On the hardware side, the availability of dual lens, integrated 3D camcorders has made capturing good quality stereoscopic footage as simple as capturing 2D… of course one has to learn some new rules for shooting in 3D! Many professional broadcasts and live event 3D productions use the Panasonic or Sony dual lens single body cameras as a roving B camera alongside pro level beam splitter or side-by-side rigs. At a consumer/prosumer level the Panasonic Z-10,000, Sony HDRTD10/20/30 and the JVC Everio GS-TD1 are all well regarded. The major limitation though on all these camera’s is the fixed inter-axial effectively limiting the 3D to being of a fixed “volume” and only optimal for a mid shot with all others being a compromise of either too much or too little separation between the lenses.
Much of the resurgence of 3D relates to some amazing technology developments by the likes of 3ality Digital/Cameron Pace in creating digitally controlled rigs and their pioneering use for IMAX films the likes of “U2 3D” and “Ghosts of The Abyss”. Although the cost of professional level rigs still proves to be outwith the typical budget of indie filmmakers, the popularity of 3D attracted a wide range of enthusiasts and manufacturers to get involved and to offer more cost effective rig solutions. Rigs from 3D Film Factory are widely used on budget shoots and are currently available from under $3000. Another indie level rig of note is Alistair Chapman’s award winning Genus Hurricane Rig that can be used in both a beam splitter or a side-by-side configuration.
As well as the development of these rigs camera manufacturers have developed some features specifically for the 3D market; Canon’s XF-105 for example have specialist “3D Shooting Assist” features developed to support 3D film making. Interestingly enough even at the budget end of the scale “action” camera manufacturer Go-Pro offer a Stereo 3D configuration along with a synchronisation cable for controlling and synchronising both cameras.
The final part of the puzzle is the ability to view the stereo image in realtime and a wide range of passive monitors exists that will allow film makers to monitor the 3D on a reasonable size screen on the fly. Products such as the Stereobrain Processor offer live multiplexing of two 2D signals output as a standard 3D signal that can be output to view in a range of stereo formats. For indie film makers, costly pro monitors can be replaced with any of the vast range of inexpensive passive consumer level TV’s that can accept a standard 3D signal via HDMI.
Capturing or creating the stereoscopic film is of course only one half of the requirement… where can you view these masterpieces? Alongside the tech developments for generating the content the display opportunities have proliferated.
Modern digital cinema projections systems with perfect digital sync and (relatively) bright images deliver stunning and immersive large screen 3D. Passive, circular polarised glasses deliver an inexpensive and vastly superior experience to anyone who’s only experience was with the nasty anaglyph red cyan spex from over the years. (It should be noted that Red Cyan glasses were in fact not the norm for 3d films in the 50’s, in fact the majority of films would have been seen using polarised 3D glasses similar to the ones used in cinemas currently – Visit The 3D Film Archive for more).
Home based 3D prior to the current boom was a mere pipedream. Poor quality anaglyph video, or at best frame sequential viewing at headache inducing refresh rates did deliver a stereoscopic image… but not one you would want to spend any time admiring. The current state of the art 4K 3D flat panel displays deliver the most convincing stereoscopic images to the home ever – well perhaps if the content existed. For the time being active or Passive 3D TVs are available at an ever lower price point, and the range of stereoscopic 3D Blu Rays available for little more than their 2D alternative has grown exponentially.
Broadcast 3D TV, although in its infancy, is a growing market. In the UK Sky offers Sky 3D delivering fantastic original 3D content, live events and blockbuster films. BBC have so far toyed with 3D, running test on live events, sports and even the 2012 Queens Christmas day speech. BBC also broadcast its first original 3D comedy/drama, “Mr Stink” starring “Little Brittain” star David Walliams. 2013 looks like it will be an even bigger year for BBC 3D with the flagship Dr.Who’s 50th Anniversary episode being confirmed as a 3D production. In the US 3net offers a similar mix of 3d programming. The really exciting growth area for 3D is the far east with China planning a massive push into the marketplace with 10 channels planned for launch by 2016.
Another option for mass market distribution comes with YouTube; most specifically the inclusion of support for a wide range of stereoscopic viewing options from one upload using the built in YouTube 3D player. Viewers of 3D content can select from a dropdown menu the most appropriate option for their viewing ranging from a variety of anaglyph types, side by side which many 3D TV’s support or even line interlaced which can be viewed on passive computer monitors. The range of 3D content available is vast, although as always with YouTube much of it may not necessarily be worth viewing!
Another potential deployment for 3D could be the growing video-on-demand operators many of whom are actively pursuing independent producers for content, usually on a profit share type deal. Several have Smart TV or mobile/tablet apps delivering stereoscopic content developed either by the manufacturer (Sony, LG, Samsung) or by third parties (Yabazam, 3Doo, SpatialView).
And finally the quirky Nintendo 3DS with its glasses free 3D display offers a free video channel that is regularly updated with short form content ranging from movie trailers, short animations and footage from live sports events. Of course as an independent producer it’s not necessarily the easiest platform to create content for with the format conversion process not openly supported by any mainstream tools nor an easy way to access the audience.
The biggest hurdle is often cited as the “fact” that consumers don’t actually want 3D. Figures from cinema receipts dispute this with half the top ten grossing films in 2011 & 2012 being made in 3D. From personal experience, on my YouTube Channel, on occasions where I offer both a 3D and 2D version of a film the 3D version typically gets between 5 times and 45 times more views; the audience is actively selecting to watch my films as intended, in 3D.
Worst case scenario moving forward is that 3D proves to be a specialist niche market; if it is indeed proven to be a niche – it’s a substantial niche with an enthusiastic content hungry audience, and one that has proven willingness to spend a little extra for the added dimensions…as long as quality is maintained.
It appears that actually it’s primarily critics that don’t want it, consumers seem genuinely interested once they’ve experienced a good quality film on a good quality display instead of third hand experiences derived from someone once seeing a poor anaglyph print in a cinema in the 80s! Most importantly once a film is made if a viewer really doesn’t want 3D, they can quite easily just select to watch it in 2D – you pays your money, you makes your choice.
So what is the state of the 3D nation?
The desperate attempt of the film studios to reap more cash from their product, whilst attempting to combat piracy has no doubt helped initiate the latest wave of stereo 3D, however the fact that 3D is not maintaining the momentum to deliver to the overambitious early indicators, not dissimilar to the naive dot com boom and bust philosophy, simply proves the initial beliefs were wrong, not that 3D is dead in the water.
Far from it. With the improvements in technology for both creation and display of stereoscopic content, along with bigger budgets, high profile film makers, wider exhibition & distribution platforms we are in the biggest 3D wave yet – whether it maintains the same initial momentum is neither here not there, with the scale of this latest wave it seems highly unlikely this will simply end as previous attempts at bringing 3D to the mainstream have. This time it’s for real; The Golden Age of 3D is with us.Andrew Murchie is a Director at Multiply, a stereoscopic filmmaker and 3D enthusiast based in Edinburgh, UK. He blogs on Stereo 3D related topics on Enhanced-Dimensions.com and runs The Stereoscopic 3D Channel on YouTube.