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Does tech suffer blurred vision on 3D future?

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How much do movie-goers care about 3D?

This summer Kevin Markwick, cinema fanatic and owner of the three-screen Picture House cinema in Uckfield, Sussex, ran an experiment to find out what his "upmarket mainstream" audience really felt about 3D. He'd been alternating 2D and 3D showings of a particular film in the same cinema, but he changed the pattern by running the two versions simultaneously in two of his auditoriums. The side-by-side timings presented punters with a much clearer choice. He reports in his blog:

After a couple of weeks of 3D & 2D Pirates 4 and doing performances of Kung Fu Panda 2 at identical times in both formats, in order of preference the choice seems to made by the following:

1. Time of the performance.

2. 2D preferably. It’s cheaper and the kids don’t give a monkeys. They don’t wear the glasses most of the time.

3. 3D if it’s on at the time I want.

Movie industry analyst Michael Gubbings, speaking on BBC Radio's Film Programme, takes the view that "if 3D fails we're in some pretty serious trouble... An enormous amount of Hollywood money has gone into this 3D revolution. The idea of increasing revenues through 3D has been fundamental to studio policy."

Kevin Markwick's careful monitoring of his own audience in Uckfield has left him pessimistic about 3D's future: "As an exhibitor I think it's on the way out, personally."

Even if the effect of 3D on the punters in the cinema and at home has been underwhelming, the processes the TV manufacturers and Hollywood movie-makers have gone through in the past half-decade and the huge investments they've made are now irreversible. There's one fundamental difference from earlier "3D revolutions", summed up in the single word: "digital".

The most illuminating way of looking at what has been happening, and what is going to happen, may be to understand that 3D is only one of many branches of opportunity growing off the trunk of digital. It's true that digital presents 3D with the best shot it has ever had at becoming mainstream. But even if the naysayers are right, and this round of 3D crashes and burns altogether, the legacy of the digital technology it has helped introduce is truly game-changing.

In part two we'll be looking at those changes in detail, but here are some pointers:

1) Back in the day when movies were mostly shot in 35mm (and in part two you'll probably be surprised to discover how very recently that was), the price of film stock was a constraint on the amount of footage exposed. With the switch to digital cameras, whether in 2D or on 3D rigs, that constraint evaporates. Directors may come out of a digital shoot with up to 50 per cent more footage.

This doesn't mean longer movies or TV ads, but it is 50 per cent more to be handled in post-production. Hardware manufacturers are seeing this in increased sales of hard drives and LTO tape cartridges. A post-production facility might have to hire more compositors and editors to cope with this increased amount of footage, because no one's going to allow deadlines to be stretched. That means more workstation sales for someone, and more high quality colour-calibrated monitors.

2) One big game changer due to digital has already happened. Back in the 1980s, the very first wave of digital post-production introduced dedicated hardware from companies like Quantel that was niche and hugely expensive. As commodity processors became more powerful, a new generation of Unix workstations – led by SGI – assumed this role, and around 1990 these began to be replaced in turn by standard Intel boxes equipped with high-end graphics cards and running Microsoft Windows.

But commoditisation had one more step to go. In part two we'll explore the rise of Linux, and the inexorable logic that lead movie industry application vendors to port their products across to an environment cooked up by geeks where "open source" is the norm.

3) Will the movie industry really crumble, as Michael Gubbins suggests, if 3D fails again this time? Perhaps the most important change that 3D has brought about in cinemas has been the introduction of digital projectors. Hollywood's been trying to persuade cinemas to switch to digital for years – because 35mm reels cost a bomb to dupe and distribute. 3D was the clincher for many cinemas. In 2007 there were 220 digital cinemas here in the UK. In four years that figure has increased tenfold. But the unintended consequence, from Hollywood's point of view, is that independent film producers get the biggest benefit.

"It would have had trouble getting a look-in on 35mm," says Kevin Markwick. He's talking about Senna, the documentary about the Brazilian racing driver that was an unexpected box office smash hit earlier this year. The economics of digital was certainly the only way British director Asif Kapadia could have pieced together his riveting 104 minutes from 15,000 hours of archival footage. But how did digital affect the movie's distribution?

Distributors and venue owners see these films in advance, take a bet on what's going to work, and the number of distribution copies is based on their guess. "Two or three years ago," Markwick explains, "a film like that probably would have had five or six 35mm prints, tops."

Opening with a limited release, Senna topped UK box office records for a documentary by taking £375,000 on its first weekend outing. Word of mouth fuels audience demand, but a 35mm distribution would have denied copies for other cinemas. "Even if you wanted to play it, you'd still have to wait. It would take a very long time for it to get round," says Markwick. "But with a digital drive, you can copy and out it goes."

So yes, digital is indispensible for the creation of typical Hollywood blockbusters like Toy Story 3 in 2D and 3D. But is also lightens the load for radical small budget directors working in traditional 2D. And by opening up choices for cinemas and audiences, digital projection ensures that films like Senna – which are worth seeing – get seen. The failure of this wave of 3D might leave Hollywood high and dry. But the film industry as a whole will come out smiling. ®

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