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Hollywood is in the midst of a conversion experience.
"Avatar," designed and shot in 3D, has set the gold standard for 3D movies, having grossed $2.7 billion worldwide. But a pair of films that were shot in 2D and then converted to 3D -- "Alice in Wonderland" and the new "Clash of the Titans" -- also have attracted sizable audiences: "Alice" has collected more than $730 million worldwide to date, and "Titans" bowed to $61.4 million domestically and added another $44 million overseas.
With audiences flocking to movies that are converted to 3D as part of the postproduction process, 3D conversions are fast becoming an accepted option for both studios and filmmakers.
Warner Bros.' "Titans" was shot in anamorphic film as a 2D release. But the studio later opted for 3D, and the film was converted in roughly 10 weeks -- a remarkably fast turnaround -- in order to meet its release date. The cost was reportedly around $4.5 million.
But some tech insiders, as well as a number of reviewers, suggested that the rush to convert doesn't always lead to satisfactory results.
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis wrote, "The 3D in the 'Clash of the Titans' remake, which was added after it was shot, has none of the immersive quality of 'Avatar' and instead segments the image into discrete planes, bringing to mind the unintegrated levels of a pop-up book."
Said Roger Ebert, a 3D skeptic: "One word of consumer advice: Explain to kids that the movie was not filmed in 3D and is only being shown in 3D in order to charge you an extra $5 a ticket. I saw it in 2D, and let me tell you, it looked terrific."
Some are concerned that such reactions might threaten to put the brakes on conversion -- and possibly even derail the runaway 3D train.
Prime Focus, the Mumbai-headquartered postproduction business that did the conversion, defends its work.
"There are a lot of different techniques," said Chris Bond, president of Prime Focus, North America, and developer of the company's View-D 2D/3D conversion method. "I invite filmmakers to come and test their material, and to see 'Clash.' We have a lot of creativity and artistic drive to make sure the results look fantastic. I think it looks great."
The debate is sure to underline the importance of quality control as the nascent process becomes more widely used.
Proponents argue that post conversion gives filmmakers more creative flexibility with cinematography during live-action production. That was the deciding factor for Tim Burton and his "Alice" director of photography Dariusz Wolski when they decided to shoot in 2D and then convert to 3D.
Others contend that quality 3D must involve the entire chain from production and post to distribution and exhibition, including the way films are shot and edited. CG-animated movies are computer-creations and lend themselves to conversions, but making over a live-action movie can be trickier.
"3D is a different medium and requires thinking a different way," Sony Pictures Imageworks senior stereographer Rob Engle said. "For instance, (the animated) 'Monster House' was originally planned as 2D, and in some shots they added camera shake. For the 3D version, we dialed it back -- because we were able to dial it back in animation. In live-action, you can't take out the camera shake. There are photographic styles that don't lend themselves as well to 3D."
The bottom line, he said, is "conversion is really hard. You are taking shots that were not intended as a VFX shot and making them a VFX shot. That is neither easy nor cheap. If you don't have the appropriate amount of time, money and technical and creative talent, you are going to receive a result that is not satisfactory."
Dave Walton, assistant vp marketing and communication at JVC Professional, cautioned: "No 3D is better than bad 3D. Those who view bad 3D can get headaches and nausea within a few short minutes. So conversion has to be accurate, and you have to pay attention to the brain's ability to process the images without fatigue."
Of course, money has a way of overshadowing such concerns.
"There is a bit of gold-rush mentality right now," Engle said. "Can we make more money (at the boxoffice) at a controlled cost?"
He added: "There is also a race to the bottom in terms of (conversion) pricing. All of the vendors are hungry for work, if you look at how many vendors are wanting to get their first feature under their belt."
An increasing number of businesses are offering a number of 2D/3D conversion techniques at a different price points -- essentially creating a high, middle and low end for the fledgling market.
At the high end, companies including In-Three in some cases might charge more than $100,000 per minute, depending on the complexity of the material and time spent making creative decisions with the filmmakers. In less complex assignments, though, its charges can fall well below $50,000 per minute.
At the other end of the spectrum is a stereo image processor that JVC plans to launch this month at the National Association of Broadcasters convention. Essentially a box that automatically converts 2D content to 3D, it will be available for purchase for $30,000.
But JVC's Walton emphasized that the converter is intended to augment, not replace, the other conversion techniques where the filmmakers are involved in making creative 3D decisions. "There is no magic box that will let you convert everything, but the JVC system will speed the process up," he said.
Prime Focus' View-D conversion process combines proprietary automated software with manual work that reflects filmmakers' creative decisions. In the case of "Titans," helmer Louis Leterrier was closely involved in setting the creative direction. Bond said Prime Focus charges $50,000-$100,000 per minute of material.
While much of Hollywood's current focus revolves around whether to give feature releases the 3D conversion treatment, the same discussion is starting to take place within the television world.
U.K. satcaster Sky launched its 3D channel Saturday, and in its technical spec, the company stated that it would not accept converted material. Still, Sky will consider such programs on an individual basis.
The 3D TV channels lining up on the launching pad in the U.S. haven't signaled own policies.