Interview: How Sky 3D is drawing closer

26th May 2009 | 12:36

Interview: How Sky 3D is drawing closer

Sky's Brian Lenz talks up the third dimension

Sky looks into the third dimension

It's been almost six months since Sky showed off its 3D showreel to the world's media and revealed that it could broadcast it through its existing equipment.

Head of Product Design and Innovation, Brian Lenz, is the man pushing to bring a third dimension to UK televisions and, in an extensive interview with TechRadar, he explains how tasks like filming the world's fastest man running through Deansgate and making the National Ballet 3D are allowing Sky to learn valuable lessons.

TechRadar: It was December that Sky opened its doors to the media and showed off its 3D, how have things progressed towards it arriving in our living rooms?

Brian Lenz: So I think that what we saw back at that event was between 60 to 80 per cent of what I would consider broadcast quality, with the footage of Ricky Hatton boxing at maybe 80 per cent and the football clips and Gladiators at 60 per cent.

What we wanted to see was how close to broadcast quality we could get and make it a genuine option rather than a decision that is fraught with technical complexity and a logistical nightmare to film things in 3D.

SKY 3D: Bringing a new dimension to the National Ballet

Simultaneously we have looked to move 3D into the other genres we cover. We've targeted some arts content to get away from sports and test on something completely different. We've been shooting with the National Ballet and it's the most beautiful footage that we've shot so far.

It's absolutely broadcast quality, we hit that mark and we've proved to ourselves that we can do it and shown the value of 3D visually. John Lassiter said about 3D that it is 'removing one more of the barriers from the suspension of disbelief'. You are removing the screen from the equation and to see the depth that it brings to the National Ballet is the best version of that we've managed so far.

The world's fastest man

TR: TechRadar covered the fact that you had filmed the highly publicised Usain Bolt 150 metres run in Manchester recently – what challenges did this create for your team?

BL: 3D can enhance the visual experience of a range of genres and the opportunity came up with Usain Bolt. How do you shoot someone so fast in a setup that is not necessarily set up to be that dynamic in two dimensions? How can we rise to the challenge to do something different in that regard?

The big thing we did was that we used a combination of cranes and a rail cam. The rail cam was probably the most significant thing. What was important was that we could mount two cameras to shoot 3D on a rail and keep it steady enough.

ZOOM: Sky films runner over 150m

There were problems with the bounce when we started, and the impact of cameras not in perfect alignment in 3D is massive. The 3D impact was nauseous – it felt as if you were in a barrel rolling down a hill! What we managed to do was add some dampening which gave us a perfectly smooth run.

We ended up with stride for stride footage in 3D – we were blessed with the rain clearing up at the right time – and with the moisture glistening on the track that footage was beautiful.

Lessons learned

TR: There are obviously a lot of lessons to be learned in how to film things in 3D, with a full-sized IMAX screen, things popping off the side don't matter as much as with a small screen where it really jars, for instance. What tips are you picking up?

BL: With all that shooting we feel we're hitting the quality mark and we know what we need to do, but for live 3D shooting we still need to get the efficiency. Right now because it's not every event being filmed in 3D we are still getting a lot of 'didn't expect that' moments.

There's different challenges that you need to work through, but we want to be able to roll in with an OB [outside broadcast] truck the night before, film in 3D and then roll out again the next day.

It is a different way of filming; what we are finding is that it's coming down to how you frame the shot. Cameramen have really good ideas of the mechanics and physics and the artist's eye to frame shots and if you show them 3D footage it's a pretty quick turnaround for them to start framing shots.

CLOSE-UP: Sky's 3D Rig in action

The bigger thing is more around getting them comfortable with not having to pan off of something as fast. You have to let the action roll out of frame rather then trying to keep it in the frame.

To be honest the biggest thing we have to get right now how to make that point of convergence across all the different cameras so you don't get that jarring sensation when you switch between different shots.

James Cameron's Avatar

TR: Avatar is obviously hotly anticipated, but do you feel like it could be a pivotal moment in bringing 3D to a wider audience and, ultimately, pushing it into our living rooms?

BL: I think so. James Cameron seems to like putting pressure on himself. He took Titanic, where everyone knew how it was going to end, and took realistic CGI to a new level, and if he takes the same artistic sense along with his technical knowledge to 3D then it will be huge.

I'd hesitate to say that it's a make or break moment, but I do think that it's a significant moment. If he pulls it off – and personally speaking I don't doubt that he will - then it will be absolutely massive in terms of making 3D more popular.

TR: How important was being able to show that you could put 3D through existing Sky boxes?

BL: The big question was can we get 3D through our existing infrastructure and if we hadn't then I don't think we'd be doing anything like what we are doing now. If we hadn't been able to use the existing HD boxes then I think it would just be a novelty on our timeline; something that we might be doing in the future.

Because we don't touch infrastructure it means that all the investment can go towards the content, which is where you want to be.

LIGHTNING BOLT: But is 3D a flash in the pan?

TR: The credit crunch is really biting into people's budgets, do you feel like this has delayed the arrival of 3D sets in living rooms and delayed the chance to get Sky 3D into homes?

BL: I'm not sure if it has. From our perspective we see that next year has significant launches of 3D televisions, which is probably about the reasonable time frame anyway.

I won't proclaim to be an economic expert but consumer electronic sales seem to be holding quite well and Sky has gone from strength to strength.

I don't want to pretend that it doesn't have some impact. If people aren't moving home then there's not that need to buy the big television. I think you'll see stuff happen next year because the TV manufacturers themselves want and need something new.

Everyone hoping [3D] is not a flash in the pan and it all circles back between symbiotic relationship between content and televisions – if the content is there then the push for TVs will start to accelerate.

TR: The most common criticism of 3D is that it is a gimmick, are you convinced that 3D is something that the consumers want enough to invest in?

BL: I think so. I think that there is something intriguing there and of the people who wouldn't be impressed by technically gimmickry many of those are gobsmacked by the footage we have already shot so I would say there's something different about this.

I'm not sure that in five to ten years that the whole schedule will go into 3D, but appropriate events, movies of the weeks, special documentaries and things like major football matches can absolutely be worthwhile.

You put on the glasses to watch something that you are keen to see in a special way rather than a whole evening's viewing.

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