12th April, 2012

The blossoming of 3D

From 2D conversions to nature documentaries, 3D filming and post techniques are changing fast.


The old showbusiness dictum ‘no one knows anything’ was repeated more than once by speakers at the second 3D Storytelling Conference last month.


The rate of advancement in 3D technology and techniques has been so rapid that discussions of even six months ago are now obsolete, and no one would dare stick their neck out to guess the state of 3D production six months from now.


Delegates were, however, offered a glimpse into the future with a world first: a live 3D teleconference with Tomsk University in Russia, employing glasses-free displays.


Overall, there were strong signs at the conference, held at the Ravensbourne Skillset Media Academy on the Greenwich Peninsula, of the growing recognition of 3D production as an art form.


A dense session schedule mixed keynote speakers, panels, software training sessions, post-production demos and a trade show.


Carrie Wooten, head of enterprise and innovation at Ravensbourne, helped put together the first conference last year, after students and tutors saw a gap in the industry’s 3D knowledge base.


Technology-centric keynote addresses were common enough at conferences, but it was hard to find public forums to discuss the creative possibilities in 3D production, such as how the technology could be better used to convey information, drama and meaning.


“I hadn’t intended to run the event again,” says Wooten. “But due to huge industry demand and feedback, it was evident that an annual event that focused solely on 3D, and how it was being used and developed across genre, platform and medium, was badly needed.”


This year’s conference was double the size of the first, with the number of sessions increased to more than 80 to encompass 3D gaming. Participants included Sony Computer Entertainment Europe and 3Dizzy.


Post and the 3D process


There was also a new research strand, with academics sharing papers and cutting-edge findings, and a deeper look into 3D advertising, which is opening up whole new sectors of 3D production.


Nowhere is 3D developing more rapidly than in post-production – in part because what was once considered ‘post’ is now integral to every phase of the 3D content process.


Atlantic Productions’ 3D co-production for Sky, Kingdom Of Plants, which airs next month, brings together two British household names: David Attenborough and Kew Gardens.


The programme found its way into virtually every discussion during the conference and is likely to be the technological benchmark by which 3D nature documentary will be measured in the near future.


3D demands a post-production team’s early involvement to a degree unparalleled in any other type of production. Richard Mills and John Myers – respectively chief technology officer and post-production supervisor at Onsight, which provided post for Attenborough’s programme – outlined the advances in 3D post over the past few years, drawing from their work on 3D nature documentaries.


As post supervisor, Myers is responsible for developing workflows for 3D productions. “Whenever a new job starts, we get together as a team and devise a workflow from start to finish,” he says. “It’s not just the post-production aspects of it that we get involved with. The workflow is the essential element that strands the parts of the project together.”


Myers explained Onsight’s three goals in developing 3D workflow: adherence to the client’s preferences, the simplest possible solution, and a refusal to compromise quality. Achieving all three is not easy.


Atlantic Productions’ prehistoric winged reptile doc Flying Monsters 3D was the earliest case study presented. That this ground-breaking project was used to illustrate 3D post’s ‘early days’ only underlines how rapidly 3D production is changing.


Flying Monsters incorporated diverse disciplines, including live action integrated with CGI and both aerial and macro stereo photography. It was shot on Red One with no 3D viewing on set. A left-eye file was made for Avid, with the initial assembly in 2D and finishing using Mistika.


In 2009, when production on Flying Monsters began, there was no software available for 3D offline work, so Onsight had to create its own. It built on these early efforts for last year’s Meerkats 3D, which used Iridas SpeedGrade for onset 3D review. It also partnered with Iridas to streamline the show’s workflow. Offline editing was done with Final Cut Pro and conforming with Mistika.


Putting 3D to the test


Onsight’s accumulated 3D experience was put to the test on Kingdom Of Plants, which used roughly nine different camera formats and employed live action, time-lapse, high-speed, infrared, macro and micro photo-graphy. A big step forward was the decision to have full 3D review and editorial input on location, so a complete workflow was set up, literally in a potting shed at Kew. Corrected stereo dailies were available on set and Avid editing at Atlantic Productions had access to full 3D.


Conforming was again done on Mistika, which itself has developed dramatically over the past few years. “The Mistika is an amazing piece of kit,” says Myers. “The pace of its improvement is amazing. Tasks that had to be done manually before can now be done quickly and effectively with a couple of mouse clicks.”


The challenge of Kingdom Of Plants pushed Onsight to develop its own 3D software, OS 3D. The plug-in for Final Cut Pro is available for free download on Onsight’s website and allows for stereoscopic correction and adjustments during the editorial process.


The ability to shoot native 3D, free from post-production conversion, is currently held up as high virtue in 3D production. But Matthew Bristowe showed in his session, The Art & Mechanics of Stereo Conversion, how Prime Focus has built a thriving business betting that the immediate future of the 3D industry will be in 2D to 3D conversion.


Until now, Prime Focus has largely concentrated on feature film conversion, including the 3D re-release of Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace. The company has used a proprietary conversion system, View-D, which has been responsible for many high-profile Hollywood 3D conversions.


“One of the problems the industry is having in fuelling the desire for 3D is simply finding quality content,” Bristowe observed.


This conversion of existing libraries might be key to the success of 3D TV; there is a virtually endless supply of 2D content that can be converted for 3D use.


Bristowe says there is a school of thought that, one day, automated software will be able to convert content on the fly to broadcast standards, but completely automated software will never be able to recognise a director’s vision. “I have yet to see an automated stereoscopic process that actually works,” he says.


He sees Prime Focus’ role as being a collaborator in creating new versions of a film that are not simply augmented, 3D duplicates. He also points out that even big-budget Hollywood productions are rarely shot entirely in 3D – a certain amount of conversion is almost always present.


Young enthusiasts


It was notable how much the conference included young people. The legwork in putting on the conference was largely performed by the Ravensbourne students. Also prominent were representatives of Filmclub, the film education charity that aims to involve young people in the art, business and culture of the motion picture.


Among other things, young representatives display a universal acceptance of 3D as an addition to the medium, whether on a projection screen, a TV or – as is looking more likely for the future – a computer monitor or handheld device.


Ravensbourne’s Wooten concludes: “3D is definitely here to stay. Think about young people’s viewing – some children have never seen a 2D film in the cinema. The UK has some of the best 3D talent in the world, but we still need more content makers using 3D as a creative tool to explore its potential. How 3D can better engage a viewer with stories and characters is the mantle that needs to be carried forward.”


Some of the 3D Storytelling Conference sessions are available to watch online at http://3dstorytelling.co.uk/content-2012/





Anthony Geffen believes pushing the envelope is part of the mandate for 3D productions. “Otherwise, why is 3D different?” asks the Atlantic Productions chief executive. For its three-part Sky series Kingdom Of Plants, the most challenging aspect technically was the need to get close to the plants being filmed in a way that would be difficult even in 2D. “We had to use lots of different types of camera and work with manufacturers to get incredibly close to things – sometimes even closer than possible for the human eye.”


To this end, a variety of formats were employed: Arri Alexa, Red Epic, SI-2K, stills cameras, Phantom high-speed cameras, infrared, plus a variety of different rigs. The film has a lot of time-lapse footage, shot on still cameras.


With long gaps between frames, 3D shooting can be done on a single camera that uses a slider to switch from left eye to right. But to capture many of the shots needed, which occur in a much faster timeframe, a 3D mirror rig had to be modified for still camera use. The stills camera rigs did not have the same kind of monitoring as movie cameras and the team had to employ several workarounds to allow for correct alignment and simultaneous triggering.


Then there was the demanding timetable of the natural world. There is little margin for error in capturing Kew’s specimen of the Titan Arum, the largest flower in the world, which blossoms just once every seven years. Several units were shooting simultaneously, including two separate time-lapse units and a main action unit. The rigid schedule had days planned down to 15-minute increments. The scheduling included time for the cameras to adjust to the ambient humidity while shooting in Kew Gardens’ greenhouses.


The show was also carefully storyboarded, not only for shots but for 3D depth management.


Richard Mills, chief technology officer at Onsight, which provided post-production, says: “As far as depth management goes, each episode is a fully balanced piece. There is a controlled flow of depth management through each one that enables you to be drawn in at times into a completely enveloping experience.”


Kew Gardens contains specimens of 85% of all known plant species and the team built resources in and around the site. The series was shot almost entirely in 3D, though one 3D electron microscope shot was composited afterwards, due to the limitations of the microscope technology. But Geffen takes pride in Atlantic’s commitment to native 3D.


He also underlines that the most important part of the production – and the most challenging to get right – is the story. “It’s absolutely critical that the story drives it. With all that 3D technology around you, you want to make sure you don’t lose focus on that.”


Geffen believes that 3D has to tell better stories than 2D and not just rely on spectacle value to attract viewers. Ten years down the line, his hope is that it will not be the technological innovations but the story and action that will keep people returning to Atlantic’s films.


Broadcast Magazine 12/04/2012