Shoot 3-D on the Cheap!

Note: This article was originally posted on the now-defunct

I’ve never been a huge fan of 3-D for feature films. I’ve always considered it a novelty, like a party game — fun when used sparingly. As a filmmaker it’s certainly never been worth my while to shoot in 3-D. Sure, there are plenty of DIY rigs out there, but that’s an awful lot of work and expense for not a lot of pay-off. Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to give it a try, assuming the price was right. So when the Aiptek 3-D HD pocket cam was announced for a mere $200, I couldn’t say no.

One of my ongoing projects is Deja View, a video series showcasing foreign remakes of popular American films, and I thought the Aiptek camera would be a perfect way to discuss Aabra Ka Daabra, a 3-D Bollywood take on Harry Potter.

Creating the video wasn’t as simple as point-and-shoot, unfortunately, but rather a matter of learning and understanding the limitations of the camera and the software. Some of them could be worked around, and others simply had to be accepted.

The camera itself is pretty neat…

It’s about the size of a Flip (I don’t actually own a Flip for reference, but it’s a little bigger than my similar Creative Vado), and in Flip tradition it’s very easy to use with minimal buttons and a slide-out USB connector. There’s only about 20 seconds’ worth of internal memory to speak of, but it accepts SD cards up to 32 GB. It also features a very spiffy glasses-free 3-D display on the back that feels rather like looking at a hologram.

An important word of warning: please do not buy this camera because you’re excited about the “HD” video quality. If that’s the selling point for you, then you are probably in for $200 worth of disappointment. Instead, buy it because you want to have fun shooting 3-D — and for that, $200 is a steal.

The video quality is about what you’d expect from a cheap pocket cam — which is to say maybe slightly better than upconverted SD pocket cam footage. But here’s where it gets sticky: to record the stereo image, it crams both left and right images into a single 1280×720 frame by squeezing them to half their width. The video can then be stretched back out and combined using the included software. That means that the camera is taking already-mediocre HD footage and chopping the resolution in half right off the bat. Yikes.

The sound quality is nothing special and there’s no external mic input, so if you’re in need of high quality audio you might consider recording it separately and syncing it in post.

One more thing: the Aiptek 3-D pocket cam hates fluorescent lights. Hates them. Recording under fluorescents gives you the kind of scrolling horizontal lines you see when videotaping a CRT monitor, so you’ll want to stick to other light sources.

These were the things I learned from my first tests, and it was enough for me to get started. So, a trip to Jo-Ann Fabrics for curtain material and a couple hours of setup later, and I was just about ready to shoot… in 3-D! Except for one more problem.

A friend was kind enough to be my stand-in while I set up the shot, but every time he left the frame and I stepped in, the brightness would spike, I’d get washed out, and the color would get wonky. It turned out that his light gray T-shirt was allowing the camera to auto-expose and auto-white-balance more accurately than what I was wearing. My tan shirt wasn’t doing the trick, and a white one gave me a magical glowing torso! On the verge of giving up for the day, it occurred to us that rather than playing musical shirts, we could instead incorporate a white object into the shot to serve the same purpose. So we hung some white cloth on a lamp and called it set dressing. Voila, success! The lesson, then, was to always have something white in the frame for the camera to anchor to.

Now there are a couple of things to note about the included ArcSoft software as well. First, it’s designed to be idiot-proof, so if you want to do any tweaking, you’re out of luck. And second, it is apparently being distributed without permission [ed: WTF?!]. I found out about the latter when I tried to register the software and was told by ArcSoft that Aiptek shouldn’t be distributing it. Hmm.

Actually, a third issue is that the final anaglyph output never looks as good as the preview. The quality is lossy and the 3-D effect suffers from ghosting. So what I really needed was the ability to (1) customize the output quality and (2) adjust the alignment of the two sides. Enter the miraculous and completely free StereoMovie Maker! By stretching and exporting the left and right videos separately in my editing software first, StereoMovie Maker allowed me to import them, combine them, and fine-tune the convergence. The difference was dramatic!

Finally, I had 3-D video that, while not of staggering quality, was still pretty snazzy. Not to mention a $20,800 savings over Panasonic’s Full HD 3-D camcorder. Woohoo! If you just want to use the Aiptek 3-D pocket cam to shoot home movies, you’re probably good to go right out of the box. If you’re interested in doing any kind of serious video production (even the cheap kind), I highly encourage you to try it out and learn its limitations first. You still may not be able to shoot Avatar in your living room, but you might be able to manage Jaws 3-D in your bathtub.

Ed Glaser is a filmmaker, scholar, and ninja enthusiast. He currently resides in Illinois with his lovely wife and a load of foreign Rambo remakes.

* Deja View: Bollywood Harry Potter… in 3-D!
* AIPTEK 3D – manufacturer’s Website
* StereoMovie Maker

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