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Tuesday, 10 February 2009 14:06

3-D's Revolutionaries

Written by  Jennifer Marino
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3ality Digital cameramen shoot the 2004 SuperBowl game between the Carolina Panthers and the New England Patriots Photo courtesy of 3ality DigitalHigh Definition has kept networks, make-up artists and Best Buy associates very busy in recent years, but now a 3-D craze is forming. While HD allows you to see the intricate details of an elephant in the Sahara, 3-D may have you dodging the stampede.

3ality Digital cameramen shoot the 2004 SuperBowl game between the Carolina Panthers and the New England Patriots Photo courtesy of 3ality DigitalHigh Definition has kept networks, make-up artists and Best Buy associates very busy in recent years, but now a 3-D craze is forming. While HD allows you to see the intricate details of an elephant in the Sahara, 3-D may have you dodging the stampede. Once limited to analog format, 3-D is now digital and showing up not only in feature films, but also in music videos and sports broadcasts. The bad news is that you may soon be spending more money on furniture, since this new broadcast standard will have you intercepting passes from Peyton Manning in your living room.

The stereoscopic concept has been around since the late 1800s. 3-D movies later became popularized in the 1950s as an attempt to bring television viewers back to the theaters. The fad eventually died but became popular again in the late ’70s to early ’80s when 3-D had its heyday with the horror films Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D and Friday the 13th Part 3 3-D. But, just like a partially immortal beast in a horror flick, 3-D was put to rest again.

3-D production was not desirable for filmmakers because it was in analog format, which was time-consuming, especially when it came to assembling and viewing dailies. The procedure also included long set-ups, heavy equipment and noisy cameras. And while movie audiences were intrigued by 3-D, some viewers encountered headaches and motion sickness.

Imax 3D has created yet another revolution, but while 3-D’s comeback has accelerated, the analog method of 3-D production has been abandoned for digital technology.

In late October of last year, Iconix Video and Sunset Gower Studios held an event announcing the opening of S3D Studio, Iconix Video’s new 3-D facility (housed at Sunset Gower).

Terri Melkonian, the vice president of Marketing and Sales at Sunset Gower and Sunset Bronson studios, believes in gearing the studios for progressive technology. “As we embark on renewing Sunset Gower and Sunset Bronson, we are committed to driving new models and paradigms for production,” she says. “Leading the charge is our deployment of S3D Studios, the first-of-its-kind stereo-ready stages here in Hollywood.”

The S3D stages will be equipped with Iconix cameras, playback and recording devices, and will include Iconix Video handheld stereo rigs that have been developed in association with Doggicam Systems. Rig options also include tripod-mounted rigs and Doggicam’s High-Def dolly system configured to mount the Iconix stereo 3D HD system.

“S3D Studio is a user-friendly environment; [the equipment] is easy to use and predictable,” assures Bruce Long, CEO of Iconix. He explains that all the stages have lighting packages, multiple record options, on-set story devices and on-set pre- and post-production, so that “dailies will come out naturally.” Long also welcomes productions that bring their own crew: “The key is to support all the people who have been working with you [for] your whole career. You shouldn’t compromise anything … we will deliver 3-D for what you have in your 2-D budget.”

Several displays were set up, such as a Philips WOW display that doesn’t require 3-D glasses. The Philips display packed a punch by featuring “Ultimate Fighters” who were shot in 3-D with two Iconix cameras at Sterescope Studios in Burbank, then converted to autostereo. Other footage featured racecars shot with a single camera in 2-D and converted to 3-D. A Mitsubishi monitor that required the use of 3-D glasses featured a performance by a guitarist and a dancer (shot live at S3D Studio) who remained consistently within focal range.

Each stage at S3D Studio is equipped with full-stereo postproduction provided by Stereoscope Studios. The stages are easily accessible and provide an immediate solution for shooting and testing stereo production.

“We’re thrilled to be working with Iconix,” says Jeff Pierce, CEO of Stereoscope Studios. “We provide a full post-production pipeline. We also have a three-sided, hard-cyc insert stage [at Stereoscope Studios], and we deploy the Iconix cameras for different types of productions. We then can take the output of the Iconix directly off of our stage and onto our Quantel Pablo 3D finishing suite. We provide a full complement of stereo finishing capabilities.”

3ality screening at the Mann Theater in Los Angeles Photo courtesy of WireImage There’s a first time for everything and Burbank-based 3ality Digital understands this well, since the company is boasting the first live-action film shot entirely in digital 3-D (U2 3D), the first transatlantic 3-D broadcast (Jeffrey Katzenberg’s interview at IBC), and the first scripted television show shot entirely in live digital 3-D (NBC’s “Chuck”). They are also the first company to test a live broadcast of an NFL game in full-digital 3-D format. This endeavor featured NFL Network’s “Thursday Night Football” game between the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders. The game demonstrated the picture quality viewers might soon be able to watch in their homes.

More recently, 3ality has teamed up with Fox Sports and Sony Electronics to present a live 3-D broadcast of the FedEx BCS Championship Game between the University of Florida and University of Oklahoma on January 8.

As of print, the game was transmitted live via Cinedigm's CineLive satellite-distribution network from Dolphin Stadium in Miami, and displayed by a Sony SXRD 4K projection system, which delivers more than four times the resolution of HD televisions used in home-theater systems.

The timing couldn’t be better, since this took place during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) at the RealD-equipped Theatre des Arts in the Paris Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Fox Sports broadcasted the presentation in conventional HD, and 3ality Digital employed Sony HD cameras that are modified for stereoscopic production. According to the company, the 3ality Digital technology allows a camera operator to shoot in a style similar to traditional 2-D (with pan-tilt-zoom control), and provides continuously self-correcting software to deliver high-quality stereoscopic imaging.

3ality’s stereoscopic 3-D image capture and processing technology makes this endeavor possible. They also provided edits, transitions and graphics in pixel-perfect digital 3-D. Steve Schklair, founder and CEO of 3ality Digital, explains the pixel-perfect concept: “3-D cameras are composed of two separate cameras held together in a motion-control piece of equipment. But, if they don’t line up pixel-accurate, it starts to give you a headache. Uncontrolled images that aren’t vertically aligned will give you headaches since your eyes really have to strain to put those [images] together. So, by saying ‘pixel-perfect,’ we’re vertically absolutely matched within the sub-pixel.”

Schklair also notes that when 3-D production went from analog to digital, it would have solved all of the earlier 3-D problems, since digital allows for complete control over the images.

The chairman of 3ality, David Modell, notes how advanced 3-D technology has become for the company. “In 2003, Steve Schklair, John Modell and Pete Shapiro were physically finishing building the camera on the field of the Super Bowl in Houston, which was the first opportunity the NFL gave them to create a trailer,” he says.  “So, we’ve gone from having this massive VW bus-size camera –– that took a week to align and get ready to go — with a rubber band here and a rubber band there, to the cameras, the TF-4’s, which we used for the NFL shoot. You can take the TF-4 out of its crate, stick on the tripod, hit the button to adjust everything, turn it on and you’re [instantly] shooting a live image.”

According to Modell, the original NFL project was shot in 3-D IMAX since digital 3-D didn’t exist at that time: “In that brief period of time from ’03 to ’08, we’ve gone from incredible technology physically just not existing to now, broadcasting live in 3-D without a problem.”

3ality’s image processing and control software are the key elements to 3ality’s success in live 3-D broadcasting. Schklair explains how their technology makes live-broadcasting easier: “We have a piece of technology called SIP-2900, which is our image processor that drops right into a 2-D broadcast truck, and, for the most part, [it] is 90 percent of what you need to turn it into a 3-D broadcast truck, and it sits in one of racks. That’s how we’re able to do all these events, since we drop this box right into the racks and suddenly they are able to process and manipulate 3-D images.”

The SIP-2900 processor handles a number of real-time, image-control functions, such as color and lens matching, as well as automatic depth balancing.

“If it doesn’t make a good 2-D project, it probably won’t make a good 3-D project. 3-D is not the saving layer, it’s a creative layer,” says Ryan Sheridan, VP of Imaging Technology at PACE.

PACE is a major provider of digital 3-D. They support everything from live-action, multi-camera broadcasts to features. Their technology has been used on the motion pictures Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D, Final Destination: Death Trip 3D and James Cameron’s Avatar.

 During my visit to the company’s headquarters in Burbank, Sheridan showed me several rigs, such as PACE’s beam-splitters and side-by-sides. All of their cameras are compatible with every lens. “We mastered motion control with the lenses,” says Sheridan. He notes that the optical misalignment associated with zooms in 2-D is acceptable because it is not noticeable unless the eye is specifically trained to see it, but, in 3-D, optical misalignment can cause heavy eyestrain. “One of the things we had to do very early on is perfect techniques to get rid of that,” he notes. “Some of that came from glass manufacturers, but most of it came from processes that we did here.”

Unless you are using a qualified editing program, such as a Pablo, stereoscopic post-production can still be a laborious process. “Ten years ago, none of those post-production tools existed,” says Sheridan. “If you wanted to make a change in how something looked in a 3-D aspect, it was expensive, time-consuming and it was not creative, it was very technical. So we had to compensate for that by making better cameras, so that you could do that creatively on the fly, in production, before it ever got to post. So we have an added advantage there, now that we have the tools on the back end to let us do it in real time. It just makes it more of a creative process from the beginning … there’s a text file from that scene of everything that the camera did from beginning to end.”

PACE CEO Vince Pace collaborated with James Cameron on the design of the PACE/Cameron Fusion 3-D Camera System, which is being used for the production of Cameron's 3-D movie Avatar (scheduled for release later this year).

“The goal of the Fusion System and its use on Avatar is to provide the filmmaker with a method that best represents the immersive experience of being there,” says Pace, who is also Avatar’s second-unit director of photography, co-stereographer (with Cameron) and first-unit director of photography in L.A. “As much as we have put into the design and RD, it is our goal that the technology ‘wow’ factor gets lost in the first few minutes, and, like any great film, the story takes you on a journey. I believe the uniqueness of Avatar will be the complementary role 3-D will take to the storytelling. There are a number of other unique aspects from a technological view, ranging from custom-designed Steadicam systems to “smart” stereo functions, where the systems calculate a good stereo setting from eight years of data collecting in real-world environments.”

PACE has also supplied rigs to the feature thriller Final Destination: Death Trip 3D. The production choose to work with PACE because they were the only company that was able to deliver custom-built F23 rigs. PACE also provided training to the film crew. “We take great measures to make sure that the cameras are flexible from the extreme creative point, not the technical point,” says Pace. “PACE’s rigs are built to support pretty much every camera on the market from a [Sony] EX3 to an F35.”

PACE also provides mobile units called Fusion Mobile Two, which the Final Destination crew is currently using. According to PACE, this mobile post-facility facilitates on-demand, real-time 3-D screening of both tape- and file-based stereo material; creation of Avid HD and SD files for editors; creation of media files (for services such as digital dailies); and Internet satellite connection (for upload and download of all deliverables and file types to studios, VFX vendors and other post houses).

Avid
www.avid.com

Doggicam Systems
www.doggicam.com

Iconix Video, Inc.
www.iconixvideo.com

Pace
www.pacehd.com

Sunset Gower Studios
www.sunsetgower.com

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