In Defense of 3D

A lot has been made of the recent trend of releasing every blockbuster in 3D, mostly with negative reactions.  People complain that it’s overused, that it’s a marketing ploy meant to take even more of our hard-earned money, that it’s a cheap gimmick with no lasting power, that it makes the image too dark, and that it hurts the eyesight of some people.  All these may be true.  Certainly, it seems the excitement of 3D brought about largely by Avatar now brings a sigh of “here we go again” whenever a trailer exclaims that a new film is in that format.  Studios have jumped on the 3D gravy train with quick and cheap conversions that don’t look very good, yet cost 1-1/2 times the normal ticket price.  3D has come and gone in waves in the past, so who’s to say that it won’t burn out yet again this time around?  It’s annoying when a movie is murky on the big screen, especially when many theaters intentionally turn down the intensity of their projectors, so there’s validity in criticizing the polarizing 3D glasses that make the image even darker.  The physiological fact is that the stereoscopic effect often gives people headaches, or at the very least there’s a transition period where your eyes have to get used to watching a movie in this format; some people can’t even see the effect at all.  Despite all these claims, there is still something positive to be had for 3D movies.

Believe it or not, 3D has been around for about as long as motion pictures themselves.  The first time 3D was attempted was in 1915 with a screening of three one-reelers at the Astor Theater in New York, but didn’t work out too well.  Various formats were tried in every decade afterward, with success finally occurring with Bwana Devil in 1952.  There was somewhat of a 3D heyday in the ’50’s, and even Alfred Hitchcock got in on the action.  The red and blue glasses wore out its welcome, but by the ’80’s, there was a resurgence when polarized lenses became the norm for the annoying glasses that we still have to wear to see stereoscope.  Of course, during this era, the trend was to make the third in a series of horror films 3D (Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D, Friday the 13th Part III in 3D, etc.).  This was a gimmick, and the audience knew it.  The filmmakers exploited the format by pointing pitchforks at the audience or having half-eaten fish with its entrails hanging out floating over the theater seats.  3D didn’t add anything to the movies other than taking a tired sequel and throwing a new visual spin on it.  As for the movies themselves, the 2D versions proved that most of them were pretty terrible.  It’s no wonder that the format didn’t last beyond a few years.

Now we have another resurgence, and typical of studio mentality, if one movie is a success then they must make every movie in that vein.  Viewer burnout, however, does not equate to a bad product.  3D is a filmmaking tool, like CGI, color, sound, stunts, lens choice, film or video format, and every other element that goes into the production of a motion picture.  And just like all other tools, in the hands of an expert, that tool can create something magical; with an incompetent, the use of the tool is obvious and ridiculous.  It’s easy to point objects at the camera with the intent for the audience to duck and then laugh at their foolishness for being tricked by a visual gag; it’s entirely different to use 3D to completely immerse the audience into a lifelike world, especially one that is wholly created by the filmmakers, such as with Avatar.  Despite its storytelling flaws, that movie worked largely because of the 3D, given that it’s currently the all-time box office champ, both domestic and worldwide.

Avatar‘s director, James Cameron, has been leading the charge for the motion picture industry to embrace 3D with new technology that he developed for that film.  While being critical of the rush to convert every Hollywood blockbuster to stereoscopic, he oversaw the conversion for Titanic, which will be re-released in April, ensuring that the conversion is meticulous and not an inferior cash grab.  He has even worked with NASA to put 3D cameras on the Mars rover, so he is seeing real-world applications for this format.  Regarding motion pictures, he is the first to say that the director must handle this format with care.  It’s not something that you can just throw at a movie.  With poor conversions, for instance, you end up with flat characters separated from a flat background, so the effect is that you’re looking at animated cut-outs rather than a realistic environment.  Obviously, a director who has taken great pains to make a high-quality movie is not going to want it ruined with a bad conversion, but many times the decision is made at the studio level and is one made of business sense rather than creative considerations.  This is no different than when colorizing old black and white movies was all the rage.  Random colors were assigned to various shades of gray without thinking about what reality was.  Wow, Jimmy Stewart is wearing a pink shirt in It’s a Wonderful Life!  The walls are a pastel blue!  Everyone has the same skin tone!  The thought was that you can make a movie more marketable when adding an element that wasn’t there to begin with, which is the same with 3D conversions.  Of course, if the option is there, then it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not they want to take the chance on a format that may lessen the cinematic experience.

This is the reason why directors need to make the decision as to whether or not to shoot their movie in three dimensions.  The key is filming it in that format.  Some of our top directors have embraced 3D for certain movies–Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Peter Jackson, Robert Zemeckis, and Werner Herzog have all played in this sandbox with largely successful results.  Scorsese’s Hugo is a masterpiece in its own right, and its use of 3D is one element that makes it such a good movie.  Scorsese chose shots and camera movements that corresponded with this format, just like he would have if he had shot the movie in Cinemascope rather than Academy aspect ratio.  Again, this was a tool that he expertly wielded which was distinctly noticeable when the movie’s characters sat in a theater watching silent films that played flatly on the screen, at least until Georges Méliès’s Le Voyage dan la Lune popped out at us during the movie’s conclusion.  The manner in which a 3D film is shot is by necessity different than a 2D film; it takes the eye a moment to fixate on where in the Z axis the image is located.  One reason people complain of headaches when watching a converted movie is that the direction and editing did not take the mechanics of the eye into consideration, with the assumption made that the movie would play on a flat screen with no difference in depth of image.  Even Michael Bay toned down his manic camera movements when he shot Transformers: Dark of the Moon in 3D

Film is a visual medium, so it’s surprising when people vehemently criticize a visual aspect of film.  Not every movie should be made in 3D, just like not every movie should be made in color (Spielberg, Scorsese, Tim Burton, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks have all fought the establishment to produce black and white films).  Any time a new technological innovation in the motion picture industry comes along, there are those who embrace it and those who are chastise it.  When sound transformed silent films into talkies, critics called it a novelty and saw no future in it; indeed, sound added tremendous cost and production problems to the production of a motion picture, slowing down the pacing and preventing creative camera techniques in favor of people standing around talking.  Now it’s inconceivable to have a movie without sound, since in addition to dialogue advancing the story and embellishing characterization, sound design helps create the entire environment in which the film exists (try watching Star Wars, for example, with the sound turned off).  A movie like The Artist seems so fresh because it’s a silent black and white film–wouldn’t it be fun to convert it into 3D?

copyright © 2011 FilmVerse


3 comments on “In Defense of 3D

  1. Peter Jackson is a big proponent of 3D, producing “The Adventures of Tintin” for Spieberg and directing the two-part “The Hobbit” in 3D. I’m really anxious to see how he handles the medium.

  2. […] In Defense of 3D (filmverse.wordpress.com) Share this:FacebookEmailPrintTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Filed under Those Were the Days, I S'pose and tagged 3-D film, Bwana Devil, culture, humor, Movie, nostalgia | Leave a comment […]

  3. And Martin Scorsese is certainly the most significant filmmaker to do a 3 D movie since James Cameron.

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