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Issue: May 1, 2008

SPECIAL REPORT: 3D STEREO BECOMES A REALITY AT NAB '08

By: Art Truman
LAS VEGAS - Twelve months ago, very few companies were offering anything to support stereoscopic 3D post; NAB 2008 showed us how much that has changed.
Stereo 3D on film has been around for many years but only recently, with end-to-end digital pipelines, has it been possible to reliably and consistently show the high quality results that are needed for comfortable and convincing viewing in new DCI-compliant digital cinemas. Also, new 3D television screens are becoming available.

The poor experiences with film made many people skeptical about the wider adoption of 3D and its use in full-length features, but digital technology is now changing that scene, studios are investing in 3D movies and the audiences are enjoying the experience. Ray Cross, CEO of Quantel reports that "25 3D films were made in the last 12 months." And Hollywood studios have announced 20 3D features to be released over the next two years. Perhaps the real driving force is that 3D cinemas can take more money… much more. The 3D screenings of Disney's Meet the Robinsons generated almost three times the money per screen compared to 2D, and Paramount's Beowulf grossed twice as much.

COLOR GRADING & MORE

Assimilate's Scratch has been highly active in the 3D post scene with its 3D tools stretching back all of 18 months — a long time in digital stereo 3D — and was famously involved in the post production for U2 3D. Assimilate (www.assimilateinc.com) CEO Jeff Edson sees a rapid growth coming in 3D post. "It will be pretty pervasive next year, but post is not the limiter of 3D projects," he says.

"The demand for 3D cameras has soared and there are not enough to go around. Also, in post an enormous amount of time is spent fixing the anomalies of the camera. The digital camera world has the potential to make it simple and then, at some point, the whole thing will become easy. At that point post becomes purely a creative medium."
A major Scratch feature has always been its data management. Edson points out, "It's twice as hard as 2D but that's already handled in Scratch's 'Construct' area. Data management is a key issue for 3D and this is the most powerful part of Scratch."

Quantel (www.quantel.com) was fast out of the blocks, announcing its 3D post suites in September at IBC. These work on the established iQ and Pablo equipment. Marketing director Steve Owen makes it sound simple. "We'd always had a second port designed into Pablo [and iQ] so we're using that to give us live uncompressed realtime 3D and have added 3D tools. FotoKem now have three 3D Pablos that helped to complete the post on the 3D shoot of Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds concert tour in 11 weeks, achieving the tightest 3D post completion ever."
 Another important aspect was that the 3D concert packed theaters and took $31 million in the first weekend — an average of $45K per screen. It has since passed $70 million, providing more evidence that 3D can pay.

Quantel emphases its realtime operation with live left and right eyes in view. The new 3D toolset includes realtime convergence tools that fix left/right camera miss-adjustments. Added to that there are creative tools for 3D manipulations such as moving objects forward or back into the screen. Owen points out that, "Not everything has changed. Post is still about narrative tools. The 3D is just another part of post, which is still about making the images look beautiful."

Digital Vision (www.digitalvision.se) has recently entered the 3D arena. Its Film Master V.4.0, with 4K realtime capabilities, was announced at the show. Simon Cuff, president/COO, says, "I'm encouraged by the view that 3D is where the big budgets are making higher value projects with post playing a bigger part." At the show, Digital Vision extended its cooperation with third-party manufacturers. It teamed up with Avid to incorporate its just-announced Avid stereo editor as well as using hardware from DVS.

Cuff also sees synergies within the company. "We have well-established motion vector technology that gives us intelligent image analysis in 3D. This could be applied to correcting the camera left/right eye distortions such as keystoning and interocular distant adjustments." This could also benefit from the company's new Turbine stackable renderfarm with each slated to provide 10 times the processing power of the widely used eight-core workstation. There is plenty of potential here and it will be interesting to see everything working together.

Iridas SpeedGrade (www.iridas.com) is another stereo 3D post device. It can take care of rig issues (i.e. differences between left and right camera positions) in realtime. COO Patrick Palmer points out, "Attempting color correction on stereo images is flawed as the viewing glasses darken the result by one f-stop. Working on one camera only allows this to run in realtime up to 2K. Also, it allows individual attention to single-eye effects such as lens flares. Recent projects using Iridas includes work on Dark Country from Sony Stage 6.

Nuke 5 from The Foundry (www.thefoundry.co.uk) is offering Ocula, a new set of six tools for stereo. It can operate as one tree, with left and right eyes treated the same, or as two trees, where each is treated separately. These provide intelligent operation by creating a "disparity map" between left and right images to calculate their differences. For example rotoscoping or painting on the left eye is correctly mapped onto the right. There are also the familiar camera miss-adjustment tools for H & V position and rotation — that includes keystone effects.

Not everyone is yet showing stereo 3D tools, including Autodesk (www.autodesk. com). Sebastian Sylwan, senior film industry manager, explains, "We still have a lot of exploring to do and this is not limited to one part of the process. Stereo gives creative potential and we are focusing on that. This will be a holistic and integrated pipeline approach and we will make some product announcements at Siggraph."

RECORDING & MONITORING

Those working in stereo may want to locate two-channel recording systems. There are a number on the market, including Wafian's (www.wafian.com) new HR-2-DS. This is dual stream for HD-SDI (4:2:2) or single stream for 4:4:4 and uses Cineform compression. Codex (www.codexdigital.com) is already well established with its recorder but they have now just introduced the Portable. Both have much the same recording and playback facilities (including two channels of 4:4:4 HD) but the Portable is far smaller and lighter, and uses 4:1 JPEG 2000 compression. S.two (www. stwo-corp.com) has a range of studio and portable production recorders operating uncompressed. The latest is the DFR2K digital film recorder which records HD, HD 4:4:4, 2K and 3K, and has built-in de-Bayering for live production of single sensor cameras, and frame rates up to 60f/s.

There are now a multitude of stereo monitors being offered as well. On that subject, Cine-tal (www.cine-tal.com) now offers its Dolby 3D color processor, which performs accurate left eye/right eye color balancing for color grading suites and screening rooms using the Dolby 3D Cinema Color Filter for digital 3D stereoscopic projection — extending color management to Dolby 3D environments.

As we look back on NAB '08 a year from now, will it be clear that this year's show signaled the turning point for stereo 3D? Yes! Not only is there strong support from the manufactures with a wide choice of suppliers, but also the absolute essential, the viewing figures, are now looking good.