Sunday, April 4, 2010

The problem with 3D

A few days ago, after seeing How To Train Your Dragon, I couldn't resist taking a cheap shot at 3D movies in my instant review of it on Twitter. As I'm far from being the only one not to like 3D, that actually got retweeted by a few people, eventually catching the eye of a certain StempTheViking (a complete stranger who, according to his recent tweets, is a Yankees fan and cannot therefore be a truly good person), who didn't take lightly to my disparaging this new(ish) technology and its use in movies (because, as we all know, anything said on the internet was meant as a personal insult to you if you happen to disagree with it). This is what he wrote:

"Oh yay another 3D hater, man we should go all the way back to black and white like film was MEANT to be. Oh and silent too."

Stemp (as I'm guessing "TheViking" is a description of his occupation, and not actually part of his name) has it right, I guess: I am indeed a "3D hater," although my dislike for 3D is not as irrational as the term "hater" would make it seem. It also has nothing to do with my being a reactionary film snob (whether that's the case or not is still up for debate), as Stemp also implies. I have, I believe, very good reasons not to like 3D. Since I couldn't possibly explain them within the 140-character limit of Twitter, I'll do so here instead.

First and foremost, 3D is most often, when it comes to film, little more than a useless gimmick. 3D is useless because "normal" movies are not like medieval paintings. The latter often feel slightly off, because painters at the time hadn't yet mastered perspective, making it somewhat harder to distinguish what was supposed to be in the background from what was supposed to be in the foreground (though they used other tricks for that). Film, being based on photography, doesn't suffer from that problem. The screen, and the image that is projected onto it, may be flat, but your eyes have no trouble perceiving depth. Actors evolving on different planes don't seem to crash into each other other all the time.
Some filmmakers understand that, and contend themselves with using 3D to add some additional depth to the picture. James Cameron did so with Avatar, for instance. Most filmmakers (or rather, I suspect, studio executives) don't find that to be enough, though. Perhaps they realize that using 3D in such a way results in an almost imperceptible effect most of the time, and (wrongly) believe that 3D which doesn't draw attention to itself is bad 3D. So they throw stuff at you.
In the recent Alice in Wonderland alone, I counted at least four or five instances of a character throwing something towards the audience, so to speak. What made it most awkward was the fact that I was actually watching the movie in 2D. The "random item thrown at the audience's face" is pretty much a fixture of the 3D movie, although it is sometimes done with more subtlety than in Alice. It has no aesthetic or cinematic value whatsoever, and only exists to point out that, yes, you're watching a 3D movie. Granted, it did startle me and make me laugh the first time it happened (which, I believe, was in 1993 in a Disneyland attraction), but it has long stopped being funny to become excessively annoying.
I like to think that throwing stuff at the audience is a director's way of admitting that he has no idea what to do with this fancy 3D thing. An admission of its uselessness, if you like. If that's the case, Tim Burton must really think 3D sucks. In his sarcastic response to my tweet, Stemp likened 3D vs. 2D to color vs. black and white, but I think I have yet to see a movie whose director feels obliged to point out that his movie is indeed not in black and white every ten minutes or so.
On a more personal note, 3D glasses also tend to detract from my enjoyment of a movie by dimming the picture quite a bit (though I have to admit they've gotten much better at that lately) and by giving me headaches (that, on the other hand, hasn't been getting any better).

The financial aspect of 3D movies should not be disregarded either. In France, seeing a film in 3D will cost you and additional 3 euros, and it can be even more expensive in the US. When your average movie ticket costs 9 euros, that's a 33% increase. In Europe like in the US, the price of going to the movies acts as a deterrent for a lot of people; a 33% increase only exacerbates that problem (a family of four would have to drop $56 in tickets only to see How To Train Your Dragon in 3D).
If, as some studio executives predic, 3D is the future of movies, the problem created by that additional cost will have to be addressed. If it's not, it will be good news for huge blockbusters (like, say, Avatar), which will bring in even more money, and bad news for smaller movies, which will lose part of their potential audience due to their jacked-up price. Even if 3D remains the domain of blockbusters and family movies, the hike in ticket prices for those movies means that your occasional moviegoer will be less likely to go see both a blockbuster and a less agressively marketed movie.

What I find truly sad in Stemp's tweet, though, is the way he sarcastically refers to black and white movies, as if those were somehow inferior to their color counterparts. Would Some Like it Hot be any better if it were in color? Is Casablanca any less of a masterpiece for being in black and white? Of course not. Moreover, some of the most visually striking movies of the past few years were filmed in black and white--think Sin City, for instance, or Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, perhaps the most gorgeous movie I've seen in the past few months. As a matter of fact, every single person I know who's seen Tetro, regardless of whether they liked it or not, said it made them wish that more movies were done in black and white.
Black and white vs. color doesn't make any sense. Ideally, 2D vs. 3D shouldn't either, and both should instead be equally valid aesthetic choices. It isn't the case right now, and 3D is instead being pushed by studio executives for purely financial reasons. The technology is still young, though, and with enough people with the enthusiasm and talent of James Cameron working on it, 3D might eventually become more than just something used mainly to throw Johnny Depp's hat at a jaded audience.
The day that happens, Stemp, I promise I'll stop being a hater.


Gingy said...

I agree with you 100%, great posting. Keep up the good work. :)

Dan said...

I totally agree with you on the gimmicks being used in 3D movies right now. However, I would call myself a supporter of 3D.

If you look at the early days of the "talkies", you will notice quite quickly that the use of sound in movies was quite clumsy. The Jazz Singer used dialog cards, even though it had a synchronized audio track. I bet that theaters charged extra for that movie too.

I say that I support 3D because I want movies to use it in an elegant, mature way. So far, the only movies I've seen that did this are Coraline and Avatar. I want to see more of that.

What really gets my goat, though, are the fake 3D movies. They filmed Alice and Wonderland and Clash of the Titans in 2D (just one camera) and then did some fake stereoscopic magic with computers and then charged extra for it. After Alice and Wonderland (where I barely noticed the 3D), I won't go to any more fake 3D movies. I'll just go see their 2D counterparts.

Frank Love said...

Thank you for saying this. I've been saying this since the rev up to "Avatar" started showing it's true colors. I'd even go further that the stereoscopic delivery system has issues. Not only the glasses, which isn't so bad for sitting for a film in a theater, but for 3D TV seems ridiculous to me, but namely things like occular convergence. This is how your eyes want to converge when objects come toward you, but since they're still 50 ft away, your eyes have a quick little double take, and it's things like this that lead to the headaches.

I think what future 3D can have will have to be in a kind of holographic delivery, one free of glasses and giving a sense of depth making it seem like the edges of the screen are a window into this other world, making our 4th wall almost quite literal.

My one disagreement with you though, has to be with your praise of Mr. Cameron. The campaign he has launched to promote "Avatar" and the use of 3D as a moviemaking medium has been manipulative and self-serving in my opinion. He promotes "Avatar" as having "new technologies" when mostly they were just natural and logical next steps from what filmmakers like Jackson and Fincher were already doing. Most of the 'new technologies' they're talking about, were merely them developing expensive new devices and toys to help make things like performance capture and intensive green screen sets easier to work with. He used hacked Sony F-950 cameras which have a sensor 1/60th the area of a true IMAX film negative, which also isn't in the IMAX aspect ratio, but sells it as IMAX none the less as so many other films have since the success of "The Dark Knight", which had actual IMAX elements in it. This is in conjunction with IMAX diluting it's own brand again with inferior multiplex expansions with 2K digital projectors and much smaller screens versus the 70mm and 8 story screens of proper IMAX, and all without any explanation or change in the moniker. Just Google LieMax. I can honestly say, considering the hype and budget for "Avatar" I was very unimpressed visually, and the script/story I found to be worse.

Lastly Cameron has slammed traditional methods like the 24fps standard, and is promoting, through software and Television sets, the all encompassing change to all media even that which has been long since created. Doing this with software created Faux 3D to retro-fit everything in 3D much as how Cameron says he's doing with "Titanic", and TV's which can create extra frames as well, much like some of the fancier TV's coming out now have these 'smooth motion' or the like features which in my opinion make visual elements look strange, fake, and just plain bad. Cameron has recently shown how he's hypocritical about this since he's been complaining about the retro 3D application to the new "Clash of the Titans", as I said, he's doing the same thing to "Titanic". I think he's being vocal because others are finding ways to capitalize on 3D without going through the massive infrastructure Cameron has built around himself.

As someone who works in camera in the motion picture industry, I hold a cinematographer's intentions in high regard, so to change things after the fact, and to try and limit creative options in the filmmaking process, bother me greatly. As I said before, 3D could hold promise, but like you said, as AN option, not THE option. This mirrors my sentiments about using film as well versus digital capture mediums. We have to stop giving ourselves false mandates to wholesale changes like this before they are fully understood, developed, or even accepted. -f

etheriel said...

Perfectly put. I have the same problem with the dim lighting and in my case, nausea. I get motion sickness and it is very distracting.

I find that the problem with 3D now is that it's trying to be immersive without really doing a decent job at it. As the technology get better, perhaps I will change my mind. The ideal 3D experience would be a virtual reality immersion experience where you are wearing a headset that allows no peripheral view of the real world, that completely immerse you in the experience. The motion and depth perception also needs to be fixed. Right now when something moves really fast, it appears draggy and blurry, not realistic to how you perceive a fast moving object in real life.

And that goes to my beef with pricing. I will pay for quality, not for a half-hearted attempt at quality, and that is exactly what 3D is to me right now. Especially, like you said, so many of the movies that we love (the beautiful little gems about human interaction with no need to throw things) are perfect the way they are, in 2D. And that is all I need.

Boo! *throw apple at you*

Anonymous said...

Like Dan said, it takes a while for artists and technicians to understand and use new tools in a proper way. I don't think 3D was "necessary" but i do think the added depht enhance the beauty of a shot. It will be perfect when you don't need glasses though, but technology advances fast these days.

Gaël said...

Grace: *dodge* :)

Frank: I probably should have made myself clearer. My praise of Cameron here is only directed at his directing skills, and at his restrained and unobtrusive use of 3D in Avatar. I agree that he's a mediocre screenwriter, and that wanting to 3D-ify (3D-ize?) Titanic (or, really, any other movie that was originally in 2D) is at best an ill-conceived idea.
I still have nightmares about how George Lucas butchered the original Star Wars trilogy by adding unnecessary CGI scenes (and having Greedo shoot first); I sure hope he doesn't decide that a 3D Star Wars would be cool, too.

Frank Love said...


You should check out the history of Cinerama, very interesting, very much about using the peripheral vision to give an illusion of depth. I can't say I agree about headsets. Anything involving placing apparatuses on ourselves will be problematic and annoying. I also think that would kill the theater, who wants to go sit in a room of people where you're wearing a helmut and can't see everyone around you?


I think the 'fast' advances in technology aren't really as 'fast' or 'advanced' as they may sound or seem. I pointed out with "Avatar" it really wasn't any more 'advanced' than their ability to purchase really fast processing power along with some other toys they would make. Like I said, the cameras were actually rather inferior. I feel when you really dig beneath the surface of some of these things, you see where there was one or two steps forward, there were also a couple steps back somewhere else, but done so where some people won't notice. Cameron really could have wowed us if he used the IMAX 3D camera, but that already exists, he had to invent something new, put his name on it, and call it something it isn't so he can rent it out, as he is now, because people will want anything that was used with "Avatar", even if it's not as good as something that was already out there.


One thing I give Cameron is that his 3D wasn't gimmicky, it wasn't the Zemeckis "Look, this is in 3D, can't you tell?". I'm sad to say though that Lucas saw Avatar, and is already acting like a little kid who saw a commercial for a new toy and talking about doing Star Wars in FauxD, and redoing some effects.....again. Something along the lines of "the Death Star exploding all over the audience" Forgive me if that doesn't sound appealing. I almost want a Laserdisk player just so I can own the original trilogy without it having to be on VHS, and without having to see whiny Christensen.

etheriel said...

@Frank Love

Do you have a link for History of Cinerama? I'd love to check it out.

I agree a headset may be restrictive, but I really think it depends on how it's done. Cinema is going to evolve in the future and for it to be a truly "immersive" experience it won't be the same mass-enjoyable artform that it is now. It's hard to realize that you are sitting in midst of 300 people while trying to believe in the sensation of flying over the south pacific -- for a true "virtual reality" experience lifts one out of the present reality, and that includes others that populate it.

However, the holographic delivery you talk about I believe will be fantastic as well, but in a different way, and provides a different type of cinematic experience. That will provide like you said, a similar mass-art enjoyment experience like the one we have today in cinema but on a grander scale, and that will be its appeal. Eventually I see cinema diverging into two - the virtual reality individual experience and the immersive mass-art experience.

Of course this is completely off the top of my head and based on my gut, I could very well be ill informed about certain advances in cinema/technology and I don't claim to be correct.

Whew! rant over. On other hand, stumbled on your site and you are an AMAZING photographer and I am in love with your work. Seriously. I don't say that often. I'd love to get in touch with you about a possible future collaboration. Let me know if you're interested. Added you on twitter @etherielmusings

Frank Love said...


Thank you so much for the compliments. I'm always open to new artistic ventures. That explains how I ended up with a RT from Ebert.

That's a pretty good summation on Cinerama. If you have Blu-Ray, it's rather fascinating to get "How the West was Won" and watching either in the 2.89:1 letterbox, or in the 'smilebox' formats...also a little trippy.

My comments as to the 'virtual reality' side of Cinema...We somewhat already have this. One need only go to an OMNIMAX film. This is the IMAX format which is projected onto a giant dome which envelopes our peripheral vision. It is essentially the grandson of Cinerama. One thing I don't believe it has though is 3D, merely because I don't think any OMNIMAX theaters are currently equipped with two projectors or any other 3D work-arounds.

Now as for going past this, to where say you'd be 'truly immersive' in which you'd essentially need a helmet or something, I think that kind of thing would work alright for certain types of movies, or for people who really want that type of thing.

But here's the rub in my opinion....This modern 3D incarnation is pretty much 100% owed to James Cameron. Before he did anything, the only thing really out there was either the 50's style colored specs, or IMAX 3D, proper IMAX 3D btw like the new Hubble movie, not any of the commercial movies that are claiming IMAX or IMAX 3D...because they aren't.

In 2002, Cameron got tech's and investors to come together to start RealD, they fashioned a 3D add on for projectors so that theaters would begin having 3D capabilities over the coming years, as this happened a few animated movies came out to show on them. This was the case because people were still working on shooting it live action. Other people have also been coming to the 3D table in various ways. This though, was all planned in the lead up to "Avatar", so Cameron would have enough screens to make his Billions.

The way Cameron has been pushing 3D, is to an all media encompassing effect. He wants everything new 3D, and everything old retro-FauxD. This the studios have been jumping on because they think it will drive people back to the theaters to make up for slumping DVD sales due to things like Netflix and worsening piracy. The problems? 1) "Avatar" was the fastest pirated movie in history with over half a million downloads in the first 2 days. 2) 3D TV's are coming out, some without need of glasses(though has angle view issues) as well as 3D Blu-Ray. Panasonic is also coming out with a 3D camcorder, just the right size to put a set of glasses on and pirate movies IN 3D. 3) As you've pointed out, this is, if anything, pushing presentation away from theater going experiences.

So in summary? I think that Cameron's attempt at forcing the media shift is very much flawed for the reasons they are claiming to do it. All it seems to be doing is cheapening things at a greater expense and stifling creativity. I think his motives are purely for bragging rights and money. If people could actually see more things in actual IMAX, they'd realize it looks better about about as dimensional as this 3D. Yes, I think 2D IMAX looks as good or better than normal 3D. Amazingly, I think he's created a monster even he can't tame though.