Monday, April 16, 2012

The Current Status and Future of 2D-to-3D Conversion

We are currently seeing a great deal of interest from the major studios regarding the 3D conversion of select titles from their catalogs. A newly converted “Starwars, Episode 1 The Phantom Menace” was released over a month ago to respectable box-office numbers. In a recent review, Richard Cosgrove writes, “From the very start, when the iconic Star Wars logo appears on the screen to herald the famous title crawl (which really does go off into the distance now), the 3D is both all consuming and immersive. The detail on spaceships as they cruise by, or battle droids as they line up in their squadrons, is awesome.” He adds, “the 3D works so well that particularly in the more dialogue heavy scenes in the various palaces, spaceships and other locales in the film, the feeling of actually standing in the room with the characters is very convincing.”  Similarly, “Titanic” was converted and released on April 6th. It also pulled in very respectable box office figures, particularly internationally and the film has since been the focus of wide acclaim. In Lou Lumenick’s recent review, he writes “the 3-D in “Titanic’’ is more effective and immersive than for most films I’ve seen that were originally filmed in the process.”  He goes on to write, “With added depth, the iceberg-stricken vessel rising vertically in the water, breaking in two and sliding under the waves is even more awe-inspiring than it was at first sight in late 1997, when “Titanic’’ began a still-record 15 weeks at the top of the US box office.”  At Legend3D, we are confident that "Top Gun 3D" will do as well and may bring in even higher box office numbers because of its potentially broader demographic appeal.

The reason catalog titles are being tapped for conversion at this time is very simple. The catalog titles that are going through conversion are known entities: veritable iconic cinema from our American film heritage. They are titles that were exceptionally successful on their first release so there is little risk in spending a relatively modest amount of money for conversion and re-releasing them today in 3D.  These titles are expected to reach a whole new generation of moviegoers, albeit, a more sophisticated audience that may prefer to experience the films for the first time in 3D.  There are also those people who were fans of these titles when they were first released and now want to experience them again, but this time in 3D.

Real-Time versus Non-Real-Time Conversion

Over the past two years, just about every TV manufacturer has attempted to create programs that can convert 2D content to 3D on the fly.  Of course, the reason for this focus on real-time conversion has been the lack of available 3D content.  In general, automated or real-time 2D to 3D conversion processes attempt to create the perception of 3D based on certain depth cues that we can detect with only one eye such as occlusion, saturation, brightness, texture, parallax, size, etc.  The problem with these algorithms is that monocular depth cues do not remain consistent over the course of a typical scene.  Inevitably, things become confused and objects often fall out of proper depth. If set up properly such programs could work in certain sporting events where camera positions are locked, the field is fully modeled ahead of time and lighting remains consistent but by in large, the process is generally flawed and inferior in quality compared to labor intensive, non-real-time feature film conversion.  Some people have equated real-time conversion to typical standards conversions such as the up-resolution of NTSC to HD. However, automatically adding lines to frames does not modify the original information or the quality of that information.  Theatrical quality 3D conversion changes the whole viewing experience in a profound manner, enhancing the storytelling via strategically planned depth placement, volume, convergence, inter-axial distance, etc.  A Stradivarius violin can truly be appreciated only when played by a virtuoso.  Likewise, converting a feature film from 2D-to-3D requires much more than the most advanced technology, it's a very subjective and creative process requiring a great deal of expertise and talent.   There are no short cuts in the process because attention to fine detail is an absolute necessity when attempting to achieve the highest quality product.  In addition, as I mention in my previous Blogs, an in-depth knowledge of the psychophysics of how we perceive stereo is essential to achieve optimal results.

The Changing Cost of Conversion

You’ll always be able to find a conversion company somewhere in the world that will offer to convert footage from 2D-to-3D at $3K/minute or even less.  Unfortunately, at that price range people get precisely what they pay for and disappointment reigns supreme.  On the other hand, pricing for the highest quality conversion of new feature film releases by the major conversion houses no longer has to be north of $100K/minute or even $90K/minute.  I have recently seen conversion work by one conversion studio priced above $110K/minute that I consider subpar in quality and I’ve seen conversion work by another conversion studio priced at $55K/minute that was quite acceptable. Poor quality conversion at top dollar prices simply hurts the industry and the only way to counter that trend is by encouraging strong competition within the market so that quality and price prevail. Conversion of catalog titles is a fraction of the cost of converting a new feature film because the footage of a library title is completely conformed, there are no visual effects to wait for, there is no directors cut to wait for and typically the review process is much simpler and streamlined, handled by the conversion vendor with a sign off by one authority from the client studio.

Evolution of 3D Conversion

There are currently three major conversion studios in the U.S., some midsized international studios and several smaller boutique operations that are all vying for new feature film contracts or pieces of new feature film contracts.  I believe that the days of multiple conversion studios working on a single film are largely over.  Today entire films are being converted by one designated conversion vendor, though in some cases the client studios are mitigating real or perceived risk by using one primary conversion vendor along with a minor vendor acting as a backup resource when/if necessary.  As mentioned in my opening paragraph, three iconic feature films are being re-released this year, Starwars, Titanic and Top Gun.  Each was converted by one of the major conversion vendors.  We've already seen from Disney that conversion of animated features is a winning proposition. I believe the quality of these three live action films will be a defining element in the future of catalog conversion if not conversion and 3D in general.  I believe that the three films, quite different in genre, will give the public an opportunity to assess what some are calling a pinnacle moment in conversion. It's my hope that an assessment of the creative and technical quality of each of the three catalog titles will be useful in defining a new quality standard for this medium going forward.