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3-D or not 3-D? That is the Question.

One of the hot topics at AnimfxNZ was 3-D stereo and digital cinema. Dave Scammell, the President of SohoNet, ran a panel on the issue with Steve Schklair from 3ality Digital, Patrick von Sychowski from Adlabs/Reliance India, and Habib Zargarpour from Electronic Arts Los Angeles.

AnimfxNZ 3-D panel - EA's Habib Zargarpour (l to r), Adlabs/Reliance India's Patrick von Sychowski, 3ality Digital's Steve Schklair, and SohoNet's Dave Scammell.

One of the hot topics at AnimfxNZ was 3-D stereo and digital cinema. Dave Scammell, the President of SohoNet, ran a panel on the issue with Steve Schklair from 3ality Digital, Patrick von Sychowski from Adlabs/Reliance India, and Habib Zargarpour from Electronic Arts Los Angeles.

It's obvious that the move towards 3-D is slow and painful. Patrick has been in digital cinema for 10 years, and says 3-D is one of those developments that's always five years away. It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem -- stereoscopic 3-D in cinema is a function of the theaters' conversion from 35 mm cinema to digital cinema. He likens the changeover process to the process of switching from left-hand drive to right-hand drive.

Steve Schklair Steve is more optimistic. At one point, when asked if there will come a day when everything is shot in 3-D, he said, "I'd be branded a lunatic if I said everything is going to 3-D, so I'll just say Jeffrey Katzenberg says everything's going to 3-D, and he's way too powerful and important to be a lunatic."

He points out that when it's as easy to shoot in 3-D and when it costs the same as 2-D, everything will be shot in 3-D. After all why not? Thanks to the new technology, you can always shoot something in 3-D and play it in 2-D. And, as the audience keeps getting more used to it, 2-D will grow to seem incredibly flat.

And, in an encouraging development for theaters looking for ROI from their screen conversions, there's a heap of content coming down the pipe. Steve says there are 16 Hollywood features slated for release next year and his company is experimenting with live sports broadcasts in 3-D, to be shown in theaters. Patrick von Sychowski Patrick concurs; Disney and Pixar are doing all their animation in 3-D, and some people are going back and re-rendering 2-D films in stereoscopic, like The Nightmare Before Christmas. For some purists, this is horrible, but there is an upside: George Lucas has found yet another way to milk the Star Wars cow!

The game industry, represented on the panel by Habib, has a totally different perspective on the matter. The nature of games is that there is no camera – you could also say that all cameras exist simultaneously. Because a game engine has to render the total car and the total street and the total world, 3-D in gaming is just a question of flicking a switch.

In fact, NVIDIA has a 3-D enabled card that will allow you to see EA games in 3-D right now today, as long as you have a 3-D-enabled monitor. The problem is that all the cheats they do to make the game look great in 2-D fall away in 3-D and everything looks really simple.

So it is kind of ironic that the studios are pushing for 3-D to get people into the cinema, when the technology's really possible at home. In fact, as Steve points out, there are now polarized televisions that allow you to take the same glasses you saw Journey to the Center of the Earth with and watch 3-D content at home, and the pictures are amazing.

Back to Habib and the games industry, for whom the biggest 3-D issue is the format and how it's going to be supported, since they obviously aren't going to ship a TV with every game.

Habib Zargarpour That problem is a far cry from Habib's early days. He started in digital effects for film in a company called Mr. Film, working on IMAX movies in 3-D in 1991. There was no industry standard because there was no industry. They would do match moves to make the digital stuff match what they shot on set, but they were doing the match moves on a 19 inch monitor to be shown on an IMAX screen. As you can imagine, they were frequently dismayed by the results.

Frankly, it's amazing that analog 3-D worked at all. As Steve says, you couldn't shoot it with a regular budget, cameras weighed a ton, you couldn't change lenses easily, and you'd have dailies using two projectors that would be jittering independently so you were guaranteed to get a headache. That's why they kept shoving something out of the screen at you every few minutes, because it was the reward for putting up with the headache.

Those problems have been mostly solved with digital. It's okay for the projectors to be jittery in 2-D because at least your eyes are moving together, but in 3-D your projection needs to be stable and steady. If your eyes are forced to move in unnatural ways, you get a headache from using muscles you don't normally use. Colors need to match. Vertically, the pictures need to match. Geometry needs to match.

The other issue in 3-D is the edits – your eye has to jump from focusing on something that's 10 feet in front of the screen to something that's 30 feet behind the screen. So your eyes are doing calisthenics in your head. No wonder you get a headache.

Steve is also bemused by the almost fanatical approach some people take to the question of whether to shoot converged or non-converged. Some people think you should converge at the point of focus, but you don't always want that. The example he gives is a big scene with an actor far away in front of a tree. You want him to feel far away, so for that scene you might converge right up close to the camera.

Bottom line? These things take time and commitment from a variety of partners (think of the shift from DVD to Blu-Ray), and the credit crunch hasn't made financing digital screen conversions any easier. Nonetheless, according to our expert panel, progress towards digital 3-D is inevitable.

Better dust off those glasses. Kaila Colbin, the founder of Missing Link, is a frequent contributor to a variety of magazines.