The Challenge of 3D

This is going to be the breakthrough year for 3D, or at least everyone in Hollywood seems convinced of it. There is even a major push to open whole new groups of 3D digital cinema theaters in anticipation of James Cameron's sci-fi spectacular, "Avatar," due to be unleashed in December 2009.

And despite some surprisingly disparaging remarks from David Hill, chairman and CEO of the Fox Sports Television group, at this past December's 3D Entertainment Summit about the potential of near-term 3D sports broadcasting due to the costs of converting to live 3D TV production, several major experiments showing the feasibility of sending 3D through the ether have already been conducted. But although most industry insiders think of 3D as an acquisition format, editors know that the real challenge in adopting any new medium lies in post production. After all, we sit right at the bottom of the production funnel where all the magic really comes together. However, communication in "z-space" brings with it the need for a whole new grammar in visual storytelling, so throughout the year this column will be concentrating on the aesthetics of 3D as much as the technology behind it.


There have been several eras in cinema history when 3D slid off the screens as a passing fad, but today's capability of shooting each "eye" with HD cameras has enabled the success of modern live action 3D productions. One of the first to tackle this kind of 3D was James Stewart, producer/ director at Geneva Film Co. in Toronto, who shot the first commercial in digital 3D back in 2005 to boost the product launch of the Toyota Tacoma truck.

DreamWorks' 3D production "Monsters vs. Aliens" will hit theaters in March. ©DreamWorks Animation Stewart had seen some 3D tests NHK had shot at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics and realized its potential to grab viewers' attention. But Stewart had to find his own way to make the medium communicate the way he wanted.

With no 3D editing software available at the time, Stewart cut his HDCAM tapes shot by cinematographer Peter Anderson in 2D on an offline NLE and then, after compositing the left/right images at FotoKem in Burbank, Calif., had to evaluate the 3D effect in a dual-projector screening theater at the Real D offices in Beverly Hills.

"The main difference when you are cutting 3D is you need to be very aware of where the convergence point between the two eyes is going to be," Stewart said. "If you cut from a shot with negative parallax (in front of the screen) to a shot with positive parallax (in back of the screen) your eyes will have to snap from one to the other and this can be very irritating. Throughout a 3D film, your eyes are constantly converging and diverging as the material comes off the screen. So when you are editing you have to be conscious of how you are directing the audiences' eyeballs. Bad 3D, after all, can give the audience a headache."

But Stewart is convinced 3D is the wave of the future. As he says it, "A child born in 2009 will grow up not knowing what 2D is."

On the forefront of future theatrical 3D productions, Jim Mainard, head of production development at DreamWorks Animation, has been responsible for evaluating the 3D post processes the studio has chosen for releases such as "Monsters vs. Aliens," out in March, and next year's "Shrek Goes Fourth."

One lesson Mainard has learned is to keep the proportions of the "stereo window" in mind to maximize the depth of the shots.

"Because human eyes can 'toe in' more than they can 'toe out,' we've learned you can only put about 1/3 of the total perceived image depth behind the screen," he said. "The other 2/3 can be in front. So when we are controlling the 3D convergence during post production, we try to utilize this factor of human perception to create the impact of depth that best tells the story."

Even the format in which the 3D film is going to be released can affect the impact of a given shot. Mainard refers to this as "edge conflict."

"Suppose you shoot a foreground character in long shot and cut their heads off with the top of the frame," Mainard said. "In IMAX 3D this may be accepted by the audience because the giant IMAX screen exceeds their natural field of view. But on a standard-sized digital 3D screen the lack of the head can create a discontinuity in the audience's mind. So we have to make adjustments in post with the release medium in mind."

As to predictions for the future of stereoscopic (glasses-dependent) 3D presentations from a studio perspective, Mainard thinks that within 10 years more than 50 percent of the major feature film releases will be in digital 3D.

In fact, he feels the medium will be so dominant that people will have their own prescription 3D glasses made and will bring them to the theater.


Between now and the 2009 NAB Show we're going to be enthralled by the innovations manufacturers are going to be giving us for 3D post production. But for editors, many eyes will be on Avid and I've seen a demonstration of where this industry leader is going to be headed to provide 3D editors with the tools they need.

Avid previewed stereoscopic 3D creative offline editorial technology at the 3D Entertainment Summit, according to Michael Phillips, solutions marketing manager at Avid.

"We showed an integrated stereoscopic 3D offline environment where editors can continue to work in the Media Composer interface and watch the project in stereoscopic 3D in the cutting room," Phillips said. "Currently, large screen previews require a costly and time-consuming conform process in order to see the project in true form. Avid's approach is to allow offline editors to continue working in a 2D environment for the bulk of editing, eliminating the need to wear 3D glasses all day, but to view the project in stereo 3D on the client monitor in the edit suite."

One final gem from that crucial 3D Entertainment Summit was a preview of an autostereoscopic (no glasses) 3D display on an Apple iPhone. It's an overlay called the Wazabee 3DeeShell and it was showcased at MacWorld last month. Mobile 3D on an iPhone is just one more example of the impact zspace visualization is going to have on all our communications.

Listen to Jay's Feb. 2 interview about 3D technology on NPR.

Jay Ankeney is a freelance editor and post-production consultant based in Los Angeles. Write him at 220 39th St. (upper), Manhattan Beach, CA 90266 or at