22nd November, 2012

TV dips its toe into 3D drama

3D fiction has been a staple of feature film releases, but only now are broadcasters and producers starting to deliver 3D drama treatments. Adrian Pennington reports


Unlike in feature films, drama has been noticeably absent from the roster of 3D TV programming, but this may be about to change.


Sky and the BBC, as well as producers in the US, are beginning to experiment with the genre.


Bwark, Sprout Productions and Left Bank Pictures are each delivering 11-minute films in 3D for Sky’s Little Crackers strand this Christmas, while the BBC is producing hour-long family comedy Mr Stink as part of its two-year experiment with 3D production and distribution models.


Both broadcasters have expressed a desire to test the technology in different genres. Sky 3D director John Cassy says he wants to expand its scope towards a broader demographic rather than the male-oriented staples of sport and movies.


“At the beginning, we played to our strengths in sport and movies, but we have always been clear that we wanted to offer a broad range of programming in 3D,” he says. “We are serious about commissioning original drama, so it is logical to play with the genre in 3D.”


There are several other reasons for the sudden activity in scripted 3D, not least improvements in technology and a growing confidence among facilities and producers to use it.


Atlantic Productions chief executive Anthony Geffen, who has overseen a string of groundbreaking 3D natural history films with David Attenborough, says: “We’ve moved from a situation where the equipment was very large, where everyone was inexperienced using it and changing lenses took up to an hour, to one where the kit is lighter and more flexible. Production teams have become versed in 3D production, so planning and shooting is much quicker.”


Andy Shelley, chief operating officer at facility ONSIGHT, which is providing on-set support and post-production for Little Crackers 3D and Mr Stink, says: “In the early days, every project was different, but now production has become routine. It doesn’t matter if a producer hasn’t done a 3D show before. We have developed the infrastructure and the knowledge to make the whole process a lot easier for them.”


Both projects are being shot simultaneously in 2D and 3D, with little difference in the editorial treatment of the two versions (though the projects have been selected because of their 3D potential).


“We were looking for a family drama to test in 3D and there were aspects of the script for Mr Stink that we thought creatively interesting,” says BBC head of 3D Kim Shillinglaw. “It included ways to use graphics to enhance the imaginative world of a child and also to represent Mr Stink’s odour.”


Sky executive producer, comedy, Saskia Schuster, adds: “3D works best when there’s lot of movement in the story and for creating certain moods, such as intimacy or tension.”


The notion that 3D requires longer shots and slower cuts than 2D can now be dispelled. “This was a mantra preached in the early days of 3D because audiences were unfamiliar with it,” says Duncan Humphreys, creative director, Can Communicate.


“There can’t be too many people now who have not seen a 3D programme or film, so the treatment can afford to be more sophisticated.”


Surprisingly, wildlife and the natural environment – some of the least controllable subjects – have had some of the first and most successful 3D TV treatments, yet light entertainment and studio-bound drama have barely been scratched.


This is put down to the fear of potentially costly knock-ons to filming and talent schedules, a result of repositioning cumbersome 3D equipment. Yet this, too, is being addressed.


“Everyone blames the technology when a schedule slips behind, but the reality is you could shoot 3D with virtually no impact,” says Humphreys. “Downton Abbey would look superb in 3D and could be shot for 2D and 3D.”


Cassy agrees. “The 2D/3D schedule gap has narrowed massively. On Little Crackers, it was almost exactly the same. When you do anything complicated that uses new technology for the first time, it’s understandable to be cautious, but those who have done it love it and find it easier and more rewarding than they anticipated.”


Left Bank managing director Marigo Kehoe admits to being concerned about the technical and cost implications of shooting the indie’s first 3D foray.


“I was worried going in but we had great help from Sony and Sky, both technically and to plan the entire storyboard,” she says. “Making a short film in one location meant that we were not moving rigs or wiring around.


It’s a step, but the next step after that – to do a 45-minute show like Strike Back with five cameras on location – is a completely different ball game and we would be more concerned.”


In the US, Sony Pictures has tested 2D/3D studio-bound shoots for NBC’s multi-camera daytime drama Days of Our Lives and ABC’s single-camera sitcom Happy Ending, concluding that 3D TV shows can be done to the same schedule as 2D, with only marginal budget differences, by using precise planning, the right technology and training existing crew.


Having acquired Left Bank, as well as co-sponsoring with Discovery and Imax, and 3D channel 3Net, Sony Pictures is likely to be more of a force in 3D TV production.


“We pitched our Little Cracker as 2D but were asked by Sky and Sony to do it in 3D,” says Kehoe. “It has real potential, provided you pay close attention to detail. Andy Harries and I have been talking about different 3D ideas but it remains to be seen what’s appropriate in 3D – and whether broadcasters will fund it.”


Indeed, the main impediment to 3D scripted shows remains the limited outlets for finance and distribution.


In the US, 3D mini-series Legends Of The Prohibition (Eyeromp Films/Vase Productions) and episodic period drama Sawdust (Sawdust Productions) are aiming to secure funding, but it seems that, both in the US and in the UK, producers and investors need convincing of the business model if 3D drama is to move beyond single shows.


“There are still only two or three large channels that can acquire, commission and pay ‘adult’ money, but producers should be thinking about dramatic shows and mini-series for VoD, Blu-Ray release and for futureproofing,” says Torsten Hoffman, who runs distributor 3D Content Hub. “There are also up to 40 channels in others parts of the world that pay less money but are looking for original 3D content.”


Cassy says that 3D pitches of any kind have to have a 2D rationale. “If the idea can be enhanced by 3D, we will look at that, but in drama, there has to be a great story first of all.”


Geffen adds: “There’s no way to get a full-scale drama funded in 3D alone. You need economic models that will work in both 2D and 3D.”


Movie inspiration


For Atlantic Productions and its 3D co-venture with Sky, Colossus Productions, that has meant Imax and cinema distribution, as well as second-screen apps and game spinoffs from specialist factual shows such as Galapagos 3D. However, the producer now has drama in its sights.


“You will see us using drama heavily inside factual productions and next year a move into full-scale drama,” says Geffen. “We will begin with one-offs to push the medium and series will follow.”


There may also be inspiration from new 3D theatrical releases such as Life Of Pi and The Great Gatsby – literary adaptations that are light on VFX-heavy action. With these releases, Hoffman notes: “We may see more producers realising the creative merits of shooting drama in the format.”


Factual series and ob docs, such as the 10 x 60-minute Safari Park Adventure (Can Communicate and Renegade for Discovery Europe), are being commissioned in 3D, but Sky Arts is testing the water for the UK’s first 3D light-entertainment series, with two of the six 60-minute editions of Michael Parkinson: Masterclass using the format to bring performances to life.


“It was a great opportunity to experiment with a block of 3D in a studio environment,” says Cassy.


“The format lent itself well too. For example, the episode focusing on ballet dancer Carlos Acosta includes a performance in which he uses the physical space in movement and depth – things that 3D does well.”


According to Chris Cary, chief executive of 3D camera-maker Meduza Systems: “Anything intimate lends itself to 3D, including Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton chat shows. We should be experimenting more with those to drive potentially large audiences to 3D.”


By Adrian Pennington for Broadcast 22/11/2012