Everything 3D Buyer's Guide

Let’s start out with a great book that just about covers everything you’ll need to know regarding 3D theory, Bernard Mendiburu’s 3D Movie Making. Read this book, I repeat, read this book. Another great book about 3D theory is Lenny Lipton’s Foundations of the Stereoscopic Cinema, it can be downloaded for free but you’ll need a Ph.D. in physics to get through it. A couple more good books are 3-D Filmmakers: Conversations with Creators of Stereoscopic Motion Pictures by Ray Zone and Amazing 3D by Hal Morgan and Dan Symmes. Within these books you’ll learn history, meet the makers and understand just about all you’ll need to know about 3D.

3D Pre-vis

FrameForge makes a fantastic 3D pre-vis program called Previz Studio, it’s a great option and it’s a great learning tool, you can set up 3D shots without having to leave your laptop. I have a Sony 3D VAIO, great picture but I don’t like using the active glasses. ASUS and Acer have lesser quality passive systems, but one can’t usually tell the difference and they’re cheaper.


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3D Monitor

Next you’ll need a good monitor to view 3D footage. Aside from watching a good 3D movie in the theaters, you’ll probably want a plasma screen with active glasses for the best, highest quality viewing experience. That might be great for inside the studio, but while on set I use screens from LG simply because they’re using passive glasses technology and they’re also extremely affordable. Yes, they may be guilty of ghosting (opposite-eye bleed-through at high contrast edges), but for location work they’re guiltless throw aways.

If you have the money and manpower necessary to secure a better monitor, there’s always the Sony broadcast screens that you can color grade to. I like them, but when I can’t afford something I look for another way to get the job done within my means, which brings me to the LG passive line.

This could never happen if AJA hadn’t built the Hi5-3D, which allows us to use consumer 3D monitors with our cameras. Consumer monitors need a muxed signal (Multiplexed signal) to display a 3D image, these muxed signals come from your 3D Blu-ray player and from your cable box. What we have on set are two cameras with two separate signals, which therefore need to be muxed into something usable by the monitors. The Hi5-3D costs around $500 and lasts forever, whereas the $10,000 monitors have built in muxers. Thank you AJA.

JVC and Panasonic both make nice monitors that cost slightly less then Sony’s. However, when I work I tend to stress my gear to its limits, so I’m fine with using the cheaper LGs. They’ll do the job well and when you must perform their last rites it’s no big deal, just get another one and you’re still ahead in the game.

3D Glasses – Active or Passive?

In my post suite I have a beautiful Panasonic active 3D plasma; great picture, but at over $100 per pair of glasses that producers seem trained to break within 15 minutes of use, it will be the last active system I buy. The difference between active-glasses systems and passive-glasses systems is that with active glasses you’ll have full resolution that flashes every other eye from 120hz on up. Current systems need a visual signal from the monitor to sync the glasses and if you look away it strobes then loses sync. Once you’ve lost sync, when you look back at the monitor again it takes a moment to re-sync – very annoying – also the shot is not being seen by each eye at the exact same time, which can be annoying, too.

In real life, each eye sees the same thing at the same time; you get that with the passive glasses even though it’s half resolution. Passive glasses are interlaced signals, which at 1920×1080 means that each eye sees 1920×540. But here’s the deal, our eyes are on a horizontal plane and the horizontal resolution of passive glasses is still 1920, if our eyes were on the vertical plane then 540 lines would be more of an issue.

On a smaller scale LG, Zalman, Panasonic and Transvideo all have screens of varying sizes with prices ranging from $12,000 down to around $400. The 23″ LG makes having a portable 3D edit system rather simple, inexpensive and works great if you don’t move your head around too far from the sweet spot. Although it’s not ideal, for less than $400 you get a passive display that fits into a suitcase along with a laptop and hard drive. It’s hard to beat being able to sit in a motel and actually cut a 3D film, then crash for a few hours, wake up the next day, change locations and just keep cutting away in 3D.

For those of you waiting for glasses-free 3D monitors don’t hold your breath. You’ll see them in malls and airports, but they typically have very bad resolution and small viewing angles. I’d give them a few more years before they’ll be high enough quality for prime time.

3D Field Monitors

Next, you’ll need 3D rigs and cameras, of course. Some DIY folks attach two cameras to a piece of wood and off they go. That may work for some, but if you want to charge the big bucks you’ll at least need cameras that sync. When you shoot 3D it’s very important to have both cameras shooting the same thing at the same time. Without shutter sync you don’t get that exactness. For example, if you shoot an arm waving, one camera might capture the arm on the left side of a frame while the other camera sees it on the right. The brain becomes confused when trying to fuse this into a mental-depth map. When that happens, the mind can’t comprehend the disparity and you loose the stereographic effect. You’ll also need something better than a stick to mount the cameras on; there are several companies that make a basic metal bracket that has multiple holes drilled for mounting cameras like the MIO 3D.

3D Cameras

Sony makes several cameras that sync and are rather small, a characteristic especially important when shooting 3D. They are also lightweight and make great pictures. The HDC-P1, PMW-F3 and the PMW-EX3 seem to be the most used. All of these cameras sync, but only record in the HD format. It’s always nice to have at least 2k or more resolution to accommodate post 3D corrections or to change a convergence point. When making post adjustments to 3D images you sometimes need to blow up the image to compensate for any misalignment or convergence adjustments and that extra resolution comes in handy.

Silicon Imaging makes the SI-2k, which has been seen many times in use for the silver screen. It shoots 2k and has a couple different recording system options that are small in size and record either compressed or Cineform RAW files separately for each eye. There’s also the ARRI Alexa, which makes an incredible picture, but is rather large and heavy. It’s supposed to come out with a detachable optical block, which will put it on a size par with the most popular cameras, like EPIC from RED, but so far, as of this writing, I haven’t seen any except for a prototype at NAB. I’m sure they’ll be very expensive, so for now, RED’s EPIC meets my needs and the needs of most big studio productions.

The advantages of Sony, ARRI and RED cameras are that they are all extremely light sensitive and since you’ll most likely be shooting through a beam splitter you’ll already be down a stop of light right off the bat. Being able to have a film speed that’s rated at 800 ASA or more makes life a lot cooler on set.

3D Rig Types and Sizes

For most studio, broadcast and professional shoots you’ll usually see a CAMERON | PACE system, 3ality Digital or Element Technica rigs in use. We’re all looking forward to the future due to the recent merger of 3ality Digital and Element Technica to create 3ality Technica. The melding of these two great companies will likely result in a substantial raising of the stereographic bar. The CAMERON | PACE Group has a great system and an edge on underwater 3D systems (think, AVATAR), but to work with them you’ll have to have a very large budget. Fortunately, 3ality Technica has an underwater rig called the BORG, which works exceptionally well and doesn’t come with any strings attached. 3ality Technica rigs are available for rent or purchase, as are rigs from other companies.

What do the Indies Use?

You’ll always need a strong camera support system to shoot 3D, especially if you’re sporting a couple of RED ONEs or ARRI ALEXA cameras. The industry standard is the OConnor and you’ll need the 120EX fluid head for RED and ARRI cameras in a beam splitter, and the 2575D fluid head for most all other rigs on down.

If you plan to fly your rig on a crane, you’ll need something like a Chapman Gyro Stabilized Head (G-3) or a Scorpio Stabilized Head. You’ll appreciate the beef of these remote heads with large beam splitters. For smaller rigs with smaller cameras, make sure their remote head can handle the awkwardness of the top or front heavy beam splitters. It’s best to set aside enough time to test the head before you’re on set and discover a problem.

Beam Splitters

For those of you who are thinking that this is all a bit more then you might like to deal with and simply want an all-in-one-camera that shoots stereo. Well, the good news is that they do exist and there’s many folks using them. The bad news is that they come with limitations that include restrictions on what can be shot with them.

The major problem with an all-in-one solution stems from them having a fixed interaxial (distance between lenses), which dictates how close you’ll be able to shoot subjects with distant backgrounds. A beam splitter rig is the only type of rig that allows you to adjust your interaxial from zero to however large it’ll expand, usually three to five inches. The beam splitter allows you to shoot in any situation where your rig will fit, but there’s a caveat. Beam splitters can be rather large depending on which cameras you have mounted. An SI-2k in an appropriate beam splitter will be vastly smaller then an ALEXA rig. As you can imagine, shooting 3D is riddled with consolations, complex beam splitters or restricted simplified all-in-one units. Some of the one-piece units include the Panasonic AG-3DA1, JVC’s GY-HMZ1U and GS-TD1, as well as Sony’s PMW-TD300, HDR-TD10 and the really cool HXR-NX3D1U.


All these camcorder solutions are stuck with fixed interaxials and rather long lenses. If you’ve read your books, you’d know that long lenses compress depth and that 3D seeks to increase depth. See the conflict? I know many shooters, however, who are using these camcorders and living within the restrictions while producing some good 3D shows.

I recently shot a multi-cam show and while we had three beam splitters we also had two Sony TD300 camcorders. We defined the kinds of shots that the camcorders were best for, and shot the TD300s from those angles, which worked out great.

One company that demands attention is GoPro. They have the best little 3D rig for their cameras; we all have at least one in our kits at all times. They are great for what they do; shooting action stuff where a small, tiny, miniscule 3D system is needed. I love those guys at GoPro. Plus, they own Cineform Neo3D, which makes a great combo.

Apps and Plug-ins

Before we get ready to shoot, let’s first align the rig. You’ll need Dashwood’s Stereo3D CAT and its companion chart from DSC labs; it’s slick and affordable. There’s others including Sony’s MPE200, Fraunhofer’s STAN and 3ality’s SIP-2900, which are all good, but cost heaps. Dashwood brought high tech science within reach of all small budget 3D productions. With any of these products, setup time can be reduced to minutes.

So now you’ve got your rigs, you’re on set, your rigs are aligned, this is your first shoot and you want an iPhone app to help determine your proper settings. Yep, that’s right. An iPhone app.

I’ve got them all and the funny thing is after you’ve input your data they’ll all give you different settings. Nice, right? That’s why you’ll need to know what you’re doing without relying on an app. However, there’s only one iPhone/iPad app that stands out above the rest, FrameForge’s RealD Professional Stereo3D Calculator. This awesome app is from the same folks that brought you the Stereographic 3D version of Previz Studio; smart guys!
To gather the data for your calculations, you’ll want to use a laser-measuring device like the Hilti PD 42 Laser Range Meter. It’s well worth the expense.

Playback – Ah! The Puzzle

You wrap on day one, the footage is backed up, now what; dailies? Dailies are what you’ll be using to off-line your project, so they’ll be with you a while. If you shot RED you’ll use REDCINE-X to make a file type usable by the post system you favor. On Universal Soldier: A New Dimension, we shot with REDs. The director preferred editorial to use Final Cut Pro (not X) since he was familiar with it and wanted to be able to futz with the cut in his hotel room. The problem was that FCP doesn’t have any 3D tools. We could have used a third party plug-in from CineForm or Dashwood, but with over 3000 clips the extra steps and renders would have been too much. Basically, what you need to post produce a 3D show is the ability to output an EDL (Edit Decision List) that references each “eye” with perfect accuracy. This way you’ll be able to go back and re-conform with the original raw clips for the DI (Digital Intermediate), depth pass and final delivery.

Cutting in 3D

Ultimately, you’ll need to be able to cut in 2D then watch a sequence right away in 3D to adjust for 3D pacing. This was something FCP was not meant for. What it does do well is multicam editing, so I had my data wranglers render me out one “eye” in 2D from the RED raw footage to be used as the 2D track. Then I had the other track rendered out as a side-by-side clip using the other eye’s naming conventions and timecode.

These two clips were then married as multi-cam clips in FCP, editing was done on the canvas in 2D and sequences were played back in 3D from the other multi-cam track to an LG monitor in 3D. Proper EDLs were exported for each eye by simply using each track, which had frame accuracy for that particular eye. (That trick isn’t in the books, you can just send me money directly.)

The new Avid Media Composer 6 has 3D tools, as does the latest Sony Vegas Pro, which I haven’t spent much time with, but am excited by what I’ve seen so far. Adobe Premiere has a seamless 3D titling program and can easily import and export to After Effects, which has great 3D tools.

Adobe Premiere also works seamlessly with CineForm Neo3D and that’s a great tool if you’re going to live with the CineForm codec and deliver a finished product directly out of your editor without conforming back to your raw files for a DI.

While most high end shows do their DI on a Quantel Pablo, the SGO Mistika seems to have a very nice arsenal of 3D tools, more so than any other system. I use IRIDAS SpeedGrade at my studio, and you should know me by now, I use it ’cause it does the same work as the expensive brands at a fraction of the cost. Now that Adobe just acquired IRIDAS technologies, I expect we’ll see another melding of great minds to benefit us users. I expect to see a complete 3D workflow, combining Premiere and SpeedGrade, at an affordable price and coming soon. At least, I think it would be a great idea, why else would Adobe buy them?

Show your 3D Movie!

To speed things up for storage and expansion and when cutting several 3D tracks with a 2K resolution or higher, I use JMR’s SilverStor, which is giving me a solid gigabyte per second in speed. Once all is cut, conformed, depth-graded and DI’d you’re ready to output to whatever medium is called for: DPX for a DCP (Digital Cinema Package), MPEG for a 3D Blu-ray or just ProRes for YouTube or H.264 for cell phones.

If you’d like to see your video on the big screen (or wall in my case), you’ll either need a very expensive projector that has a RealD or Dolby filtration system. Or, use what I use; a 3D ready DLP like the ViewSonic PJD6251 for about $1,100 street price and an Optoma 3D-XL box for $800 MSRP. For a total of almost $1,200 I’m watching a 12′ projection at a minor HD resolution with my Volfoni ActivEyes glasses, which is perfect for viewing offline projects for spatial sense and feel. However, it’s not so perfect for a public screening.

I would suggest spending the $300-500 at a local 3D screening room and save the ViewSonic for the side of the production truck and a friendly audience like the cast and crew, however I think it’s still very cool for the money.
Well, There you have it, the low budget guide to making 3D movies.

Good luck, read your books. Make great 3D!

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Keith Collea is an expert at making low budget productions look and feel like huge studio blockbusters.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.


  1. Keith
    Excellent article. I do think that you went light on the editing 3D section. I don’t blame you, until now there hasn’t been a really good affordable 3D toolset. Tim Dashwood had the only thing on the market with Stereo 3D Toolbox. The biggest problem was that FCP didn’t play well it and there were issues and problems. Now FCPX is such a disaster it leaves a very big vacuum. Grass Valley Edius has just come out with a 3D version with a toolset that matches the much more expensive systems and sometimes beats them. I will tell you that I have been beta testing it and even have a case study on using it in the field while shooting the Eagle Festival in Mongolia http://www.grassvalley.com/products/edius_3d_preview.
    Realtime playback with no special graphics cards, edit any format, even 4K, Automatic Convergence adjustment, Keyframing of all adjustments and filters and even floating stereoscopic windows. Please check it out and tell me what you think.

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