Oregon has a long history with 3-D entertainment and technology. If the local industry can coalesce, some see a sharper future.
BY BILL LASCHER
As Vince Porter sees it, Oregon’s time to cash in on one of the hottest trends in entertainment is now or never.
The executive director of the Governor’s Office for Film and Television says if a diverse group of firms with ties to the 3-D industry can develop a common purpose, the state could be poised to benefit from renewed hype surrounding immersive visual presentations.
“It’s about identifying what could really kick-start the 3-D world here in Oregon,” Porter says.
He saw that chance in January when 3-D was at the top of entertainment and business headlines. Avatar was breaking box-office records. Reports from the Consumer Electronics Show detailed 3-D televisions that were ready to go on sale just as 3-D networks from the likes of ESPN, Sony, Discovery Channel and IMAX prepared to go online. Even Oregon’s own LAIKA Studios — owned by Nike founder Phil Knight — reveled in the glow of an Oscar nomination for Coraline, a stop-motion animated first feature lauded, in part, for its effective use of 3-D (the studio was nominated for Best Animated Feature).
That same month, DisplaySearch, a display industry consultancy, analyzed the market for screens capable of presenting 3-D content. In 2008, that report said the market was worth $900 million. By 2018, it predicted, the market could be worth as much as $22 billion.
All that potential inspired Porter to get back in touch with Mike Bailey, a computer science professor at Oregon State University he had met two years earlier and who had an understanding of how much 3-D technology has a home in Oregon.
He knew Bailey, who specializes in imagery and visualizations of scientific data used by chemists, engineers and other professionals, had organized a band of 3-D professionals across the state called Oregon Digital 3-D Initiative (OD3I). Porter, who has the job of bringing movie-making dollars to the state, thought this might be time to re-engage the group.
Six years ago Mike Bailey moved from San Diego to OSU’s main campus in Corvallis. He settled into an office now crammed with shelves full of models of molecules and human skulls from 3-D printers. Soon after arriving, Bailey started poking around and discovered dozens of groups working with 3-D graphics and data and he wanted to bring them all together. Dozens of firms signed up.
“Oh my god, there’s 3-D everywhere in Oregon. Who would have known?” Bailey recalls thinking after he first arrived in the state.
In September 2008 the group held a meeting to discuss its goals. Three months later, digital 3-D was even included in an evaluation of economic clusters in the state as part of the Oregon Business Plan. Small segments of the group have collaborated since then on funding proposals and other projects, but never as an organization.
“I think with the announcement of 3-D television there’s more impetus to do it because now it gets more personal,” Bailey says. “None of us knows what the potential of it is. It may turn out to be a fad, but I don’t think so, especially with kids in the video generation expecting better and better video.”
Bailey’s passion is stereographics, the technique of emulating the way humans perceive depth by capturing two slightly different images — one for each eye and transmitting them separately. The brain then processes differences between them to determine depth and fuses them into one image. Most people think of stereographics when they hear 3-D (whether it evokes lauded work like Coraline or campier work often associated with 1950s B movies). But OD3I defines Digital 3-D as “the process of creating, displaying and interacting with realistic imagery derived from data and mathematical models.”
The group’s members include corporations, small businesses, universities, cultural institutions and public agencies. They include Silicon Forest veterans, health sciences researchers and other professionals, filmmakers, and an active community of 3-D enthusiasts, historians and photographers who have long called Oregon home.
“I think all of us recognize we can succeed more by knowing about each other,” Bailey says. “Now exactly what we do about that we haven’t figured out.”
Oregon’s deep pool of 3-D talent can in part be traced to Beaverton-based Tektronix. Once the state’s largest employer, it developed a number of 3-D technologies used in science and defense.
“There are only a handful of stereo monitor companies and two of the leaders in the field are within a mile and a half of one another,” says Scott Robinson, product manager for stereoscopic 3-D displays at Beaverton-based Planar systems, a display manufacturer spun off from Tektronix. The other firm he refers to is MacNaughton Inc., which sells stereoscopic computer displays and is run by Tektronix alum Boyd MacNaughton.
Planar focuses its 3-D efforts on professional markets requiring high-resolution stereoscopic images, such as intelligence analysis and land use planning. Its flagship 3-D product is the Stereo Mirror, which features two LCD screens connected at a right angle bisected by a mirror that overlays the two images onto one another to produce a stereographic view of data.
In February, the company reported that a drop in sales in the first quarter of 2010 was largely due to the inability to repeat a large order for 3-D displays that was made in 2009 because commercial clients cut back purchasing.
Other companies have had their own struggles with 3-D. Late last year it seemed Intel had given up on its often delayed Larrabee 3-D graphics processor. Then in February the company started recruiting for new positions in its visual computing group, which focuses on 3-D graphics. Most of those jobs would be based in Hillsboro.
Smaller firms also have stakes in 3-D. Eugene’s Buzz Monkey and Bend’s Sony Bend are developing more realistic video games. Immersive Media, from Portland, sells a 360-degree camera that was used at the Olympics in Vancouver. Portland Biomedical software developer Schrodinger models molecular structures with 3-D data, while Portland’s PTV America simulates traffic flows with it.
In fact, most OD3I members don’t have Hollywood ties. The chance to transport viewers to lush alien worlds may stimulate imaginations and intrigue investors, but for now 3-D’s bread and butter comes from visualizing science and engineering data.
Drug researchers, for example, might want to understand how the chemical structure of proteins controls processes in patients’ bodies. Three-dimensional models of those proteins can be rotated, rearranged, and their chemical bonds can be altered on screen.
“It’s like playing with Tinker Toys,” Bailey says.
Fun to watch, but difficult to monetize. Planar, for example, may be a leader in stereographics, but potential customers’ previous bad experiences with 3-D have challenged its ability to expand into hospitals and research labs. The company knows the system has medical applications. A 2007 Emory University study showed potential for digital 3-D mammography using Planar’s displays. Despite the encouraging results, Planar has had difficulty convincing large medical equipment manufacturers and researchers to conduct further studies.
“From a business standpoint, Planar is focused on those applications where you have to use stereo to do your job,” Robinson says.
OD3I may need to help firms like Planar connect with new customers and markets. That might still mean attracting filmmakers to Oregon.
Indent Studios, a 16,000-square-foot complex tentatively set to open in late spring in Southeast Portland, pending city inspections, plans to make much of both its own state-of-the art 3-D equipment and the pool of 3-D experts in Oregon, says co-owner Richard Topping. Indent wants to help lure filmmakers long drawn by government incentives to Vancouver, B.C., to Portland now that exchange rates in Canada no longer favor American investors.
“The vision for the studio here is that everything you want in order to make a movie is under one roof,” Topping says. “Our intent is to make Portland the new Vancouver.”
Indent plans to offer filmmakers access to its Quantel Pablo setup, an editing system capable of handling complex 3-D effects that was used in the post-production of Avatar.
“We are massive proponents of 3-D technology,” Topping says.
Indent has also reached out to Portland’s 3-D Center for Art and Photography, a 6-year-old museum trying to establish itself as North America’s primary archive of 3-D artwork.
Kathleen O’Reilly, a former LAIKA employee and one of the museum’s board members, believes Oregon can capitalize on 3-D’s popularity because the state is home to experts who know the ins and outs of stereo photography.
“You’ve got a group of people that are so passionate about 3-D that they dedicate their time and energy to this museum,” O’Reilly says. “There’s a lot of knowledge in that association that is specific to 3-D.”
OD3I might attempt to make the state’s stereographic talent a selling point.
When it comes to making movies in three dimensions, expertise matters. If 3-D is done poorly it can turn off the public permanently. In the 1950s, when 3-D films first hit theaters, they initially used polarized light, which can be directed to travel in separate directions; then special glasses can filter out one or the other to produce the two images needed for a 3-D picture. But the extra attention needed to shoot, edit and project 3-D movies properly was often too time-consuming or costly. Theaters switched to the cheap, familiar red-and-blue glasses that filter either the red or blue wavelengths of light.
That meant 3-D couldn’t be in color. Most current 3-D films are once again polarized, though the technology has evolved and different techniques are used to process and transmit the image. Getting the stereoscopic effect right without overwhelming viewers still requires skill and art.
“The mistake that any kind of new technology makes is over-promising,” says Indent’s Topping. “I think it’s important that people don’t think that 3-D is going to be a panacea for bad storytelling or for bad commercials.”
It’s not just storytelling that suffers, though. If stereography isn’t done right, the brain won’t be able to properly align the left and right images it’s sent. It will keep straining to fuse the images and that can cause headaches.
“Like anything, there are tricks and you learn the tricks,” says OSU’s Bailey. “Avatar showed a lot of restraint.”
Even with people who know the tricks, how deep is Oregon’s talent pool?
Porter, with the state film office, cautions that there isn’t a pre-eminent 3-D production facility in the state, even with LAIKA. Coraline’s success was exciting, but so far it’s the only feature-length film the studio has produced. To attract outside filmmakers, Porter says, Oregon needs more evidence to point to than one Oscar nomination.
The state can’t compete with the financial incentives offered by other states to filmmakers. Oregon can only offer tax rebates of 17% on qualified Oregon expenses, where some states offer 30%, or even 42% in Michigan.
“Immediately, the bullet point is we’re going to be lower than those other places, so you have to show them the list of other reasons why moving here makes sense,” Porter says. If 3-D’s players are not organized and vocal about its goals and what benefits it can offer to compensate for the lower incentives, others could push the OD3I aside. Though Porter says he is eager for plans that will benefit 3-D companies and the state as a whole, the clock is ticking.
“Every day and week that goes by and there isn’t a clear initiative and agenda,” Porter says, “just means that we are running a risk of potentially ruling out being a player in this industry.”