A year after the release of 3D blockbuster 'Avatar', its wider impact on film technology is clear to see.
Setting aside the hype for just a moment, digital 3D is not yet assured of success on TV. Last issue we reported on some distinctly dubious TV executives stumping around the halls of the IBC event in Amsterdam. However, in the cinema, the format's future appears secure.
According to analysts at Screen Digest, revenue from 3D theatrical releases in North America reached $1.1bn in the first six months of 2010. This was the first time that the half-year number surpassed the billion-dollar mark and was more than double the $430m in 3D ticket sales for the same period in 2009. Releases in 3D made up more than 20 per cent of the region's total box office.
In the UK, the top two all-time box-office champions are both recent 3D releases with Avatar having taken more than £90m and Toy Story 3 this summer earning more than £70m.
Not surprisingly, cinema owners have continued to add digital/3D screens at a fair clip. Again quoting Screen Digest, 1,650 conversions took place in Europe during the first half of the year. This was below the 1,975 conversions in the second half of 2009 immediately before the arrival of James Cameron's blockbuster, but still represented a major vote of confidence in 2010 offerings as diverse as Alice in Wonderland and the forthcoming Jackass 3D.
Equally important, production budgets can now be kept to a level that makes a steady stream of 3D releases viable. Hollywood rarely confirms these numbers, but it is safe to assume that Avatar and Toy Story 3 each cost more than $200m to make. However, in 3D or flat, even the biggest studios can produce only a few movies on that scale every year - certainly not enough to keep digital screens occupied every week. At IBC, the wider importance of Avatar here became clear.
It has seeded a 3D technology market, funding the R&D needed to develop cameras, motion-capture systems and tools that are now being used by other filmmakers for less cost.
Resident Evil: Afterlife is the fourth entry in an action-horror franchise that most observers thought had run its course. Instead, 3D has helped lift that instalment's global box office beyond $250m on a comparatively average Hollywood budget of around $60m. Given a rule of thumb that mainstream releases cost as much to market as to make, those receipts suggest a very healthy profit - and the film is only part of the way through its international run. Significantly, director Paul Anderson used the same Fusion Camera System as was used on Avatar.
Few people have been as close to 3D's digitally-fuelled renaissance as Jon Landau. He co-produced Avatar and was with James Cameron when the director first began to feel that technology could match his artistic objectives. It is a process that dates back to 1999 and a diving excursion to Truk Lagoon, a former Japanese naval base in the Pacific Ocean.
'We brought some of the then new, lightweight HD cameras to film the wrecks,' Landau remembers. 'And Jim loved the experience, particularly after the pain he went through on [1989's underwater thriller] The Abyss. Suddenly you had these very flexible, high-performance cameras that made all sorts of things possible.'
The scuba trip then connected to Cameron's first experiences with 3D, developing a theme-park attraction based on the Terminator series for the Universal Studios Tour.
'Looking back to that, the results had been great, but Jim had hated the process. For example, you had to use these 600lb cameras, and you had to get the stuntmen to run at half-speed because they were limited by how fast they could move the things.'
Cameron thought if he could marry ultra-mobile digital cameras to an immersive 3D experience, he could push the filmmaking envelope, as he had already done with Titanic and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. 'So at that stage definitely, and today still in many ways, we've been dragging things along - no question about it,' says Landau. 'We went to Sony and started talking to them about how we might compact that digital HD technology into a camera, get the lenses in the right configuration for 3D. In 2005, Jim and George Lucas (Star Wars) and Bob Zemeckis (The Polar Express) and Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) went to [the cinema trade show] Showest and had the exhibitors look at what digital 3D could offer, how it could make it more compelling for them to invest in digital theatres.'
This same pull applied to suppliers once Avatar went into full production. Even before it was formally 'greenlit', the project's core team went through an R&D/viability process with hardware and software companies. When shooting started for real though, much of the 3D innovation still had to be realised in-house.
'It was pretty much half-and-half,' says Landau. 'So, for example, we used the Nvidia chips in our motion capture environment, and they had the performance that meant that Jim could look through the camera and see, in real-time, a virtual representation of the digital world we'd finally put on screen. But there was also a large part of building that system we had to do ourselves.
'Same for the software. Our objectives would not necessarily be exactly the same as those of the technology providers - and that's okay. So, we might be working with a company like Autodesk on some of their software and we might need that to do... let's call it a left turn. We'd work together and they'd take things as far as they could, but then our people had to come in and make that left turn happen. You do the custom work.
'But, and this goes to the idea of what's happening with those tools now, if you take, say, Autodesk's MotionBuilder [3D real-time character animation software], I think the future generations have been better because we started using it and I think they'll tell you that too.'
The suppliers acknowledge exactly that. 'A project the size of Avatar is the kind of project that you are looking to learn from, and learn a lot from,' says Daniel Shapiro, director of marketing at Nvidia.
Another supplier was UK post-production software company The Foundry. Its Nuke special effect compositing software and Ocula stereo image manipulation tools were used on Cameron's film. CEO Bill Collis has no doubt about the trickledown advantages of that.
'There are parts of this business where the site software licences come with very big numbers attached to them, and we don't look to go there,' he says. 'But if you do want to be at a point where you can supply tools at a cost to match volume - and there is a lot of 3D happening right now - you are going to need to start with a big pathfinder project. You need to do your own R&D. You can't forget that. But that big project will really show you what the users want.'
That is at the core of Landau's argument. 'I know how this might sound but I don't think it was as much about money as much as it was about vision when it came to driving the technology,' he says. 'It was about saying not just that, 'We want to do this,' but that, 'We aspire to do this. We want to innovate.'
Landau proclaims himself an all-the-way 3D evangelist. So, he has an answer if you confront him with the fact that although more 3D films are being made they do tend to fall into one of three, arguably limited categories: big event titles; big family animation films; and teen horror/comedy flicks.
'Yes, but that does leave out a fourth category - everything else. And I'm totally serious. There's no reason why you shouldn't have Woody Allen's movies in 3D. Woody Allen's a good example - think, does he have a stereo soundtrack? In his films now he does - he didn't always, but he does now - and that's because it helps to make it more engaging and it doesn't stand out and distract you,' Landau says.
'So with 3D, you can have the movies where things are popping out all the time. That isn't what makes it an exciting format though. It's always got to be about the storytelling. One of my favourite scenes in Avatar is when Neytiri throws Jake out of hometree and you are put right there with them, with the drama. You can do that for any kind of genuinely dramatically engaging filmmaking. That's the real potential in 3D.
'What we say is that 3D has to be a window into a world and not a world coming out of a window.'
To get to that point, Landau says that you need to look at the context. 'The first thing is that there is a big jump going on here, but it's not from 2D to 3D. The big jump is in going from film to digital - that's what people need to get familiar with, and familiar with all that it means. It includes the quality of 3D experience we can now offer, but it doesn't stop there,' he says.
'Once you can shoot digitally, when you have the skills to paint with light in a digital environment, I shouldn't say this, but the move to 3D isn't that hard.'
For the future of Avatar, Landau adds that the purely digital elements may be more important when it comes to a sequel than having ascended the 3D learning curve, especially in terms of controlling any sequel's budget.
'Because what we have now is this amazing infrastructure,' he says. 'We've got this digital world and these digital characters and that is going to make anything we do going forward a lot more efficient and cost-effective.'
This feeds into another part of Landau's broader sales pitch for 3D: understanding the real cost.
'This idea the post-production costs will kill you - it's a misnomer. We edited in 2D. We mixed in 2D. The only thing that we did in 3D was colour timing - colour timing and mastering. That is a small percentage of added cost.
'The workflow is not as disrupted as some people suggest. And, if you are talking about digital production, a lot of that software is now pretty mature.'
Landau further notes that 3D budgets can vary significantly according to the project, but there are also clear rules that allow you to control them.
'The premium for 3D is a little bit like a bell curve,' he says. 'At the bottom of the bell curve, it's something that's all live action, so there's little or no impact. Then, when you start mixing CG [computer generated imagery] and live action, you go up towards the top of the bell curve. But finally as you go all CG, where you have a lot of animation, then you're back down towards the bottom.'
This last point also leads Landau to express some surprise over TV's reticence about 3D.
'Say you did do a documentary like Planet Earth for 3D. Okay, so a documentary is mostly all on the live action side, so the additional cost is mostly in the camera package and in the finishing cost. It's down on one of the lower sides of the bell curve. And also, you can argue that the extra cost can be easily made up in those situations by potential added revenue,' says Landau.
Teasing it out
Moviegoers this time might have accepted 3D as a fixture - although one has to suspect that its ubiquity will be a subject for debate for a good few years yet. More to the point, Landau acknowledges that technological challenges remain.
'Some of them are 3D-specific, some are digital. It's things like variable speeds, being able to adjust the light levels and the depth of field. It's being able to hold the whites better if, say, you're shooting up in the Antarctic. Digital responds different than film does right now. That is kind of what a filmmaker would say,' Landau notes.
'But then look at how far digital - just digital - has come. Not just Avatar. Take a couple of 2D movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Public Enemies. Period movies. Visually very complex movies. Both shot digitally but I don't think that the audience really noticed. However, that also shows you the obligation on us as filmmakers - there's a temptation in that to become complacent, to stop innovating. If we let that happen, we'll suffer for it.'
At the same time, one of the biggest goals may lie more simply in getting 3D technology into the hands of Joe Public.
'I actually think that's when some interesting things really will start to happen - when you can get a 3D-capable camcorder for consumers. We were a long time in the chicken-and-egg situation for cinema. 'Do we need the content first or the theatres?' You can see the same happening in TV right now - and that reminds you that this is going to be a process, not an overnight thing,' says Landau.
'But think about what happens when you're Skyping granma in 3D. If we get to the point where people are looking at this technology not simply as an audience, but to use it themselves then it's heading for omnipresent, for omnipotent.'