I’d like to share my opinion on 3D movies. Not 3D in the 3D animated sense like pixar movies, but 3D in the stereoscopic sense. Putting on glasses and having things pop off the screen at you 3D.
Much like depth of field, color, aspect ratio, etc. 3D is an aesthetic choice. As an aesthetic choice it is very much a subjective experience. One person might like it, another person might not. There isn’t a definite right or wrong to either side of the discussion. So what follows is not my way of trying to tell you I’m right, it is simply my opinion.
3D is not a new technology. The early 1950‘s were considered the “Golden Era” of 3D. There were some 3 Stooges shorts shot in 3D. Hitchcock shot “Dial M for Murder” in 3D. And yet it never really stuck; it was never particularly successful. Why is that? Is it because the technology wasn’t up to par? Most people would say so. But I think it is something more complex than that.
I think 3D is a gimmick. It’s like a bad visual effect; it calls too much attention to itself. When it works and you are immersed in a movie you won’t notice it. When it isn’t working it takes you out of the movie. I also think the resurgence of the 3D films is a very calculated move by directors and studio execs to make more money. To pull in higher ticket prices. If a 2D movie and a 3D movie ticket cost the same amount I might not be so quick to say that. But they don’t. The most expensive movie I ever saw in my life was a 3D movie. The ticket cost me $18 vs. $12 for a regular ticket. That is a 50% increase in price to buy a 3D ticket. Don’t tell me that isn’t a HUGE factor in trying to push 3D. Plus they get to sell all those nifty digital projectors to all those theaters. And, unless I am mistaken, a 3D movie requires two projectors per screen; one projecting the image of the right eye and one projecting the image of the left eye. And most cinema quality 3D digital projectors will cost upwards of $100,000. Now tell me again with a straight face that the only reason you are trying to push this on me is because you want to enhance my moviegoing experience and because it is SO MUCH MORE immersive than all those old boring 2D movies I used to watch.
For instance, do you remember when you saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for the first time? And do you remember how you said “Well that sure was good but I would have been so much more drawn in if it has been more 3D”. Of course you didn’t. Because in your mind, as you watched it it WAS 3D. That is what artists have been accomplishing for thousands of years. Giving the illusion of depth in a 2D medium.
Why did artists continue to paint after other artists started carving sculptures? Why would they do that when clearly a sculpture is more lifelike than a painting? It has three dimensions; you can even touch it! Why then did Leonardo Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa when he could have sculpted her just as easily? Despite the fact that it is in three dimensions, a sculpture isn’t superior to a painting. They are two entirely different mediums.
Painting isn’t a medium that needs to be improved. It doesn’t need to be upgraded or enhanced. If you could put on a pair of 3D glasses and Van Gough’s self-portrait would pop out of the canvass at you, would that make the painting better?
Then why is it that people insist that if I put on this pair of glasses to make the images artificially pop off the screen it will suddenly become more lifelike and immersive?
If it’s truly all about immersion why stop at the eyes? Why not implement smell-o-vision in every theater? What about D-Box, the custom designed movie seats that pitch back and forth to add that much needed whiplash to the movie-going experience? Aren’t those immersing you more in the movie? If not, why not?
George Lucas is converting all his Star Wars films to 3D. When asked about it he said: “Moving from 2D to 3D is like the difference between watching a film in black and white and watching a film in color. It works in black and white but it works better in color.”
I say that is complete nonsense. And I can prove it. Take a look at this image from “A Touch of Evil”. It is black and white and it is 2D.
Now tell me: what color is the wallpaper in the background? What color is Orson Welles tie? Can’t say? Ok, how about this then. Point to the characters in the picture starting with the closest and ending with the farthest away. That was a little easier wasn’t it. The reason of course is that a black and white image has no color information at all. Not even any hints or clues to speak of. Orson Welles could have a fluorescent orange jacket on and you wouldn’t know. On the other hand, the picture has loads of depth information. The size of the people on the screen, their height in the frame, parallax, the way they overlap each other etc. are all depth clues that our brain processes instantly and automatically. Christopher Nolan (who isn’t a huge fan of 3D) says: “You know 95% of our depth cues come from occlusion, resolution, color and so forth, so the idea of calling a 2D movie a ‘2D movie’ is a little misleading.” In a regular 2D movie, depending on how you shoot a scene some information may not be present; maybe there is no color, maybe there is no camera movement. But there will always be depth. And the better the cinematographer, the better the illusion of depth. Converting a 2D movie to 3D is trying to artificially add information that is already there. It’s completely unnecessary. When you shoot a movie in color the color you are seeing in the movie is the same as color you see in real life. The depth you see in a 3D movie however is artificial; a poor and sometimes nauseating reproduction of actual depth. The other important point to make is that even a black and white movie which is missing a vital component that we experience in real life doesn’t suffer because of it. Did you ever watch A Touch of Evil, To Kill a Mockingbird, Sunset Boulevard, Raging Bull, Psycho, or Dr. Strangelove and think “this would be so much more immersive with color”? I don’t think so.
Don’t get me wrong I’m not calling to abolish all 3D films. 3D has its place. If you like 3D and want to go see a stereoscopic film this weekend, go for it. The problem though is that it is being forced on theaters and on movie audiences. Many theaters are told by studios that if they don’t show a movie in 3D, they can’t have it in 2D either. This is a big problem for little theaters that can’t afford to upgrade to the uber-expensive digital projectors. That means that some of the biggest summer blockbusters may not be allowed to play in their theaters and they lose all those ticket sales. Many directors have also told stories of how they didn’t want to make a 3D film but the studios forced it on them. The results have been something of a disaster.
3D, like black and white or anamorphic is a different look but Hollywood is trying to make it into a magic bullet to be applied to every film. I love black and white movies, but would black and white be appropriate for every film? Would anamorphic? Then why are we trying to push 3D on every film? Ridley Scott said he would be shooting all his films from now on in 3D. Martin Scorsese, whose opinion I respect very much hinted that he would be doing the same. Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh have both talked about making intimate dramas using the 3D format. Even The Great Gatsby is being made as a 3D movie. Why?
Directors and studio executives constantly cite poor theater attendance as the reason for 3D. “We need to make films more immersive” they say “so that people will start coming back to the cinema”.
They are 100% wrong.
Right now, in the current economy, 3D is actually driving people away from the theater. Not towards it. People can’t afford to bring their kids to the movies at $18 a ticket. I know I couldn’t. But I can tell you the solution to the problem and it doesn’t require millions of dollars of extra camera equipment and it doesn’t require spending millions of dollars at at VFX house to do a conversion. It’s quite simple; movies need to tell better stories. Directors need to become better storytellers. Producers need to be more discriminating in the films they greenlight. Less sequels. Less remakes. More original content. Adding a little parallax into your shot and slapping on pair of 3D glasses isn’t fooling anyone. The Last Airbender was just as bad in 3D as it would be in 2D; most actually say worse. People don’t want to go to the theaters but it’s not because they aren’t immersed in the depth of the images on screen; it’s because they aren’t immersed in the characters and the story.
“A good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with.” – Walter Murch
Walter Murch – 2 time academy award winner, 5 time nominee:
Why ‘3D’ Will Fail… Again – This article is a little more technical but worth a read: