n Focus talks to internationally-known 3D guru, Don Searll about the medium, where it's at now and why his passion for 3D

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Don Searll of Haptics with a 3D rig
"People are wanting 3D; even the latest animation film shot recently Monsters vs Aliens, by DreamWorks Animation was released in 3D and 2D. The box office turned over R53 million, 55% of that revenue came from the 3D release; yet only 20% of the picture was actually in 3D - so more people are turning to 3D. This has happened to all the movies that came out last year - there were about ten of them including U2, Hannah Montana and others. They all did brilliantly well in 3D. The thing is filmmakers been waiting for the technology to make it right, and now because of digital, and HD, all the majors of the world are using it."

So says Don Searll of Haptics, a Johannesburg-based company that claims to combine technological wizardry with communication savvy to more successfully capture the attention and respect of today's often more jaded corporate, media and consumer audiences.

Searll is heavily involved in the development of 3D cinema and television, taking a leading role globally in this regard. His offices bear testimony to his previous work in Holographics, and also house TV screens showing 3D television images which are viewed without the need for any specialised glasses.

"It's expensive," explains Searll. "These screens started at around R250 000 but have now dropped to under R100 000 and will continue dropping. It's a lenticular screen, which has a very fine prismatic layer on the front end of the screen which guides the light in two directions. It won't show 2D, but it could be made 2D enhanced switchable. The technology is evolving - when the first stuff came out 10 years ago it was GEE WIZZ, how can you see 3D TV without wearing glasses? - so the creational process is evolving, but it costs.

"You used to have to use eight cameras to get a good 3D effect, but now you can use two and get a real 'come out of the screen' effect. This means that the production of 3D content is becoming a lot more cost effective, and also we can combine 2D and 3D images together. So clients have their regular commercial and we can very easily convert them into 3D.

But how did Searll's interest in 3D start? "My father brought in the first 3D movie to South Africa. It was called Bwana Devil, and it was an effects 3D movie made in 1952. I later met the guy who developed what they called Natural Vision 3D process that was used in this movie, Milton Gunzburg.

"I've been doing 3D since I was 12 and I was hooked immediately - our lives are 3D and our media isn't. I have pictures of myself since my birth in 3D - as my dad was in 3D, I was brought up with it, and for me it's very natural," explains Searll.

Turning to the development of 3D, Searll expands: "It was 1951 and theatre attendance had down-spiralled from 90 million in 1948 to 46 million a few years later. Television was the culprit and Hollywood was looking for a way to lure audiences back. Cinerama had premiered 30 September 1952 at the Broadway Theatre in New York and was packing them in but its bulky and expensive three camera system was impractical if not impossible to duplicate in all but the largest theatres.

One time screen writer Milton Gunzburg and his brother Julian thought they had a solution with their Natural Vision 3-D film process. They shopped it around Hollywood with little or no interest. 20th Century Fox was focusing on the introduction of Cinemascope and had no interest in another new process. Both Columbia and Paramount passed it up. Only John Arnold, who headed the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer camera department, was impressed enough to convince MGM to take an option on it but they quickly let the option lapse. Natural Vision appeared to be dead and the Gunzburgs were back to square one until a meeting with Arch Oboler changed the history of films.

Milton Gunzburg turned his focus to independent producers and demonstrated Natural Vision to Oboler, producer and writer of radio's popular Lights Out show, who was impressed enough to option it for his next film project, The Lions of Gulu. Oboler and co-producer Sid Pink scrapped 10 days of footage and started over using the Natural Vision process. The film was based on a well-known historical event, that of the Tsavo maneaters, in which many workers building the Uganda Railway were killed. The incident was also the basis for The Man-eaters of Tsavo, the true story of the events written and published in 1907 by Lt. Col. J.H. Patterson, the Great White Hunter who dispatched the animals.

Gunzburg took out the rights to the polarised glasses required to watch these movies, and through problems with the major studios, refused to sell the rights hence halting the development for many years. 3D with the coloured lenses still existed, but not at the same level of sophistication as the movies with the Gunzburg process.

"I was now developing 3D and since I still had such a strong connection with that first 3D movie my dad brought out, I decided that I had to meet this Gunzburg guy - he was 85 at the time and we met in California - it was a great experience!" recounts Searll.

Other processes developed and 4D movies were made which included titles such as Honey I shrunk the Audience, where you have the physical sensation as well, the seats move and there is wind blowing etc.

"We have in fact done 5D productions as well. We did one for Coke in 1995 and had bubbles shot at the audience, we blew wind, we did heat, and smell and of course the taste of Coke - appealing to all the senses.

"The 4D thing fits into the Disney-world type very well. They do roller coaster rides, a mock 'Devil's mine', typically short 10 minute movies. They are called 'ride' films made for the people who don't want to go on the actual rides. On the rides themselves, an effect called 'Peppers Ghost' is used. Pepper's ghost is an illusionary technique used often in theatre and in some magic tricks. Using a plate glass and special lighting techniques, it can make objects seem to appear or disappear, or make one object seem to "morph" into another. All of this helped to develop 3D."

Another ground breaking movie of the time was Captain Eo, with Michael Jackson, which made full use of its 3D effects. The action on the screen extended into the audience, including lasers, laser impacts, smoke effects, and star-fields that filled the theatre. These effects resulted in the seventeen-minute film costing an estimated $30 million dollars to produce. At the time it was the most expensive film ever produced on a per-minute basis.

"DreamWorks are not shooting anything in 2D anymore, as from now they will shoot in 3D - whether it's released in 3D or not, it will be shot in this format. It makes it about a third more expensive but you will get about 70% more people watching - so it still makes economic sense. America has 2500 - 3000 cinemas in 3D and Europe is rolling out 3D cinemas. South Africa has around 10. By 2010, the estimate is around 5000 - 7000 cinemas globally.

"Japan is broadcasting 3 hours a day of 3D. They are doing 3D like we are doing HD. I don't think we are that far away - I think we will be watching 3D on a home cinema type situation. I think people will prefer watching at home as it's a much more controlled environment, and you can have a drink, smoke - do whatever you like! It's got to be the best possible experience.

"You know you've got HD Blue Ray now, and the next thing will be 3D it's not a big jump. The big jump is the experience. If you think about it in cinema what has changed since colour? It's probably the sound - the picture hasn't really changed. Imax maybe, and Omnimax 3D which is the ultimate experience, but otherwise nothing in normal cinema has changed," says Searll.

"In South Africa right now, the auto stereoscopic displays are primarily used for digital displays, for point-of-sale, advertising window displays, in store, night clubs and exhibitions. These are the main areas as it"s a show stopper. Because it's unique and new, it's breaking through the wallpaper of normal screens that people don't really look at any more.

"When we set up our displays people just stand there and look - four deep! People stand there watching the ads. The Apple store in Sandton complained - there were too many people standing and staring and blocking the passage way and for an advertiser that is the ultimate!"

Searll claims to do all of the 'local stuff. There have been others, but I do it all now. It needs such a lot of research, it's complex and technically difficult. I have all my own in-house gear and we have been developing all the tools over the years from shooting, developing the 3D rigs and cameras, to display technology and projection systems through to the editing systems.

"In 1990, I shot the singer Seal in 3D and this was one of the first global 3D broadcasts. It won many awards and the music video is now in the museum of Rock Video in the UK. This started a new era for me as prior to that I had been in lasers and holographs. I realised that this market was limited, so I switched to computer animation and 3D, which proved itself in the Seal video, and video was a far better medium that holograms, which was not really a commercially viable technology," comments Searll.

Asked about his company and its expertise in 3D, Searll says when he started Haptics in 1990, he had a show Virtual Haptics, which was an introduction to Virtual Reality and 3D video, showing how it was the future. "So that started me off, and we have been developing 3D since then - for almost 19 years. We really are breaking new ground here globally.

"All of the staff, including our regular freelancers, have been exposed to 3D. When we did a shoot for the World Cup in 2006 in Germany, we used four different rigs, each with different cameras on them. We built a P2 rig just when the P2 cameras came out, we had a steady cam and we used varicams for the slo-mo. We also used baby cameras with small rigs which could go into the crowd, plus specialised rigs for cameras with long lenses. This was the first time the World Cup had been shot in 3D.

"We have also done Miss World and Telkom knockoutin 3D. We shot a lot of Ferrari footage for Anton Rupert in 3D. We have done a lot of car stuff, including a launch for BMW, and also work for Calvin Klein, Coca Cola, Motorola and Gillette.

"The applications are right across the board as the big brands need to create a WOW factor for their products and we can do this. What concerns me though is that a lot of our work is for international clients and events -� far less local. But I'm sure that once South Africans become more familiar with 3D and what it can offer the market will become wide open," concludes Searll.