Monday, March 31, 2014

The Future of Indie Filmmaking in 3D

Indie Filmmaking in 3D

At no other time in history has the film industry experienced such overwhelming disruptive technology in both filmmaking and distribution. With the dawn of digital cinema in the last decade, nothing about the feature film industry seems the same.  Today native and converted 3D, high frame rates (HFR), ultrahigh definition (UHD) and most recently high dynamic range (HDR) have become common buzz words among leaders in digital cinema technology and filmmakers alike.

However, with all these advanced tools available to the filmmaker, the technology driving new productions among the 6 majors and min-majors has been and continues to be 3D.  Indeed, eight out of the top ten highest grossing films of 2013 were 3D releases by both the majors and mini-majors and this year there are more 3D films projected to be released than ever before.

What’s So Special About 3D?
Aside from the incremental revenue from ticket sales and a clear preference for 3D by certain demographics, why is 3D so compelling? In my Blog Engaged in 2D and Immersed in 3D I explain from a neuroscience perspective the difference between passively experiencing story telling in 2D versus active personalized immersion into the story in 3D.

I consider 2D and 3D movies totally different experiences that are independent of genre. To restrict 3D and/or 2D to a specific genre is like saying that color might not be right for every film. Of course there are films that for creative reasons are shot in black and white but I believe most people would consider color appropriate if not essential for the majority of films released today even if color offers only negligible benefit. The same is true of 3D. Certainly the filmmaker's approach to lens a mystery or love story in 3D would be far different than that employed in a superhero, horror or SciFi film but that's simply a matter of training, experience, skill and a talented set of two eyes. Any well crafted film with a great story and acting can benefit from 3D. Like color, the benefit might be negligible but should be considered nonetheless. 

The Rest of The Filmmakers
But this article is about independent filmmaking, the proving ground from which most of our most talented directors have emerged.  It’s those directors with budgets of less than $10 million as well as the majority of independent filmmakers limited by budgets of between $1 million to zero dollars that have historically found 3D filmmaking unapproachable. The equipment and processes to produce 3D has been prohibitively expensive and distribution is essentially impossible.  So, what can an aspiring independent filmmaker hope to accomplish in 3D and once produced, how can their film be distributed and exhibited?

What 3D Camera Systems Are Available to The Indie Filmmaker?
The production of 3D using dual camera rigs remains out of reach for most independent filmmakers. Beam splitter rigs are the only way to produce realistic 3D close-ups and mid-shots because the intra-axial distance or distance between the two lenses cannot be positioned close enough to simulate the human 3D visual experience. Consequently, off the shelf side-by-side stereo cameras with fixed intra-axial distances have been the primary option available to the cash-challenged Indie film producer.  The ability of those cameras to lens a proper 3D film is close to impossible except in the most experienced hands.

Conversion of 2D to 3D Becomes Both Available and Affordable

The cost of converting Hollywood tent pole films four years ago was prohibitive expensive even for many of the major studios.  Those costs have come down to a fraction of what they once were but they remain out reach of most independent filmmaker's budgets.  However, today there are several off the shelf 3D conversion packages that can be found via a simple search on Google.  They are relatively easy to learn and, while still labor intensive. they can often produce acceptable results in the right hands.

Off the shelf conversion packages such as plugins for Nuke and Aftereffects are very effective in converting character driven films or even some films with minimal visual effects.  The only limitation is the knowledge, experience, skill and talent of the filmmaker.  However there are some exceptional texts on the subject of creating 3D movies.  One in particular is 3D Story Telling: How Stereoscopic 3D Works and How to Use it by Bruce Block and Phil “Captain 3D” McNally.

What About Exhibition of Independent 3D Films?
Today, the high cost of converting a movie theater to digital cinema has forced many of the independent, hometown theaters; long a downtown fixture all over the U.S. to shut their doors.  Consequently, it’s been difficult if not impossible to get indie films exhibited anywhere other than art film festivals where 3D projection is typically unavailable. However, art film festivals can exhibit 3D independent films on 60” to 85” passive 3D TVs that provide perfectly acceptable viewing experiences.  I’ve demonstrated 3D content to audiences of several hundred with no more than one to three big screen 3D TVs synced up to a Blu-ray player.

Distribution Is About to Undergo a Paradigm Shift
Exhibiting in mainstream theaters is certainly out of the realm of possibility for the vast majority of independent filmmakers. However, I believe distribution of independent films is about to take a dramatic shift from theatrical exhibition to distribution via online steaming to smart TVs.  In addition, Indie streaming portals on laptops, tablets and cell phones will eventually level the playing field for independent filmmakers even with the smallest budgets.

The availability of 3D conversion for the majority of independent filmmakers has now become an off the shelf option that makes the high cost of native capture unnecessary.  However, creating quality 3D films is no different than making 2D films in that experience, skill and talent are essential.  Exhibiting and distributing independent 3D films requires a bit of innovation but the use of passive big screen TVs at film festivals and the distribution independent films via streaming movie portals cannot be far off.