“A fad that won’t last”… “the biggest advance in cinema since colour”… “nauseating and unnecessary” or …“the saviour of cinema”? 3D has been called many things since it’s (re)arrival on the modern Digital Cinema scene, and for every avid supporter, there’s an equal and opposite detractor.
The ghost in the 3D machine
Regardless of your opinion on 3D formats,
the technology spearheaded the conversion from 35mm to digital, is available on around 58% of global cinema screens and has been responsible for over $45 billion in global box office since its digital incarnation in 2005 with Disney’s Chicken Little. Simply put, 3D has been an integral part of the cinema landscape in the 21st Century. This feature seeks insight from industry luminaries, discusses how current technologies and consumer appetite are all having an effect on the 3D landscape of today, and examines the good, the bad and the ghostly(!) that are all shaping the future of the format.
The importance of 3D as a driving force in the transition from film to digital cannot be underestimated — during the early stages of digitisation, 3D installation rates were, in many circuits and territories, over 90% and even up to 100% of digital installs. It is well-documented how much James Cameron’s Avatar drove 3D (and in turn the digitisation of cinema) with its release in 2009. It still holds the Box Office record of $2.8billion globally — not only the saviour of 3D, but many would argue at the time the saviour of the cinema full stop.
But are the best days over?
Whilst the halcyon days of Avatar are history, the format continues to be important, as UK and Ireland Director of Sales at 20th Century Fox, Andrew Turner points out, “3D is here to stay, at least certainly for the foreseeable future. Whilst the UK has seen a comparably steeper decline with its 3D percentage of GBO (Gross Box Office) on titles, the bigger blockbusters are still regularly delivering 3D contributions north of 20% of the total GBO. Rogue One, the UK’s biggest film of 2016, delivered £17.63million in 3D box office revenue. That 3D GBO alone would have made it the 20th biggest title in a record-breaking GBO year competing with more than 900 new releases. Other major EMEA markets are notably more stable, such as Russia and Germany that boast a 56% and 65% GBO across all 3D titles. Fox continue to back and invest in 3D with titles dated as far out as Dec 2025 with Avatar 5.”
Andrew’s thoughts are echoed by Giovanni Dolci, VP of Theatre Development and MD Europe and Africa, IMAX Corporation. His view is that the immersive aspect of 3D can be central to the right type of film: “At IMAX, our goal is to provide filmmakers with the best suite of tools possible to help achieve their creative vision, whether that is 2D, 3D, film or digital. I believe that 3D can have a very immersive impact on the audience experience when done well and for the right kind of film — such as Avatar, Gravity and films this year including Guardians of the Galaxy and Transformers, the latter of which was shot in IMAX 3D. While I think you will continue to see filmmakers and audiences embrace various formats, technologies such as laser projection, which has vastly improved 3D brightness, and other advancements in capture and post-production will continue to progress the 3D experience. Audiences have demonstrated that, as long as the 3D content and presentation are top notch, they are still willing to pay a premium for it.”
In global terms the 3D ‘boom’ has now passed and whilst some circuits are still making every screen 3D capable and some countries are seeing up to 100% box office on 3D (due to, in some cases 100% only programming of 3D as is often the case in China), others are fitting out sites where 50%, or even fewer, screens are 3D ready — it is worth noting that few sites would have no 3D capabilities at all.
Passive polarised 3D systems are the most popular type of 3D technology in cinemas around the world, however, it is widely agreed that there is some degree of ghosting inherent and present in most polarised 3D cinema systems and presentations. The very best technologies can minimise ghosting to the point where it is virtually impossible to notice but the effect is generally more visible at brighter 3D levels and if the content contains any imperfections. Advances in recent years of more light-efficient systems are something of a blessing and a curse; with each system, screen and content combination needing to find a ‘sweet spot’ where the content looks at its best. Whilst hitting 14ftL 3D seems to be the goal of many exhibitors, it could be argued that with many current technologies, ghosting levels can be too high at such light levels. Perhaps in many cases a level of 6-7FtL could actually prove a better all-round experience?
Recent developments in laser projection are certainly helping to generate more light on screen; lasers are currently being used most widely to project through passive polarised 3D systems, but also on white screens and with RGB laser using colour separation and higher quality re-usable eyewear; as Bill Beck, ‘The Laser Guy’ from Barco, explains: “The future of 3D cinema is benefitting greatly from the deployment of RGB laser projection systems. Getting consistently brighter 3D on big PLF screens has been one of the most important early drivers of laser-illuminated cinema projection. But brightness is not the only advantage laser brings to the 3D experience. Higher stereo contrast; highly saturated colours, higher sequential contrast, improved uniformity on high-gain screens are all available in multiple 3D formats (“6P” colour separation, polarisation, active glasses). Showing 3D the way it was intended, first show, every show, enhances the experience in PLF rooms and in any large screen theatre where maximising 3D attendance pays big dividends to exhibitors and moviegoers alike”, Beck concluded.
Looking at the whole chain
The future for 3D will certainly be helped if we can have more ‘joined up’ discussions between all parts in the value chain, from content makers and producers through to exhibition and also colleagues in post-production. The post-production process of much 3D content is mastered on white screens, so the producers do not necessarily see where the ghosting is occurring or have the ability to correct it. When issues then arise with ghosting, the DCP is in circulation and it’s too late.
Whilst poor-quality screens, incorrect port glass and inferior technologies will all lead to an impaired 3D presentation, content also needs to be perfect for the illusion to be sustained. As Jan Rasmussen, Head of Screen Technology at Nordisk Film Cinemas, in Denmark, commented: “As long as commercially and artistically relevant content comes out of Hollywood, we will no doubt continue to show the movies in 3D and certainly on the biggest screens. At the same time, it is a serious issue that the quality of 3D in some instances is as poor as is the case. We have spent millions of Euros on being able to present 3D movies at the right light levels and on the best passive polarised systems we can find, but that doesn’t help if the technical quality of 3D on even some of the biggest Hollywood titles leaves us short. Over the past couple of years we have seen more blockbusters with far too much ghosting to justify both the premium price and the nuisance of wearing 3D glasses.
“As always, the future of cinema and cinema technology will be pushed by visionary filmmakers and cinemas investing heavily, pursuing opportunities and innovation. With direct-lit LED screens with HFR and HDR on the horizon, the depth perception of 2D images may well challenge the need for 3D in the cinema. But if Avatar 2 arrives in 2020 with glasses-free 3D of superior quality, who knows!?”
Important for the marketplace
Despite the many stumbling blocks that 3D has encountered, be it poor 3D conversions, general apathy in the consumer market or poor-quality presentation at exhibition level, the format is still extremely important for box office and something that exhibitors are happy with and want to offer their customers — eight of the Top 10 Global Box Office hits from 2016 were released in 3D.
Cinemagoers are increasingly being offered a more premium experience; be it a wider range of quality food and beverage, comfy reclining seats and the best audio-visual experiences ever available. 3D needs to keep up the pace and it needs to deliver a truly premium experience. Ever more savvy customers will not keep going back for more if the experience is sub-standard.
Roland Jones, Executive Director of Technical Services at Vue International, had this to say, “3D is still very much alive from an exhibition point of view, but is not growing. There is a significant proportion of customers who now choose to see a movie in 2D rather than 3D.
“Milestone movies like Star Wars or Avatar will skew more heavily towards 3D, which is a reflection of the higher quality of these 3D productions.
“I cannot see any major changes or innovations for 3D in the near term other than higher light solutions like laser or double stacks allowing for higher brightness versions of 3D films. Since these technologies are not widespread, there will be a limited impact overall, but this may reinforce 3D as a “premium” experience in a smaller number of screens.
“For future innovations to become adopted, it is imperative that the industry works together throughout the value chain. I have heard rumours about Avatar II being planned to be available in “glasses-free 3D”. I do not know how this could work, or what equipment we would need to procure for it. If exhibition can be involved as soon as possible in the innovation process, this would maximise the chances of economically and operationally viable solutions being created for the benefit of all.”
Well-told stories that are expertly produced and projected with quality 3D are simply stunning — a cinematic experience that can take movie-going to another dimension; and, importantly, it can be a true premium experience, one that cinemagoers are happy to pay more of their well-earned cash on. However, when any part of that chain breaks down, it has the opposite effect of immersion, taking the customer out of the moment and feeling, too often, ripped off.
So what is the future for 3D?
The best cinematic 3D is still yet to come in terms of production and projection, and we will continue to see progress being made with the format. The current buzz in cinema technology circles is all about LED screens such as those recently showcased by Sony Digital Cinema and Samsung (see page 52). Will these technologies gain momentum and can they or will they be 3D-enabled? Will they enhance the 3D experience or be competing technologies? Time will tell.
Will other new technologies help?
High Dynamic Range (HDR) is also an emerging creative space that could be both competitive or potentially complimentary to 3D, something that Michael Karagosian —president of MKPE, co-chair of the Next Generation Cinema Display Committee of the ASC Moving Image Technology Council, and creator of Cinepedia — points out: “The building blocks of 3D are market-driven and artistic. The market recognises the ability of 3D to command a bump in ticket price. Artists pulled to 3D are attracted by the element it can bring to story-telling. Not all artists are pulled to 3D, and many 3D movies are produced for market reasons.
“Market success relies on audience appetite for a novelty that requires people to wear glasses. However, audiences eventually grow weary of novelty, which is evident from the drop in 3D revenue per release in those parts of the world where digital projection has been around longest.
“The question is whether the negative trend expands and grows, or whether the 3D format is just riding a wave and we’re in an ebb. To better understand this invites a look at competition. 3D competition comes in at least two flavours: 2D, which requires no glasses, and the emerging format of HDR, which also can be appreciated without glasses.
“HDR can impact both market and artist. HDR is not just a brighter image, but a new palette for telling stories, in effect, competing for the artistic drive of filmmakers. HDR also delivers spectacle, which could command its own bump in ticket price and compromise the 3D market. Of course, one would expect HDR and 3D to be striking together, finally delivering properly bright 3D. And someone will write that production cheque. Which leads to the sage observation of a friend (who I won’t embarrass) who once described 3D as “akin to athlete’s foot: it just keeps coming back.”
Reflecting on the future of 3D according to a number of the world’s experts
I am convinced that for the future of 3D to be a strong and vibrant one, we need the value chain to be more joined up; with no true ‘standards’ in place and so many links in the chain not collaborating, it is inevitable it will continue to fall down more often than it should. As an industry we need to make sure that what is on-screen is what the Director, Producer and Distributor anticipated. Perhaps now is the time for a standalone trade body or association to work together on maintaining 3D standards and quality in cinema? If we can work more closely together to get it right as an industry, and the biggest talents in film making continue to believe in 3D, then the future will be very bright indeed!