3-D clouds mobile production picture

With all of the talk about 3-D television these days, you'd think virtually every project was being produced and broadcast this way, but most digital production is done in HD — and some still in SD. That's because the economics for 3-D have yet to be figured out in a way that generates real profit, for the production company or the client.

Indeed, while many have been captivated by the emergence of 3-D television and its potential, owners of the mobile production companies that create such live broadcasts (and pretaped shows) have privately complained about the need for yet another, more complex way to produce programming. The technology differentiates sports and entertainment broadcasts and adds a certain amount of sizzle, but the added costs cannot be easily passed on to the client and, perhaps more telling, there's not a lot of interest from the general production community.

With few consumers able to watch the production at this early stage of the technology's development, they ask: Why expend the time and effort to retrain crews, buy duplicates of many production systems and add the required extra staff?

That does not mean they have been complacent. There have been about a dozen HD-capable mobile units completed this year in the United States alone, complete with new or refurbished 3Gb/s infrastructures that can handle the highest quality signals (1080p60). This increased bandwidth makes these rigs suitable for all types of projects, including 3-D production. They include new routers, monitor walls, production switchers, servers, graphics systems, signal processors and cameras, and the setup costs roughly $7 million to $10 million per truck.

Discussing the cost of building such trucks, one executive said that it was about two-and-a-half to three times more expensive than a typical 2-D HD truck. For starters, a 3-D camera setup costs between three and three-and-a-half times that of a 2-D setup, requiring two cameras, two lenses, a 3-D rig and image processor. Then there's also double the number of record and replay channels required on the video servers. (Therefore, a six-channel server provides four channels for 3-D.)

What we're learning

The advent of 3-D production has brought a multitude of new issues that have to be, or have already been, solved to some extent. There are framing issues, added crew and equipment, and a need for a clear understanding of what works in 3-D and what doesn't.

The type of camera rig used, whether it be a beam splitter (“mirror rigs”) or side-by-side version, is also an issue that is being worked out on a project-by-project basis. Most agree that side-by-side rigs work better for higher camera positions, while mirror rigs are better suited at lower levels and closer to the field. They are even being carried onto the field in handheld rigs.

Then there's the issue of how to use these special camera rigs most effectively. Correctly framing shots appears to be another critical factor in successful (pain-free) HD 3-D viewing. Vince Pace, a pioneer of 3-D production techniques, often talks about “letting the scene breathe,” meaning camera operators should stay on a subject longer without constant refocusing or fast pans. Holding a shot for 30 or 60 seconds (instead of today's 15- to 20-second cutaways) might re-educate directors to pursue a strategy of “less is more.”

Steve Schklair, founder of 3Ality Digital, another company at the forefront of live 3-D broadcast, says the patience required for a production with less cutting and fewer camera positions might bring the industry back to the days of extended wide shots and staying locked to a single subject for extended periods. This has meant using six cameras instead of 20 or more. (The last NFL Super Bowl used about 45 cameras). It's often more pleasing to the viewer to understand what's going on by finding a point of interest on their own instead of having a director dictate, in quick succession, how the action is processed.

The people most intimately involved with 3-D production are beginning to understand these limitations. During this year's MLB All-Star Game, some hard lessons were learned. To control the distant parallax parameters, the stereographer decided to converge on the pitcher. The crew wanted the shortstop to appear to come off the screen, but he couldn't because he was attached to the screen by virtue of the field plane. The result was often jarring, and some in the truck described the scene as painful to watch.

Technology is becoming available that can dynamically adjust the Z-plane depth of titles and lower-third graphics. This keeps them from becoming a distraction to the scene or getting blocked and thus not easily viewable. This can be done during live broadcasts in real time, whereby, as the action changes within a scene, the titles or logo move to a different part of the screen automatically.

Digital nirvana: one production, one crew

The other challenge for production companies is trying to figure out how to produce a 3-D show with the same truck — and possibly crew — as the traditional 2-D HD production. Simulcasting, which has been successfully worked out for SD/HD productions, helps defray some of the added cost. This is critical in getting clients interested in producing 3-D.

Some promising techniques include placing a second “shadow” rig on top of the 2-D camera. This innovative rig allows the camera operator to think about 2-D widescreen framing while shooting 3-D images simultaneously. The camera becomes harder to maneuver, but it gives the operator two joysticks, one for 2-D and the other to control dual lenses mounted on top of a box-style HD lens. The rig has been demonstrated at various industry events — and used during the recent U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York — and employs two HD box cameras and 16-bit encoders inside dual HD lenses mounted side-by-side for wider and atop-stadium (overhead) shots. (Beam splitter rigs are used for tighter shots and to get closer to the action.) It also employs a “frame-link” software and hardware system. There are two tally lights for talent if necessary.

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The real benefit is that it allows a single person to shoot for both shows and saves seats in a venue. HD cameras still get the most desirable positions within a venue. At a time when everyone is looking for the right business model, this issue can't be overstated because venue owners are often hesitant to “lose” prime seats to camera positions. (A hockey game produced and televised in 3-D by Madison Square Garden Network, in New York City, in March reportedly “lost” about 700 seats to 3-D camera positions.) Of course, this was also an issue during the early days of HD production, but not to the same extent, as 3-D camera rigs are larger and must get closer to the field to be most effective.

Onboard the truck, one idea is to have a second production switcher (on the back row) to handle the 2-D show, using left- or right-eye-only camera sources. However, this adds cost to the client, and 3-D production is expensive compared with a traditional HD project.

The world is watching

Mobile production companies making the migration from an established video format to the latest technology — 3-D TV this time — have always struggled with the initially high incremental cost differential of deploying the technology and how to get clients to pay more for their services.

With 3-D, however, there is the added cost and a big learning curve. Many production companies are learning from each other's experiences. Although the industry is competitive, it's not uncommon to see rival crews discussing techniques and the most efficient way of doing things.

When the industry went from SD to HD, it necessitated the addition of, perhaps, one more person to the truck. With 3-D, there's a need for one person per rig, a stereographer and a processing engineer. So you could add up to 10 people to the standard crew necessary to produce a 2-D HD event. If a company does a 2-D/3-D simulcast, it needs a second production switcher and TD. That brings a whole new set of challenges. Clearly, there's a big difference between 2-D and 3-D in terms of acquisition and making it all fit into an overall production.

For now, the industry is intent on keeping this new generation of trucks working and is waiting to see what happens with the general acceptance of 3-D. Everyone agrees that 3-D production is still in the development stage, and every production thus far has been underwritten by consumer electronics manufacturers trying to prime the programming pump and sell consumer 3-D TV sets. Yet with each new project, we get a better understanding of the pitfalls and successful practices that make a live broadcast work.

Of course, the more productions accomplished in 3-D, the better understood it will be, leading to financial and technical rewards for everyone involved. Production companies are getting a lot of bids for 3-D work, but whether those actually happen remains to be seen.

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.