Why I will be more than happy if and when 3D finally goes away
When 3D is finally put in its place - that is to say, its final resting place - rest assured I will be
the first one in line to dance on its grave. I have made no secret of my disdain for the format, on
IGMS and elsewhere, ever since it re-emerged as a "popular" option around 2009, back in those
innocent days when my eyes had not yet been subjected to the darkened blur of Clash of the
Titans or the cheap, high-frame-rate nonsense of The Hobbit.
I've resisted writing a full column on it until now, not because I wanted to ignore it, but because
I have genuinely wanted to give it a bit of time to prove me wrong. But people still ask me what
it is I hate so much about 3D. So here it is.
Truth be told, in the fall of '09 during the lead-up to James Cameron's Avatar, though the likes
of Monsters vs. Aliens and A Christmas Carol had made me skeptical, a large part of me
expected to be converted. In Cameron I trusted. Having been wowed by his technical
achievements in the past, I thought that, if anyone were to finally crack the code, it would
probably be him. Four years later, I remain entirely unconvinced. Twenty years from now, I
imagine filmmakers having some pretty awkward conversations about this little phase of theirs.
"What? You made a 3D movie?" / "I was young … I was just experimenting. We all were! It was
a different time back then!"
In theory, I'm not against 3D, and never have been. The question is whether or not it can, or does
- as Cameron argues it does - redefine cinematic language in a way that makes the technique
indispensible to the story being told. But from everything I've seen so far, that has never been
the case. Not even in the supposedly "good 3D" of Avatar or Life of Pi. Whenever I hear it
compared to the advent of sound, or color, I die a little inside. Especially when it comes out of
the mouths of those I deeply respect (notably Martin Scorsese, who repeatedly made that
argument while making the publicity rounds on Hugo).
Fundamentally, I understand the desire for anyone in the creative arts to want to experiment with
whatever they can; and in recent years 3D has been the new toy with which to experiment. But
even in the hands of great filmmakers, it has yet to innovate and change the way we keep on
being told it will. (The business side is a different story, and it's hard to tell just how much of
filmmakers' supposed enthusiasm for 3D is based on their personal reliance on a studio system
that has been dedicated to pushing 3D as a product.I doubt, for example, that Hugo would have
been made at all had Scorsese not committed to shooting it in 3D.)
The comparisons to sound and color don't hold up to scrutiny. Both of those innovations opened
up drastically new ways for the medium to communicate. With the exception of a few early
talkies that only used sound sparingly, as well as a few modern films that have done the same, no
sound-era films would be possible without that technology. And no film shot for color would be
remotely the same without it. Can you imagine Suspiria without its colors? Or The Wizard of Oz
if the yellow brick road were, in fact, just a pale, neutral shade of grey? With 3D this is not the
case - a point essentially proven by the fact that all movies released in the format are also
offered in 2D versions. If 3D were, in fact, essential to the film, then the two versions would be
fundamentally, radically different. But they're not. I saw, for one example among many, Avatar
in both its 2D and 3D incarnations. One version looks cheesy and artificial; the other looks even
more cheesy and artificial. There's a difference in degrees, but little else.
The British critic Mark Kermode brought up an interesting point a few years ago (video below).
An outspoken critic of 3D, he found himself with something of a dilemma after seeing (and
loving) a 3D screening of Pixar's Toy Story 3. What struck him was how he gradually forgot he
was watching a 3D presentation and simply got involved in the film itself. In other words, it
made no impact (either positive or negative), which begs the question: Then what's the point?
He was faced with something of a catch-22 - the 3D worked, but only by making itself invisible
and completely irrelevant to the experience.
The question of 3D's inherent purpose is one that remains up in the air, even as the format has
peaked in terms of public interest and financial viability. (This summer's box office saw interest
in 3D continue to deteriorate; when faced with a choice between 2D and 3D, audiences are
choosing the former.) The first argument you'll hear is that 3D films are … well, it's something
I'm frankly hesitant to say, being that this is a family-friendly publication. But if you'll accept
the preemptive warning, I'll go ahead and say it: "immersive."
Look, believe me, I'm just as disgusted as you. But I had to get it out of the way. I'll say it again:
IMMERSIVE. Over the past four years, this has quickly become my least-favorite word in the
English language, having been used as a knee-jerk defense (indeed, practically the only defense)
for 3D cinema. There's the prevailing implication that 3D movies wholly envelop us in their
worlds, all because of the stereoscopic illusion of the format. But the fact is they're governed by
most of the same limitations as a 2D film - namely, the frame. Every 3D film still has a top, a
bottom and two sides. We're fully aware of the frame as we're watching - and in fact, the
objects and people floating in space in front of us can create more of a distraction when they
enter or exit the frame. In order for something to truly be immersive the way people claim, not
only would the images themselves have to be more plausible (more on that in a sec), but it seems
to we'd have to be completely surrounded. The image would have to be above us, below us, all
around us. And the images wouldn't just be static - they couldn't look flat - they'd have be
essentially physical presences, existing in 360 degrees, where we would see everything from a
different angle depending on where we're sitting in the theatre. That might make the experience
immersive, in theory. But that's not the case now, nor (to my knowledge) are Hollywood
filmmakers going in that direction. (Douglas Trumbull has talked about some more ambitious
experiments he's working on that sound more along those lines, but we'll have to wait and see
what he comes up with.)
Proponents of 3D like to talk about how the format is redefining film language, but I've yet to
see any concrete evidence to back that up. What they are giving us is simply a more blatant,
more attention-getting incarnation of something (depth) that movies have always given us. Depth
was never missing from cinematic images. Depth is not an innovation; it's something that very
basic photography has been able to capture since the invention of basic photography. When we
watch a 2D film, are we confused about objects' relations to one another? When we see, say, a
man standing in front of a distant mountain, do we assume that the mountain and the man are
occupying the same relative space, and are of the same relative size? When we see Eliot and E.T.
silhouetted against the moon, do we assume that the bike and the moon are in close proximity? It
seems 3D compositions are essentially trying to tell us what we already know. You can interpret
scale and distance perfectly fine in a 2D shot, you say? Oh yeah?! Well check THIS out - now
you can REALLY tell!
But the attempt ends up having the opposite effect. I don't even like using the term "3D,"
because the format offers no plausible depiction of actual, physical space; in fact, it draws more
attention to the fact that we're looking at flat images. Only instead of "2D" images that all
clearly exist within the same physical space, we get floating images, stacked one behind the
other like a pop-up book or something you'd see looking through a View-Master. (Not to
mention that the images often look weightless and borderline opaque.)
I've found myself frustrated by the debate sometime because even those on my side often rely on
the wrong arguments. They correctly argue that 3D movies are headache-inducing, and that the
images are too dark, and that wearing those clunky glasses is annoying. All true, but all are
problems that can (and likely will) be fixed in time. Eventually, we're told 3D will be visible
without the glasses, and filmmakers will find a way to effectively compensate for the loss in light
and color. But even if all of those problems are fixed - even if they were already fixed - that
wouldn't solve the fundamental problem, which is that the format simply doesn't do what it
claims to. There's a defense tossed around that 3D cinema is a logical step because, hey, human
vision is stereoscopic, so why not movies? But anybody who has watched a 3D film knows -
whether they will admit it publicly or not - that the "depth" we see looks absolutely nothing like
our actual vision.
There were a couple of advertisements from a few years back that seemed to perfectly exemplify
this fact, while actually trying to claim the opposite. Consider this commercial for Sony's 3D
It's a funny spot, only it completely disproves its own premise. We're watching the ad in 2D,
and all the images and people look normal, fully dimensional and completely physical. The ad's
punchline is that, once the glasses are removed, everything looks like a flat, cardboard cutout -
which is, in fact, what "3D" images look like, not the other way around.
Here's another one, this time for a Samsung 3D TV:
Again, it's a terrific ad - but it defeats its own purpose. It's arguing for the benefits of 3D, while
at the same time pointing out how utterly unnecessary 3D is.
From time to time, I come across an article making the case for which movies would "benefit"
from a 3D conversion. The correct answer is that no movies would improve from it, in the same
way that no painting would be improve by being turned into a sculpture or a diorama.
I bring up the subject of 3D now because we have two key titles coming up that are putting a
spotlight on the technology once again. While summer blockbusters getting the stereoscopic
treatment is the norm, the fall offers two unique examples. One is, philosophically speaking, an
abomination, and that is the 3D retrofitted re-release of The Wizard of Oz, a film that was never
designed or intended for that type of presentation - a continuation of a trend that is no different
from the colorization of black-and-white movies.
The other example is Alfonso Cuarón's upcoming Gravity, one of my most anticipated films of
2013. Like I have in the past, I will give the 3D version a chance; if I'm proven wrong and
Cuarón has indeed redefined cinematic language as we know it, then so be it. (Note: It must be
said that Cuarón recently said, in joking but seemingly exasperated fashion, that he "hates" 3D,
but that it was simply popular at the time he began making the movie four years ago. Take that
for what it's worth.) But if not - and if even a film set in space can't effectively utilize the
supposed spatial advantages of 3D - then I'm afraid the argument may be over. In fact, maybe it
is already. The move toward 3D televisions has largely been a bust, and various 3D networks -
notably those from ESPN and the BBC - have already announced that they're shutting down for
Film history is exciting because of its constant technical innovations; I would be the first to
celebrate that kind of innovation today. But the great technological achievement of this
generation will not be 3D. James Cameron thinks otherwise, and not only claims that all of film
and TV will be in 3D within the next two decades, but intimates that the format is inherently and
objectively superior. Which is, of course, nonsense. Even cinema's great advancements - color,
sound, CinemaScope - don't pass that test. (In a perfect world, silent cinema, black-and-white
and 1.33:1 aspect ratios would all be fair game. But that's a whole other column.)
But the fact of the matter is that 3D has not offered up the visual possibilities and improvements
its passionate proponents claim. It is a technology stuck in place, offering little but the most
artificial of enhancements. It may be true that, as David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have
suggested, 3D is here to stay, but only as an option, and not as the future of movies. Maybe
that's true. But if trends continue and it falls out of favor completely - just as it has every single
other time the format has popped back into relevance - filmmaking will be all the better for it.
And maybe then we'll start to get some innovations that actually fulfill their promise.