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Page last updated at 02:19 GMT, Thursday, 30 June 2011 03:19 UK

2D or not 2D, that is the question

By Alex Hudson
BBC News

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Click's Spencer Kelly looks at how regular films can be transformed into 3D

The 3D market is expected to be 25 times the size it is now within four years but many think there is not enough content to warrant buying the equipment. Could "upscaling" 2D content to give it an extra dimension be the answer?

Since the release of Avatar - both the most expensive film ever made and the biggest grossing - to great fanfare, some critics are starting to conclude that the 3D cinema has gone a little bit flat.

The cost of going to watch a 3D movie in the cinema is considerably higher than a normal film and there is a significant lack of content in true 3D.

Only around 100 titles have been released so far, though a number are scheduled to appear in the coming months as the summer blockbuster season gets underway.

Avatar
Avatar is still seen by most as the gold standard of 3D cinema

This means that companies are beginning to step in to fill that gap. But it can be an expensive and time-consuming process to get right.

Star Wars creator George Lucas has admitted that it has cost more money to turn Star Wars into a 3D production than the original film cost to make.

Star Wars 3D is due to be released next year after nine years in development.

Every frame of every scene is being manually broken up into its constituent parts, creating a depth map, a process that could work for a high prestige cinema release but might not be financial viable for low budget titles, especially those that go quickly to Blu-ray.

Novelty wearing off

Yet it is in the home where many manufacturers are hoping that 3D content will really take off.

US consumers spent around $30m (£19m) on buying 3D content in 2010 but that is expected to rise to $749m (£470m) by 2014, according to HIS Screen Digest - a 25-fold increase in four years.

"By the end of 2011 over 159.3 million Blu-ray discs will have been sold in Western Europe," Danny Kaye, executive VP, global research and technology strategy at Twentieth Century Fox told Techboat.

I've seen a few 2D to 3D conversions and they're generally pretty awful
Jim Hill, Wired UK

"On titles launched simultaneously on DVD and Blu-ray, such as Avatar and the A-Team, we are seeing around a third of our sales on Blu-ray."

While most Blu-rays are currently not 3D-enabled, the increase in sales increases the potential audience for 3D content. But as the technology becomes less of a novelty and becomes integrated in most TVs - a standard feature rather than a unique selling point - many are sceptical of the mainstream use of the technology.

As recently as last week, an Informa report stated "fewer than half of the 11 million 3DTV-ready homes in the UK in 2016 will be active and regular users of 3DTV content."

So a number of major manufacturers are trying to make sure everyone with a 3D TV will be using it.

James Cameron
Wearing glasses is seen by some as a barrier to 3D's mainstream success

A process has been developed which interprets the flat image in real-time and converts it into a 3D picture, with the use of the correct glasses of course. The marketing literature from the manufacturers promises results almost as good as the real thing.

It means that any DVD or Blu-ray, regardless of whether it was filmed in 3D originally, can be watched in three dimensions.

"We can get fairly close [to a film shot in native 3D]," says Chris Mosely, Samsung's AV product manager for UK and Ireland.

"It depends on the content obviously, but you can get pretty good results to the point where we've been approached by film studios about buying the technology so they can convert films to 3D cheaply."

But this is not something that the purists are very happy about. Avatar director James Cameron - largely responsible for the recent influx of 3D releases - believes that even the high-end conversions should only be used in very specific circumstances.

3D movies have a much higher chance of achieving a big box office than 2D movies: 52% for 3D versus 5% for a 2D movie
False Creek Productions

"My personal philosophy is that post conversion should be used for one thing and one thing only - which is to take library titles that are favourites that are proven, and convert them into 3D - whether it's Jaws or ET or Indiana Jones, Close Encounters... or Titanic," he said at the Blu-Con event in Beverly Hills last year.

"Unless you have a time machine to go back and shoot it in 3D, you have no other choice. The best alternative is if you want to release a movie in 3D - make it in 3D."

Up-sell gimmick?

Because of the way 3D technology tricks the eye, the way the image is cropped affects how well the 3D image will look. And this has left many experts unconvinced about how good the current technology is.

"We think 2D to 3D converters are a bit of a gimmick," says Michael Briggs, 3D TV expert at consumer rights organisation Which?

"They can turn any 2D picture into 3D, but for the best 3D experience you should watch material that has been shot, directed and produced with the 3D effect in mind."

And technology journalists who have tried the technology seem to agree.

Darth Vader
Nine years has been spent turning Star Wars into a 3D production

"I've seen a few 2D to 3D conversions and they're generally pretty awful," says Jim Hill, product editor of Wired UK.

"There's an obvious desire to up-sell or re-sell dull 2D content as thrilling 3D footage, but no easy way to do it. Manipulating the image to give a pseudo 3D effect generally makes it look less sharp and less realistic."

But with so little content available to those early-adopters of new TV sets, the manufacturers say they are just filling a massive gap between the amount of content the audience expects to be available and the amount of content - special events such as the Wimbledon final aside - that is made in three dimensions.

"[Upscaling] is a useful way to get people into the 3D world and to sample it because it fills that content gap," says Keiran Alger, editor of technology site T3.com.

"One of the biggest problems of 3D is 'what am I going to watch?' but I think it's seen as more of a stop-gap than an end solution."

As more content gets filmed in 3D, it is believed that the price of actually producing it will go down. And 3D production company False Creek believes that filming in an extra dimension is not beyond the reaches of most film productions.

"For a $1 million (£625,000) budget indie film, the breakdown of the cost increase as it shifts to a 3D shoot… makes it an 18% increase in going from a 2D to 3D production," its report says.

And another incentive for film companies is that 3D films seem to always do well.

"3D movies have a much higher chance of achieving a big box office than 2D movies: 52% for 3D versus 5% for a 2D movie," says another False Creek report.

"3D movies are almost certain to make money, an unheard-of claim for 2D movies."



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