Viewpoint - The Growth of 3D on TV
Issue: Volume: 30 Issue: 3 (March 2007)

Viewpoint - The Growth of 3D on TV

If there’s one thing that’s true in today’s media and entertainment industry, it’s that 3D is everywhere. In the video game market, 3D environments immerse gamers into the fantasy world of play through titles such as Gears of War and Halo 3, which top the wish list of every console-clutching teenager. Last year, more all-CG movies were produced than ever before, and we continue to see (or sometimes not see) vast amounts of 3D content integrated seamlessly into live-action films. For example, in the Oscar-nominated film Poseidon, the talented digital artists at Industrial Light & Magic created the entire ocean liner, along with the sea it sank in, on the computer.

So what about TV? This medium certainly doesn’t enjoy the big blockbuster budgets and multi-year production schedules of films and games; nevertheless, my earlier statement remains true—3D is everywhere, including on TV. So what are the major trends that are impacting the use of CG content on the small screen?

Audience Demand

Looking at leisure-spending statistics, it is clear that audience demand for 3D content is growing rapidly. For example, of the top 50 grossing films of all time globally, over three-quarters are either all-CG or heavily dependent on computer-generated visual effects. From film and games to music videos, TV programming, and advertising, consumers have come to expect the stunning imagery and the achievement of the physically impossible that CG technology enables artists and directors to provide.

The demand for 3D content originated from film and games, which were the first vehicles for high-profile computer-generated projects. Today’s youth grew up with full-length animated movie hits like Toy Story, Shrek, and Finding Nemo, and spent their leisure hours glued to 3D video games like World of Warcraft. This environment has helped to shape the expectations of this new generation and has spurred the ever-increasing appetite for computer-generated content across all segments.

In recent years, there also has been a rise in digital content found in live-action television shows and commercials. While audiences don’t ask specifically for seamless visual effects, they are demanding more exciting programming, which is often accomplished with hidden CG work. Visual effects involving 3D are allowing content providers to create more sophisticated sequences than they ever could before.

Similarly, more and more CG characters, creatures, and environments are popping up on TV in commercials, episodic series, and music videos. For example, few viewers could ignore or forget the antics of Carl and Ray, the wonderful furry creations of Tippett Studios for Blockbuster. While TV budgets and deadlines used to limit these digital marvels to the realm of film and games, advances in hardware and software technology have, to some extent, broken down those barriers. This has led to more detailed creature work, digital doubles, complex environments, and set extensions showing up on the small screen.

Finally, the ever-raging battle for eyeballs has pushed networks to use 3D graphics to drive their station branding and bumpers. 3D identities and promos are now crucial to stations vying for the attention of more savvy and demanding viewers. Essentially, this content drives the stations’ brands.

Television audiences have come to expect the same high-quality digital imagery in video games, such as Insomniac Games’ Hybrid Attack, albeit across all mediums, including TV.

Film and TV Pipelines Become One

As HD TV adoption increases and governments mandate that content is broadcast in high definition (as in the US and China ), TV pipelines and workflows are becoming similar to those of film in terms of data complexity, size, and resolution. Today, the standard of work behind CG television content is approaching what is being done for film, driving growth in the industry. While this doesn’t necessarily affect the amount of CG content on TV, it is definitely relevant to the quality of the animated content being produced for the small screen.

Nevertheless, as TV workflows are becoming more film-like, turnaround times and budgets are not following suit, and they remain much shorter and smaller than those of the silver screen. This creates a perceivable gap between what content producers are being asked to deliver and what can realistically be accomplished with the allotted timelines and budgets.

To bridge this gap, there is a significant demand for efficient, interactive 3D software tools. It is crucial that these tools are intuitive and easy to use so that artists can optimize their productivity.

Advances in Technology

Recent advances in both software and hardware have provided artists with the tools required to meet the demands of television content creation. To use CG content in TV programming 10 years ago was extremely expensive and difficult, which meant that it was almost never done. Today, off-the-shelf 3D packages are capable of what once could only be accomplished with extremely complex and expensive proprietary systems. Technology is more useable, affordable, and powerful, so TV programs, networks, and advertisers can now support a visual effects budget.

Today’s 64-bit, multi-core workstations provide much more computing power than was ever previously available, helping to speed up production to a rate that meets demanding TV deadlines. The massive datasets required to produce the highly detailed, realistic 3D models and scenes expected today consume more RAM than could be addressed in a 32-bit workstation; but with 64-bit workstations, memory is no longer a limiting factor. Furthermore, the architecture of 64-bit workstations allows artists to move data around more efficiently, making the systems inherently faster. Meanwhile, many routines in today’s software packages are being multi-threaded to enable them to run in parallel on several processors at once within a single workstation, significantly accelerating certain workflows.

At the same time, advances in CG technology and software mean that artists rarely have to tell directors that a shot is impossible. Computer-generated content can now be so photorealistic that it is indistinguishable from live footage. For example, sophisticated shading materials replicate the effect of light reflecting from human skin, while advanced dynamics engines allow users to simulate real-world entities such as clothing, hair, and fluids. This allows digital artists to bring characters generated on the computer to life, and enables the execution of a live-action story line that would be expensive, dangerous, or simply impossible without the aid of CG. For television programming, this means a lot more exciting and compelling content; for TV commercials, this is allowing advertisers to deliver messaging with higher impact and more creative visuals.

Decreasing Cost of CG Content

The decreasing cost of computer-generated content also has added to its increasing incidence on television. Two main factors have contributed to its dropping cost per second: advances in technology and a significant increase in foreign talent.

As was already discussed, off-the-shelf solutions have become so advanced that digital artists today can create stunning, complex CG imagery at a much lower cost. Furthermore, over the last couple of years, pools of trained 3D artists have grown in overseas markets such as China, Russia, and India . As such, CG content creation can now be outsourced overseas, where talented artists can complete the work on a significantly smaller budget.

Looking Ahead

As outsourcing and advances in technology continue to reduce the cost of producing computer-generated content, TV programming creators increasingly will be able to meet the growing demand for 3D on the small screen. From connecting us with other worlds in series like Stargate, to making everything from soda to cars more appealing, to keeping our children entertained and educated, 3D will be an integral part of everything we watch.

We can also expect the coming years to be populated with an ever-increasing number of synthetic characters and animals. The technologies used to create this 3D content will continue to evolve at a rapid rate in order to meet the demand for increasingly complex character interactions and manufactured environments.

As a result, new technologies are appearing, and will continue to appear, to improve the efficiency of creating 3D. Future technology will help reduce and eliminate the inherent complexities of modeling, animation, simulation, lighting, rendering, and even data management so that artists can create compelling entertainment with greater ease and speed. 

Rob Hoffmann, senior product marketing manager for 3D products at Autodesk, has worked in the digital media market for over 12 years in various roles involving hardware and software offerings. He joined Autodesk through its acquisition of Alias, where he spent four years as product marketing manager for the Alias 3D products:  Maya, MotionBuilder, FBX, and HumanIK. Hoffmann started his career at NewTek, developing a strong understanding of the digital content creation space before moving on to Intergraph as the worldwide business development manager for TV, film, and entertainment.