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3D TV: If you build it… then what?

September 23, 2011

Most of the discussion I read about the advent of 3D TV centers on the technological advances.  While LG, Samsung, Panasonic and most of the other major players have already released 3D capable sets, they all require glasses.  Horizontal passive shutters don’t have any moving parts, but you lose half the resolution of your set per eyeball.  The battery powered active shutter glasses produce a superior full picture, but they are considerably more expensive per pair.  And who wants to keep a drawer full of goofy eyewear just so you can have the gang over to watch the Super Bowl anyway?  A glasses-free experience is by most measure at least 5 years away, likely accomplished using a decoder at the consumer end.  But for me, this timeline and indeed this path is almost beside the point.  Many other factors from production to distribution are also going to have to evolve in order for there to be any there there in 3D TV land.

I had the pleasure of attending a seminar about 3D technology at Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco last weekend.  The featured speaker was stereographer Grant Anderson from the Sony’s 3D Technology Center in Los Angeles.  As an established producer, visual effects supervisor and digital artist, his talk focused on the thought process behind directing features, but I kept my television ears on.  More well known directors are shooting in and thinking in 3D, so it’s safe to assume at least a few of them are contemplating how the creative approach involved would work on the smaller screen.

The initial problem is a matter of bandwidth.  Most cable companies already only distribute programming in 1080i or 720p, not full HD.  Furthermore, there is movement towards decreasing that bandwidth to make room for more stations.  3D would require these businesses to reverse course, and we’ve all seen how “quickly” they do that.  Cord cutters shouldn’t be doing their happy dance just yet since many internet providers are starting to put caps on downloaded bytes.  Discs are more likely to be a satisfactory delivery method for 3D content, but it’s hard to imagine that any programming not initially produced in 3D would go through the expense of conversion just to sell what many consider to be a vanishing format.

Let’s be utopian and assume that somehow the bandwidth were to become available.  The next hurdle would be changing the way almost all television is directed.  The smaller screen and home viewing space provide a bigger “comfort zone” than a typical movie theater for viewing 3D without eyestrain.  Nevertheless, the pace, movement and editing would all have to be slowed down.  Standard practices of interchanged close-ups, documentary-style hand-held camera work, and quick cuts could become rapidly sick-making.

Further, there would be a host of new and expensive design considerations.  3D is easier to scale down than up and home theaters, not to mention standard living rooms, provide a much more controlled environment that suits the 3D experience.  However, stage sets would have to convey more depth to support an impactful effect.  And those matte paintings used for low budget background would need to be converted so they didn’t look like, well, matte paintings used for low budget background.

Then there is the storytelling to consider.  Television is still a writer’s medium, after all.  Providing an enjoyable 3D episode would necessarily influence the tales told.  Not every program would be a good candidate for 3D anymore than every feature is filmed that way.  But it’s hard to imagine anything among the current fall favorites as a genuine contender for a worthwhile 3D upgrade. 

So what are we watching on these 3D TVs?  Football?  Clash of the Titans?  Call of Duty: Black Ops?  I realize that for a few of you I have just described the ideal weekend.  But I doubt I’ve summarized a line-up that defines a new industry.  Then again, I would never have predicted a successful Banana Republic clothing line built around a drama with less than 3 million viewers.  So as Dennis Miller used to say when he was still a liberal, I could be wrong.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kayla Schwartz permalink
    September 23, 2011 12:08 pm

    Really interesting, Cathy. I trained a speaker (President of Visual Display) from one of those companies you mentioned as he spoke about 3-D TV but naturally I heard more about the qualities than limitations. I find the most interesting part (to this Presentation Coach who promotes story telling) how it will affect — or not — writing for TV. As you say, we’ll see! – Kayla Schwartz, Presentation and Communications Coach

    • September 26, 2011 10:54 am

      Your experience – hearing primarily about the benefits of a new technology – underlines a point I’ve been trying to make over the last few months. There needs to be far more discussion between those who are developing the impressive gadgets and those who are making the creative content. These two worlds will increasingly have impact on one another. So far, most of the exchanges are about money, usually a heated topic that doesn’t promote positive relationships. So I’ll continue my call for CLOs.

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