3D: the next dimension in advertising

Prior to presenting 3D at the AToMiC conference in Toronto on Oct. 13, we asked Geneva Film Co.'s James Stewart to lay down a primer for those wondering how it will affect creative and eventually most digital media.

With only a dozen or so 3D commercials, there is still some learning to be had. James Stewart’s Geneva Film Co. has produced half of them, including the most recent US spots for Lexus LFA and Sprint, and spoke at the Cannes Lions this past June to give a clearer idea of the creative potential of 3D and the costs involved. Prior to presenting 3D at the AToMiC conference in Toronto on Oct. 13, we asked him to lay down a primer for those wondering how it will affect creative and eventually most digital media.

Marketers looking for a bold new way to highlight their brands and connect with consumers on a visceral level need look no further than digital 3D. With today’s tech, 3D enables you to make an impact on an audience in an emotional and immersive way never before possible, and opens up a new realm of creative possibility.

Digital 3D has already forever changed our viewing experience – first at the movies and now, increasingly, on television, and gaming and handheld. Our industry is beginning to take notice. Global brands like Toyota, Coke, Scion, Vodafone, Sony and Mazda have already made forays into this brave new dimension, as have smaller concerns like the US Navy.

How 3D works

We live in a 3D world. As ‘binocular’ beings, we see everything with two eyes. Each eye sees a slightly different angle, creating depth perception in the brain. Live-action 3D recreates this effect by filming with two cameras, each camera replicating the view of one eye. Looking deeper, human eyes are 2.5 inches apart and that’s the starting distance for the placement of each camera.

By moving the cameras closer together or farther apart, or by pointing them slightly inwards or outwards, it’s possible to create all kinds of effects, from making objects appear to jump off the screen to scenes of incredible depth – replicating the world view of a fly or an elephant.

Why is it different from the ’50s? The workflow is entirely digital. Digital acquisition. Digital post-production. Digital projection. All of which means that anything and everything can be captured, from commercials to real-time concerts and live-action sports, with little opportunity for the technical challenges that have plagued 3D in the past.

And the state of the technology, especially on the projection and display end, eases the eyes into seeing and perceiving images as ‘hyper-crisp.’ Polarized lenses have now replaced the traditional coloured cardboard glasses. Each lens has a different direction of polarization allowing only the correct image to enter each eye. The brain fuses them – as it does everything we see in real life – creating depth. No more headaches. No more eyestrain. Industry advances will soon do away entirely with the need for 3D glasses

Working in 3D

While 3D opens up a new world of creative possibilities, it also requires some new, or at least different, approaches to creative and production. For example, deciding how much you want to enter people’s personal space, or how to effectively and emotionally immerse them in a scene. 3D also alters the grammar of visual storytelling, which in turn impacts how you go about designing each shot on the board. And there are the technical issues surrounding the need to shoot with two cameras.

One of the first decisions that creatives need to make is how much 3D to employ. More specifically, how much 3D should take place in front of the screen (negative parallax) versus how much 3D do you want behind the screen (positive parallax). Then stay within your budget as you board the script.

I set my depth budget based on the type of story and the audience. Kids, for example, love to dodge stuff that’s flying off the screen. Comedy can be more in your face, getting you up close to gags or celebrities. Most storytelling tends to be immersive, inviting the audience into the scene. If it’s automotive, let the driver drive the car. If it’s travel, let the viewer look around Venice. If it’s consumer electronics, let your customer reach out and ‘touch’ your next phone. 3D is another storytelling device, so let the story tell you how best to use it.

3D is driven far more by visual richness than 2D. Shots are still designed with framing and subject in mind, but creatives now must take into account factors like spatial distribution and depth. Since there’s more to the screen, audiences take in more detail, and art direction takes on an elevated importance. Everything needs to be carefully considered and placed especially near the frame edge – touching the edge breaks the 3D illusion.

Budgeting for 3D

For budgeting live action 3D, my rule of thumb is 10% to 25% more than shooting straight 2D or ‘flatties.’ It is a wide range, and where a particular project falls on that continuum depends on the size of the initial budget and what you are planning to do. If you are producing a national campaign and working with a substantial budget, the move to 3D will be less because you are already investing in higher production values. If you are dealing with a small budget, then the move to 3D is going to be that much more, and possibly prohibitive.

Just don’t kid yourself into thinking this is only for Avatar-sized budgets. Right now, music videos, virals, independent films, TV series, documentaries, concerts, sporting events, and global brand campaigns are being shot in digital 3D on budgets both large and small.

It’s all about the story

In the end, it’s not about 3D, it’s about the creative. 3D is another storytelling device, just like lighting, editing, music, art direction and movement. The most important decision that needs to be made is how to use 3D to tell a better story. Get that right, and the audience will love your brand.

One last point: from a production point of view, 3D commercials can still be played in 2D. So when you produce in 3D, you can launch the campaign in both formats – getting the ‘wow factor’ of 3D and the penetration of 2D – from cinema to mobile. 3D is the new HD.

James Stewart is a director and founder of Geneva Film Co. a Toronto-based leader in 3D commercial production. He will be demoing 3D in Toronto next month at AToMiC, Oct. 13, 2010.