The 3D titling tango

Bob Pank#
The further you look into 3D, the more it diverges from 2D. Titling, including lower thirds, on-screen ‘burnt-in’ text and subtitles (aka closed captions) are common features of 2D TV and film presentations and so it’s not unreasonable to expect it to be used in 3D. Placing titles at a suitable position on a 2D display is rarely problematical. Usually they appear centred near the bottom of the screen, or as the typical ‘lower third’ caption. Of course, without using the third dimension, these always appear in the same plane as the screen, which coincides with the plane of the images. Using 3D adds the freedom to put them at any distance between close to the viewer and infinity. They could even be placed strung between these limits or travel nearer of further away creating an eye-catching dynamic effect – giving text a new degree of freedom. I wonder what the original Star Wars titles would look like if they were made today! But although 3D offers many new possibilities for titles, there are boundaries that should be observed and, as is so often the case with 3D, ignoring them will cost headaches and viewer figures.
For many years now 3D graphics generators have offered ‘3D’ text and can be sized and rotated ‘in 3D space’ as required. However, until now, the output has been a 2D rendition of the 3D. Now it can be seen as real 3D, it has to fit with the 3D detail of the picture it’s inserted into. This may include associating it with background objects or floated in front of them. And with the rise and rise of hugely powerful GPUs, even complex 3D shapes can be rendered in HD in real time. The technology is available to run this live.
Of course we expect to see the titles in front of the background. If objects are in front of the plane of the titles, the titles should be obscured and it is the potential of failing to do this that is where the titling can go seriously wrong. Apparently the 3D coverage of the World Cup soccer was designed to keep all objects at or behind the plane of the screen. While this may have missed opportunities for dramatic close-up effects, it certainly makes titling a good deal easier as the letters can simply be placed at the depth of the screen and there will be no headache inducing 3D anomalies. Placing them a little in front of the screen can make them more noticeable.
A production can control its depth budget, the limit of how far in front and behind the screen objects will appear. Post production is the ideal place add titles, and so having the text generator integrated with the 3D editing system makes a lot of sense. Adding titling and graphics live is another challenge and, as things stand now, is unlikely to cope with objects being in front of the screen. Some suggest that the overlay of captions onto a 3D picture can distract viewers and spoil the impact of the carefully crafted 3D pictures. This may be an argument for a very different approach to the whole subject of captioning. Should the captions even be on the same screen? Perhaps the format of 3DTV coverage of news and sports – the major users of ‘lower thirds’ – will change to present the information in a different way to current 2D production practise. Possibly the captions will appear on in-picture objects, such as the front of the anchorman’s desk; true, that may already be virtual but it would make the captions keep in tune with the 3D look.
Which brings us swiftly around to subtitles (closed captions in USA). How can they make sense in a 3D environment? Simply leaving them at the plane on the screen runs the risk of looking absurd when objects occupying the same area of the screen, are placed in 3D space in front of it. Without some link between what’s happening on the screen and how the subtitles are displayed there is the risk of eyestrain.
Perhaps subtitling for 3D should be abandoned? Well, it seems that subtitles, or rather closed captions, are mandatory in the USA. So that’s not a legal escape route. And it’s not just 3D Diaries that is concerned about this, those involved with making captioning equipment know there’s a problem but cannot make progress until a 3D standard exists. After all there are standards for 2D closed captions EIA 608, the newer EIA 708 and DVB for subtitles. The letter can already deliver 3D subtitles and so may become widely used.
A possible solution would be to follow the Toshiba route and put huge graphics power into TV receivers, so that they can work out where the object are and choreograph the subtitles accordingly. But the cost of adding a Cell or GPU processors to all 3DTV sets would, surely, be too much to bear. The best solution would be asymmetric, with the hard work done at the (single) broadcaster, leaving only relatively basic tasks for the (many) TV sets.
The year of 2010 has seen tremendous progress in the development of 3D, not only for the production and post side, but also for the consumer side – with the arrival of 3DTV sets that forecasters have predicted will sell well - eventually. The maturity of the markets, both professional and consumer, can be measured by the wideness of choice of products. Manufacturers have brought down costs but it will probably always cost more to make and view 3D than 2D. Has enough been done? That will be decided in 2011 that has to be the make-or-break year for 3DTV. Although few, if any, broadcasters will actually make money on 3D in 2011, by the end of it some should be able to predict when that will occur.

Tags: 3d titling | 3d diaries | iss049 | titling | Bob Pank#
Contributing Author Bob Pank#

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