Thursday, June 11, 2009

3ality Digital Systems CEO Steve Schklair Talks 3D Tech, Education, The Future of 3D, Peter Jackson, and More!

Michael here.  I had the honor of speaking with 3ality Digital Systems CEO Steve Schklair at the Produced By conference last Sunday.  Steve is one of the few true trailblazers of modern stereoscopic 3D, and his depth of knowledge and many years of experience shooting stereo put his company on the bleeding edge of the 3D industry.

3ality Digital's series of "firsts" include the first concert movie shot completely in digital live-action 3D (U2 3D), the first live 3D broadcast of an NFL game, the first live 3D sports broadcast available to consumers (BCS Championship, Jan. 8th, 2009), and the first episode of a scripted television series shot in live-action digital 3D (Chuck vs. The Third Dimension, aired on NBC on Feb. 2, 2009).

Steve's passion for achieving the best possible 3D experiences for his audiences is infectious, and I learned a great deal from speaking with him.  He also gave me the exclusive scoop that Peter Jackson is committing to shoot all his films in 3D, and will be working with 3ality Digital's rigs and technology to do so.

In the interview, Schklair sheds fascinating light on 3ality's mission and technology, what it takes to make a good 3D film, the need for stereo education (and his program that addresses this need), the future of 3D tech, and much more.

MICHAEL: So, last night you told me you had a crew shooting a concert on the east coast a few weeks ago?

SCHKLAIR: We had a crew on the east coast shooting what will be one of a few shoots for a concert. I can't say who, but there's another concert film in the works. And I think I told you we were recently down in New Zealand with Peter Jackson, who is committing to shooting his films in 3D, and will be working with our rigs and technology to do so. I think this is big news for the industry because we are all pushing to get theaters built. Some theater owners are on the fence, asking, "If we do jump [into 3D], is there enough content?" And having guys like Peter Jackson jump in and say things like "I'll be making all my movies in 3D" is a great vote of confidence for the theater owners who are thinking about making the investment.

MICHAEL: When did you start getting involved with Peter and his camp?

SCHKLAIR: Months and months ago. It's been under discussion for a while, until we finally went down and started shooting tests.

MICHAEL: So he'll be using 3ality Digital’s 3D camera rigs for that?

SCHKLAIR: Yes, and the image processors. Our primary business has been R&D and developing technology, because this has to be production friendly technology. The biggest challenge was always, if a feature was a 40 day shoot, doing it in 3D can't make it a 41 day shoot. It has to stay a 40 day shoot. So there's a lot of things you have to do in 3D that you don't do in 2D that could suck up a lot of time on a set - mostly realigning the cameras constantly when you do lens changes, or even focal length changes. So we've been working on a lot of technology to eliminate that hand tweaking.

MICHAEL: For example, things like software algorithms that can adjust convergence on the fly?

SCHKLAIR: That's the easy part. Adjusting for differences between lens mounts and chip sets and where they sit behind the lenses, or adjusting for concentricity in zoom lenses as you go from one focal length to the next - that's the harder part. And that part we've solved. So at this point we've developed a lot of technology in both the cameras and the image processors, but we can shoot in the same amount of time we can shoot in 2D, because we don't have to go physically touch the cameras to realign them. They align themselves automatically while we're shooting, through a lot of image analysis.

MICHAEL: So any slight deviation will be compensated for by the software?

SCHKLAIR: Yes - but NOT by degrading the image. By actually readjusting the positions of the cameras.

So is it a servo-motor mechanism solution? That's amazing - it must have super high precision.

SCHKLAIR: Down to the micron. Yes, we can move cameras within a micron of space, accurately and repeatedly.

MICHAEL: That is incredible. When I think of mechanical systems in general, I think they are generally imprecise unless you're talking about something like a Mars rover.

SCHKLAIR: Take that and multiply it by 10, and that's the precision we're able to hit. Even Mars rovers don't need the kind of precision we need. Because if we're doing a shot, and we're on a long lens - say 180 mm - and we're shooting something 80 yards away, it's only a micron of movement to go up by one pixel.

MICHAEL: Which would misalign the two images.

SCHKLAIR: Yes, and if they are even a pixel or two out of adjustment, we want to adjust it. But it's a microscopic movement to move that object one pixel up when it’s blocks away.

MICHAEL: I've also heard that you are spearheading a program for stereoscopic 3D education. Could you elaborate on that?

SCHKLAIR: Let me start with this: If 3D is going to be a viable business, it can't just be 3ality Digital and one or two others making content. It has to be the entire world of content producers enabled to make content. So if that's true, the best way to get there is to start selling the cameras that we spend millions of dollars and years and years developing including the image processing and software. If we put that in the market, then it's going to require training to use it. If it's not used correctly, we're going to end up back in the world of bad 3D images, which is not good for anybody in the whole business. So because we're putting equipment in the market, we started offering a training program called 3DIQ. And there's a number of tracks in that program, from field engineers to stereographers to camera engineers to some of the electronic, image processing engineering. So we have a number of tracks in that program, and people are signing up based on their skillset interest - consistent with the duties they normally have on a 2D set. So the camera guys will go through one track; they are welcome to take all of them, but they'll go through one track, the DIT's will go through another track, and the stereographers - which is kind of a new area - will go through another track. And by the way, I just heard that the DGA just recognized stereographer as an official title.

MICHAEL: So we'll soon be seeing stereographers listed in the end credits of movies?

SCHKLAIR: Yes, there'll be a feature coming out with the word "stereographer" in it, now that it's officially been recognized by DGA, which I think is a great step forward. So, we're offering training programs. And after that there's certification. In order to rent or use 3ality Digital hardware in the field, you need to be certified. Just like you need to be certified if you're installing a big Microsoft system at some company. You need to be trained.

MICHAEL: Because you don't want people using your systems and coming out with cruddy results because they don't know what they're doing with it...

SCHKLAIR: ...Because inevitably it will get blamed on the system when the answer is no, it's operator error. You didn't know how to use it properly. It's like any piece of equipment. If Panavision comes out with a new camera, there's training programs on the ins and outs of it. If you take out a D21, you're going to get a training program on how to use it. But this is such a leap forward in terms of technology that there just has to be training to go with it, and certainly stereography is a new subject, and there are very few people in the world who are good at understanding how to make settings out in the field that translate to a 40 foot screen, an 80 foot screen - because there is different geometry associated with the screen sizes. And so the stereography training program will not only show them the tools to make those adjustments, but what constitutes an acceptable - meaning "doesn't hurt you" 3D image. We might even get into the creative aspects. But what we're most concerned about is that there are people in the field using the equipment, using it well, and creating really good 3D images.

MICHAEL: Has the program started yet?

SCHKLAIR: We've just started the program. We have a class in June that has already sold out.

MICHAEL: Based in Los Angeles?

SCHKLAIR: Right now, based in Los Angeles. We could take this on the road - there's a couple business circumstances that will have us take this on the road.

MICHAEL: Have you received a lot of feedback / interest regarding the program?

SCHKLAIR: We've received an awful lot of interest. Even the cameraman's union is going to offer the program as an adjunct to the training they usually do. So there's a lot of interest in the business, because more and more people are being called to shoot stereo films. And if you haven't done it you don’t know what you’re getting into. You don’t know if it’s hard or if it’s easy. From my point of view it’s easy if you have the right tools and know what you're doing. Then it's not hard. It's just an added element.

MICHAEL: I would imagine some people are afraid of the learning curve.

SCHKLAIR: Frankly, I think the changeover to digital cameras from film cameras was just as difficult, because all of a sudden it's a whole new breed of camera that you don't shoot the same way as a film camera. And you don't shoot a digital camera the same way as a television camera. The reason a lot of shows shot in high definition look like bad television is because they get the cameras in, and since the cameras look like a TV camera, they shoot it like a TV camera. But it's not television at all - the settings are completely different, and the way you use it is completely different. And so those that have been trained in the differences between film cinematography and digital cinematography do fairly well with it. Those that treat it like a TV camera don't. So it goes back to training and education.

MICHAEL: So stereo will be another learning curve. And it sounds like what you're doing will help speed it up.

SCHKLAIR: It used to take years to learn how to shoot a stereo film. We've built tools such that now I'm comfortable saying that in less than a week, you can go off and shoot your own stereo film, and do it fairly well. Technically. Creatively, like any other field - it takes years to learn how to paint, it takes years to learn how to direct. It takes years to learn the language of any new medium. So that's not addressing the creative issues. That's something that will take people time to adjust to, and maybe someone walks in the door with a knack for it and that's all it takes. But technically within less than a week there's no reason somebody can't be out there shooting a 3D film on their own.

MICHAEL: That’s exactly what we at MarketSaw are espousing – a world where anybody, from a first time low budget independent filmmaker trying to get his film into Sundance, all the way up to the big budget directors, can afford and shoot spectacular 3D.

SCHKLAIR: Let me give you an example. We shot an episode of NBC's "Chuck". We walked on set the first day, and we had never met the crew except for the DP and the director and the producer. When Chuck was shot it was their DP, it was their operators, it was their 1st AC's - it was really their camera crew. They're used to shooting in 16 mm, so for them I think the harder leap was to shoot a show digitally. But within a few hours in the morning we were rolling. Their production schedule did not change when we went to 3D as it did from a 2D film. They shoot an excessive number of shots. They do 40 to 50 shots a day sometimes on that show. It's TV, it's very fast, and they are very ambitious in what they try to do. And we averaged the same number of shots. On one day we did 47 shots and a big company move all on the same day.

MICHAEL: This bodes so well for the future of stereo that someone can just jump in and so quickly duplicate the production schedule they are used to, while utilizing this new technology...

SCHKLAIR: ...But that's because we gave them the right technology to do it. We gave them cameras that align themselves so they didn't have to spend ten minutes between every shot realigning. They can bump to a new lens length, so we'd be shooting at 12 mm, and the DP would say, "For the next shot let's punch in for a close up." You could go to 30, 40, 50 mm, and the cameras would align themselves automatically in the middle of moving into that lens length, and you'd be rolling your next shot as opposed to what we used to do, which was run around, take out the screwdrivers and the wrenches, put up the charts, realign the cameras - which is a 10 to 30 minute process - before we were ready for the next shot. This is completely automated. And they had to tools to look at it, to tell whether the stereo's good, not good. We had three monitors on set so they could see what they were directing in stereo. It was really a very seamless transition for them because they had the right tools.

MICHAEL: Are you planning on doing other TV work?

SCHKLAIR: We're planning on it. I can't say what shows yet. But I think that's going to come a little more slowly because the TV manufacturers are just starting to put the monitors into the market.

MICHAEL: SMPTE recently came out with their recommendations, and the 3D@Home Consortium has been working with them - but it still seems like it's a while off.  Some people I’ve spoken to believe market forces would dictate that relatively affordable 3D home systems would be available by June 2010. What's your take on that?

SCHKLAIR: I think they will come on the market earlier than that, but I think June 2010 is a fairly aggressive and ambitious number for when they will be widespread. I know one manufacturer is going to be releasing way before that. Part of it is not just the release of the TV's, but the marketing and advertising that informs consumers that the TV they might already own is already stereo enabled. Look at the 2+ million DLP's that Samsung put into the market over the last few years.

MICHAEL: Most people probably don't even know that they are 3D.

SCHKLAIR: I'd say 99% of the people who own them don't even know they're 3D. So there's a big education process that has to go on in their advertising to let people know that "this is a 3DTV", or that the one you own might be a 3DTV.

MICHAEL: What has 3ality Digital’s involvement been with the 3D@Home Consortium and the setting of 3DTV standards?

SCHKLAIR: We're a member of the 3D@Home Consortium. As a group that's looking to not only educate, but perhaps also get involved in standards, it's important to us to be aware of what's going on, and actually even help guide some of it, because we probably have more practical hands-on experience than anyone else in that group.

MICHAEL: Could you go into a little detail on your different product offerings, in terms of the different 3D rigs and systems? Do you offer different systems and support for different budget levels - for people starting out who are looking to make, for example, a $2 million movie as well as for the larger budget productions?

SCHKLAIR: Because we have a number of product offerings - on the camera system side, the camera systems, in terms of where everybody might be - we are on the upper end of that. But these are very, very precision machines.  And so those are really for more of a high-end user: either a broadcaster, or people working on studio feature films that have reasonable budgets for camera equipment, whether that's to purchase or to rent from a rental house. That's at one end. I was just at a conference where I saw five or six new camera systems that were being built, and they were all much lower end than what we have. A lot of them aren't even automated - the convergence isn't automated, the interaxial is not automated...

MICHAEL: ...I've read about some where there isn't even an ability to toe-in, where the two cameras are just side by side...

SCHKLAIR: ...There are a lot of those.

MICHAEL: I can't imagine how those could produce good 3D...

SCHKLAIR: There are some people who believe you can shoot 3D films completely parallel and they do very nice films. It puts everything in front of the screen though, which works in an IMAX world. See, that's the IMAX theory - but their screen is so large you could actually do that.

MICHAEL: Because it takes up so much of your field of view.

SCHKLAIR: And you can put it so that the infinity plane is on the screen, and everything else rolls forward. That's the IMAX methodology. You have to adjust that in post if you are shooting in parallel and putting it on smaller screens, or certainly on a television. We, Vince and Jim, Paradise - we all don't believe that’s the right way to shoot stereo films. All of us converge. There are people out there who look at IMAX and say "Oh, that works" but they aren't taking into account the fact that it works when there is no periphery on the edge of the screen because your field of view is filled.

MICHAEL: There's been a rumor going around that James Cameron will be shooting a segment of a "Heavy Metal" movie in IMAX 3D. Have you heard about that?

SCHKLAIR: Haven't heard anything about it, but it sounds like fun. Power to them. I hope they make that movie. I hope to see more and more 3D content made, whether it's IMAX format, digital screen format, television format. It's about quantity of content at this point as the technology is there to deliver, but there's not enough content to fill up the chains, to fill up the shelves of the DVD racks. Certainly for those going out and buying 3D televisions there's not enough content to push them into that at this point, which then gets into the whole idea of live broadcasting.

MICHAEL: It seems like a lot of this hinges on Avatar...

SCHKLAIR: Avatar's going to be important, because there's a lot of anticipation for Avatar, and it's a Jim Cameron film.

MICHAEL: And it's going to be the first major, big budget, non-horror...

SCHKLAIR: ...Non-horror, non children's, non-animated children's movie, yeah.

MICHAEL: So I think that will kind of be a lynchpin. Also, "Alice in Wonderland." I was a little disappointed when I heard that Burton was not shooting that in 3D - I am not sure whether he is using Passmore, In-Three, or who he is using to dimensionalize it.

SCHKLAIR: Most of that film is CGI. There are live action plates that they've opted to shoot in 2D and convert. But the conversion part of that film will be very small because they are basically shooting a few human characters in front of a green screen, to put them in the movie. Everything else is CG.

MICHAEL: I've read about your 3flex systems. Could you go into detail on that and other product offerings? 

SCHKLAIR: The real magic is the stereo image processor. That's a box that has multiple functions - from the simple functions of just feeding a 3D television from dual camera streams, or feeding a movie screen from dual camera streams, to complex functions such as color rectification, stereo waveforms, stereo vectorscopes, to subtractive viewing - so you can see what your depth is - , to grids that let you measure that depth against a 40 foot screen, a 60 foot screen - so you can see where you're shooting. So the stereo image processor - which is named the SIP - there's a number of versions in there. That's really the magic. So whether you use our camera system or anybody else's - even if you don't have the money to use our camera system for that low budget group you were talking about, for me it would be impossible to take a low budget rig out without a stereo image processor. I've known groups who've picked up one of the low budget rigs - I believe it cost them $25,000 for the rig - and they put two cameras on it, and they spent days trying to line up the images. Then somebody loaned them one of our SIPs, and then in half an hour everything was lined up. There's a real relevance, at least to the low budget world, that at least if you don't have a 3ality Digital camera system - get a SIP, because it would be impossible to shoot without it.

MICHAEL: Could you tell us about the different versions of the SIP that you offer?

SCHKLAIR: We have a SIP 2100, which is being sold by Quantel, which is mostly for post production use. It hooks very nicely into the Pablo and lets you know lots of things. We have a SIP 2200 just coming out, which is a portable field version, battery operated. It’s got a touch screen interface, it will show you the picture right on it. So basically you can be portable. It just goes with the camera, or sits behind the camera - wherever you want to hook it, it has lots of things to hook it on. There's a SIP 2900, which sits in a rack. It's a blade unit, so you load the individual SIP cards into it. The SIP 2900 will hold 9 cards, meaning it will run 9 camera pairs, or 18 2D cameras. So that's more for broadcasting, for truck use. It's a common interface then that controls all those cameras, as opposed to individual SIPs each with their own interface and stacks of equipment everywhere, it's just one rack-mounted unit with a single interface controller that runs all the cameras on the field. So they all do pretty much do the same thing, but different configurations depending on your need. Now, we're selling the hardware for not much more than it costs us to make it. We're licensing the software to go into it. And the software is broken into a number of modules. Maybe you need the broadcast module, maybe you don't. Maybe you need the color module, maybe you don't. I mean, if you're shooting with REDs, you're recording RED code right into the hard drive, so you don't need the color module in our unit because you're not recording through it. So there's various modules that you can turn on or off by plugging the box into the internet and get a key for whichever pieces you want to turn on for however long you want to turn them on. If you've got a production that's 3 weeks long you buy the piece for 3 or 4 weeks, and that's all you're paying for. So you pay for the software on an as-needed basis, and you pay for the modules on an as-needed basis, which makes it, 1) a little more affordable, and 2), it's not having to invest out of your capital expenditures budget a huge amount of money, because out of the production budget, you can just buy the pieces you need. So for us it seemed like a better business model for both us and the customers, because it's much better if you have a show to be able to charge things to the show, and only charge what's needed for the show. I've shot 3D for years, obviously, and at this point I wouldn't go out on set without a SIP box. It's pretty much everything you need to know, and I don't know of a single group or person that's used it that hasn't said the same thing, "I could never go back to shooting without it."

MICHAEL: I don't know how much you can get into your business plan, but would you say the SIPs are 3ality Digital’s bread and butter right now?

SCHKLAIR: I don't know if I would say it's our main bread and butter. It's one of our leading products. We have a number of other products coming out. The camera systems are certainly a good leading product. Some of the production work we've been doing is a good leading product for us, although that's more to familiarize potential customers on shooting in 3D. Before anybody buys anything, they're going to want to shoot with it first. So that keeps our production group fairly busy. You go out and shoot something with whoever might be your customer, and at that point they can decide if they want to rent, if they want to buy, if they just want to hire another company to deal with it. But those are all revenue streams for us, and those are all good for our business, and certainly those are all good for trying to educate the market, because what we're finding right now is that it's education more than anything else. There is a difference between good 3D and bad 3D. But if you've never done this work, you have no idea what it takes to make good 3D, or why bad 3D is bad.

MICHAEL: James Cameron had some harsh words yesterday about My Bloody Valentine...

SCHKLAIR: I won't name names, but I will say that this business needs education right now more than anything else so that people understand the difference between good 3D and bad 3D. Because the bad 3D is a disservice to the entire industry at this point. There's some bad 3D out there. There are some companies that have announced that they are in the 3D business that have no idea what that means. They're basically a couple of hobbyists that decided, "Hey, 3D's a big thing, we could be professional movie makers." But there's a huge gap between actually being a professional movie maker, and being a hobbyist. And a lot of their gap is not even understanding what it takes to be a professional in the 2D business - forget the 3D business! There are hobbyists who suddenly jumped into this business, announced that they're professionals, they get hired because they can show a few 3D things on their reel, but they're not professional filmmakers, they're not professional broadcasters, and that's what's hurting the business as bad as some people who claim they know 3D and they don't.

MICHAEL: What are you most excited about now in regards to 3D?

SCHKLAIR: I'm excited that this business has gone from an idea - an evangelistic battle to convince Hollywood that 3D's time is here and now and that digital has enabled that solved all the problems, to where the business is. I'm excited that at major events like this, suddenly a lot of it is concerned about 3D - that never would've happened in the past. That there's conferences devoted solely to 3D at this point. All of a sudden there's 15 companies making 3D gear. I'm excited that the business is growing this fast. I don't get asked the question anymore, "Do you think it's here to stay this time?" because I think everybody's past that question finally, which is great. I'm really excited about some of the new technologies that are on the drawing board that obviously I can't talk about to press...

MICHAEL: Autostereoscopic?

SCHKLAIR: I will say we are not in the display business, so we aren't doing anything towards autostereoscopic. 

MICHAEL: So the new technologies that 3ality Digital is working on are not autostereo related, but they are things you can't talk about yet?

SCHKLAIR: They are all geared toward making stereo faster to shoot, easier to shoot, simpler. Even taking it down to the consumer level. Because this will go to the consumer level. As the 3DTVs come into the home, it starts move into the consumer level.

MICHAEL: And people would be shooting their birthday parties and weddings in stereo.

SCHKLAIR: One would think! And we have an awful lot of software that could be applicable. So I'm excited about a lot of the new products that we could get involved in, and some on the professional side as well. There's a lot we can do to make this work better. To work more simply. To automate the processes so it’s not so as much guesswork, handwork. But the functions that can be dealt with by a computer should be dealt with by a computer.

MICHAEL: What are your thoughts on higher frame rates? That's something that Cameron has been evangelizing - 48 frames per second.

SCHKLAIR: I'm evangelizing the same thing. 24 frames per second is a legacy left over from film projection, and it has a lot to do with sound speed and persistence of vision - that was the minimum frame rate to allow smooth motion. There's no reason why digital is tied to this 24 frames per second frame rate. I know there's a lot of theaters out there that have film projectors that only run at 24, but there are ways to shoot digital at much higher frame rates and do a 24 release for those theaters, but give the digital theaters a real high quality master. This is especially critical in live sports or anything where things are moving fast.

MICHAEL: People have been saying that a killer app for higher frame rates will be sports.

SCHKLAIR: Absolutely. And when I was at the 3D conference in France last week, there were a number of companies that have shot sports, and they all are having the same motion issues at the low frame rates.

MICHAEL: So the cameras can do higher frame rates. What about the current crop of 2K DLP projectors? Could they potentially show 48 frame per second stereo right now, or would they need some kind of upgrade?

SCHKLAIR: When we did one live broadcast, we actually ran at 60 frames per second. We had to reduce the resolution to get there, but the's a tradeoff. We got much smoother motion but we had lower resolution. So the projectors can do 30 frames per second right now at full resolution. And how fast is it until a faster chip comes out for the projector? Very soon.

MICHAEL: It wouldn't be too expensive?

SCHKLAIR: No, I'm a big believer in Moore's Law - every 18 months, everything doubles.

MICHAEL: That reminds me of how Sony is converting pretty much every AMC screen in the United States to 4k. The changeover to 4k is happening much faster than I initially anticipated.

SCHKLAIR: Yeah, it happens faster and faster. The curve is upward. It's much faster than it used to be. So, yeah, there will be a lot of 4k cinemas, which begs the question, "where's the 4k content to fill those cinemas?" Which begs the question, "who's making 4k digital cameras?"  The hard part is not on [3ality] but on the camera manufacturers to make a camera that is actually 4k, to make a recording mechanism that records at 4k, and do it at least at 48 frames per second.

MICHAEL: I'd love to see that as soon as possible.

SCHKLAIR: Or 60. There's a lot of people who argue we should shoot 60.

MICHAEL: SMPTE is saying that the 3DTV standard should be up to and including 60p per eye.

SCHKLAIR: Yeah. Because they have a way to take it back to 24 for the theaters, but it also reaches 30 for television smoothly. It reaches 50 for Europe smoothly. It reaches 25 for Europe smoothly. So there are some people who are huge proponents of not 48, but 60. I'm a proponent of anything that's faster than 24.

MICHAEL: Anything else you want to add about 3ality Digital and what you are doing?

SCHKLAIR: If you look at the work 3ality Digital’s done, what we're interested in is supporting this business through incredible, high quality imagery. We are perfectionists on quality. We're not just out there to pump some gear out and make a quick buck and get out of this. We're in this for the long run. So quality for us is key. We're interested in quality, and we're interested in educating the market so they understand the difference between good and bad 3D, because this is the only way the business will sustain.

MICHAEL: What's next for you, and 3ality?

SCHKLAIR: We're heading into a couple more productions. And designing the next gen camera rig. And it just doesn't's a good thing!

MICHAEL: It's a very exciting time for 3D. Thanks so much for talking!

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Jim Dorey
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