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August 2014
Issue: November 1, 2010

Dispelling the Myths: 2D to 3D conversion

By: Dr. Barry B. Sandrew, Ph.D.

Due to the incredible success of this year’s 3D releases, the studios are enjoying their best box office success in the history of the entertainment industry. As a result, increased attention is being placed on the expansion of 3D across many different platforms to ensure its continued success.  While the consumer electronics industry focuses on increasing the number of 3D-ready TVs in the home, the studios continue to inventory their catalog titles in response to demand from retailers and to maximize the bundling opportunities with TV manufacturers. Additionally, with audiences remaining largely unfazed by the premium placed on 3D ticket prices, theater exhibitors are enthusiastic about the growth of 3D and are incentivized to convert their digital theaters to 3D. 

Yet all of this begs to ask the most important question, how will the creation of 3D content keep up with this growth? How will the industry continue to generate enough high-quality 3D content to satisfy the increasing demand from audiences worldwide? The answer to this lies in the conversion of 2D feature films to 3D. Without the use of conversion as a valuable tool, a shortage of 3D content is almost guaranteed. With it, the industry remains poised to create the necessary critical mass to make 3D ubiquitous.

Today, along with Legend3D, a handful of conversion companies can successfully execute high-quality work on a full-length feature film.  Despite recent controversy surrounding 2D-to-3D conversion, triggered by poorly converted films rushed to completion, the nascent conversion industry continues to produce exquisite visuals on many new feature films and catalog titles, wowing audiences across the globe. Two such examples are the work that Legend3D completed on Alice in Wonderland for Imageworks and Disney, and its recent conversion of several films for DreamWorks. These conversions have been lauded as the best conversions to date and reinforce the fact that, when the appropriate time and budget are dedicated to each project, the converted finished product is, in fact, indistinguishable from those shot in native 3D. But what sets a high-quality 3D conversion experience apart from the rest? In order to ensure optimal results, filmmakers should consider the following factors:

Stereographer: Hire one — plain and simple. This lands at the top of the priority list for any filmmaker considering 3D conversion. Ideally, the contracted stereographer will have successfully completed long-form projects, via capture or conversion, with a keen understanding that feature film conversion is more complex than that of short-form commercial work. Furthermore, when selecting a stereographer, be sure to consider the particular demands of the film, including its genre (conversion for live-action and conversion for animation content require very different approaches). An alternative is to utilize the stereographic talent employed by the conversion studio. For example, Legend3D has 10 seasoned stereographers, and though creative collaboration is key, each is responsible for maintaining the artistic vision on a specific conversion project. As such, the stereographic talent can save the filmmaker considerable time and money by advising him or her on the nuances of stereo conversion to further the storytelling process.  

Production or Post-Production Process: If the conversion company has the experience, talent, technology and pipeline to accommodate a limited production timeline, the conversion can be successfully completed within a post production environment. Recently, Legend3D successfully converted three separate films in just a little more than six months, and did so with essentially flawless results. That streamlined timeline is certainly the exception, opposed to the rule; for most conversion studios, a more realistic time frame allots 12-16 weeks, per film. It is still recommended that the stereographer be involved in the earliest stages of pre-production. The stereographer can advise the filmmaker on how best to create assets, such as clean plates and alpha masks, to aid in the conversion process, reducing conversion costs overall. 

Depth Score: A feature film’s musical score is intended to follow the emotions of the scene and heighten audience suspense by creating the film’s proper pacing. The same can be said for the use of a depth score for 3D films. When properly executed, the depth score can facilitate the stereo design and streamline the client approval process, when accompanied by depth design frames. The depth design frames can serve as a representation of the filmmaker’s creative vision, ensuring the initial intent is carried through to final execution, possibly minimizing unnecessary review cycles. The creative choices that determine where and how often the audience will experience depth can often indicate cost as well. In this way, the depth score can greatly assist in an effective bidding and budgeting process.  

Assets: The more VFX, alpha masks and clean plates that are available to the conversion house, the more efficient the production. These assets become increasingly important as greater depth is created within a given shot. Proper use of assets can improve the quality of the final visuals. Furthermore, the clean plate can greatly reduce the time and cost required to make the stereo immaculate. 

Approvals: Creative and technical iterations are a necessary part of the conversion process, and any quality storytelling. The number and extent of iterations can dramatically increase the time and cost of the conversion, and one way to reign in this process is to employ a single creative voice on the filmmaker side. The filmmaker, stereographer and conversion studio must be in sync with review protocol and set the parameters used for approvals from the beginning. In order to avoid an open-ended iteration process, consider building an iteration budget into the contract, allowing for a specific percentage of cumulative footage to be adjusted throughout the process. This helps the filmmaker produce a film with the creative integrity that he or she desires, while not compromising the final delivery or overall quality of the finished product. 

Keeping the above best practices in mind will alleviate some of the labor-intensive steps, and erase the daunting idea of 2D-to-3D conversion. When executed correctly, today’s conversion work showcases the utmost creative storytelling and reinvigorates how audiences can experience entertainment. One thing is certain: while the industry continues to fine tune the conversion craft, filmmakers should not shy away from testing the waters, if intrigued by the process. There are resources available and successful case studies to ease the learning curve; just take your time, and plan accordingly. For years to come, 2D-to-3D conversion will be a mainstay in the filmmaker’s arsenal of storytelling tools, implemented to bring new life to many of the most iconic feature films residing in studio libraries, and those yet to be imagined.

Dr. Barry B. Sandrew, Ph.D., founder and president/COO of Legend 3D , is internationally recognized as a digital imaging expert and visual effects pioneer with more than 14 VFX patents and 23 years of feature film and TV accomplishments. Sandrew invented the first all-digital process for colorization in 1986 and evolved the process in 2001 at Legend3D. He has a career record of color converting more than 400 feature films, 70 classic cartoons and 207 television episodes. In 2005, Sandrew advanced this technology to develop an innovative approach that adapted Legend3D’s colorization technology and time-tested production pipeline to convert feature films from 2D to 3D.  Sandrew’s stereographic, technical and production expertise has established Legend3D as a leader in the stereo conversion industry. Sandrew is a member of the International 3D Society.