James Cameron and the pursuit of 3D
By Kate Bulkley
September 19, 2012
Oscar-winning Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron talks to Kate Bulkley about the future of 3D TV and cinema while backstage at IBC
If 3D technology is ever going to become mainstream across both television and cinema then film director James Cameron will be one very important person to thank.
The multiple Oscar-winner, who brought mega movie hits including The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Titanic and Avatar to the big screen, is in the vanguard of 3D research and development most recently in sports with plans to shoot the biannual Ryder Cup in 3D and via his recent deep-sea exploration work in the seven-mile-deep Mariana Trench. He is also about to start shooting the next instalment of Avatar, which will of course be in 3D.
The 62-year-old Canadian is best known as a director – he holds the record for the top two highest-grossing films ever with Avatar and Titanic – but he is also a crusading evangelist for 3D; he is part-owner and co-chairman of the Cameron Pace Group (CPG), a company that builds 3D rigs and 3D cameras both for Cameron's own productions as well as for a host of different broadcasters including National Geographic and ESPN. CPG recently created a China-based subsidiary to bring its expertise in 3D filming and production to one of the fastest-growing 3D markets in the world.
"All things are better in 3D," enthused Cameron backstage after a presentation about his dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench delivered at the IBC broadcast technology exhibition in Amsterdam. Navigating to the ocean's floor in a specially designed submersible built over seven years, Cameron filmed in 3D with nano-cameras developed by CPG that can be held in the palm of your hand and are able to withstand pressures of 16,000 psi at 36,000ft underwater. "What's the point of setting the world's depth record if you don't shoot it in 3D?!" quipped Cameron. In addition to being a film director and technology pioneer Cameron is also a keen adventurer and is a National Geographic explorer in residence.
This month CPG will work for the first time with the UK pay TV operator BSkyB on the Ryder Cup, using 26 3D cameras for the bi-annual event this year staged in Chicago. This follows CPG partnering with ESPN on the Aspen, Co.-staged X Games over a number of years. "Symbolically the deal with BSkyB shows that we are a go-to partner for Europe as well as in America and the idea is to get close to Sky in the UK and also to Sky in Germany and Italy as they roll out 3D," said Cameron.
Cameron's allegiance to 3D is unswerving and he believes this style of filming will only increase in popularity among broadcasters because the modern 3D cameras can simultaneously broadcast a 2D feed, if necessary, and also the issue of viewers having to wear cumbersome glasses is close to being resolved. In fact at IBC there were prototypes of glasses-free 3D screens – TVs, smart phones and tablets – developed by Dolby Laboratories and Royal Philips Electronics that drew crowds. "What will cause a breakthrough is the move to TV sets and other devices where you don't need to wear the glasses," said Cameron. "That will cause the (adoption) curve to elbow up."
Cameron also has a more personal agenda. "Even a 3D movie like Avatar which is made for the cinema will enjoy the greater part of its lifespan on video seen on the home TV screen," said Cameron. "We can't make movies in 3D fast enough to justify the wide adoption of 3D TVs so in my enlightened self-interest as a film-maker I want to see the broadcaster market expand rapidly so everyone is watching in 3D." Cameron believes that TV shows like CSI and Game of Thrones and other glossy TV dramas should all be shot in 3D. The idea is that the more programming there is in 3D, the more incentive there is for the consumer electronics companies to make 3D sets and other devices. "It's a positive feedback loop," he explained.
To support his 3D commitment, Cameron is working on three follow-up Avatar movies, all in 3D, of course. In fact, Avatar 2 is set to start shooting this autumn and could be in cinemas by 2015 and yes, Sigourney Weaver, who played the chain-smoking scientist who died at the end of the original Avatar, will be back for Avatar 2. According to Cameron, one of the biggest problems with getting TV productions shot in 3D is the higher cost, but he says that although 3D shoots can be 20% to 30% higher on a single-programme shoot, that for a bigger, multiple-episode TV series these costs fall to only 2% to 3% more than a standard 2D shoot.
"For Avatar there was no additional camera shooting in 3D," said Cameron. "Most of Avatar was one camera or two cameras if we were blowing something up. But most of it was one camera handheld on my shoulder or on a dolly or a steady cam. And that is basically the same way a scripted series is shot: two shots, two overs, two close ups and then you move on."
Cameron calls TV drama series the "low-hanging fruit" for 3D development. "Where you get into big additional costs in 3D is when you add the visual effects," said Cameron citing Martin Scorsese's 3D kids fantasy Hugo and Ang Lee's forthcoming Life of Pi, both of which have lots of computer-generated images or CGI.
China is one market where Cameron sees very big 3D potential. CPG has recently opened a China branch for both 3D cinema and TV productions. He says the China business will likely double the size of CPG over the next year because there is such huge demand there, with a new 3D screen cinema opening almost one a day. "China is adding new TV channels in 3D every day. They want to take 3D to scale as rapidly as we can do it. We've been working to be able to do hundreds of hours of 3D at CPG but now we are working to be able to do 6,000 to 7,000 hours of 3DTV because of China." In China, Avatar, Titanic and Transformers – all in 3D – are the three highest-grossing titles, said Cameron. "The Chinese audience loves 3D. They see it as a premium brand and they are very brand conscious now as they flex their economic muscle."