“Side by Side”: eyewitness to film history

The impact of digital technology is being felt—for better and worse—across a wide variety of cultural sectors (books, music, photography). One of the most prominent disruptions has been in the rapid evolution of tools used to shoot, distribute, and project motion pictures.

The new documentary, Side by Side provides an insightful record of this moment in the film industry—the migration from traditional film capture, duplication, and delivery to digital cinema technology. It offers a thoughtful exploration of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going in this industry.

Written and directed by Christopher Kenneally, it is co-produced and narrated by actor Keanu Reeves who brings his own front-of-camera experience into the mix.

It’s easy to be giddy about the incredible new possibilities enabled by emerging technology. And it’s easy to be maudlin and nostalgic for old mediums and formats. Side by Side provides an unsentimental platform for prominent and passionate advocates—pro and con—to examine in more detail different facets of the transition.

“You can’t shoot 3D on film…so film has been dead in my heart for ten years” —James Cameron, director

“I hate 3D. I put on those glasses, I get sick to my stomach. The whole 3D phenomenon, it’s a marketing scheme, isn’t it?”
—Wally Pfister, cinematographer 

There is mainstream (George Lucas, James Cameron) and esoteric (Lars von Trier, David Lynch, Lena Dunham) support for digital filmmaking that enables advanced effects and  “democratizes” access.

There are also persuasive diatribes (from director Christopher Nolan, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and others) noting what is sacrificed, tangible and intangible, with the loss of the chemical film process and accompanying workflow.

I try not to do reviews here, but Side by Side is an excellent, entertaining film.  Balanced, beautiful to look at (in handsome 2D), it’s a must for anyone who cares about this business. Martin Scorsese, fresh off his triumphant 3D Hugo gets the last word: “How do you use it to tell a story? It’s up to the filmmaker.”

 

My New Terms of Service

It’s been a while since I posted to either of my blogs for a combination of reasons. One is being deeply immersed in doing the work that informs what I write about. The other, more difficult to describe, is grappling with something I’ll call “good internet citizenship.”

I work in technology—for the last dozen or so years at publicly traded companies. The deeper I dive into social media and online discourse, the more I realize the repercussions injudicious sharing can have.

While serving as Marketing Communications Director years ago for a publicly traded high tech company I went through formal media/PR training and had it drummed into me that information made public has to be disclosed equally. When this CFO lost his job for indiscreet tweeting I wasn’t surprised.

Investors, stock market bulletin boards, and chat rooms sometimes engage in a kind of Kremlinology for which offhand comments on Twitter and blog posts can easily become fodder.

Of course I know the rules about “quiet period.” It’s like Fight Club—you can’t talk about Quiet Period.  Not to mention signed non-disclosure agreements standard in our industry. So what about tweeting where I’m traveling? Industry gossip? Or my experience at a previous company that just went through a very public, very painful power struggle?

Although I’m gregarious both in real life and online, I know that I don’t have the luxury of making choices for myself alone. I am part of something bigger: a company, with management, colleagues, shareholders, and customers to whom I am responsible.

“The better part of valor is discretion,” said Shakespeare’s Falstaff, but does that mean that I can’t have a voice in the extremely exciting developments going on with the fields in which I have expertise?

I’ve been mulling these questions over and have come up with the following “Terms of Service.” I promise to abide by my end of the ethical bargain, and the following is what, dear reader, I expect from you.

Terms of Service:

  • My opinions are my own and don’t reflect the views of my employer, professional associations, family, or condo association.
  • What catches my eye is just that, what catches my eye. I’m not sending secret messages in code. Period.
  • If I have inside knowledge of good news about any publicly traded company (employer, ex-employer, customer, etc.) I can’t tell you. If I know bad news about same, I can’t tell you.
  • I will use language sometimes—usually quoting someone else—that you might not want your grandmother or grandchild to hear, consider yourself warned.

Acceptable use policy: you may use my blog posts, tweets, writing to make you think. You are welcome to agree, disagree, applaud and/or debate. You are welcome to share and exchange ideas with others.

______________________________________________________

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some writing to catch up on!

France takes aim at the silver screen

France’s Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée or CNC (in English “National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image”), is instituting an effort to ban silver screens across France and in the process making a strong statement on one of the nagging issues of digital cinema projection, low light levels, while dealing a serious blow for leading 3D exhibition systems.

Carole Lombard on the cover of a 1930 issue of "Silver Screen" magazine. The term is emotionally linked to the golden age of cinema.

Silver screens are synonymous with old school cinema, but in recent years they have become a required part of the kit for one of the most popular 3D exhibition systems, RealD.  They also tend to have a brightness differentiation so light levels drop off around the edges of the screen area creating a “hot spot” effect reminiscent of the old school movie experience. This compromises image quality for non-3D films and can impair viewing from some angles within the cinema.

The CNC on behalf of the French government is charged with  “supporting, regulating, negotiating, promoting and distributing, cooperating with local authorities, protecting film heritage.”  In the interest of improving image quality and visibility they are mandating that silver screens be phased out going forward. While the ban will not impact competitors Dolby and X-pand, RealD has a market share of about 75% of deployed 3D screens in France. The agreement to transition away from silver screens to bright white is being seen as a challenge to usability for 3D.

Variety has an excellent summary here, and the original announcement, billed as an agreement to guarantee quality in digital cinema, is available here (in French).

Planet3D comment: this is a reminder that technology has to keep up with quality demands.  It’s a commercial challenge, but in the final analysis audience experience is the most important thing.

The so-called "halo effect"

Next big thing: Star Wars in 3D

The countdown has started for the re-release of the 3D-converted “Star Wars Episode 1: the Phantom Menace” on February 10, 2012. One look at the trailer and it’s clear why this a perfect candidate for 3D. In the hands of a special effects perfectionist like director George Lucas the quality of the 3D conversion should be excellent.

 

But beyond the fanboy demographic and Hollywood’s canny mining for content to convert there’s an interesting context to this particular project.

George Lucas was an early and passionate advocate of digital cinema. “Phantom Menace” back in 1999 was one of the first high-profile films shot in digital format.  I remember the special screening at the annual NAB show (1999?) that galvanized the industry. We all realized this was the turning point in the acceptance of digital cinema and the rumor was that Lucas planned to use film only in digital going from then on. (Lucas’ recent labor of love, the action film “Red Tails”, is 3D only.)

Fast forward to CinemaCon 2011; Lucas—on a panel with well-known 3D cheerleaders James Cameron and Jeffery Katzenberg—predicted,  “So now, when you’re watching a movie and it’s not in 3-D, it’s like watching in black and white. It’s a better way of looking at a film… I totally believe now that 3-D will completely take over just like color did.”

Last week in an interview published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Lucas elaborated:

What made you want to convert this film into 3D?

Originally, I was not a big fan of 3D. I really thought it was a gimmick. But later, I was trying to get digital projectors into the theaters, doing a presentation in Las Vegas, when Bob Zemeckis and Jim Cameron came up to me and said, “We want to get 3D into the theaters. Would you join us in showing the theater owners that you can do 3D?” I said, “That’d be good because to do 3D you have to have digital theaters. So it would promote my idea of digital theaters.” When I saw the test that we did of “Star Wars” in 3D, I saw how great it looked.

How does seeing the film in 3D enrich the experience?

It’s like the difference between watching a film in black and white and watching it in color. It works in black and white but it works better in color. You don’t have to watch in 3D, but it actually works better in 3D. The depth brings a lot of reality to the digital characters like Jar Jar Binks and Watto. You feel that they’re more realistic.

The requirement for projecting 3D films has been an important catalyst in the wider deployment of digital cinema technology. This release is part of a wave of conversion of beloved classics to 3D that can help satisfy the demand for better content.

For both hardcore geeks revisiting an important chapter in a beloved saga, and a new generation of science fiction fans this is going to be an epic event!

 

International 3D Society 2012 Technology Awards

I had the great pleasure and privilege of attending the International 3D Society’s 2012 Technology Awards January 15.  It was a pleasure because there was a great venue, great luncheon, and it was a truly fun event.  I was privileged to be in the company of pioneers, brainiacs, and fellow enthusiasts.

All of the winners are doing very interesting things—I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the extraordinary work being done behind the scenes in this industry to ensure high quality, flexibility, and the best possible enduser experience.

The awards went to the following—in alphabetical order—for the achievement indicated. Click on highlighted items for links to more information about each particular company and award-winning technology.

Blu-ray Disc Association – “Blu-ray 3D Specification” This how we get 3D into your living room!

Corey Bridges accepting on behalf of Cameron-Pace.

Cameron/Pace Group – “Shadow D Technology and the Shadow D System” High-end, professional gear based on the genius idea of shooting 2D and 3D simultaneously on the same rig to make life easier for content producers everywhere (think sports).

Fuji – “Fujifilm Finepix Real 3D W3 Digital Camera” An affordable, consumer 3D camcorder. This brings 3D into the world of home video, and also serves as an entry-level 3D camera for budding auteurs.

Full HD 3D Glasses Initiative – “FHD3DGI Standard” so there is a consistent standard across manufacturers of active shutter glasses. This is good (and I have a closet full of proprietary chargers to prove it).  Kudos to Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and XPAND.

GoPro“3D Hero System” A nifty kit that puts together two Hero HD cameras into a (relatively inexpensive) rig to shoot 3D (and 2D).

HDMI Licensing, LLC“Standardization of 3D Formats over the HDMI Interface. Specification Version 1.4a” If you are reading this blog you’ve probably seen High-Definition Multimedia Interface® (HDMI) interface and cables. Again, this is a standard that, when strictly adhered to, assures maximum interoperability between different manufacturers and their products. This spec addresses issues particular to 3D so it’s an enabler.

LG Electronics – “LG Cinema 3D TV” State-of-the-art 3D television set.

Panasonic – “AG-3DA1 Twin Lens 3D Camera Recorder” A high quality 3D camera in a compact form factor. This is important because getting two lenses close enough together is a huge challenge. Cumbersome camera equipment has been one of the biggest barriers on the content side.  This is important progress.

Peter Wimmer – “Stereoscopic Player” Peter’s company 3DTV.at (from Austria) makes a well-regarded, solid, reliable software player for 3D content on PCs.

Silicon Imaging – “SI-3D Stereo Digital Cinema Camera System” is a 3D digital camera system that has an integrated stereo visualization system that enables immediate (no special processing) playback and editing capabilities using some neat visualization tools.

Buzz Hays from Sony accepting award.

Sony – “HDR-TD10 3D Handycam Camcorder” It’s a camcorder, an HD camcorder, a 3D HD camcorder. Let that sink in for a minute!

Sony – “Playstation 3”  Maybe you’ve heard of it? We’ll forgive them for erroneous warnings implying it’s dangerous for young kids (it’s not) because they are getting 3D into more hands.

Vizio – “Theater 3D” Big, beautiful 3D television with affordable (passive) glasses.

YouTube – “3D Channel” In a few short years YouTube has changed the way the world consumes video.  The YouTube 3D channel is another potential game-changer.

Society President Jim Chabin talking about the "Make it 3D" campaign.

These are exciting and interesting times. Congratulations to the International 3D Society and all of the honorees.


Oscar Nominations mark a new era in 3D

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences 2012 Oscar nominations have been announced and two 3D favorites are being recognized.

Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” tops the list with 11 nominations, and Wim Wenders’ “Pina” has been nominated for best documentary feature.

Other important 3D films—Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams“—were not nominated, and “Pina”, Germany’s entry for best foreign film, was crowded out of that category by stiff competition.

Oscar nominations along with the accompanying recognition and campaigns will raise the profile of any film. In the case of these two ground-breaking films it adds gravitas to the field of 3D filmmaking and proves that the popular success of “Avatar” was not a fluke but the beginning of a new golden age in 3D cinema.

Next Generation User Interface: 3D?

A friend sent me a link to a TED talk from earlier this year that presses us think about 3D—physical space really—in a whole new way. Much of this blog is focusses on 3D as a visual, media-oriented experience but John Underkoffler’s talk explores 3D interaction as the next generation of user interfaces.

Remember drooling over the fancy gesture-based human/computer interaction in the futuristic scifi film Minority Report a few years ago? I do.  Underkoffler led the team that developed that interface—dubbed the “g-speak Spatial Operating Environment”—and his company, Oblong Industries, is now developing it for real life applications for media, consumer, manufacturing, and technology applications.

Another 3D breakthrough as we continue to realize the world isn’t flat.

Considering buying a 3D TV? CNET has a Buying Guide

Some studies show that 3D in the home is booming, other studies show that it is taking a nose dive.  Presumably it depends who you ask and how you ask. If you are considering making the leap, the venerable technology website CNET has a very useful buying guide for 3D TVs.

 
Written by David Katzmaier, topics include:

The guide also has some useful observations:

Unlike Blu-ray, 3D broadcasts on TV currently use a half-resolution 3D format known as side-by-side, resulting in a significantly softer, non-high-def look. We know of no plans to add more 3D channels or introduce a full-HD resolution 3D broadcast, although we expect both improvements to occur sometime over the next few years…

and some interesting insights:

3D Content Has A Chicken-And-Egg Problem That Will Hinder Faster Adoption.

If few people own 3D TVs, content producers have little incentive to deliver 3D programming and games. But lack of 3D content is a big reason people don’t want to get a 3D TV today. We don’t see this situation changing in the immediate future, and we feel glasses-free 3D TVs need to be available at mainstream prices–and work well–before 3D content has a chance to become as common as 2D high-def content is today.

Planet 3D says:

In terms of wide adoption of 3D TV, we are where we were ten years ago with HDTV. The first sets are available at high (but rapidly falling) prices, content is scant and not yet compelling. The difference is that as consumers and media aficionados we are more accustomed to having content at our fingertips when, where, and how we want it.  I think the current renaissance in quality 3D content will inevitably lead to an acceleration in demand for 3D-enabled home theatre.

In other words, the question for home theatre impresarios isn’t should you invest in a new television with 3D capabilities, but rather should you invest in a new television without 3D capabilities?  Do you want to run the risk of not being able to enjoy the coming wave of very cool content as it was meant to be seen?

Pina gets wider (limited) release

Billboard in Montreal last week.

I spotted this behind the building where I work, announcing the December 16 release date for Pina in 3D. It’s playing in Montreal now—check and see if it’s close to you. Then go see it!

For more info on the film, 3D, art, and ideas (as well as gorgeous still photography) visit this website.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo 3D debuts: the golden age is here

My review in seven words: the film is excellent, go see it. 

But I’m not here to review films. This is a blog about 3D so this post is going to be about Scorsese’s first 3D film Hugo, a new landmark in 3D filmmaking.

Martin Scorsese has made a fantastic film on at least two distinct levels.  It’s a great story told beautifully.  Plus it’s a turning point in filmmaking that examines another major turning point in filmmaking history with great insight and love.

Visually it’s gorgeous, very well suited for 3D treatment.  Hugo is full of dark moody interior shots that lend themselves beautifully to the low light limitations of 3D. Lush period sets, lots of steam, snow, oversized clockworks—these all work very well in 3D.

Scorsese has also mastered the art of expressive 3D close-ups.  Having an incredibly talented cast certainly helps, but there is an intimacy in his technique that I haven’t seen before. It adds to the story.

Sidebar: at the showing I attended there was something funny going on with the right side of the screen, not in every scene, but many. It looked like perhaps some alignment was off.  I was seated slightly to the left in the theatre, but not far enough to make a difference. It was distracting (so was the row of eight little boys loudly chewing popcorn behind me) but not enough to keep me from being completely caught up in the film.

Hugo is a story-driven film, not the effects-driven cross-merchandised product so many people have come to dread.  The story is a powerful one, featuring an archetype most of us can identify with—the plucky resourceful orphan. From Dickens’ Oliver Twist and David Copperfield to Harry Potter, it’s a great formula.  When you see it bring tissues.

Georges Méliès (1861 to 1938)

But there’s another very meaningful level to the film centered on Georges Méliès, an early enthusiastic pioneer of spectacular cinematic visual effects.  In gorgeous and (as far as I can tell) quite accurate flashbacks Scorsese captures his delight in the new technology, the highs and lows of the business, as well as the risks of ridicule, ignominy, and obscurity.

Méliès took what was literally a sideshow gimmick and turned it into the most important storytelling tool since the invention of the printing press and moveable type. You see where I’m going with this? 

This had special resonance for me.  There are parallels with the artistic tribulations of 3D and I had an overwhelming sense of the historical moment—the cinema crossroads if you will—we’re at today.

Scorsese is a prominent film preservationist, cineaste, and promoter of film history—as well as one of the most respected directors of our time. His study of and respect for film history is visible in every frame.  He shows the seminal L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat or The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station by the Lumière brothers—one of the first things I blogged about here.  Even the film’s poster depicts little Hugo dangling from a clock hand in an homage to Harold Lloyd.  With this film Scorsese now joins the ranks of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog as pioneers elevating a lowly gimmick into a powerful storytelling tool, an art.

With every 3D film of artistic quality and integrity released the industry gains important experience and the negative stereotypes about 3D are eroded a bit more.

3D isn’t finished—it’s just getting started

Our culture is nostalgic.  The good old days always seem to be behind us.  Every generation believes the parade’s gone by. With Hugo we are finally seeing what 3D can do in the hands of a visionary filmmaker—from my vantage point I am increasingly convinced that the golden age of 3D film is just beginning.