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‘Tokyo Control’: Sony launches its first 3-D drama into the air

by Rick Martin

If 2010 was supposed to be 3-D’s coming-out party, then in 2011 the party is poised to continue as manufacturers do their best to make this trendy technology truly stick.

While 3-D can be an incredibly enjoyable, and visually stunning, form of entertainment, there’s something unnerving about a market largely driven on the supply side by manufacturers rather than by consumer demand.

A report in October 2010 by the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association said that 131,000 units were sold domestically between April and September 2010. That’s only 1.34 percent of all flat-screen television sales.

But that hasn’t slowed Sony, who have confidently backed 3-D throughout like no other company. Besides a strong lineup of 3-D Bravia televisions, the company also recently pumped out 3-D-enabled Cybershot cameras, Handycam and Bloggie camcorders, and Vaio laptops. The PlayStation 3 is also 3-D capable, and Sony showed glasses-free 3-D prototypes at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, ostensibly to keep up with Toshiba’s Regza 3DTV.

The good news is that the market in Japan is starting to show signs of coming around. Data from Tokyo-based research firm BCN shows that 23 percent of TVs40 inches or larger sold in December were 3-D. General manager of Sony’s corporate PR department, Sue Tanaka, noted that the company’s emphatic push to 3-D is one that adds value and options for consumers.

“We’re not saying that 3-D will be dominating and replacing 2-D,” she said. “We’re just trying to give people additional options or alternatives to watch movies. You don’t need to watch every movie in 3-D, but some movies are more fascinating and you can experience more in the 3-D context.”

Options are great, but all that Sony hardware needs content, and lots of it. Paul Gray, Director of TV Electronics Research at California-based DisplaySearch points out: “People will only buy a 3-D TV if there is enough content to watch, and in 2010 there simply was not enough 3-D content available.”

This looks to be an important focus for Sony in 2011, and the company’s first effort in Japan this year is a 3-D drama titled “Tokyo Control,” produced in collaboration with Fuji TV, who were advised by the producers of James Cameron’s film “Avatar” on how to shoot in 3-D.

The drama stars Ayako Kawahara and Saburo Tokito and revolves around an air-traffic control center, where tensions run as high as the planes they direct above. Episode 1 of the 10-episode series was screened at a press event on Jan. 12, and it looked good. Surprisingly good. The drama was smartly photographed to take full advantage of the 3-D platform. The camera doesn’t just track, pan or zoom, but rather it moves quite freely on a Steadicam on three axes.

The camera moves around the perimeter of the circular control room with characters occupying both foreground and background, frequently interacting with one another to create a depth of field that’s stunning. Over-the- shoulder shots abound, and when the cast exit the control room to walk the corridors outside, the drama suddenly gave me flashbacks of playing Duke Nukem 3-D on my PC in the 1990s.

With all this camera movement, you might think that the experience is disorienting. It’s not. Or at least it wasn’t for me. The camera movements are slow and subtle enough so as not to be distracting, but they’re significant enough to continually create noticeable changes in perspective.

Before filming sequences, the crew often needed to pause for 3-D parallax adjustment. Actor Tokito says the team members took this time to talk, and that made the atmosphere on the set a lot better. Tokito is the only cast member who currently has a 3-D TV, though he lamented with a laugh that he still doesn’t have glasses.

Will anyone see “Tokyo Control”? Sky PerfecTV! HD, the channel which will air the drama, is a paid service that had fewer than 400,000 subscribers at year’s end. You also need a 3-D TV to watch, which most of us don’t have yet. And we don’t have the TV because there’s still not much 3-D content.

Whether or not Sony can break potential buyers out of this chicken-and-egg way of thinking remains to be seen. But if the company continues to showcase 3-D in a package as pretty as “Tokyo Control,” then that’s going to be hard for consumers to ignore.

Episode 1 of “Tokyo Control” airs on Jan. 19 at 11 p.m. on Sky PerfecTV! HD. Rick Martin is a contributor to Gizmag.com. Read more of his work at 1rick.com.