Blue skies for 3D

James Cameron and Sam Worthington on the set of Avatar.With the arrival of James Cameron’s Avatar and an increasing number of international releases, 3D is impossible to ignore. Miguel Gonzalez found that Australia is getting ready to embrace it with stereoscopic arms.

The global 3D market is reaching a stage of maturity, with the release of A Christmas Carol (November), Avatar (December) and Alice in Wonderland (March 2010), according to the president of the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Group, Mark Zoradi.

“We’re at that tipping point where 3D is coming out of the animated world, and these three movies will take us to a moment somewhere in 2010, no later than 2011, when there will be a big 3D-only release, at least in the US. We’ll then start seeing that happen in international territories too.”

Australia might not be as close to a 3D-only release as the US, but Disney’s local figures indicate that we’re not very far either. On January 1, 2009, Bolt was released on 3D at 33 locations, or 32 percent of the film’s total screens. During the September school holidays, Up opened on 100 3D screens with it a 47 percent stereo release. By November, 65 percent of A Christmas Carol’s opening week screens were 3D, an impressive 33 percent up from Bolt’s 3D split only 10 months earlier.

Michael Lewis, CEO of the world’s leading 3D exhibition supplier RealD, says they expect to have 250 screens installed in Australia for the December 17 release of Avatar, with a substantial growth since their 2005 launch.

According to Lewis, digital cinema was a conversation for many years, but suddenly 3D became the primary reason for exhibitors to install digital as soon as possible, and not just the large cinema chains but also the independents.

RealD recently finalised a deal with Look3D, a Melbourne-based company, to launch a premium eyewear line so that people can buy their own pair, wear them as sunglasses and bring them to the cinema to watch a movie.

Numbers indicate that Australian audiences are loving their 3D and its cool new glasses, but does the industry share that enthusiasm?


Stereoscopic 3D is still a mystery for some, which is why companies like Inition can help demystify the process and provide their 18 years of expertise in display sales, content production, production equipment, motion capture, 3D scanning and reality augmentation.

According to Inition’s senior 3D creative Markus Stone, filmmakers want to know how it will all work, visualising how it will tie in the on set production team with the post workflow.

“Often cinematographers are a little nervous about it because it’s new, but once we talk them through it and they realise they can work pretty much the same way as they always have, they tend to relax,” said Stone.

Producers want to know how much it will cost, while directors are generally interested in the creative employment of 3D for the story. Inition helps them determine what equipment and personnel they might need, and consult on sorting out the pipeline. They can supply 3D services to a feature film, or be the entire production house for a smaller project. They also offer training services, mostly aimed at academic institutions.

According to Stone, the main areas of need for a production of this type are a 3D camera rig (mirror rig and sometimes side-by-side), on-set 3D monitoring for the director/DOP/stereographer, and a data wrangling/capture machine for rushes.

“What resolution you want to shoot determines what cameras you can use, which determines which rigs you need to support them. The outputs on those cameras determine the monitoring solution,” explained Stone.

Technology’s very nature is one of constant change, but in the realm of 3D and its evolving standards, equipment possibilities change for every project. At the moment, Stone recommends the new Element Technica camera rig as a solid option that doesn’t flex, even with full body cameras on it, and in terms of displays, JVC’s LCD screens and the True3Di Opsis range of monitors are both good display options.

Another product that has proven popular is Inition’s own Stereobrain Processor, which was created to address common stereo monitoring issues by taking the signal from two cameras and turning it into any 3D format.

Finally, for post-production, 3D edit and grading suites are required, along with DCP conversion and 3D theatrical screening rooms.


Because the 3D process affects every stage of filmmaking, it requires the creation of a whole new department that will have input into the design and implementation of the workflow, on set operation and post-production supervision.

At the same time, it’s important that 3D work is as little disruptive as possible to other areas such as cinematography.

Jules O’Loughlin is Sanctum’s DOP, one of the first Australian cinematographers to shoot a stereoscopic 3D project – Peter James is another, working on Yogi Bear in New Zealand. Both were unavailable for comment as they were working against the clock preparing for their respective shoot, but Sanctum producer Andrew Wight told Encore that for a cinematographer, the role is almost the same as in a 2D film.

“We have a team of technicians and people who look after the 3D aspects and control that universe, and really Jules only has to concentrate on telling the story.”

There are so many creative and technical considerations affected by stereo, that there is a need for a ‘stereographer’, the specialist leading the 3D elements of a project.

“It is essential that you have a single point of contact to drive a consistent creative approach,” said Sarsfield.

The main duties of a stereographer, according to Animal Logic’s Aidan Sarsfield, revolve around the practicalities of producing stereo material, such as developing tools to setup and layout stereo cameras, training the crew, developing procedures to output the stereo material in a reviewable format and ensuring that all material produced is presenting the story goals and is also comfortable to watch for the audience.

“It is a role in itself; a stereographer is kept busy all day every day, and it’s not the kind of role that can be folded into another crew member’s responsibilities,” explained Stone. He added that there are few stereographers at the moment, although Sarsfield believes the pool of stereo-specific talent is getting larger. This expansion of available talent might be due to the fact that many people working on 3D don’t necessarily have film backgrounds, because they come from engineering or broadcast.

“It’s a different mix of people in the team, and that’s of course been happening by stealth ever since the incorporation of CGI to films,” said Wight. “It’s a digital age so you need those who understand that universe to a very high level.”


Australia’s first 3D release is likely to be Animal Logic’s Guardians of Ga’Hoole on Boxing Day 2010. They began 3D testing after Happy Feet, developing a comprehensive workflow that includes stereo from the very start of the process and is being used for Ga’Hoole, directed by Zack Snyder and with Tim Baier as the film’s stereographer

“We start as far upstream in the pipeline as possible, and ensure that all our decisions are informed by stereo,” explained CG supervisor Aidan Sarsfield. “We have provided our layout artists with a comprehensive stereo camera toolset, which makes it easy to visualise the stereo parameters and their effect on the perceived depth of the shot. We make it part of everyone’s workflow to consider stereo, and we don’t treat it as a post process.”

Currently shooting in Queensland is Sanctum, a US-funded underwater adventure produced by Andrew Wight and based on his real-life escape from a collapsing cave. It is executive-produced by James Cameron, with whom Wight produced Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep, the documentaries that helped developed the 3D systems that would make Avatar a reality.

Sanctum’s low– by international standards – $30 million budget proves that 3D can be done on a shoestring.

“Sure, I’m doing it, and we’ve got the exact same camera that was used on Avatar, and I’m using many of the same people. You still need an entertaining story that can fit within the budgetary constraints,” affirmed Wight.

Other productions are also in development: Arclight Films has announced its plans to shoot shark flick Bait in 3D next year, and Sydney’s Courage Films premiered their short S21 at this year’s SMPTE Conference, testing and incorporating lunar landscapes, futuristic cities and fight sequences, in preparation for a feature, Station 21.

Producer Laura Sivis says their main goal was to see if it was possible to make their live action film in 3D. Their biggest challenge however was not technical, but getting

people to take them seriously when they started talking about the project 18 months ago.

“VFX artists were certainly excited. However, management were concerned about the costs that could blow out even by getting themselves involved at an R&D/training opportunity for a short film,” Sivis said. “We had a hard time getting Aussie VFX houses on board.

“In the end we had to take the post VFX work offshore.”

Sivis concedes that things have since changed and many companies are now well fitted technically to support 3D projects, but fears that if those are not made here soon, Australia will start suffering a ‘brain drain’ of people who have that expertise.

And while Australia’s adoption of 3D is “still slow”, Sivis says she’d hate to have to hold up her film’s release while the world catches up.

“But as a filmmaker, it’s great, because James Cameron is doing all the hard leg-work for us, so that exhibitors will be ready when we are done.”

Markus Stone believes Australian adoption of 3D is an issue of budget and education, but even the funding bodies are interested in developing 3D projects.

“It’s a discussion we’ve had with them and they’re absolutely open. Given an appropriate financing model, there’s nothing stoping Australian 3D production.

“More 3D productions are coming to Australia, with bigger budgets and therefore, offshore financing, but that will change as the technology becomes more accepted.”

Andrew Wight admits that while Australia can be very quick to adopt best practice and new technologies in other fields, its film industry “seems to lag behind in just about everything” and, in the case of 3D, many are still reluctant because they see it as a fad.

“Well, James Cameron has been making a fairly substantial film in 3D, and manufacturers of consumer electronics are spending millions on R&D and producing

equipment to enable you to watch it in the home, so I don’t think it’s a fad.

“There’s still a puzzled look and the idea that perhaps this will pass us by. Our industry could be a world leader in this, but I’m struggling to find enough people in this country to make this film possible.”


With an increasing slate of 3D projects internationally and the incipient development of home grown stereo, post-production and VFX companies must ensure they’re 3D-ready to remain competitive and relevant to their clients, even before they land their first stereoscopic contract.

Across the Tasman, Park Road Post told Encore that 3D is their latest venture, with the development of both polarised and shutter solutions, which give them the flexibility to post “even the most ambitious project”.

In Australia, Omnilab Media companies The Lab and Digital Pictures have been combining their resources and expertise, doing 3D research and development in areas such as VFX workstation viewing systems, VFX compositing software, editorial workflows, and upgrades including screening theatres, a conform and grading system and digital cinema DCP mastering facilities.

Melbourne’s Digital Pictures is currently working on Sanctum, and general manager John Fleming expects that as camera systems become more readily available and shooting techniques widely understood, production will increase for a wide range of content.

“So far local interest has been more a fascination than real projects,” said Fleming. “There has been an increased interest in offshore projects. The post workflows are relatively straightforward, so the important aspect relates to the camera rig used and the stereographer involved in the shoot.”

The Lab Sydney has installed the Xpand System at its facilities, and converted an episode of Ambience Entertainment’s animated series Erky Perky into full 3D stereo. The company is now working with George Miller ventures Dr D and KMM on various 3D stereo feature projects at a testing stage – Dr D’s sequel to Happy Feet has been unofficially announced as a 3D project and listed as such by the IMDb, and while The Lab declined to comment, Encore understands that a certain sequel to a successful Australian saga may follow the same ‘fury road’.

“It is very early days, but 2010 should be a very interesting year for 3D stereo film production and post,” said director Lewis Pullen. “These are uncharted territories, and we’re very lucky to have partners who are working in 3D and want to push the envelope.

“We have to work closer with the production on the solutions. Whether that continues or not depends on how that whole technology stabilises. It’s all pretty new.”

Another sister company, Iloura, has been contracted to work on Sanctum. Head of VFX Ineke Majoor says that vendors have to educate themselves on 3D if they want to participate in the international market potential, and clients still struggle to understand how technology restricts the creative aspects of 3D VFX production.

Iloura has also noticed that local interest is now reaching the advertising sector.

“We have also seen, with the upcoming release of Avatar, that there is some interest in local markets to create cinema advertising in 3D as well,” said Majoor.

Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) completed 3D work for Michael Jackson’s This is It, which was originally meant to screen at the live concerts in London. They’ve also done

test work involving complex compositing and CGI integration with stereoscopic photography for a Disney film and delivered a few 3D shots. Although they haven’t had the opportunity to take on a large scale 3D project, they’ve done the background work preparing for that moment. The company has not yet invested in stereoscopic projection, although it is in their plans for the near future; they have, however, invested on software infrastructure tools to support stereoscopic workflows.

“We’ve executed pure 3D animation shots, as well as hybrid live action/3D animation shots. We’ve tested both pipelines, to find the points of the workflow which are different to the existing one so we can start building systems around supporting those workflow implications. For example, rotoscoping and clean up are much more

complex tasks,” said RSP director Tony Clark.

A challenge for post will be an increase of production time. Dealing with left and right eye data might not mean work will take double the time, but it does imply, according to Majoor, a 25 percent increase in post processing to make sure the work for one eye carries over correctly for the other.

Ivis agrees: “Since you can’t see if the VFX is working until it’s been rendered on both sides and then screened back in sync, it takes time… and money.”

Another major challenge is data storage and management; a major project like Happy Feet and its dancing penguins represents terabytes and terabytes of information.


Many major 3D supporters have gone as far as to compare this trend to the silent/sound and black and white/colour revolutions of the first half of the 20th century. In both occasions, some resisted the innovations and dismissed them as mere fads, but they eventually became the standard used across all genres and by popular demand, everyone had to incorporate them into their work.

Two years ago in Wellington, at the Stone Street Studios set of Avatar, James Cameron told Encore that this was the first time that 3D had become a legitimate form of cinema, “a set of colours for an artist to paint with” and that Titanic “should have been like this”.

So far, the revolution has been limited to documentaries, animation, horror (My Bloody Valentine, The Final Destination) and action/adventure/fantasy (Avatar and Tim Burton’s upcoming Alice in Wonderland). But for 3D to become the standard the

way sound and colour did, it would have to be explored and adopted by all genres.

Avatar producer John Landau said that 3D might not be needed for every movie, but he’d rather experience a film like Terms of Endearment in 3D “and be at the bedside with Shirley McLaine. It’s not just about large scale movies, it’s about connecting the audience and putting then on that planet, or in that room”.

But everyone else seems to agree that a 3D drama or comedy is unlikely to happen, because it would simply not be any better than 2D.

“It will be unusual for an animated film not to be produced in 3D, but for live action the choice will be more considered, because not all films will be enhanced by being screened in 3D,” admitted Animal Logic’s creative director Bruce Carter.

“I don’t’ think it will become a standard,” said Zoradi. “It will be used by many filmmakers, but not all. Comedies like The Proposal or The Hangover would not have been any better in 3D than they were, and those were huge hits around the world.”

In terms of accessibility to independent productions, both filmmakers and service providers agree that while 3D does increase the project’s total cost, it is not as expensive as it might sound, adding an extra 20-30 percent, depending on the complexity of the project.

“Adding a new department to your shoot and hiring specialised equipment for that period of time costs money. In terms of raising capital for a film, you’re talking an extra $250,000 at minimum,” said Stone.

Another element that everyone doing 3D agrees is that the priority is to provide audiences with an immersive experience that is enjoyable as comfortable to view.

“That means the audience doesn’t have to screw their eyeballs together to converge the image. We do it for them,” explained Wight. “From shot to shot, the convergence done in such a way that your eyeballs don’t have to constantly wince backwards and forwards, then you can make a theatrical piece as long as you want, because it will be easy to watch.”

AL’s Sarsfield agrees: “We want to use stereo to enhance the story experience, not detract from it.”


Because in a way everybody is still learning, 3D offers the rare opportunity to see the industry share their expertise openly.

Of course, those developing the technological aspects of 3D and investing substantial amounts in research and development they need to recoup are interested in harnessing 3D’s emerging technologies and standards, but practitioners, even at the highest level, from James Cameron to the independents, are embracing a collaborative approach and sharing their knowledge.

“If it is to be the way of the future, it’s better that people get it right instead of doing it incorrectly due to a lack of knowledge. You need to share what you understand so you can move things forward,” said Wight.

“Our R&D was done in-house,” revealed AL’s Sarsfield. “We’ve had people come through here working freelance, like Tim Baier, who have exposed our staff to expertise around 3D.

“It’s a well publicised technology, and the VFX world has a long history of dissemination of information. It doesn’t need a rocket scientist, but it needs you to be

aware of photographic techniques and an understanding of what’s going to happen.”


While 3D has been the edge that has driven audiences back to the cinemas and away from their home entertainment systems, cinema’s dominance of the technology will not last forever.

“In the long run, if 3D is successful in the theatres, it will trickle down and it will be in the home and on the portable devices as well, at which point, the playing field is equal,” said James Cameron.

Zoradi says that there is no question that 3D will reach the home arena, with the release of 3D-capable HD sets and Blu-ray players, but it will take at least five years to reach critical mass, giving cinemas the period of 3D exclusivity they want – and need.

“Nobody has that equipment at home now, but it is coming. It will come.”

And it’s not just content on Blu-ray, but also 3D broadcasts. The US and the UK have already employed the technology for sporting and music events.

“It’s technically possible to broadcast full colour 3D right now, but the hold back is the lack of content, and the low numbers of people who own 3D-capable TV sets,” explained Stone, who anticipates another format war for the dominance of the world’s living rooms, between Sony’s active shutter glasses system, and JVC’s line interlaced panels with passive glasses.

Creating a 3D project may seem like just an incentive to get people to the cinemas in 2010, but it is also a way to future-proof it and give it a long shelf life when the technology is available at every home.

“If you’re doing something to make all the money you possibly can in the next two years, make it in 2D… but if there’s going to be a future for your film after that, make it in 3D. It won’t sell if it’s not 3D,” warned Wight.

In the meantime, the global industry will sit back for a moment and watch James Cameron win – or lose? – this revolution’s first big battle.

 Editor’s note: Since the original publication of this article, it is clear that James Cameron won the revolution, with a worldwide box office of U$1,419,950,876 as of January 13, 2010!


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