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3D Lives!

A camera crew films Tom Carroll at Secret Reef W.A. in 3D for 3net’s “Storm Surfers.”

Proclaiming “3D Is Dead!” has become a popular parlor game among broadcast and film industry pundits; so let me commit professional heresy by replying “Poppycock and Balderdash!”

True, in April the Fitch Ratings research film released its “Exhibitor Outlook and Analysis” report, which predicted that “3D box office figures are projected to drop in 2013, for the first time since 3D blew up in 2009.”

That could be due to audience objections to paying a premium for 3D movies, but it could also be due to the fact that the summer of 2013 produced no “Avatar” or even an “Avengers.”

“3D movies are subject to the same cyclical laws of economics that all other industries suffer,” said Jim Chabin, president of the International 3D Society. “About 44 major Hollywood films will be released this year in 3D, which is relatively consistent with 2012. In addition, more than 120 3D films were promoted at the Cannes Film Festival.”

For 3ality Digital, the company that provides the gear for most of the 3D film and television productions, business couldn’t be better.

“We have never been busier,” said Steve Schklair, founder and CEO of 3ality Digital, who David Monk introduced during a 2011 IBC keynote as “The father of modern 3D” for driving innovations that have enabled cost-effective stereoscopic capture.

“The 3D feature film industry is incredibly healthy,” Schklair said. “However, in the [United States] the 3DTV business has seemed to stagnate.”

The reason behind this phenomenon has become fodder for the 3D detractors, so let me try to deal with the three major factors that seem to have impacted 3DTV’s acceptance in the United States: the drawbacks of active 3D displays; the awkwardness of 3D eyewear; and the supposed lack of 3D content.

From the 3D series “Hillbilly Blood: A Hardscrabble Life by 3net” ACTIVE VS. PASSIVE
In my humble opinion, the U.S. display manufacturers made a colossal error by initially marketing 3D sets with active displays that required battery-driven, sensor-triggered shutter lenses in their glasses. Not only are the glasses expensive and require recharging on a regular basis; they also have to re-acquire the triggering signal if you look away at something like a second-screen iPad. And, almost incredibly, the active glasses offered by different set manufacturers were incompatible with each other.

At the time, industry insiders told me that it was considerably cheaper to produce active 3DTVs than passive displays with polarized lenses in the glasses. Somehow it did not seem important that the significant disadvantages of the active system meant that people may buy the sets, but not invest in enough glasses to make 3D-watching a practical group viewing experience.

Across the pond, Sky3D, a subsidiary of British Sky Broadcasting Group (BSkyB) started its 3D satellite service to the United Kingdom in October 2010. But they had the great advantage that their subscribers had access to passive 3DTVs from Hyundai and LG.

Not only did that mean the British had a better home viewing experience, it also very crucially enabled the installation of 3DTVs in public areas like British pubs. You could not do that if expensive shutter glasses were the only alternative for the sports crowds.

To lure in audiences, Sky 3D even created a “Pubs and Clubs” division to help finance the installation of passive 3DTVs in public venues, and set up a website,, so fans could find where to watch their favorite teams in all the glory of 3D.

“We were also the world’s first broadcaster to present ‘Avatar’ in 3D to the home,” said John Cassey, Sky 3D’s director of 3D, “and we have developed a great relationship with all the major studios to show their theatrical features to U.K. households. Mixing films, sports and big event programming, we now provide 16 hours of 3D content each day.”

With this kind of marketing behind it, Sky 3D announced last July it had acquired 500,000 U.K. subscribers. 3DTV is very much alive in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Now that NPD DisplaySearch estimates that passive sets in the United States account for approximately 35–40 percent of all 3DTVs sold, we may see this phenomenon repeated in the States, with bars, hotels, conference centers and other public places introducing 3DTV imagery to a wider audience just as they did with color TV in the 1960s.

But, what about the eyewear?

“Everyone hates wearing the goofy glasses,” whine the 3D doomsayers. Oh yeah? Does anyone object to putting on sunglasses for a day at the beach or wearing goggles when skiing?

But, it is true that balancing 3D glasses on top of prescription glasses can be dismaying for the millions of Americans stuck behind their own indispensible specs.

So why are 3D clip-on glasses not more readily available? You can find them in online catalogs, but I have yet to see them offered to the public at a theater. If I’m paying a $4 premium to watch a 3D presentation, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect comfortable eyewear.

Then there’s the lack of content. Again, I am baffled by the home 3D industry’s marketing strategies.

Last February, before the Super Bowl, I purchased a 42-inch LG Cinema 3D LED-backlit set and I have been enthralled not only by its HD image quality, but also by its 2D-to-3D conversion capability.

“Two years ago LG redefined the whole category of home 3D when we brought out our Cinema 3D sets,” said John Taylor, vice president of public affairs for LG Electronics USA. “That’s because they use the same polarized 3D glasses worn in a movie theater.”

Oh yes, I can hear the knee-jerk reaction against 2D-to-3D conversion, but those knee-jerkers may be discounting the success of its use in many blockbusters including all of the Marvel Studios 3D features.

I find this 2D-to-3D system highly satisfying, partially because it intelligently utilizes positive parallax that recedes most of the depth back into the screen. After all, who wants things popping out at you?

Sports, especially baseball, can be fun to watch converted into 3D. I regularly use vintage Warner Bros. cartoons as test samples when film or TV industry friends drop by. And the fact that LG won’t disclose which algorithms they are using for the process only makes me more curious why it works so well with black-and-white films. Watching Humphrey Bogart walk in front of Sydney Greenstreet in “The Maltese Falcon” immediately underlines the added value of this extra dimensionality.

When my party guests for last February’s Super Bowl XLVII viewed the spectacular Beyoncé half-time show converted into 3D on this remarkable LG set, the only thing they wanted to do when the game was over was watch the half-time show again. In 3D, of course. LG’s 2D-to- 3D feature is not perfect, but it is downright acceptable to help fill the vast void of 3D offerings to the home.

Strangely, when I accidentally discovered my subscription to Verizon’s FiOS service offered two (unadvertised) free movies in side-by-side 3D, my call to their tech support, asking where such offerings were listed, received the baffling response, “I have no idea. Nobody ever asked me about that before.” I was directed to the billing department, which was equally clueless.

But, there is hope. Now that Netflix has started testing the streaming of 3D entertainment on its Netflix Open Connect network we may finally get access to its vast 3D library.

For those who still want to get snarky over 3DTV, there is always 4K on the horizon. Right?

Jay Ankeney is a freelance editor and post-production consultant based in Los Angeles. Write him