Posted on April 25, 2010

The future is

Forget Avatar, it was just the tip of an ice-cube. In comparison, the three-dimensional iceberg that’s drifting in its wake towards the entertainment industry is far bigger than the effect James Cameron’s $2.7-billion grosser has wrought. It looks set to change the course the industry till the visible technology horizon.

The technology that Cameron’s film is credited to have breathed life into has been around in some way or the other since the 1890s, when a 3D moviemaking process was first patented in Britain. Over the next century came technologies that failed on the cost-benefit scale. What Avatar did was to show the marketing possibilities of 3D — marking the second coming of the old magic.
Filmmakers at home, too, want to ride the wave. India’s first 3D movie was in 1998 — Jijo Punnoose’s Chhota Chetan. Then came a few animation films, but not much more. Now Pooja Bhatt wants to make a Jism sequel in 3D. Ram Gopal Varma has announced an adventure flick and a horror movie in the format. The animated Bal Hanuman 2 has just been released on 3D. Call it the Avatar effect.

It’s not just about films. Last month Samsung, Sony and Panasonic launched 3D television sets in India. Taiwan’s Acer has launched a 3D laptop. Computer games such as Avatar, Batman: Arkham Asylum and G-Force are available across the country on the format. This year’s football World Cup will be the first one to be telecast on 3D. Much of these must have been in the works for years. What has brought about their releases now?

The force’s with them
The spread of digital projection and better camera technology helped. But there’s surely more to the momentum.
A few weeks ago, the Delhi-born Ali Kazimi, assistant professor at the Centre for Film and Theatre in Toronto’s York University, started on a $1.4-million interdisciplinary project to research 3D cinema. “A project this size cannot be started overnight… but the funding fell in place after the success of Avatar.”

Now everyone is playing for the 3D effect. Sony Pictures, for one, will release five films in 3D the coming year, ending with Tintin. The Hollywood biggie also opened its 3D Technology Center in the US earlier in April. Kazimi says almost all Hollywood animation films next year will have a 3D release too.

Most 3D films are conversions from 2D contents (like Alice in Wonderland) and are seen through the two-colour ‘anaglyph’ glasses. Very few (like Avatar) are done through the much costlier process of shooting with 3D cameras.

France-based Tom Sirdix, director of the first 3D porn film, Shortcuts, rigged his own 3D camera at a cost of more than 60,000 euros (Rs 36 lakh). He writes on email: “I wanted to check the current limitations of 3D techniques in shooting. We tested a French company leading in 2D-to-3D conversion and they did a convincing job, but the price had to improve.”

An Indian opportunity
The conversion is a painstaking process that’s done frame by frame, judging the depth of the scene, movements and angles. A feature-length film may need tens of thousands of man-hours in front of specialised computers. This is where India’s backroom techies are coming forward, says Kazimi. Companies such as Prime Focus, in which Anil Ambani holds a stake, are bidding for such projects at lower-than-First-World prices.

Three-dimensional animation already employs more than 20,000 people in India. Puneet Sharma, technical adviser to Arena Multimedia, a company that teaches animation technology to 22,000 students in 16 countries, informs that more than four out of every 10 students want to learn 3D techniques today. “The problem is that they think 3D is all about technology. They do not tend to focus on the drawing, the old art of it all.”

Even in gaming, it’s a “post-Avatar era now”, admits Rohit Sharma, CEO of gaming website Zapak. Gamers are hooked to playing not-so-new games such as Half-Life and Need for Speed in 3D, says Sharma, adding that despite the more-than-double charges for 3D, its popularity has not gone down.

Television makers, too, have launched their latest products here not long after they have been launched in North America and Europe. And for 3D TV, sports is expected to be the market driver. “Five of the 2010 World Cup matches will be produced using Sony’s 3D cameras,” says Takakiyo Fujita, general manager (marketing) at Sony India, whose mother ship has inked an 8-year agreement with football’s overlord, Fifa.

IS it here to stay?
Not everyone, understandably, is convinced that the second coming will not meet the fate of the first.
Rajiv Makhni, managing editor (technology) at NDTV and host of the Gadget Guru show, says, “3D has been force-fed to the consumer. Everyone wanted to go from black-and-white to colour, cathode ray tubes to plasma, standard-definition to high-definition — but no one was really asking for 3D.”

There are niggling health questions too. Laurie M. Wilcox, associate director at the York’s Centre for Vision Research and member of Kazimi’s team, says, “The eye adjusts to focusing at various lengths in the short term… Overuse — say, of more than 8 hours a day — may bring on headache or nausea. But there’s no proof of eye damage in the normal 3D viewing experience.”
For now, several marketers are putting their money where the buzz is.

In film projection, 3D requires theatres to install more expensive projectors and more luminescent screens.“We are rolling out (3D) capability all over the country,” says Sanjeev Bijli, owner of the PVR chain of cinemas. “We are investing serious money in this. So obviously we don’t think it’s a gimmick. Also, the 3D versions of Alice in Wonderland and Up got almost twice the response than the regular, 2D versions.”

The market is voting with its money. Now if only the consumer will.

© Copyright 2009 Hindustan Times