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James Cameron: The Future Of 3D Will Be Defined By TV

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Blockbuster movie director James Cameron made the top two worldwide grossing films of all time – Titanic and Avatar. This week in Las Vegas he spoke not to the movie industry, but to television broadcasters at the NAB convention about how important TV is to the future of 3D. TechCrunch also got a chance to talk to him about 3D on tablets and tweeting from the bottom of the ocean.

Cameron believes 3D is inevitable as the way we will view all entertainment, whether it’s on a tablet, TV, or the movie screen. And he wants his company, Cameron | Pace Group (CPG), to remain the leader in 3D technology and production services. With Titanic 2D and 3D just passing $2 billion in worldwide ticket sales, Cameron has had huge success converting 2D Titanic into 3D. But he sees the day when much more new production is done in 3D, not just big movies and sports.

Early attempts at 3D television production, usually produced around sporting events, treated the 3D production as a separate, secondary system. But Cameron advocates what’s called 5D, shooting both the 2D and 3D as an integrated system, so there is only combined production, with one control room and each camera position and operator generating both 2D and 3D signals.

Cameron showed off all sorts of new 3D technology built by his company. But, he doesn’t want to sell it. He says the technology is changing so rapidly that what’s new today might be obsolete in as little as 3 months. He says the equipment is used to make his life better and, of course, better 3D. And he can afford to keep iterating. So, he’d rather you license or lease his gear and hire him to provide an end to end 3D solution. Imagine if the iPhone was sold that way.

I had a chance to sit down with Cameron and his partner Vince Pace after his presentation.

TechCrunch: Why does your style of making 3D movies works so well, compared to other 3D films where things keep flying at your head?

Cameron: You can’t fatigue the eye and you can’t draw attention to it. People talk about it being gimmicky. What they really mean is you are putting more focus on the interesting stereoscopic illusions versus the moment in the narrative. The second you are not paying attention to it as narrative continuum, then you have just lost the battle. You have reminded people you are just watching something in 3D with glasses on. That’s the last thing you want to do. What you want to do is let the 3D be a subconscious heightening of the experience. So, we use the depth to make the screen, whether it’s a TV screen or movie screen a window. A window into a reality. The more you are popping stuff off people’s foreheads, the more you are reminded it’s artificial.

Pace: Sometimes people get caught up in thinking that it needs to be a 3D movie, when in fact, it’s more powerful when you are engaged in something that has character. And it really makes it more intimate. One of the viewers (at the presentation) said it best. “It’s epic and intimate at the same time.” That means we are engaging you.

Cameron: We ought to do that as a t-shirt. “Epic and intimate.”

If you want to see that principle in action, check out Titanic 3D. This is not a plug for the movie, we are doing fine thanks. But if you want to see that principle, the first 2 hours of the movie, it’s boy meets girl, nothing happens. You don’t hit the iceberg until you are 2 hours in. Why is all that stuff so compelling and powerful in 3D, because there is this sense that you as the viewer, are intimately involved in the story. You are standing there in the room, you are on the ship.

TechCrunch: Is the future of 3D about the movies or TV?

Cameron: The future of 3D will be defined by TV. The reason for that is it’s going to solve this whole conversion issue. Because the 3D production cycle for TV is so short. You don’t have time to do a conversion. It just doesn’t exist. It’s just not part of the vocabulary. So, the tools for shooting it, posting it, delivering it, displaying it, are all going to be proven in the TV markets and then movie guys are just going to have to get in line with it.

TechCrunch: Are we ever going to see a first release not on the big screen, but on the Internet?

Cameron: Sure. Why not. It’s the same intimacy factor, right. You can shoot anything. It doesn’t have to be big effects film. Any delivery system that can carry an HD signal can carry 3D. So, we are there. You just have to see the wisdom of it. But, if it’s not a big blockbuster (jokingly) I’m not going to do it. Somebody else can do it.

We are very interested in enabling the global production community, (giving them) the ability to do what they are already doing. Just do it in 3D.

TechCrunch: What do you think about the state of 3D TV’s?

Cameron: Mid level big flat panels are 3D now. I think people are checking the box out. “It’s a feature I might want, I don’t need it right now. I don’t have too many 3D Blu-rays. but I might want in the future

It’s really not that big a deal anymore. So, I think where it’s ultimately got to end, is glasses free viewing in the home, on the big screen. I don’t think you go straight there. I think what you do is you look for places where you don’t have multiple viewers. Where don’t you have multiple viewers? Tablets. So, more people are watching their entertainment streamed to a tablet. That’s the place where 3D will really be the coming next big thing.

Everybody is already watching a lot of their entertainment on tablets, and on laptops. So, it’s usually single viewer, two at most. That’s the natural place because you are already glasses free. That technology is easy. It’s already here. But good glasses-free technology for both viewer positions is not around the corner. Maybe at the resolutions they want, it may be two or three years down the line. So, I actually think that’s not the place where we solve it first to really have rapid adoption of 3D.

TechCrunch: If you just started directing in this new age of video and film technology and YouTube, would anything be different?

Cameron: Storytelling is storytelling. You still play by the same narrative rules. The technology is completely different. I don’t use one piece of technology that I used when I started directing. I don’t use film cameras. I don’t do visual effects the same way. We don’t use miniature models, it’s all CG now, creating worlds in CG. It’s a completely different toolset. But the rules of storytelling are the same. As the French say, plus ca change, plus c’eset la meme chose. The more it changes, the more it stays the same.

TechCrunch: Where will you and the technology be in 10 years?

Cameron: I’ll still expect to be able to crank out stories that people want to see. I know the technology will change. I know it will be incumbent on me to stay up.

Stay at the cutting edge. That way you are never obsolete technologically, as long as your are confident in your storytelling skills, you are never obsolete that way either.

TechCrunch: You hold the world record for the world’s deepest tweet, if you count tweeting by proxy. How did that come happen?

Cameron: It wasn’t a true wireless tweet, because you can only have acoustic communication thru the water column, so I typed it in, I sent it, then it was retranscribed and sent out by somebody on the surface.

It was something we wanted to do just to have fun. We set a record. Deepest solo dive. Deepest tweet. Tweet deep or go home.

TechCrunch: What about your tweet about the difficulties of doing a live underwater video stream?

Cameron: What could go wrong. Yeah, right exactly. No, we didn’t do an underwater live stream (during his deepest dive). I had already done it (underwater) actually from the Long Beach Aquarium. But to do it at great depth requires a fiber optic link to the surface and we didn’t have that technology on this expedition. We hope to have it on the phase two expedition.

TechCrunch: Is there a role or opportunity for investors and venture capitalists in 3D?

Cameron: I think there are a lot of opportunities in the 3D space, and I think that they have to believe that it’s inevitable. I believe 3D is inevitable because it’s about aligning our entertainment systems to our sensory system. We all have two eyes, we all see the world in 3D. And it’s natural for us to want our entertainment in 3D as well. It’s just getting the technology, it’s really more the business model, than the technology piece. We’ve solved the technology.

TechCrunch: In the past, you’ve told Hollywood to stop making trash 3D movies. What’s your complaint?

Cameron: I’ll bash them, sure. What I’ve been pretty vigorously bashing is quick down and dirty conversions in post production. Now, obviously we make native 3D production tools. So, we are against the idea of conversion at all for new production. Now, if you want to see “The Godfather” in 3D, Francis has got to get his thumb out and start converting it. But, it has to be done right.

If you just made a $150 million movie, and you’re try to convert it in post production and do it right, it’s going to take you 6 months to a year. You really want to sit on with the interest clock running, sit on that negative for an additional 6 months to a year before you bring it to market? I don’t think it makes sense. But nobody factors that in. When they compare native (3D) to conversion, they are not really comparing apples to apples. They are comparing the right way to do it, which is native production, to the wrong way to do it, where you are getting 2 and a half D viewmaster cutout kind of version. But they are comparing the costs as if they are identical. And they are not.

One of our commenters suggested we ask why Avatar 2 and 3 was taking so long to make. Cameron had no comment on why or when it would be released.