Tag Archives: 3d

On Murch on 3D

It seems everyone who has ever set foot in a movie theater has an opinion on Walter Murch’s opinion of stereoscopic cinema that was quoted in Roger Ebert’s blog. I’m not interested in going toe to toe with Murch. He’s articulate, brilliant, and famous – and he hates 3D movies. I’m not nearly as articulate or brilliant, and I’ll never be famous – but I like 3D movies.

So what? Some people like them and some don’t. And some people get headaches watching them. No one spends more time thinking about, writing about, and talking about editing and how people see those edits than Walter Murch. I had been a professional editor for several years before I read Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye, and it was only then that I fully understood why cuts work. (Murch reasons that through blinking the brain “cuts” our visual stream into segments. Thus we actually think in cuts, so cutting is a natural way to present a series of clips.)

It’s a bit of a leap to equate blinking when we turn our head 15 or 20 degrees with a cut in the action that takes us from New York to London in 1/24th of a second, but the brain is adaptable. It makes it work. Murch’s theory on blinking and cuts has literally changed the way I look at the world.

That profound reasoning is what makes his current theory on 3D cinema’s shortcomings fail my sniff test.

The biggest problem with 3D, though, is the “convergence/focus” issue. A couple of the other issues — darkness and “smallness” — are at least theoretically solvable. But the deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen — say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what.

But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focussed and converged at the same point.

Not really. Murch is only half right. Focusing is a physical act, but convergence is a brain trick — just like reframing by blinking. Think of that eye test where you move the pencil closer to your face until you can no longer see a single pencil. You’re not physically crossing your eyes to converge on the pencil until it’s just inches from your face. Convergence isn’t physically challenging after a few feet. So you’re not doing any physical work with your eyes that competes with its attempts at focusing when sitting 30 feet from the screen.

Getting the brain to adapt to weird visual cues isn’t all that difficult. Back in 1896, George Stratton ran that famous experiment testing perceptual adaptation where subjects wore glasses that inverted the image sent to the eyes, making the world appear upside down. In some surprisingly short amount of time, the subjects’ brains compensated so that the world appeared right again. The whole 600 million years of focus and convergence theory doesn’t hold up.

Murch also complains of the strobing of 3D images.

I edited one 3D film back in the 1980’s — “Captain Eo” — and also noticed that horizontal movement will strobe much sooner in 3D than it does in 2D. This was true then, and it is still true now. It has something to do with the amount of brain power dedicated to studying the edges of things. The more conscious we are of edges, the earlier strobing kicks in.

He’s right, but it’s nothing directors and editors haven’t faced before. I remember making the transition from SD to HD and noting that camera moves needed to be slowed down. Different visual problem, same solution. Along a similar vein, as a television editor going to the cinema after a day in the cutting room could be torturous. After a day of closely watching the world go by at 30 fps, a 24 fps film looks downright staccato — for the first 10 minutes. And then the brain adapts.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was in LA visiting some cutting rooms working in 3D. DPs’ and directors’ approaches to stereoscopic shooting have evolved — so much of that edginess has been softened. Lighting and angles have evolved as well. And just as we learned with Avatar, some of the best 3D is subtle 3D.

Though the jury is still out on 3D cinema, 3D television shows promise. Anyone who frequents live sporting events is disappointed in the flatness of traditional 2D broadcasts at home. At the stadium I know where the ball is going to land. I have depth perception. On TV I need to rely on Joe Buck to tell me where it’s going. 3D changes that — the viewer can see the play unfold, and Joe Buck can say less – that alone makes the case for 3D. As previously noted here, the Economist published a very good article on the topic nine months ago that still holds.

Murch may very well be right. 3D might fizzle, but we won’t need to look back 600 million years for the reason. It would more likely be the $3 per ticket premium that buries it.

Internet-enabled TVs take off

It took a lot less time for IPTV to reach its inflection point than it did for HDTV. It’s not surprising as it’s hard to imagine a consumer technology roll out as flawed as HD. iSuppli released a report last week predicting Internet-enabled television sales in 2010 will significantly outpace 3D TV sales.

Global shipments of IETVs—i.e., TV sets with built-in Internet capability—will amount to 27.7 million units in 2010. In contrast, 3-D set shipments will total only 4.2 million this year. While 3-D television shipments are set to soar in the coming years, iSuppli’s forecast shows the biggest near-term growth story is in IETV.

iSuppli expects the trend to continue through 2014. By 2014 I would expect every television sold in the developed world to be Internet enabled. Never will every TV be 3D capable — stereoscopy in the kitchen or bathroom can lead to some unexpected outcomes. But predicting IETV sales to exceed 3D set sales is like predicting tires will be a more popular accessory in motor vehicles than convertible tops. To paraphrase Seth and Amy — Really?

What is truly interesting is that by 2014 iSuppli expects there will be about a quarter of a billion IETVs in homes. That is going to be like a tsunami to the broadcast and cable industries. If you think the audience is fragmented now, just wait until the cost of starting a viable “TV network” hits the mid-four figures. Micro-pay per view and Google-like ad models will destroy traditional cable subscription models.

While the cable companies might be seriously injured, they are likely to survive. The IETV roadkill will be the set top box manufacturers — Roku, TiVo, and Apple TV (if Apple doesn’t mercy kill it first).  The standalone IPTV device will go the way of the standalone GPS. Navigation will be as common on phones in the next few years as cameras are today. Who’s going to need a Garmin? Even Steve Jobs kind of agrees.

There’s an obvious pattern emerging in consumer electronics. A market is created and validated by a single-use device, then the single-use device is pushed aside by multi-use devices delivering the same functionality. That’s why the Android platform is the death of Garmin, and the iPad will flatten the Kindle.

Of course what we don’t know yet, is Aunt Mary in Peoria going to have any idea what to do with an Internet-enabled TV.

Recommended reading

For a trip down memory lane read Joel Brinkley’s Defining Vision about the two-decade HDTV debacle in the US. Manufacturers, legislators, and regulators did just about everything they could to destroy HDTV.

Rumors of 3D demise greatly exaggerated

Every campaigning politician recognizes the pattern. The media build up the candidate until his or her victory is a forgone conclusion, then begins the process of tearing the candidate down. Ascendancy and demise sell papers, so every candidate is always rising like a rocket or falling like a lead balloon. For a pundit to garner enough attention to retain the title of pundit requires that said pundit is 1) definitive, and 2) just ahead of the curve.

Pretty much the same holds true in the world of consumer electronics. Yesterday’s Next Big Thing is supplanted by today’s Next Big Thing. Just a few months ago technology pundits were tripping over themselves declaring of the rise of 3D in living rooms and theaters throughout the world a sure bet. 3D in every living room by 2015 was the sure thing flying cars by 2000 were in 1950. David Pogue was among a handful of pragmatists and questioned the hype just after CES 2010.

First of all, those glasses. E-w-w-w. Do we really want to have to put on glasses every time we sit down for some TV? Don’t we lose something when we look around the room to exchange glances, and we can’t see anyone’s eyes? Do we really want to nuzzle up to our fiancées and spouses with those things on?

Certainly very few (if any) consumer electronics or studio executives believed the hype earlier this year, but who’s going to argue when the mainstream media is declaring your latest and greatest a smashing success? You don’t get to run these huge companies without some understanding of your customers’ technology adoption rates – especially after the decades-long gestation of HDTV. They knew that standards battles loomed. A sober assessment of the 3D landscape shows the industry has been making reasonable investments in the technology. No film was slated to be released 3D-only. No television network was going to make 3D-only programming. No set manufacturer announced plans for 3D-only sets. Everything was not going 3D. Jennifer Aniston and Oprah were to remain 2D experiences.

Any wannabe technology pundit worth his blog’s revenue stream, can’t say, “Everything’s going fine. 3D is coming at a reasonable rate. What you want to see in 3D you can, and in a few years when you’re ready to buy new TVs there will be just enough 3D content available that you’ll consider a stereoscopic set.” What’s the fun in that? So here come the 3D obituaries.

Last week Adam Frucci asked in Gizmodo if 3D is already dying. The blog entry is not terribly over the top, but its overly simplified arguments and limited statistical sampling should be questioned. Frucci cites the downward trend of 3D revenue as a percentage of total box office receipts of five films since Avatar as evidence 3D may have peaked. He are the key flaws in his arguments:

  • Five is an awfully small statistical sampling. It represents about half a year’s output. While acknowledging Avatar was unique — marketed as a 3D event, he fails to consider that the rest of the films sampled appeal to a younger demographic. Among preteens, mom and dad often make the decision whether the movie is watched in 2D or 3D. Price consciousness and concerns whether a squirmy eight year-old can stand to wear glasses for two hours factor into the decision.
  • Frucci also assigns a direct relationship between the success of 3D in the theater with the success of 3D in the living room. That’s nowhere near a sure outcome. The television networks are not depending on 3D Hollywood fare to be the primary driver to build demand for 3D broadcasts. They are clearly betting on sports. ESPN and BSkyB are not looking to the studios to supply them with content, and Discovery is looking to produce its own non-fiction 3D content as well. The 3D set manufacturers don’t need Blu-Ray 3D players to drive sales as much as the article implies. Gamers and live broadcasts are their primary drivers.

It’s clear that many writers over-hyped 3D after CES and NAB 2010, but it’s also far too soon to declare 3D is dying. The technology will get more affordable, the glasses might go away, and producers will hone what content works best in the medium.

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