Much to the delight of producers — and to audiences on the receiving end of stereo 3D content — options for high-quality 2D-to-3D conversion have increased in the last few years. A number of facilities in the U.S. and Canada offer 3D conversion services, often in conjunction with international vendor partners for a sun-never-sets approach to workflow efficiencies. Proprietary software is paired with off-the-shelf solutions to optimize pipelines and reduce costs for content of all types.
PRIME FOCUS WORLD
After launching in India 15 years ago, Prime Focus World (www.primefocusworld.com) is now headquartered in Los Angeles, with production facilities there, in London, Vancouver and New York. The company offers visual effects and stereo 3D services, and counts Clash of the Titans, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and the new Wrath of the Titans and Men in Black 3 among its 2D-to-3D stereo conversion credits.
Says chief strategy officer, Bobby Jaffe, “We have a team of 4,500 people and technology that we customize and adapt to meet directors’ needs.”
Prime Focus World comes to the stereo 3D conversion process with “a filmmaking mindset,” Jaffe says. “CEO Namit Malholtra and myself are third-generation filmmakers, so we understand how to be part of the process. Filmmaking is in the DNA of the company and our technology.”
The company’s View-D proprietary toolset is fully customizable. “The whole idea is to develop a toolset and artistically integrate it across the scope of the company,” says Jaffe. “When we did the lightsaber for Star Wars, it presented a new challenge with transparencies and lighting effects. Our R&D team was tasked with developing new and efficient toolsets to expand the capabilities of conversion and now we have that solution available for any laser-type effect.”
Prime Focus’s Jaffe cites their 3D conversion work for Men in Black 3 as “a model” for new releases. “We were involved with Joyce Cox and Corey Turner before they went into production, working out workflows and pipelines with all the VFX companies, including ourselves. So the transfer of material went very smoothly. We like to work as quickly as possible to get footage to the stereographer and director so they have an opportunity to play with the depth, the iterations and dial in exactly what they want.”
He notes that the company has become “expert in data management by necessity and design. Complete movies — whether they’re Men in Black 3 or Wrath of the Titans — can have 2,000 shots and tens of thousands of iterations by the time they’re done. Our Prime Focus Technology division has developed a secure, easy-to-use cloud solution for data management that keeps us moving forward and is now deployed throughout the marketplace.”
Jaffe says the launch of a Prime Focus NY facility will service the post production needs of that market and serve as a gateway to 3D conversion and VFX global teams. Interest is developing in NY for conversions for commercials and TV programming for the burgeoning 3D networks. “The London Summer Olympics will be broadcast in 3D and that’s just around the corner,” he notes.
“We have developed a toolset with the quality, definition, speed and price point [required by] TV and home markets,” Jaffe says. “We want to be optimized for the individual user as 3D becomes the global norm on iPhones, computers and televisions.”
Legend Films opened in 2000 in San Diego as a digital colorizing company; it developed a proprietary 3D conversion process six years later and changed its name to Legend3D in 2009 (www.legend3d.com). With 30 conversion patents, Legend3D takes “a totally different approach” to the process, says founder/CCO/CTO Dr. Barry Sandrew. This successful approach has garnered credits ranging from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides to the Academy Award-winning Hugo and the upcoming 3D release of Top Gun.
“Over the past 18 months we have improved the efficiency of our process and built a project management and asset control system, which takes out a lot of the human error as we move massive quantities of material, which can amount to 180,000 frames with hundreds of different levels,” points out Sandrew.
In addition to developing the asset control system, Legend3D “redid the pipeline to make it more efficient,” he says. “By improving the technology and automating certain tasks, we have brought costs down 30 to 40 percent.”
The company’s artist-friendly user interface also promotes speed and efficiencies. “It takes a lot of the technology out of the process so our artists can work in a straightforward way to create depth,” he says. “We’re now working on a realtime editing process, so ideally the stereographer will be able to make changes on the fly and see them right away with rendering done later.”
All the creative happens in Legend3D’s San Diego headquarters where 240 artists and engineers are housed. The company also maintains a facility in Patna, India, where a staff of 320 handles in-between masking for key frames delivered via server. “The pipeline is working beautifully,” reports Sandrew.
The company just finished the entire 3D conversion for Top Gun (the original version is currently available on Blu-ray) and is working on a trio of features shot in 2D and slated for release in 3D. Legend3D has also done conversions for cinema commercials for Chase, Verizon and Pedigree dog food.
The company recently introduced a broadcast conversion solution. “We’ve created a totally different process that fits within TV budgets,” says Sandrew. “We’ve approached broadcast from a different perspective to keep prices down, but the quality of the conversion still holds up. We used a combination of our theatrical process and new broadcast process on the Chase cinema spot, and it saved a good deal of time while remaining very high quality.”
Only 18 months on the 3D conversion scene, Vancouver-based Gener8 (www.gener8.com) has been growing by leaps and bounds, starting with 3D conversion of about 10 minutes of Priest and the Room of Requirements sequence in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 to completing about 90 percent of the conversion for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.
“We worked with Iloura in Melbourne, Australia, the primary VFX vendor for Ghost Rider,” says Gener8 COO Tim Bennison. “We partnered to create a pre-VFX pipeline, which enabled us to share a match move at the beginning of each shot, then work in parallel to VFX in post, exchanging data all the way through. This gives you a much longer timeline for conversion than traditional post-conversions, where the effects are baked into the 2D. It proved to be a fantastic experience for us and the client. We produced the highest-quality, most cost-efficient conversion with stereo VFX integrated in true 3D space.”
Bennison says, “Our method of 3D conversion lends itself to VFX work.” Gener8’s system “recreates a CG 3D replica of every shot — modeling the set and rig and animating the actors and props — so we’re starting with a replica of the scene in true 3D space, like a high-fidelity previs,” he explains. Once that’s accomplished “the rest of the process is virtual native stereography — creating virtual camera pairs as if you were shooting with a stereo camera rig.”
The advantage to the process is that it allows Gener8 to “integrate closely with the VFX vendors; whether they’re mono or stereo, they’re working in 3D space and we are too. So our live-action conversion sits very well with the VFX. There’s no guesswork, no eyeballing it. It all works out very naturally.”
Bennison notes that the company’s process can be deployed on a large scale thanks to vendor partners in India, China, South America and the U.S., who help with the shot recreation process; the Vancouver headquarters produces the final shots. “When you convert an entire movie you’re touching 2,000 to 2,500 shots, so an IT infrastructure and international vendor partners are very important,” he says. “We use industry-standard tools to recreate the shots and do final touch-up and use proprietary tools for the stereo work.”
Bennison and other key executives and technicians at Gener8 hail from the game industry, so they’re admittedly coming at motion picture problem solving in an unconventional way. “Our engineering team built the heart of the pipeline, which reflects our history in the gaming space,” he says. “It runs in realtime on a laptop so we can sit with the stereographer on the lot and author stereo with him while a shot is playing in realtime. Creative iteration is really easy; you can experiment with versions of a shot or across a sequence and make changes on the fly.”
Gener8’s rendering engine hardware is based on the company’s games heritage, too. “It’s completely different from the typical VFX giant renderfarm,” says Bennison. “It’s more like a render petting zoo — portable and impressive.”
Gener8 is currently working on multiple major features, and Bennison is happy with the progress the young company has made. “We’ve made a lot of cool presentations since Ghost Rider,” he notes. “Many VFX companies and VFX supervisors see the logic in an approach we developed out of naiveté. We only realized we were unique when people at SIGGRAPH told us we were the only ones working this way.”
When Frank Rainone was an executive with the Weinstein Company, he searched for a stereo 3D conversion facility for Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D. “We were looking for a conversion company best suited to the project and had six companies perform tests,” he recalls. “Speedshape was far and above the best.” So they got the job.
“Speedshape’s management and organizational skills went beyond anything I’d seen; and director Robert Rodriguez was impressed,” Rainone reports.
After Speedshape (www.speedshape.com) converted the entire feature, Rainone decided he “wanted to be part of” the 3D conversion process and joined Speedshape as executive producer and head of the New York office. The company is headquartered in Detroit, with offices in Venice, CA, and Montreal.
The Montreal studio is about three-quarters of the way through converting Weinstein’s Escape From Planet Earth in Montreal. Expected soon is another Weinstein-Rodriguez collaboration, Sin City 2. The company converted all the VFX shots for Piranha 3D,” whose live action was shot native 3D.
Speedshape’s involvement varies from project to project. “Robert Rodriguez had experience shooting stereo 3D so he had the technique in mind when he shot Spy Kids,” says Mike Ward, VFX supervisor at Speedshape Detroit. “In our discussions and initial reviews for Planet Earth, we talked and advised about things to ‘look out for’ in quality conversion. We transplanted two of our compositors in the Rainmaker facility [where animation is being done] to not only pull CG elements and layers of shots for a better quality conversion, but also help Rainmaker’s compositors set up shots for cleaner and more efficient conversion when we get them.”
The company ingests individual shots from EDL frame sequences into its file structure, then implements Shotgun, the cloud-based shot management tool, to deliver elements to artists. “Shotgun helps facilitate massive file transfers automatically and offers checks and balances,” says Ward.
“We try to leverage as much off-the-shelf software as possible and mix it with our proprietary tools,” he explains. Speedshape taps Autodesk’s 3DS Studio Max and Maya to build sets to match plate photography, Pixel Farm’s PFTrack to perform match moves and The Foundry’s Nuke for custom conversion toolsets. The company’s proprietary process pulls depth maps, performs rotoscoping and generates left- and right-eye versions.
“People who have worked elsewhere have told us it’s the amount of refinement we’re able to do and the ease of use of the tools we’ve developed,” says Ward about their process and way of working. “We continue to refine and develop things throughout, and our engineering team helps solve issues that come up along the way. We’ve automated a lot of mundane tasks and provide a lot of QC. Our process gives a tremendous amount of control to the amount of depth and where you place things in space.”
Ward says the company quickly built talent pools in Detroit and Montreal, training traditional compositors and painters on the Speedshape toolset, and “rolling out new toolsets quickly and efficiently to address any issues they discover. The quality of conversions has improved so much that producers are taking a second look at shooting 3D stereo, with all the gadgetry required for a successful stereo shoot, and coming back to conversions.”
In just two years, Burbank’s Stereo D (www.stereodllc.com) increased its staff from 14 to more than 250, then, in May ‘11 it was acquired by Deluxe Entertainment Services Group. “All creative work is channeled through Burbank, where we have 350-450 artists,” says Aaron Parry, CCO/executive VP. “We also have a facility in Pune, India, which supports our Burbank operations.”
Stereo D’s most recent job was as 3D conversion lead for the release of Titanic 3D. The company converted 95 percent of the film; during that same time The Avengers and other features were also in-house in a true test of Stereo D’s service capabilities.
According to Parry, Stereo D’s approach to 3D conversion is “very style- and studio-agnostic. There’s no one-size-fits-all.” The company recommends best conversion practices to its feature film clients, then tailors “variations on that theme” to meet the demands of the project, he says. “Our goal is to be involved earlier and earlier — when the script is fresh off the presses or when a filmmaker starts to envision 3D,” says Parry. “We can take test material or the first dailies and build a stereo vocabulary so the director can formulate opinions about what he likes.”
An alternate approach, often involving a 3D-savvy director, finds Stereo D spending “20 to 25 weeks executing on the director’s vision” after a film wraps.
In either case, Stereo D works closely with the creative editors to ensure a strong editorial delivery. “Editors give us raw plate material or the one-light from the DI facility,” says Parry. “We use a lot of custom software for ingest and maintaining metadata — we don’t rename material but append our versioning information onto the data. We’re based on continuity. Most of our senior management is composed of filmmakers, so we know the flexibility filmmakers demand and built the studio with that in mind.”
The company’s toolset includes Stereo D’s proprietary VDX software as well as third-party tools such as SilhouetteFX’s Silhouette software for rotoscoping, Nuke and Adobe After Effects. “Our pipeline features our own VDX software for filling in occlusion and providing realtime feedback so creatives can make artistic choices,” Parry explains. “With VDX’s level of iteration we keep the conversation more about the stereo and less about the technology.” For pipeline and studio management, Stereo D uses C.T.A.C. proprietary asset and production management software, which ensures projects and data are tracked in realtime. “Our specialized workflow is enhanced by Deluxe’s suite of digital and creative services, which make Stereo D an end-to-end solution,” he adds.
Parry forecasts a “bright future” for 3D conversions of day-and-date releases as well as legacy titles. In other markets, he believes the upcoming Summer Olympics will soon start to fuel conversions for commercials. He’s also seeing content for in-store autostereo displays, which he thinks will “slowly lead to better home experiences. Everybody’s striving for that glasses-free 3D experience.”
A VFX studio which first consulted on 3D conversion about four years ago, Santa Monica’s 3DPaint/FX (www.3dpaint.com) is now working with Fox as the studio preps some of its library titles for Blu-ray 3D.
“3D conversion is still an expensive proposition,” notes company founder Tom Polson. Fox had begun converting titles in partnership with JVC and 3DPaint/FX: By combining JVC’s conversion technology with 3DPaint/FX’s roto and paint services, a significant improvement in costs can be achieved.
“Everybody thinks conversion is a big gold mine with high per-minute charges,” Polson explains. “But when you get to library titles, that formula doesn’t work. You have to rethink your approach. We’ve developed a pipeline that functions well for libraries.”
3DPaint/FX’s process involves “some very strong partners with roto and 3D experience,” he says, including a vendor in India that can handle large volumes of detailed and complicated roto in a very cost-effective manner. “For the Fox title I, Robot we had 120,000 frames of roto. Our partner can do 70,000 frames a month — it would be hard to set that up here with the same economies.”
Still, many of the same challenges remain. “With a library title you’re limited by what has been shot, so your creative choices are also limited,” he explains. “As we do more titles, we will be taking on more of a creative role in addition to managing the workflow.”
The conversion process is done at JVC’s lab in Japan. “It’s a semi-automated process that delivers very good results with fewer conversion artists,” says Polson. “JVC uses algorithms to enhance the shape and volume on different layers, and creates a very natural, clean conversion with no anomalies.”
After the conversion is done, the Indian vendor performs paint and clean-up, then 3DPaint/FX adds VFX enhancements, if needed. “As we start to do more films we’ll be ramping up in Santa Monica,” Polson reports. “We’re also looking at some other ways to work with partners. This part of the market [i.e., library titles] is volume business — roto, paint, clean up — it’s huge. So we’re always trying to find the best way to implement solutions; it’s all about creating efficiencies.”
The solutions that 3DPaint/FX devises for library titles will also provide a model for 3D conversion for television. “We’re working with our partners to strike the right balance of quality and price for that market,” he says. “Titanic 3D is one of the best conversions ever done, but James Cameron is a premier filmmaker with a large budget that few library titles justify. Those same resources aren’t going to be available with a TV show.”
3D EYE SOLUTIONS
Orlando-based 3D Eye Solutions (www.3deyesolutions.com) has been performing media conversions with its proprietary software since ‘07. The company’s 3D Reality Splitter software enables them to convert any 2D content — for movies, TV, DVD content, games — to stereo 3D.
“For the most part we’re a post process, although we have been involved as consultants at the initial stage of a project to help the on-set stereographer, DP or director maximize conversion,” says founder Mike Gibilisco. “But a lot of studios now have their own crews who know how to shoot for 3D conversion, so they send us 2D DPX files and we evaluate how to break them down, which elements are to be isolated, and put them into 3D Reality Splitter.” Nuke, Imagineer Systems’ Mocha and Silhouette software are used in the isolation process.
3D Eye Solutions’ creative team plugs in parameters for zero (screen level), positive (depth) and negative (dimensional) parallax to push and pull elements in and out of the screen. Once a shot is approved and levels corrected, stereo left and right eye DPX files are rendered for the client to deliver to DI or the lab.
“We have implemented certain automations to cut down on time-consuming labor,” says Gibilisco.
All work is performed in its 10,000-square-foot studio, which can accommodate four or five features a year. A big advantage for 3D Eye Solutions is that once a shot is dimensionalized “we can tweak and view it in realtime before we render it,” he notes.
3D Eye Solutions has worked with Hollywood studios, networks and broadcasters; the lion’s share of its feature work has been new releases, although library content is also in the mix.
Among 3D Eye Solutions’ credits are Michael Jackson’s This Is It, the Weinstein Company’s Hood Winked Too, Gulliver’s Travels, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Conan the Barbarian 3D. The company has also worked with TFI in France and other foreign companies on autostereo (glasses-free) digital signage placed in malls, sports arenas and airports worldwide.