Technology

Depth Charge

7/13/2010 9:01 AM Eastern

Before Warner Bros.'s Clash of the Titans hit theaters this spring, after the
smash success of Avatar, the two-dimensional
film was converted to 3D in just 10
weeks — and it showed. Reviewers likened
Clash’s 3D effects to a pop-up book.

“We’re never going to do anything that fast
again,” said Rob Hummel, CEO of Prime Focus
in North America, which handled the postproduction
conversion of Clash of the Titans.

As the TV industry’s appetite for 3D programming
escalates, there’s a seemingly
quick fix available to programmers with
libraries of ratings-proven content: 2D-to-3D conversion.

The immediate benefits are compelling.
Conversion quickly fills a market demand,
makes the most of content libraries and
might be a boon for 30-second ads.

But executives agree there’s a crystal-clear
certainty emerging in the 3D world: There is no
quick fix. Moreover, conversion can be prohibitively
expensive — shooting in 3D is cheaper
in some cases — and results are unpredictable.
In worst cases, poorly rendered 3D can make
people sick. “The mistakes can be horrendous,”
said David Broberg, CableLabs vice president
of consumer video technology.

It’s a special effect that requires time and
artistic attention, and can’t be produced automatically
in the way that one video format
is transcoded into another.

Proponents of 2D-to-3D conversion argue
that the technique has a future, and that
costs will certainly come down. And most
executives agree that if done properly, conversion
can deliver a wow-inducing, immersive
experience — and provide a way to get
3DTV content to critical mass.

Discovery Communications, for one, is
considering conversion to supplement the
programming lineup for a 3D channel expected
to launch in early 2011 with partners Sony
and IMAX. But given that the process today
is expensive and somewhat unpredictable,
Discovery will use the technology “sparingly,”
with most material natively produced for
3D, said senior vice president for digital media
distribution Rebecca Glashow.

“We have an enormous archive of incredible
moments that literally cannot be recreated
… but we’re going to be judicious about what shows will benefit from the conversion,”
Glashow said.

Skeptics of 2D-to-3D technology said presenting
badly produced 3DTV could give
viewers a bad first impression, endangering
the entire category. The entertainment industry’s
track record on repurposing video
content for newer technology is unimpressive:
Consider standard-definition video
upconverted to HD, or the nauseating early
days of film colorization.

“Creating fake 3D is easy,” said Nicholas
Routhier, president of Sensio, a Montreal-based firm that develops stereoscopic
technologies for content distribution and
playback on 3D displays. “Creating fake 3D
that is believable is a
different story.”

DirecTV — which
launched the 24-hour
N3D on July 1, billed as
the world’s first linear
3D channel, as well as
pay-per-view and movies-on-demand services
with 3D content — is avoiding converted
programming.

“We’ll continue to analyze and evaluate
the 2D-to-3D conversion technologies,” said
Steven Roberts, DirecTV’s senior vice president
of new media and business development.
“But we don’t think the quality is that
great yet and the cost is still really high per
minute to convert it, as opposed to shooting
it natively.”

For N3D, DirecTV acquired some 3DTV
content and produced some original material,
including concerts and other music, documentary-style art and dance programs, and
some sports that were not being produced in
3D, Roberts said.

In July, N3D programming — all of it produced
specifically for 3D — will include Guitar
Center Sessions With Peter Gabriel and
Jane’s Addiction, Dinosaurs: Giants of Patagonia
,
and N Wave Picture’s S.O.S Planet, African
Adventure: Safari in the Okavango and
Encounter in the Third Dimension
. The channel
also is featuring special events such as and
an exclusive national broadcast of Fox Sports’
2010 MLB All-Star Game in 3D on July 13.

Advertising is one area where DirecTV sees promise for 2D-to-3D techniques.
Viewers don’t necessarily expect an immersive,
dazzling display from the commercial
breaks, Roberts noted: “A 30-second spot is
different from a 60- or 90-minute movie.”

For programmers, the 3DTV cost equation
must also account for the fact that — at least
for the next year — just
a fraction of U.S. viewers
will have the requisite
3D television sets
and glasses to watch
that programming.
Only around 1 million
3DTVs are expected to ship in 2010 in the
U.S., according to the Consumer Electronics
Association.

“The interest in 3D is greater than either the
number of homes that are ready for it or the
production capabilities that exist to create it,”
HDNet general manager Phil Garvin said.

Producing native 3DTV is expensive
enough. Live sports in 3D, for example, cost
as much as seven times to produce as conventional
HD, according to Garvin. Non-live
programming could range from as little as
50% extra to as much as fivefold the cost.

HDNet has produced some shows in 3D,
such as Bikini Destinations, and is a partner
for DirecTV’s N3D channel, but Garvin said
there is no clear economic rationale today for
launching a linear 3D channel.
The costs for 3D conversion can be staggering.
Prime Focus’s quoted range for 2D-to-3D conversion is $74,000 to $110,000 per
minute, depending on the type of material.
Another Hollywood post-production company,
In-Three, asks for $80,000 to $100,000
per minute for video “dimensionalization” —
rates that may be cost-prohibitive for cable
networks, vice president of business development
Damian Wader acknowledged.

While automated systems are important
tools, “the fact is, artists have to be making the
depth choices. You can’t leave that up to an automated
process,” Wader said. In-Three worked
on Walt Disney Pictures’ G-Force and this year’s
Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton.

Turning 2D video into 3D is a mixture of art
and science. The depth of the objects in each
frame must be estimated to create a second-eye
image. Objects are outlined in a process referred
to as “rotoscoping,” and the background
exposed by bringing them to the foreground
must be backfilled. Otherwise, viewers will encounter
an “occlusion problem.”

Automatic 2D-to-3D conversion will
always make mistakes,
according to
Sensio’s Routhier.
That’s because machine
conversion
makes assumptions
about depth from
visual cues, such as
brightness. “A lamp
in the background
will be misinterpreted as being in the foreground, because it’s
bright,” he said.

HDlogix CEO Jim Spinella, whose company
sells a system that can convert conventional
video into 3D, conceded that
“there’s certainly a lot of hand-tuning that
needs to happen” in conjunction with an
automated system. But he contended that
his company’s conversion system can reduce
the amount of labor-intensive tweaking
needed. JVC and Digital Dynamic
Depth also offer automated 2D-to-3D conversion
technologies.

But some content shouldn’t be stretched
into 3D, no matter how many post-production
dollars are poured into the process, industry
experts said. Fast-moving action or
video with fast cuts between scenes can induce
dizziness or headaches in viewers.

Some cable executives eager to convert
sometimes have a change of heart. “I’ve
told them, ‘I can save you some money:
There’s no point in converting this,’” Hummel
said. Prime Focus has worked with
programmers such as A&E Television Networks,
which wanted a one-minute 3D test
clip from History.

Added CableLabs’ Broberg: “You can’t
change the pace of the editing or the lighting
or the camera angles. There are literally
rules that need to be followed with 3D.”

Cable operators feel it’s important that
content converted from 2D into 3D should
be labeled as such to properly set viewer
expectations, according to Broberg.

On a separate track, some 3DTV manufacturers
are integrating real-time 2D-to-3D technology, to let home consumers
view whatever they want with a simulated
3D effect. The market for 2D-to-3D conversion
will grow from about 5 million 3DTV
sets in 2011 to nearly 50 million by 2016, according
to a forecast from research firm Insight
Media.

But given that 3DTVs are positioned as a
high-end item, other consumer-electronics
companies don’t think embedding a conversion
feature into sets is a good idea.

Said Julie Baumann, national marketing
manager for Panasonic’s display division:
“It just doesn’t look good, and it may sour
people on the experience.”

What’s most challenging for TV producers
is the number of unknowns surrounding 3D
in general — what works and what doesn’t.
“We’ve got a lot more to understand,” said
Chuck Pagano, ESPN’s executive vice president
of technology, engineering and operations.
The sports programmer carried 25 FIFA
World Cup soccer matches in 3D, and plans to
present about 100 live events in the first year
of ESPN 3D.

“I keep saying the same thing: We’re just
narrowing the gap between what we know
and what we don’t know,” Pagano said.

March