By Chris Chinnock
Insight Media had a chance to visit with 2D-to-3D conversion house StereoD (Burbank, Calif.), where President William Sherak gave us a tour, discussed the 3D conversion pipeline, and provided screenings of some recent high profile Hollywood conversions. My conclusion? 3D conversion has come a long way in two years and can now rival, and in some ways, exceed the results possible from native 3D capture.
Sherak’s message to the industry is that they want to demystify the 3D conversion process, implying that his competitors have made it mysterious and hard to fathom. And, by the end of the meeting, he has done just that.
One of the most effective tools he has is a demo reel that shows how the conversion process is accomplished using the following sequence.
1) Receive assets such as original 2D plates, or 2D or 3D elements (from the VFX house) and perform an ingest into their proprietary asset and pipeline management system called CTAC.
2) After an extensive shot-by-shot review, the rotoscope team begins “Roto Annotations.” These are representative frames from each shot that have defined colors and guides that tell the roto team how to break down each object for depth.
3) The roto team performs their work, and produces a simplified version of the completed roto.
4) Once the roto is complete, it is handed off to the depth team that use proprietary software, VDX, and other tools to define the scene’s depth.
5) Then, if the shot needs it, an in-house VFX team will add 3D augmentation for things like smoke, sparks, rain, confetti or any type of particles.
6) Finally the paint team adds the final polish to the shot to ensure a beautiful end result.
The quality of the conversion process is also evident in the films they have worked on like Titanic, The Avengers, Thor, Captain America, Red Bull Stratos, Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters, Katy Perry Part of Me and others. Plus, they have some big titles in the works like Star Trek and others we were told about, but can’t name. As you can see, StereoD has a close relationship with Marvel with the fifth conversion project now underway using a well-established pipeline.
The level of conversion that StereoD offers is not cheap ranging from $50K to $100K per minute. The costs vary based on the complexity of the scenes and visual effects, and if they get a “flat” movie or if they can get the get the separate visual effects to render as part of their conversion process. As a result, StereoD, which is a subsidiary of Delux, now has 1000 employees with 40 percent in the U.S. and the rest mostly in India.
The most time consuming part is the “painting”, which is the generation of missing pixels that must be created on a frame-by-frame basis by qualified graphic artists – with knowledge of stereoscopy.
One of Sherak’s favorite expressions is that they can “bend space.” What he means by this is that they have the ability to create a different 3D rendering of various parts of the frame. That means they can have a different camera separation for example, for the foreground, midground and background to achieve a visual look that one cannot get with native 3D camera capture. This technique can even be used on native stereo content to change the 3D experience.
Sherak says part of the bad reputation of 3D conversion was forged in the early days where projects were rushed through the process. Today, he says most projects now have a minimum of about 12 weeks, but that varies from project to project, of course. Titanic, with its 180K frames, took nearly a year to complete.
Another factor that is helping StereoD to win over major Hollywood directors is their approach to working with them. “We want to be style agnostic when working with the directors,” says Sherak. For example, he says that Marvel likes to “make their characters to have big 3D volume, whereas in Titanic, the style was to make the 3D space seem as big as possible. You wanted that boat to go onto infinity,” says Sherak.
Each director approaches the 3D conversion process differently, but all soon become quite engaged in the decision making pretty quickly, explains Sherak. The first part of the process is making the depth decisions for each scene and frame. Here, StereoD says the director can have unlimited revisions until it feels right. Once this is decided, the time consuming tasks of rotoscoping, doing 3D special effects and painting can begin.
This process is done with teams that work on various parts of the film. A lead stereographer guides each team, reviewing content on a 47” or so sized passive 3DTV. Fine tuning can take the form of expanding the depth of the nose or rounding out the face.
All team members attend dailies twice a day, where scenes are “approved”. This helps the team to see how the whole movie is coming together and to develop a consistent style. StereoD has two screening rooms – one a passive polarized set up and the other with active stereo glasses.
And the company does not just work on legacy conversions, but day and date releases too. To support this, they have a fiberoptic private network that can stream extremely high resolution content to several screening rooms around the world to facilitate the decision making process. “We have to deliver the highest quality to be sure these decision makers see exactly the same thing they would see in our facility in Burbank,” explained Sherak.
So there you have it. High quality 3D conversion can be quite masterful, but it comes at a hefty price. But that’s okay. Given time, I would expect many of these tools and skills to begin to migrate to enable lower cost conversions. The really tricky part – painting pixels by trained artists, will be very difficult to replace in the long term – certainly for theatrical screenings where every error can be visible.