It wasn’t long ago that Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the head honchos at Dreamworks, was pushing 3D in theaters hard. At that point, Avatar was still in production and many were skeptical of it’s success. Already then it was being billed as the Citizen Kane of three dimensions; providing a groundbreaking visual style that would revolutionize how people thought about 3D in film.
Cut to 2010 and Avatar, whether it fulfilled those lofty promises or not, stands alone as the highest grossing film of all time and leaving studio execs to demand, order, request that all their large tentpole films now be released in 3D. In an economy that is down and a market that has been plummeting for years due to the fall off of DVD and the rise of Netflix, Redbox and piracy, studios have found their newest industry cash cow in the third dimension, waiting to take back the profitability of cinema. However, it remains to be seen whether 3D is in it for the long haul or if it will simply fade into the distance, leaving a wake of hyperbolic predictions in it’s wake. There are pros and cons of 3D that the entertainment industry needs to realize about it to establish the technology as the future instead of a footnote in the past.
Make it a window, not a jack-in-the-box
Among movie snobs the biggest reason why we hate 3D is the gimmick factor. It’s been done over and over again and has lost it’s value with each successive knife, hand, or other object that comes flying at us through the screen. The site of seeing an entire theater reach out to “grab” what’s not in front of them is enough to make anybody who cares about cinema roll their eyes, unless you’re at an amusement park where such flashy displays of technology belong. They do not belong in the same theaters, however, that play serious pieces of dramatic art.
It’s true these gimmicks have faded largely, with many of those supporting the technology, I believe, realizing it’s cringe factor for the sophisticated audience. It exists in some forms, however, and the biggest perpetrator of this stereotype is the consumer electronics sector. The biggest problem I foresee in the wide scale adoption of 3D technology is the belief that what consumers want is a three-dimensional viewing experience in which stuff flies out at them. If you watch any of the 3D television commercials that have started to air, you can see this belief on the part of major corporations such as Samsung and Sony. While I understand their approach, after all, how do you market 3D without the gaudy visual of a shark swimming into your living room? It’s the wrong angle to take.
If there is anything to be learned from Avatar, it’s that what audiences appreciate about 3D isn’t the gimmick, it’s the depth. Make the product, the films, a window into the world, not a jack in the box that pops off the screen into the theater. I use this analogy both metaphorically and very much literally and physically. Let me start by breaking it down in both of those terms:
Metaphorically what I mean is that the film should draw us in with 3D not bring us out of it. I think the strongest aspect of Avatar‘s 3D was it’s ability to provide depth. When I watched the screen, it wasn’t like watching a film that stays flat on the screen in which the filmmakers try to manipulate perceived depth with lighting. Instead, watching Avatar (and the Toy Story double feature, by the way) was like viewing inside of a box that was infinitely deep. It brought me closer to the world, closer to the story and sucked me into it’s world. Gimmicky 3D or bad 3D, on the other hand, takes us out of the moment for the “Wow!” factor but adds nothing to it’s story, characterization or style. This brings me to what I mean by physically…
Don’t let us remember we’re in a theater! If there is anything that gimmick 3D does is make us acknowledge that we are in fact there sitting in chairs in a dark theater with hundreds of other people. Having something pop out of the screen makes you lean back, reach for it, or look around at others. This brings us out of the moment of the film and sucks the air out of the story. Like I said above, if the screen acts as a window, we will instead be drawn to it more, leaning it to glean it’s every moment. An axe thrown from the screen will make us look around at grungy seats, fat patrons gorging on popcorn and other unpleasantness that serves to distract from a true cinematic experience.
3D release? Then shoot it that way.
Gimmicky 3D is not the only kind of 3D that can be inherently viewed as negative. More recently since the success of Avatar, studios have sought to post-convert films shot in 2D into 3D. The most recent guilty practitioner of this is, of course, Clash of the Titans. While I have not seen the movie and cannot vouch for it’s 3D conversion, I have seen other converted movies, most notably Alice in Wonderland. And while Alice has garnered more positive reviews of it’s 3D than Clash of the Titans, I found it still to be flat, dull and entirely uninspiring. If Alice was meant to show off the post-conversion process, then I want the process to die completely.
Poorly done, or rushed, post-conversion will only serve to turn the public away from 3D. For most of the movie going public, they won’t differentiate between what was shot in 3D and what was converted to it: it’s all the same. And in the same way that a chain is only as strongest as it’s weakest link, 3D films, even those exceptionally crafted like Avatar, have their fate rested on the bottom of the barrel. With big studio support for these processes, they are ultimately killing what the studios hope will save them. The answer is simple: shooting in 3D is the best way to go.
It is true that 3D cinematography, or stereography, is harder to shoot in. The camera’s are often heavier, bulkier, and full of a set of new problems that arise such as correct interocularity (which refers to the distances between the dual-lenses matching those of our eyes). However, James Cameron achieved it to phenomenal success with Avatar in part due to his commitment to learn the technology on other documentary style films. I think the most important part about shooting in 3D, however, is not necessarily the cameras, but the conception. Conceiving a film in 3D from pre-production to post-production will create a more authentic experience for the consumer. Tacking on 3D as an after-thought is much akin to the colorization process that happened many years ago with the advent of Technicolor and color film stocks. It’s hard to say what something would’ve looked like in this way; it’s much easier to leave it be or create it in the way you want it to end up.
Get rid of the glasses – fast
I realize that the technological limits of 3D right now don’t allow for any alternatives – at least cheap ones. There is glassesless 3D technology out there but most of it is prototypes that aren’t practical to deliver to the consumer end yet. Which is fine. I think for a few years people will accept that they will have to wear glasses to watch 3D films – in the theater. Where glassesless 3D will become important is in the home. Nobody is going to want to wear glasses around the house for the sole sake of watching 3D and not when they cost close to $120. For instance, if I had a World Cup party with my brand spanking new 3D TV and invited 10 people, that’s close to $1200 of investment, just so everybody can experience it the same.
The cost, the inconvenience and the overall silliness and style of the 3D glasses at home is a major roadblock in 3D development. For the most part, I believe people are OK wearing them in theaters because it is part of the experience and you aren’t going to be going anywhere else. You sit, wear the glasses and watch the movie. But at home, what if I glance down to my cell phone, or leave to go cook popcorn, or check my computer – all these activities require a removal of the glasses. And while a subtle annoyance, it can build a larger animosity to the inconvenience of it.
I put this category last simply because it is a technological hurdle that I believe will be jumped within 5 years down the line, but nonetheless, it is a major roadblock to the widespread adoption of 3D. Think about the boon 3D would have if suddenly millions of Americans were to adopt it into their homes.
The long term future
Most of my gripes with 3D have to do with the creation of the content. This is because technology can usually, and almost always does, overcome it’s hurdles. Creators of the content, however, can get stuck in their ways and ultimately lead to their own downfall. What filmmakers, studios, and producers alike need to do is realize that this new generation of 3D isn’t the kind from the 1950′s. We have new glasses, new technologies, and a new generation. The content that we view should display the films as windows into another world, not bring us back into our own reality by the use of cliche’d gimmicks. To achieve this real sense of wonder into a film’s world, they should also start to shoot more of their films in 3D and ditch the shoddy and undependable post-conversion process. Finally, if 3D can remove glasses from it’s requirements to enjoy, it will have a prosperous and long future. If Hollywood doesn’t catch up to the consumer demands and the critical perception of 3D, it will be doomed to fall to the wayside as another fad in cinematic history.