Friday, March 6, 2009

Cirque de 3D

I slip on a pair of glasses and flinch as dozens of acrobats, artists, riders and dancers whirl past me. Though I’m standing in the center ring of Cavalia, Cirque de Soleil’s equine extravaganza, not a breeze disturbs my concentration.

A stately white Lusitano stallion high-steps toward his trainer who motions so crisply, he barely disturbs the folds in his flowing white robe. The magnificent beast kicks up puffs of circus dust, which settles without touching me. His long, silky mane rustles as he prances to a halt and nibbles his trainer’s chin.

From any perspective inside the auditorium, Cavalia is a magnificent spectacle of power and precision involving man and beast. But from my vantage on a wide leather sofa in a post-production studio viewing room, I enjoy the best seat in the house. With 3D HDTV, I’m squarely in the middle of the action, sans grit in the eyes and the need to watch where I step.

After many forgettable and often nausea-inducing 3D viewing experiences over the years, I’m for once wowed by this crystalline 3D display of Cavalia. What I’m watching is a leap forward in viewing pleasure, a profound change that reminds me of the magical moment I first saw color TV. Watching Hoss and Little Joe gallop across the Ponderosa in living color was the TV show stopper of the Sixties. Once color came to TV, there was no going back to the old gray mares of pre-Bonanza days.

Now, the next big jump promises to be from 2D to 3D. Forget the blurry 3D experiments on the odd network program; forget the flimsy cardboard glasses passed out at supermarkets. The next wave of 3D programming will jump off the screen with the aid of lightning-quick, data-crunching processors serving up sharp, full-formed images. Watching a robust scene of disciplined and colorful Cavalia performers makes 2D seem as old, gray and flat as the TV Westerns of the Fifties.

Years of investment in higher quality 3D programming, consumer friendly 3D HDTV sets, as well as the digital transmission infrastructure which transports TV programming into the home, are beginning to deliver results.

The pool of 3D programming may not yet be deep, but there’s plenty of good stuff on the horizon. Over the next two years, about forty theatrical films will be released in the format. More than a dozen 3D movies are scheduled for 2009, including Disney-Pixar’s Up, another Ice Age installment from Fox, and the highly anticipated Avatar from James Cameron of Titanic fame. Starting with this year’s Monsters vs. Aliens, DreamWorks Animation will release all its future movies in 3D. Plus George Lucas is busy out on his SkyWalker Ranch converting the Star Wars saga. And let’s not forget The Jonas Brothers in 3D, a major concert event which will introduce today's improved 3D technology to a new generation of future television purchasers.

As for integration of the technology into the process of storytelling, a watershed event in 3D production occurred with the release of 2009’s Coraline, produced by Laika, a small stop-motion studio in Portland, Oregon. With the release of Coraline, 3D has moved past the old geeky-spec, gimmicky tradition of the 1950s. Laika uses the technology to deepen mood and character, intensify the sense of place, and thereby enhance the story.

In stop-motion, each frame—creating a moving image takes 24 frames per second--is painstakingly arranged and shot, resulting on average in two to three seconds of finished product per day. For a hundred minute movie, say, that means 144,000 carefully composed shots of highly crafted models and dollhouse-sized sets constructed with microsurgical attention to detail. Coraline took eighty-five weeks to shoot on more than fifty sets.

3D photography pays proper tribute to such an ambitious stop-motion production. The added depth draws the viewer into those tiny sets and breathes the magic of cinematic life into Coraline, her family, and her wacky neighbors. And when she discovers a parallel world, we tunnel there with her and sense the creepiness escalate as the texture of that alternate world and its spooky characters close in around us.

After animation, sports is the second main programming category currently accumulating 3D expertise and a library of content. One big upcoming sporting event should act as a promotional lightning rod for this new technology: the London Olympics in 2012.

Panasonic, an Olympic sponsor, announced in January 2009 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, that it would begin producing 3D HDTV sets in 2010. This gives the company two years to establish a base of viewers before the 2012 Olympics. Panasonic will also provide the 3D HD broadcast equipment for the event. Just as NBC, in conjunction with major TV manufacturers used the 2004 Olympics to push HDTV, expect the US network to treat us to a tantalizing introduction to live 3D HDTV events from London, even though relatively few of us will be equipped to enjoy the show.

Anticipating 4,500 hours of live Olympic sports programming emanating from London, BSkyB in the UK has recently hinted to its satellite subscriber base to expect 3D programming on its platform within two years. And SkySports, a major player in the world of European sports, is already shooting many of its sporting events with the dual camera 3D setup.

Back in the USA, the 2009 Super Bowl was shot in 3D, as was an earlier NFL game, plus the NCAA FedEx Bowl. All three games were shown to select industry groups to test the distribution infrastructure and excite the sporting industry with the promise of the next big thing. The BCS National Championship Game was relayed in 3D to over 150 movie theaters around the country. None of the events were without technical glitches, but viewers generally expressed awe at the on-the-field sensation. One industry wag called for more cheerleaders, possibly providing a tip-off to how the technology may influence future on-field pageantry.

The first stereoscopic image dates to 1844, which makes 3D images as old as the art of photography. None less a personage than Queen Victoria was photographed in 1854 in stereoscopic 3D. And 3D stereoscopic moving images date to the 1850s with what was called the Kinetamatoscope. The first public display of a 3D movie came in 1922 with The Power of Love! shown at The Ambassador Hotel Theater in Los Angeles. The film received a decent review in Moving Pictures World then promptly disappeared from history by changing its title to Forbidden Lover and touring the country in a 2D version. It was too complex and costly at the time to take 3D on the road.

In the early 1950s, Hollywood deployed 3D movies as a strategic countermove to the increasing popularity of television. The House of Wax (which combined 3D visuals with stereophonic sound) starred Vincent Price and Charles Bronson. A huge hit, the film prompted a stampede of 3D movies. But the fad, which started in 1952, all but disappeared from screens by 1955. The gimmicky use of the technology couldn’t make bad stories good, and reports of nausea from many viewers quelled the initial enthusiasm. Alfred Hitchcock shot Dial M for Murder in 3D in 1954 but released the picture in 2D because 3D versions were already by then underperforming their standard versions. The public’s brief infatuation with 3D movies ended as suddenly as it started.

A few 3D movies came out in the 1970s, mainly with titles like The Stewardesses, The Chamber Maid, and The Playmates, (before the advent of VCR’s, porn movies competed to fill seats in movie houses). During the 1980s, a few horror films splattered 3D gore into the audiences. But the next major influence in 3D movie production didn’t arrive until 1990.

IMAX theaters needed programming with a wow-factor to fill seats in front of its gigantic screens. Starting in 1990 the company began to show 3D vignettes like The Last Buffalo, Into the Deep, and The First City in Space, short documentary-style programs that brought the immensity of nature to the giant screen, and thanks to 3D right into the face of the viewer. As these short films proved popular, IMAX began adding full-length movies to its schedule and thereby provided an important venue for Hollywood productions shot in 3D. The most recent trend of major IMAX 3D films started with The Polar Express in 2004, soon followed by Superman, Harry Potter, and Beowulf.

As more cinemas around the USA compete for audience and upgrade to HD digital projection equipment, 3D production begins to make strong economic sense for everyone involved, from the producers through to the theater chains. About 5,000 of the 38,900 total screens across the US have upgraded to digital projection, which is a necessary step prior to showing 3D. About 1,000 screens have been further upgraded to show 3D. Once the equipment is installed, the chains will want a steady stream of 3D titles to put their investment to good use.

So far, the latest wave of major 3D releases is significantly outperforming its 2D versions on a revenue-per-screen basis. For 3D to take permanent hold with viewers, the titles coming out in the next two years will have to continue to wow viewers with story, not simply with eye-popping visuals.

If this latest round of 3D production succeeds, the new content will bode well for the TV end of the distribution chain. Cable and satellite companies like BSkyB in the UK already plan to include 3D programming among their hundreds of channels for a premium fee. Anyone who splashes out for a 3D-ready HDTV will gladly pay a few extra dollars per month to get the full benefit of their new home entertainment system.

3D-ready HD TVs are already available from Samsung and Mitsubishi. Philips is readying LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) monitors, including one called WOW that eliminates the need for special glasses. Toshiba and Sharp have announced they will come out with 3D sets during 2009. Hyundai is the primary supplier of 3D HDTV sets in Japan, where a cable station currently broadcasts four 3D programs per day.

Next generation prototype 3D HDTVs unveiled at the Las Vegas show in January are expected to cost up to $25,000, but the models available today sell from $800 to $5,000 meaning viewers can already hook up their homes for about the price of a high definition TV and watch those Blu-Ray 3D DVDs. However, any set purchased today might not be compatible with future sets, since 3D standards have yet to be worked out. Plus some early monitors require a PC hookup with special software to get the full visual effect. And don’t forget the wonky glasses. Most 3D sets will require compatible specs, and accommodating all the viewers in a home could add a couple hundred dollars to the bill.

But any way you look at it, 3D appears likely to stick around. Maybe every type of program won’t benefit from conversion to the full depth perception delivered by 3D HD display, but not too long ago we were asking who needed to watch a news reader in HD. And eventually the standard definition cameras both inside and outside the studios were updated, forcing the newsreader to upgrad her make-up under the unforgiving data-hungry eye of the HD camera. With hand-held HD cameras now available for home use, standard definition has become as old fashioned as black and white.

Will 3D be the end of the evolution of home theaters? Not likely. Next on the horizon: holographic TV. In early 2008, Dr. Savas Tay of the University of Arizona published a paper in the science magazine Nature describing a successful test of a recordable, erasable, holographic display system.

"Our process is reversible. You can store [images] and erase them any time you want," Dr Tay said. During the media storm that raged around this breakthrough announcement, he predicted the first holographic 3D TVs based on his technology would appear "within two to three years."

Imagine--a horizontal flat screen TV table projecting a three-ring circus upward into the middle of your living room. Now that’s entertainment.

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