Home > Geek rants > Our New 3D Overlords

Our New 3D Overlords

James Cameron wants 3D technology everywhere, it seems—making the highest grossing film of all time be a 3D extravaganza just wasn’t enough. George Lucas is currently converting the Star Wars saga into 3D, starting with The Phantom Menace, which will hit theatres next year. And then there’s Peter Jackson, who is planning on shooting The Hobbit at 48 frames-per-second in order to make the 3D more immersive.

Where will all of this end?

I loved the 3D in Tangled, finding it incredibly effective; Tron: Legacy, too, made great use of 3D, particularly in an IMAX setting. I may be alone in this, but I found the post-conversion work on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland strangely satisfying in a trippy way, even if the film itself was an insult to Lewis Carroll’s legacy.

But I don’t want everything to be in 3D. Seeing Iron Man 2 in 2D was, frankly, a relief. Do I want Dexter to be in 3D, or Breaking Bad, or Burn Notice?

To borrow a phrase from the recently emasculated Cookie Monster, 3D is a “sometimes food”.

In a way, I think this push towards total immersion for genre films is actually a step in the wrong direction. Just as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would never have been as effective were it shot in colour, many genre films could never work in 3D. Film is film because it’s not real life and isn’t intended to be; genre films in particular are a recreation of our dreams and nightmares, and as soon as you give movies greater immediacy, they stop being dreams and start being real life.

Just as great paintings can be more evocative than photographs, and great black-and-white photography can be more powerful than colour, 2D films can capture the beauty of cinematography often much more effectively than those in 3D. Depth can sometimes distract and detract from the beauty of the image itself. All of these different techniques can be effective in their own way, but Cameron’s dogmatism is off-putting, to say the least.

The choice to shoot in 3D should be based on more than just “3D good, 2D bad”. There are practical considerations, such as how you want the film lit, for example. Beyond that, try to shoot the “leap of faith” sequence in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 3D and see how effective it is. The same is true for many sequences in Labyrinth. Or just imagine the art of M.C. Escher in 3D for a moment.

(Never mind how annoying it is to wear two pairs of glasses at once when you’ve got something like astigmatism, as I do.)

Introduce a higher frame rate, as is the plan for The Hobbit, and you’ve got an even bigger problem: the Soap Opera Effect. The smoothness of motion afforded by higher frame rates causes films to look unnaturally natural, ironically enough.

Newer TVs feature an effect known as motion interpolation which artificially increases the frame rate on material shot at 24, 25 or 30 frames-per-second. The effect is disconcerting, to say the least: everything takes on an eery “daytime soap opera” appearance that actually hurts any suspension of disbelief.

I recently tried watching Superman: The Movie on Blu-ray with this setting turned on. It wasn’t pretty: sets looked cheaper, lighting looked more harsh and acting seemed more hammy somehow. (Ned Beatty’s Otis came out worst.) The low(-ish) frame rate of traditional film gives it an ethereal quality (partly due to motion blur) that allows for greater suspension of disbelief; increase the frame rate and it begins to look more realistic and less like fantasy. The flying sequences in Superman looked like cheap tricks, not the masterful special effects that led audiences to “believe a man can fly” in 1978.

This is not to say that 3D is never appropriate: it can be very effective when the intended effect is a kind of hallucinatory hyper-reality. But The Hobbit, for example, which should feel as if it drifted into cinemas from the mists of time, will have Tolkien’s intent undermined by Jackson’s innovations. Tolkien was nothing if not a traditionalist, and I fear that a 48 frames-per-second 3D epic in his name will turn a small and humble little story into something quite contrary to its spirit.

Am I right about this? Or am I a luddite? Post your comments below…

  1. April 18, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Any time 3D comes up in conversation people say they hate it, it makes then nauseous, it makes them dizzy, it feels like too much “work” keeping the glasses over their glasses and having to adjust to watching something rather than just plopping down and watching it.

    I think it’s rather telling that I have never met anyone who wants to watch movies in 3D after the initial novelty viewing. I certainly don’t.

    • April 18, 2011 at 8:33 pm

      Tangled surprised me in just how good the 3D was—I’ll definitely be buying the 3D Blu-ray. But Cameron et al are kidding themselves if they think people will want 3D just to watch Grey’s Anatomy.

  2. April 18, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    And this was an interesting article about fantasy being made “too real” and ending up looking bad:


    • April 18, 2011 at 8:35 pm

      Zemeckis’ mocap animation is a failure. If only he’d go back to making films like Back to the Future…

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