Plenty of people hate 3D movies, and for good reason. For one thing, they’re expensive, and for another, they don’t always deliver the goods. Nothing’s worse than spending extra money on something that is not discernibly different than the cheaper option, let alone superior.
In general, Hollywood has done a pretty lousy job ingratiating audiences to the format. Prices were high from the get-go and well before anyone figured out how to fine-tine the viewing experience. Everything from lousy post-conversions on films shot in 2D to theater owners not knowing how to calibrate 3D projectors has left much of the potential 3D audience jaded and cynical about stereoscopic projection, which I can definitely sympathize with.
But there’s also an innate discrimination among many filmgoers that 3D is a perversion of cinema, a blasphemy to good taste, a cheesy and unnecessary addition to a medium that has already been perfected. And that’s where I have to step in and disagree, because when it’s done well, a 3D viewing is often the superior theatrical experience.
Now, I’m not arguing that every movie needs to take advantage of the extra dimension, and I’m not saying that films that were initially constructed and shot as 2D experiences are automatically going to be quality 3D experiences, but I do see stereoscopic as an option akin to digital or film, sound or silent, color or black & white.
The problem really arises when Hollywood studios force filmmakers to utilize a format they have no interest in. That’s where you end up with subpar work, dissatisfied audiences, and the perpetuating myth that 3D is an inherently silly, modern-day gimmick.
The irony is that stereoscopic projection is very much in line with filmmaking’s origins within the illusionists’ repertoire, and as I’ve argued before, filmmaking is fundamentally a magic trick, an attempt to elicit emotion through the cutting together of disparate imagery. 3D is a natural progression of this technical artistry that embraces deception and deals in visual trickery. While it may seem in contemporary times to be an add-on, an extraneous new invention to fiddle with an already perfected formula, 3D has its roots in filmmaking as early as the late 1800s, predating both sound or color in film and running concurrent with the advent of editing. Really, were it not for the inferior image quality produced by the anaglyph process and Hollywood’s insistence on only utilizing its 3D capabilities on cheesy sci-fi and horror films during the 1950s, it might be seen in modern times as less of an optional bit of fluff and more of a film necessity on par with sound and color.
A well-made and properly presented 3D film creates a sense of immersion in its audience that 2D cannot. There is a tangible sense of added reality to any scene in which an audience can perceive depth. It draws us in, it shows us the distance between objects and characters, and it occasionally reaches out to us in the audience and hovers in front of our face. There is a sense of being a part of the film, of staring through a window, rather than at a screen, at the drama unfolding before you. I’ve noticed that in many 3D films, I share a greater emotional connection with the characters on screen because of this depth effect.
When you consider that most film started as black-and-white without sound, it stands to reason that with each major innovation in the field of filmmaking–first sound, then color, then higher quality, more immersive sound, then CG and high definition digital imagery–the filmmaker has been better able to replicate the reality around him into a projected series of images and sounds. 3D is a natural fit to that philosophy. The world that we live in isn’t a flat image and the ways in which we interact with people, in which we perceive reality is through that extra dimensional space.
So inherently, the idea of 3D is not necessarily any more gimmicky or wrongheaded than any other innovation in filmmaking. The real test with 3D is whether filmmakers can really capitalize on it as a tool. I would argue that if there were more truly great films that had to be seen in 3D, its merits to the medium would be far more easily justified. And I’d also argue that as good looking as this latest iteration of 3D happens to be, it could be better. For one thing, it’s a little too self-conscious for its own good.
NEW 3D is an improvement in almost every way from its predecessor technology. Compared to anaglyph, the image quality is gorgeous, the colors vibrant, and there’s no ghostly apparitions around the objects. But while filmmakers have done an exceptional job creating the illusion of depth on the screen, they seem remarkably gun-shy about sending things out into the audience, perhaps because they’re afraid of being compared to the schlocky efforts of 1950s 3D cinema in which creatures’ hands would grope beyond the screen.
To a certain extent, this makes sense. Poking an audience in the eye with things may actually pull them out of the film more than into it, but applied conservatively or creatively, it’s a whole other half of the 3D experience that is being neglected. More than that, it’s kind of what audiences expect out of their 3D films and are thus disappointed when they don’t get it. As much as I can understand serious filmmakers trying to push 3D into a more artistic space than that 1950s creature’s hand reaching for your face, there are some cases, especially in SFX-laden, bombastic, big blockbuster superhero films and sci-fi extravaganzas that I have to wonder: why hold back? When you’re making a film that is about as subtle as a kick to the groin anyway, why not go for broke on the 3D? Bodies should be thrown over our heads, projectiles shot into our eyes in slow motion, swords should sweep across the theater. It seems like a missed opportunity not to indulge in these excesses, and it would be a clear way of delineating the 3D experience from the 2D one. There could even be additional scenes shot just for the 3D version.
But I’m not advocating that every 3D movie dial it to 11. I think there is also a place for the more subtle and artful 3D that we’ve been seeing in films like Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. On top of being a terrific, powerful example of great filmmaking, there is a visual mastery of image that is pure beauty to behold in 3D. The way that Lee uses depth to establish the distance between the protagonist and the tiger that is stranded with him on a lifeboat is particularly effective and when that tiger jumps out at the audience once during the film, it is a great use of stereoscopic technology. Up to this point, the audience has been so conditioned to look inward, deep into the image, lost into the depths, that when something comes out of it and at them, it’s as shocking and frightening to them as it is to the film’s protagonist.
Martin Scorcese’s Hugo, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity are three other beautifully shot films that are so intrinsically tied to the 3D experience that to watch them in 2D would be as great a blasphemy as watching a colorized version of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity or George Lucas’ original Star Wars sans John Williams’ operatic soundtrack. These films’ raison d’etre is not the telling of a narrative story, but rather the execution of a particular artistic vision.
If there’s a problem with 3D, it’s one of execution and perception, not the technology itself. I am continually impressed by the artful application of stereoscopic imagery in films like the ones mentioned above and also in more genre fare, like James Cameron’s Avatar, and to a lesser extent in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, and this summer’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 by director Marc Webb. There is an opportunity on the part of every working filmmaker to use 3D not as a crutch for Hollywood studios’ tacked-on surcharges but rather as an opportunity to look at the world through the film lens a little differently, a little more dynamically; I’m excited to see what they come up with.
Now, if only we could get rid of those goofy glasses…