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A modest proposal for 3-D projection

September 2, 2011

The efficacy of the stereoscopic cinema has been repeatedly questioned in the press in recent months. Those who follow the industry perceive that there has been a falloff in the stereoscopic portion of the revenue generating capability of recent feature films in North America. Various reasons have been given for this phenomenon, including poor quality conversion from 2-D to 3-D, poor quality films, and dim projection. I’m going to address the current projection situation with ideas for improvements. One thing to keep in mind is that most movies that get released don’t pay back their return on investment so why should 3-D movies be any different?

Questioning conversion quality is legitimate and there are both good and bad examples of the art. Similarly live-action 3-D cinematography quality is variable. The highest 3-D image quality is associated with CG animation.

It is generally accepted, by the press and by people in the industry, that stereoscopic projection is dim. I have several suggestions for how to go about improving projection brightness. Some of these suggestions will be perceived to be impractical. None of them would break the bank for exhibitors with existing installations. If only some of the suggestions are implemented alone or in combination we could more than double  the brightness of projected 3-D images.

It is a hellish tradeoff to ask people to accept a dim image that’s in 3-D over a bright image in 2-D. Few in their right mind would pick the 3-D image given this choice but that’s what theater-goers are being asked to accept.

The SMPTE standard for 2-D projection is 14 fL. (A special photometer aimed at the center of the screen when projecting clear leader for 35mm or a white field for digital should read 14 fL. to meet spec. ) The reason that we are accepting less brightness for 3-D projection is because it’s not easy to accomplish. But it’s not impossible. If 3-D movies were projected at 14 fL they would look great. I should point out that most of the time 2-D movies are probably not projected at the 14 fL standard but I surmise that it is pretty rare for the image to be in the realm of 3-D stygian gloom. The informal 4.5 fL goal for 3-D projection is a sad comment on the state of the art. If exhibitors want to give people a special experience that justifies the up-charge they need to have bright 3-D projection. Here are my suggestions for accomplishing that:

Screen size
Screen size has greatly increased over the years. I can’t prove it but I think it has doubled in the past half century. This is not the place to discuss the historical factors for this but is not uncommon for the front wall of theaters in a multiplex to be mostly screen even in a relatively small house. But a screen that is only slightly smaller can result in a great increase in brightness. Changing from a 40 foot wide screen to a 30 foot wide screen or from a 55 foot wide screen to a 40 foot wide screen will double brightness — all things being equal. Brightness is a function of area and a relatively small reduction in width can result in a large increase in brightness. The simplest and least expensive way for exhibitors to increase the brightness of stereoscopic movies is to reduce the size of the screen. This will seem like heresy to some of those who operate theaters but it’s a smart way to solve the problem. The audience will notice that the image is brighter but I think they won’t care that the image is a bit smaller.

Stop the detestable practice of running the lamp past its rated life. It still gives off light but its output falls of drastically with time of operation.

High gain screens
Exhibitors who’ve purchased Dolby or XPand systems, which don’t depend on polarization conserving screen which are also high gain screens, should not elect to stay with matt screens. They also need a high gain screen. They don’t need a silver screen but there are nonmetallic high gain screens that can increase the brightness by a significant factor compared to matt, something like 1.8 times. Even small theaters will greatly profit from such screens.

Projector choice
I’m now going to make myself an enemy of cost-conscious exhibitors all over the world. If you’re equipping a new theater for projecting stereoscopic movies get the brightest projector even for a small screen. I don’t mean the brightest projector for your screen size; I mean the brightest projector – which is also the costliest. I’ve been to too many theaters and screening rooms with small screens that are projecting dark 3-D images. You can’t spec the projector for 2-D and expect it to work for 3-D.

Scope projection
For 35mm scope is projected using an anamorphic lens. But scope in most digital cinemas is accomplished by means of cropping to get the wider aspect ratio. Cropping results in less utilization of the image engine and less brightness. My suggestion is that when projecting 3-D in scope exhibitors should use and an anamorphic lens to get the brightest image. This will be true for both top masking and side masking theaters.

To recap
I’ve given a number of suggestions for how the industry can improve the brightness of stereoscopic projection.
For a theater running Dolby or XPand products reducing the screen size and using a high gain screen could increase screen brightness by a factor of four. Polarization image selection systems like those offered by the MasterImage or the potentially very bright RealD XL system could also increase their brightness by the means described here. The RealD XL system can be very bright but practically it won’t be if it’s used in conjunction with a projector that is underpowered for that room, or with a screen that is too big, or with lamps that are run past their rated life.

Except for my suggestion for new theaters that they buy the brightest most costly projectors, every other suggestion could be accomplished for a relatively minimum outlay. The single most effective thing that an exhibitor can do is to project on a smaller screen and that would involve getting masking for the existing screen and possibly a new longer-throw lens. This could immediately double the brightness of projection. The other suggestions, such as getting a high gain screen won’t break the bank either. If only some of these suggestions are adopted by theater operators then in a matter of days we progress  from having a bleak stereoscopic cinema to one that is bright enough to justify calling 3-D movies a special event.


August 31, 2011

In my youth I read many of the Conan stories, along with lots of science fiction and fantasy. Unlike the world in which I grew up, Conan’s world lacks ambiguity. There is no soul-searching angst, there is no wonder about being, there is no self-doubt of any kind. Conan is a man with a mission. He is a knight, a do-gooder who seeks justice through the sword. It must have been the clarity of such a vision, of such a clearly determined world, that I found attractive then and it still holds my attention.

The current Conan film is true to that vision, and a better picture than the Schwarzenegger movies, with a better actor, Jason Momoa, who plays Conan. He is better looking and commands the screen in a way that Schwarzenegger did not. Schwarzenegger is a slope-shouldered freak who deserves to be dumped into the dustbin of cinema history. He was as bad an actor as he was a governor. But his failure was fascinating to watch in both roles.

The present version of Conan has not clicked with the public or critics although it is well made film. It is hyper-violent but not quite at the porn-slasher level. It tells a story of revenge set against a bleak Bulgarian landscape. The sizable number of people who worked on the picture, which can be observed when the credits roll, is bloated by the half-dozen or so houses that worked on the 2-D to 3-D conversion.

For the most part the conversion sucks. The stereoscopic effect is utterly inappropriate to the film which is broadly melodramatic and cartoonish. The stereo is flat and chock full of anomalies. I am sure it is a better picture in 2-D but 3-D is my thing so I sacrificed my afternoon and saw the film that way. There are occasional shots, maybe a score, that are gorgeous in 3-D. It is as if an angel descended from above to bless a handful of shots. Diamonds in the shit. But the beauty of these shots, for the most part long-shots and landscapes, amplified the absolute horror of the rest of the conversion.
Go ahead Hollywood – turn off the audience. Kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Chop with a rusty blade the goose’s neck and if that is not enough cover up the mistakes with projection that can be best appreciated with night-vision goggles. Hey! A new invention: 3-D glasses with built in night vision capability.

I watched the show at the 12:05 (afternoon) August 30 screening at the Arclight Sherman Oaks . There were two people behind me — an elderly man and a young man and what they said was what people all across the country are saying about 3-D: the movie was dark. Given the Xpand shuttering glasses system that was being used in a relatively small theater the image ought to have been decent. To lift up the glasses was to see what a movie should be – bright!

The crime at the Arclight is especially galling because it is one of the premier venues for the projection of motion pictures in the United States, and possibly the world. It is as good as a studio screening room. The Arclight prides itself on its excellent projection but its 3-D projection is lousy.

Between the studios and their crappy content and the exhibitors with their self-dooming approach to projecting 3-D, 3-D is being diminished. As far as the content goes I must point out that conversion is not solely to blame – movies shot in 3-D are frequently wanting as well. But that’s another story for another time. Cartoon features (CG animation to you) are the best looking 3-D content.

I walked in that theater feeling fine I left with a headache and I do not get headaches very often. Fourteen dollars for a headache? You do the math. How long can 3-D movies survive at such bargain prices?

3D Camcorders for Everyman?

June 24, 2011

I’ve had a chance to use two new “consumer” 3D camcorders, the JVC GS GS-TD1 and the Sony HDR-TD10.  Both produce remarkably good images.  Go out and spend $15 for a pistol grip  — you may like it better than their wrist straps. The Sony, with it’s slightly lesser interaxial and wider angle of view, is my pick because it extends depth range a bit more.  Both could use even wider lenses and even less IA.

The JVC, by allowing you to see mixed images to precisely set ZPS, gets lots of points.  Both have mucked up setting creative controls and everybody, including Ford, should revert to knobs and drop the Chinese puzzle-box menus and touch screens as the sole means of control.  At least offer the knobs for individual functions so that more than one function can be addressed at a time.

Shame on the ads for promoting the Sony as running at 24p.  It does but only for 2D operation.  The JVC is also a 60i 1920 by 1080i camera but more expensive 24p versions (required for universal distribution  here, there and everywhere) of both are on the way. And when they arrive there will be some head scratching amongst the pros.  Are these only disposable machines for drop-them-off the cliff stunts or how much of a feature or TV show could you get away with using these cameras?

Transformed Cinema

June 22, 2011

Michael Bay is attempting to induce cinema operators to meet spec with 3D projection — like using lamps that aren’t spent.  I saw Bay and Cameron at Paramount on May 18 discussing 3D cinema projection and cinematography after showing clips of the new Transformers.  We are talking about the big theater on the Paramount lot and it was the best 3D projection I have seen in months and Bay’s 3D work looked great.

The system there is the XPand shuttering eyewear system on a big screen but what was used was not a true product and serves only to highlight the problems of stereoscopic projection.  In order to get decent brightness Paramount used two projectors and such a remedy is out of the question for neighborhood theaters. The eyewear dug into my nose — I was aware of them — but the ANSI image contrast is great and cross-talk is zilch.

I am bemused to recount that I was the leader of the design team that invented and manufactured the first IR linked shuttering eyewear, CrystalEyes.  The XPand eyewear are a direct descendant of CE I, the original model with non-folding temples.  They even use optically compensated pi-cells, which I also invented.  The StereoGraphics product was $1,000 and although heavier and a bigger than the XPand eyewear they were more comfortable.

Paramount should put in a silver screen and use the RealD XL projection system.  (I also helped to develop that but I have no interest in RealD.)  That would be brighter than the XPand double projector contraption and use but one projector.  Not sure the contrast would be as good, nor am I sure the cross-talk reduction would be as good, but on balance it would be a better experience with relatively unobtrusive eyewear.  Paramount, I think, wants to keep on with a matte screen because of color balance issues and also because side-seats will suffer in image quality.

3D iPad

June 20, 2011

When at StereoGraphics we had on-going conversations with Apple that spanned more than 20 years — including a meeting with The Jobs. People came and went and so did their interest.  Apple had us in their Siggraph booth one year.

The autostereoscopic technology they will be adding to their tablet was demonstrated many years ago. There’s little development risk. Sadly a couple of guys I know lost their shirts trying to get people interested only a few years ago.  They were a only bit ahead of the curve.

What Apple can do now is probably going to be good and if they do everything it’s possible to do it will be superb for single user stereoscopic viewing.

The Green Lantern

June 20, 2011

I’ve just witnessed the implementation of a different theory of stereoscopic projection geometry — the Green Lateran Method. No floating windows but very large positive values of parallax. That gives more stereoscopic resolution in terms of pixel count, or as Buzz Lightyear would say: to infinity and beyond.  But the average value of positive parallax is in the “normal” range since lots of shots are flat as the proverbial board — or nearly so.  And curious that the villain in the film is named Parallax.  Or were they thinking more deeply about the subject than I can imagine?

It’s true that it’s a job of conversion and that process is much maligned.  However I do know of a successful example.  My sister-in-law Sara converted to Judaism.


May 12, 2010

The future of the motion picture industry will be determined by the popularity of stereoscopic films.  This monstrous Caliban, ridiculed for decades, has been rehabilitated and taken to the bosom of the industry for the best of reasons; in the last few years a giant share of profit from motion pictures released in theaters has come from 3-D movies.  Although revenue is rising attendance is flat, and the additional revenue is attributable to stereoscopic movies.  This is good news for the studios, because DVD sales are plummeting and this makes up for that loss of revenue.  And it may well be that sales of 3-D Blu-ray disks are going to be a source of additional revenue.  So hooray for 3-D. (more…)


April 27, 2010

Five years ago when Disney decided to release Chicken Little in 3-D, they had to be thinking about a couple of things:  One, as a tactic, taking a movie like Chicken Little and releasing it in 3-D might be a good marketing approach.  It gave the studio something to talk about, and 3-D might create buzz.  Two, strategically, it was a way for the studio to further the cause of digital projection.  The studio hoped to accomplish two things:  Anti-piracy might be better enabled with digital; and digital distribution could reduce print cost.   (more…)


January 27, 2010

CrystalEyes may turn out to be one of the most important products of the last few decades.  It’s self-serving to say so because I am the primary inventor of CrystalEyes and shuttering eyewear that may be the basis for 3D TV image selection.  The basic concept of shuttering eyewear for viewing stereoscopic images isn’t mine.  You can find mentions of it in the literature before my work began.  Missing from the early work were the elegant electro-optical shutters that we now have and a good communications link between the display and the eyewear. When CrystalEyes was designed in the mid-1980s infrared links were advanced and a good way to communicate between the video source and the eyewear.  Today you might also consider using Bluetooth or some other form of radio. (more…)


January 19, 2010

I went to school with Mel Siegel, a physisist at Carnegie Mellon.  I asked Mel for a simple explanation of polarized light in terms of quantum theory.  In this case that’s the construct that light can be explained in terms of it being a particle — a photon.  Here’s what he wrote: (more…)