3D – That thing from the 50s & where it’s going

Most analysts of the 3D trend/gimmick/resurgence/instrument/etc. agree that a movie needs to be created and conceived as a 3D picture and not converted as a retro-fix in post production.  Two recent 2010 theatrical releases, Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland, both were converted to 3D after initial production and, some would argue, were the worse for it.

Despite your opinions on the aforementioned movies, it’s hard to defend their use of 3D as a valuable artistic choice.  Having the 3D aspect of a film as an intentional part of the visual aesthetic from the beginning of the creative process is a key that James Cameron’s Avatar showed was integral to the artistic success of a film.

Take for instance this scene from the Clash of the Titans remake, which is told with impressive technical competence of combat staging and camera placement:

Is this scene any better in 3D?  Simply, no.  With an acknowledgment of the side-scrolling pans used at the 11 second mark and an aerial view shot at 47-48 seconds in, the use of 3D here actually detracts from the cinematographer’s technique to help the viewer comprehend the action taking place on screen.

Even further, take a look at the early shots used in this clip of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland:

The upstage placement of the White Rabbit contrasted to the foreground placement of Alice, along with the out of focus blades of grass, work in conjunction to create an already third-dimensional effect that flows with the natural perception of the human eye on a two-dimensional plane.  In 3D, the blades of grass (still out of focus) are brought to the forefront plane in an ill-advised attempt to further the dimensionality.  But as the human eye comprehends the projected images, Alice now has to compete with large, unfocused computer generated plantation now, which instead of immersing us further into the story, distracts from it.

By contrast, look at the conic-tunnel effect used by the filmmakers of Coraline (seen in the trailer at about the 37 second mark).  Coraline’s entrance into the ‘rabbit hole’ is filmed as a point-of-view shot. In 3D, the effect is enhanced by a perception of depth, only hinted at in the 2D version.

Perhaps this is an indication that animation is where 3D technology is best suited. Pixar and Dreamworks have both committed to producing their animated films in 3D for the future.  Pixar’s Up and, to even a greater extent, Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon both used 3D as an extension of storytelling techniques.

Will Toothless’ flight be – well, toothless when How to Train Your Dragon debuts on home video?

Like Up and How to Train Your Dragon, Avatar is also evidence of filmmakers’ attempts to give flying a dimension of depth not capable in the traditional flat pane surface of regular screens.  But is that arguing against the practice of other types of films in 3D?  How about dramas and romantic comedies?  It raises questions of appropriateness that were first debated even during the advent of color.  Musicals and westerns in full color made sense, but as early twentieth century film critic James Agee noted, a serious drama could never be in color and be taken seriously at face value.  Hmm…

From the 1935 film She

Perhaps the integration into popular and mass culture lies in home viewership.  How well will the $5 extra surcharge to experience a full featured 3D film on the big screen be cost modified in order for people to invest in home systems that claim to offer the same experience on a much smaller scale?  How well will the immersive video-game like quality of such films like Avatar translate to a television that can only truly offer a percentage of the sensory experience?  The investment of 3D in the home probably won’t gain ground until it is integrated into home-console video gaming.

That being said, Sony has completed a firmware update for the PS3 that allows for 3D gaming on a 3D-enable television set.  On top of that, Nintendo just announced the 3DS, their next handheld console, which boasts full 3D for portable and mobile gaming, without the use of any glasses.  Gamers are more likely to purchase equipment that would allow them to be more fully immersed into their virtual world as opposed to a cinephile wanting to fully understand and appreciate the aesthetic quality of an Ingmar Bergman film.

1992’s The Lawnmower Man attempted to bring video game immersion to film

Avatar seems to have emerged as the rare exception as opposed to the norm.  With such a high standard set for 3D technology and craftsmanship set by James Cameron, there is the risk of disappointment and possible backlash when more films like Clash of the Titans purport to be a 3D film experience like that of Avatar and truly only offer nothing more.  Remember, for every How to Train Your Dragon, which arguably validates and adds to the landscape of quality 3D films, there are several Step Up 3-Ds on the horizon.

With Avatar debuting on DVD and Blu-ray, its traditional elements like storytelling, acting, set design, costuming, and direction will be tested to see if the film can have a home shelf life beyond that of its huge box-office run.  Thank goodness Avatar can stand up on those fundamental cinematic levels.

But then again, I suppose that depends on your personal taste and opinion…

-Joseph Gomez