Journeys Into The Third Dimension

When I was 10, one of the biggest playground status symbols it was possible to have was a watch. The fancier the watch, the better. But fancy when you’re 10 means something different to when you’re in your 30s. Where now it’s design that matters, at 10 it was all about the functions. The most impressive watch to show off to other 10-year olds was the calculator watch.

I have no idea if the calculator watch would still be the draw that it was 20+ years ago, but I can imagine that if a kid did show up with one it cause a certain amount of wonder for a short while, at least. There were, of course, draw backs. The buttons were tiny and nigh-on impossible to accurately press and the moment you fell over – which 10-year olds do with alarming frequency – the buttons were scuffed and scraped and left flush with the surface of the watch. So basically, they were rendered useless after around half an hour in the playground.

There is, of course, a reason that these watches only sell to children (unless anyone knows of an adult who still has a calculator watch on his wrist, I will maintain that these are essentially toys), and that is that children haven’t yet built up the critical faculties to work out that having a calculator strapped to your wrist for those all important and all-too-regular mathematical emergencies is a waste of time because all important and all-too-regular mathematical emergencies don’t exist. Of course, as an adult, if a mathematical emergency – important and frequent or not – did arrive, my phone will leap to the rescue.

But the point of all this is that despite my peers wide-eyed wonder at the Casio strapped to my wrist all those years ago, not all innovation equals progress and that just because you can add something to something else, doesn’t mean you necessarily should or that it should be regarded as anything more than a novelty. All of which is a roundabout way of saying I saw Avatar in 3D earlier in the week and, having discussed with numerous people, it is now time to have my say in some kind of official forum. And until I get my own TV show, that official forum is here, where it is, undeniably, all about the Benjamin.

Now, the more astute among you may have worked out my opinion from that intro, but to say I am not a fan of 3D wouldn’t quite be bang on the banana. First off, let me say that I have seen three 3D films, Coraline, Up and Avatar, and for each of those films, I have not seen the 2D version to compare*. As such, I am aware of the possibility of not being able to draw a 100% fair conclusion. That’s not going to stop me, however.

So why am I not sold on 3D? Don’t get me wrong; the 3D visuals are very impressive and I have to admire the work that has gone into the production of these films and the visual effects that have resulted. However, I don’t think they have enhanced my cinematic experience in any way that is significantly different from the novelty effect, and in some respects I would say they have had a negative impact.

I suppose the first thing to establish is what I am looking for from a visit to the cinema, because that will go some way to defining the ways in which any new technique may affect my experience. First and foremost I will typically be looking for an engaging story featuring believable characters (within the context of the film). There are exceptions to this, a key one of which I will return to later, but ultimately, therefore, I go to the cinema to lose myself in a story.

So if cinema is about story, what can 3D offer to it, or at least, what has it managed to offer so far? On current evidence, very little. The thing that a number of 3D evangelists will do is compare the introduction of 3D to the previous introduction of colour way back when but that, I believe, is a false argument. Colour offers the director a new palette. It is something often (seemingly) ignored, but when you look at a film as striking as, say, Far From Heaven, the use of colour is used to emphasise emotion, to fill the audience with warmth and enables us to further empathise with Julianne Moore. Compare this to the stark, cold blues in Gattaca which give the whole film a cold, clinical, detached feel which serves to distance the viewer. 3D doesn’t – or hasn’t yet – been used in such a way to draw in or distance the audience. If someone works out a way to do this, that gives the film an additional emotional core not available in 2D, I will happily become a 3D convert.

There are two things that 3D is excellent at doing to get an emotional response from a viewer, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is essentially vertigo-inducing – making the back of the screen tumble away from the audience. Where Hitchcock altered the depth of field in Vertigo as James Stewart clung on to the edge of the building to give the impression of height, 3D can take it one step further. However, as we are sat in our seats and can feel gravity pulling us down into them, we still don’t feel as though we could be sucked into the screen. Would James Stewart’s situation feel any rawer in 3D? I personally doubt it. Hitchcock produced a masterful film that manages to convey Stewart’s mental weakness brilliantly, though I think Vertigo might be a good shout for a remake now the technology is apparently here to stay (not that I would endorse this).

The second thing that 3D does very well could be considered the opposite of the first – things flying out into the audiences face, be it a thrown knife, a fired bullet or someone pointing a finger. There is no doubt that this provokes an immediate and visceral response and, if done properly, will cause a good proportion of the audience to jump out of their seats. However, this is a momentary response and mere equivalent to a theme park ride**. No doubt it will work well in horror movies and the like, and I didn’t get to see the 3D instalment of the maligned but (for me) enjoyable Final Destination series which may have gone some way towards proving this.

The two examples I have given demonstrate a more visceral emotional response, and perhaps this is where we should spend our time looking for the value of 3D. Avatar, in particular, has ample opportunity to get stuck into various action sequences to show off what the process can give a scene, be it attacks in and racing through the jungle or mass battles on ground and in the air. These were all sequences that would look impressive in two dimensions anyway, so what did 3D add? Again, it was a remarkable spectacle, but I don’t think the tension or excitement of the situations was increased by the added depth. They also, occasionally, provoked additional issues. Action sequences in general demand quicker cutting and moving cameras, all of which adds to the urgency and tension, but when the screen has added depth it increases the workload on the eyes and there were times that I found I my eyes were straining. I was refocusing so frequently it hurt. While the issues this potentially presents might, finally, get Michael Bay to calm down his directing and editing style for the inevitable Transformers 3D, it is still far from perfect that ‘the saviour of cinema’ is potentially causing eye-strain.

Early reports about Avatar had also presented motion sickness as an issue for the audiences and it was certainly true that early on there was some handheld camerawork when Sully first arrived on Pandora that was jarring and queasy. I can only hope that the next Bourne film is in 2D only given the number of people who complained of feeling sick from watching the most recent two.

But these weren’t my only concerns with the implementation of 3D, though this may be more of an issue with James Cameron’s direction than the effects themselves. In some sequences, practically everything was in focus at all depths allowing the eye to wander around the screen. In others, areas were left out of focus, leading the audience to look at only the levels that remained in focus. Of course, this is standard practice in traditional filmmaking, you draw the viewer’s eye to the area of the screen you want them to see. In 3D, however, this presents a problem. If the background is left out of focus to ensure the viewer watches what the director wants, what is the point of having things in 3D in the first place? If everything is in focus, enabling the viewer to pick and choose what element of the screen they wish to focus on, your audience risks missing things through being distracted. Given the weak story and script in Avatar, being distracted probably helps it seem that bit more fun than it has any right to be, but that’s by-the-by. The point is, it places a dilemma on the director, and it’s a dilemma I don’t know how you solve.

Also, the 3D is far from perfect. In many scenes it feels too much like diorama, i.e. a number of flat surfaces at different depths, rather than everything being truly contoured. By this I mean that a face at the front of the screen may be discernibly closer to you than the wall behind it, but the face itself looks flat. Ultimately, rather than looking 3D, it often merely looks like a number of 2D objects/films, working in parallax.

I would imagine that, as with any new technology, it will take time to understand it and implement it to its best – that is only natural – and it may well be that it takes a true artist to unleash 3D in a way which will truly exploit its potential. I mentioned earlier that there are exceptions to my rules on seeking out storytelling and I think a prime example of this would be the work of Terence Mallick, director of, Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World. Mallick has often been described as a visual poet and with good reason. It may take someone with his talent and vision to fully realise what 3D is capable of and define what the next generation of cinema is all about. But until that happens, I think that the groundswell of opinion supporting 3D as the future (in artistic terms rather than merely factual) is being taken in by the novelty factor. It is true that 3D is the future – more and more films will be produced in 3D as more and more cinemas are installing 3D projectors and more and more people go to see films in 3D. However, as far as I am concerned, as yet it offers nothing new; 3D films are no more immersive than their 2D counterparts. As I said, the test will be whether artists like Mallick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers start using the technology and what they do with it. These are men who know how to use visuals in genuinely creative ways and if they find a reason to add a new dimension, I will be first in line to see what they do.

One final word of warning. The industry may look on 3D as a way to combat piracy, the idea being that, as you can’t get the 3D experience at home, more people will head back to the cinema. Right now, I can see this being the case. Screenings for Avatar are selling incredibly well, but if every film over a summer were in 3D, people won’t pay to see all of them. As they do right now, they will pick the headliners, the one or two films they must see from the listings, and see those in the cinema while still downloading the rest. It is a fallacy that it will stop piracy in the same way as the idea that if we got rid of piracy, everything that currently gets pirated would get bought instead is a fallacy. That’s not how it works. If you really want to draw people back to the cinema, the equation is simple, make better films.

*The selection of films I have seen in 3D was made on the following basis. Coraline – I wanted to see a 3D film and this seemed like the best option of those out there at the time. Up & Avatar – if anyone could do something impressive and worthwhile with 3D I felt that Pixar and James Cameron would be those people.

**In fact, both examples are little more than a theme park ride and, it could be argued, started out as such. In the summer of 2001 I visited Paramount Canada’s Wonderland in Toronto with a good friend and they showed a Stan Lee created 15 minute film using this 3D technology. It was impressive for 15 minutes but had no story to it. It was all novelty. I am surprised, given that the technology was up and running back then, that it’s taken so long to go mainstream. Perhaps the costs of producing the films to show was too prohibitive back then.


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