Move over, analog Sharkboy and Lavagirl. Thanks to the efforts of many unsung engineers, the curtain is about to rise on new digital stereoscopic capabilities that will bring an Imax-like experience to the local multiplex starting this year. So far, the early reviews are mixed on which digital technologies work best and what market impact if any they may have.
The 3-D debate arises as box office revenues slump and home high-definition TV sales rise. Many in Hollywood hope that digital and 3-D technologies will save them money while also injecting new excitement into moviegoing. Savings, estimated at as much as $800 million a year, are pretty much a slam dunk. Distributing a 35-mm print costs about $1,500, compared with less than $300 to provide a suitably equipped theater with a digital file via satellite or FedExed hard-disk drive.
Whether a digital 3-D experience will generate new buzz and box office is the burning question. The release of a 3-D version of Polar Express to analog Imax theaters last winter reportedly reaped $45 million, 20 percent of the film's box office revenues. Recently, director George Lucas said he will release the original Star Wars trilogy in a 3-D version, and Titanic director James Cameron has said all his future projects will be shot in stereoscopic form.
The Walt Disney Studios fired the starting gun earlier this summer when it announced a deal to equip 100 theaters in 25 markets with digital 3-D gear in time for the release of its Chicken Little animated feature on Nov. 4. Negotiations have been quietly going on for more than a year to define financing plans under which studios will help theater owners pay the up-front costs of moving to digital, estimated at as much as $130,000 per screen.
"Disney drew a line in the sand, and now everyone will have to jump in," said Joshua Greer, co-founder and chief executive officer of RealD (Beverly Hills), which reportedly will supply some of the 3-D technology for the deal. "You'll see multiple studios announce 3-D content and digital delivery plans soon."
Although some are pinning their hopes on 3-D as the next big thing in cinema, others see it as no more than another rehash of an old fad.
"I think people have drunk the Kool-Aid," said one studio technology exec who asked not to be named, recalling the 1980s era of Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D and Halloween 3-D. "For a while every second sequel was in 3-D," he quipped.
"Bless his heart, I think Uncle George [Lucas] lost his way," said the Hollywood, Calif., exec, who has worked on numerous standard and 3-D movies. "I moved out here because of the first Star Wars film. I hold it up today as a story- and character-driven piece." Describing 3-D as mere "eye candy," he added, "In the end, the cinema experience all hangs on the story rather than the novelty of 3-D."
Matthew Cowan takes a very different view. The co-founder and principal of Entertainment Technology Consultants (Hollywood), Cowan heads a new work group for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) that will define a standard for digital 3-D.
"At a time when wide HD [high-definition] screens are going into people's homes, digital 3-D provides one new reason for going to the multiplex," Cowan said. "I see this as having significant potential for moving digital cinema forward."
Today, a little more than 200 of the 135,000 theaters in existence worldwide use digital projection, and none of them conform to the digital cinema standard agreed on by a group of Hollywood studios last fall and being codified by SMPTE today. "I think 3-D is one of the key factors right now in triggering the move to the digital cinema standard," said Glenn Kennel, a director of digital cinema development at Texas Instruments Inc. The Dallas company's Digital Light Processing projectors are used in many of today's digital theaters.
"I don't think 3-D will be just a fad. I think it will be a growing market, but it will only take over a few screens at the multiplex," Kennel added.
But in a world where content is king, "We still haven't seen the Citizen Kane of 3-D," said Greer of RealD, who developed one of the first digital 3-D projection systems and worked with director Cameron on his 3-D documentary movie, Ghosts of the Abyss.
Many roads to 3-D
Several proprietary approaches to 3-D cinema are battling it out today. For instance, Sharkboy uses the classic anaglyph method of red and green passive polarized glasses. However, this method has drawbacks: It requires two aligned and synchronized film projectors, it restricts the director's color palette and it creates ghosting if a viewer moves his or her head more than about 2° out of alignment.
Imax Corp. (Mississauga, Ontario) puts two strips of film in a single projector with two lenses; viewers don passive glasses that use a vertical/horizontal polarizer rather than complementary colors. While the 75-foot Imax screens are impressive, the proprietary approach is also the most expensive to implement by far of all the alternatives, a fact that has limited the rollout of Imax 3-D to roughly 125 theaters worldwide to date.
By contrast, digital cinema approaches use two digital files synchronized through a single server and projector, at costs that could scale to the budget of neighborhood movie houseS assuming they get a little financial help from studios.
RealD handles the image alignment by applying a circular polarization method to the image with a special lens attachment on the projector. Moviegoers wear disposable, passive glasses. The approach lets viewers move their heads at angles up to 35° before image ghosting appears. However, to maintain the circular polarization, RealD requires a silver-coated screen, a type not currently in use at most theaters.
By contrast, In-Three Inc. (Agoura Hills, Calif.) uses active-shutter glasses controlled by an infrared beam synchronized to the projector. The scheme works on the standard white-matte screen found in most theaters.
"You don't have the ghosting that still exists with passive glasses, so this is not subject to head tilt at all," said Michael Kaye, chief executive of In-Three and a former engineer with several patents on postproduction systems. "We think it will be an uphill battle to get theaters to shift to silver screens."
In-Three, working with NuVision (Portland, Ore.), has reduced the cost of the shuttered glasses from as much as $300 to about $20, said Kaye. The company also has a proprietary method for turning existing 2-D movies into 3-D. Its first feature and its viewing system will debut by the end of the year, Kaye added.
Whatever method is used, "Digital 3-D will be a much better experience than analog 3-D," said Walt Husak, senior manager of electronic media at Dolby Laboratories (San Francisco), which is supplying Disney with its digital cinema servers. That's because all the digital approaches will have a fuller color range and less blur and jitter than analog.
Setting a standard
While these approaches and others expected to arrive shortly battle it out, Cowan's group at SMPTE aims to define a standard for mastering, distributing and projecting digital 3-D, specifications that could hold implications for next-generation hardware. The effort, just starting now, could be in first-draft stage by mid-2006.
The standard is long overdue. "It is crazy that, several years after MPEG-2-based digital cinema servers were introduced into the market, very few systems conform to the proposed file interoperability standards," said Jason Power, market development manager for Dolby in the U.K. "Ultimately, this is hampering expansion of the range of movies released in digital, particularly in Europe, where many different-language versions of each movie are required."
Cowan and others said that SMPTE's 3-D spec could suggest modifications to the JPEG2000 codec upon which the studios' digital cinema standard is based. That's because many people see great efficiencies in letting a second digital stream for one eye be composed simply of differences from the first stream for the opposing eye.
"That would make sense, but it will definitely have hardware implications," said Rich Greene, chief video architect for compression products at Analog Devices Inc., the only company currently shipping dedicated JPEG2K chips for the digital cinema standard. "Temporal processing might require additional hardware."
ADI is currently working on an architecturally optimized version of its ADV202 chip that will reduce silicon area (and thus cost) about 25 percent and power consumption about 20 percent. The ADV212 is slated to sample in January.
Beyond that, the Norwood, Mass., company is working on an ADV213 for late next year that will use an external memory interface for buffering. That could cut from 24 to 12 the number of JPEG2K chips needed in future systems sporting the so-called 4K resolution, the higher of two digital cinema resolution levels.
However, ADI would need to know soon about any spec changes to accommodate the SMPTE 3-D work, said Greene.
The SMPTE spec is also expected to recommend refresh rates beyond the minimum 48 Hz of two 24-frame/second streams, to avoid flicker that causes eyestrain. Approaches such as RealD's already support "flashing" each frame two or three times to achieve virtual refresh rates of 96 to 144 MHz.
Boosting actual refresh rates will balloon storage and interface requirements. Engineers are already debating whether 3-D will require data rates beyond today's 250 Mbits/s perhaps ratcheting upward toward as much as 400 Mbits/s, said Greene of ADI.
That could create the need for a new server-to-projector interface beyond the 1.5-Gbit/s HD-SDI (serial digital interface) available from about four transceiver makers and used in the initial digital cinema prototypes just now coming to market. Some engineers have proposed a standard based on 10-Gbit Ethernet.
"There's a lot of talk about higher-bandwidth interconnects, proprietary or standards based," said Cowan. "The dual HD-SDI link works fine in this application for the time being, although it's certainly possible that in the longer term the industry will transition to an interface designed more with digital cinema in mind," said Power of Dolby.
The spec may also try to address the fact that all the 3-D approaches lose light as much as four f-stops of it as they go through polarizers on the projector lens and viewing glasses. "You are basically seeing one-sixteenth of the light you would see [otherwise]," said the anonymous studio exec.