Why Should Filmmakers and Critics Rethink 3D?

Todd Kushigemachi

Whether we know it or not, our brain can pick up on the falseness of the 3D image if it’s not successfully tricked.

At the Tag DF technology forum in Mexico City last July, director James Cameron publicly slammed Hollywood’s abuse of 3D. Neither Iron Man 3 nor Man of Steel needed to be converted, he argued. Cameron has always been a vocal critic of films converted to 3D in post-production, and he is certainly not alone. However, unlike many of 3D’s opponents, the Avatar director could clearly explain why he thinks the 3D does not work.

Simply put, 3D is not being discussed intelligently in mainstream media. Most stories about 3D technology simply ask whether or not the stereoscopic upgrade is worth the extra money for a particular movie. Critics assume the technology to be a cash-grab or a gimmick, and there is some truth to those accusations. However, many of the critics who have already made up their minds are the very ones with the cinematic literacy and vocabulary needed to effectively engage discussion about 3D. Instead of continuing to see 3D as a perversion of film, more critics should think about the technology in medium-specific terms. Hollywood might not be tapping into 3D cinema’s unique potential, but as long as we don’t know how exactly 3D works, they don’t need to know, either.

In The Classical Hollywood Cinema, film scholar David Bordwell theorizes about four decades of cinema by evaluating aesthetic norms. He underlines the theoretical significance of “the ordinary film” because film historians tend to focus on exceptional works. It is precisely this unwillingness to consider “ordinary” 3D films that weakens 3D criticism. Cinephiles and critics take notice when Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog use 3D, but they do not care how Jackass and Glee: The 3D Concert Movie use the technology.

By considering all of the live-action films released in 3D in the summer of 2013, those shot in 3D and those converted to 3D, one can begin to understand the real issues. There are a number of myths and misconceptions that shape how 3D has been used and talked about. A better understanding of 3D on industrial, textual and perceptual levels can lead to a smarter, more artful 3D experience

The Myths of Post-Production Conversion

Cameron is possibly the most visible opponent of post-production 3D. Ironically, he oversaw one of the most effective conversions to date: last summer’s 3D re-release of Titanic. Critics are quick to dismiss films converted in post-production rather than shot using two cameras, one camera for each eye. However, these writers tend to blame the quality of the conversions or 3D technology in general. Often, the problems have more to do with exhibition or the suitability of the material.

Converted by Stereo D and Venture 3D under the supervision of Cameron himself, Titanic points to labor and resources as serious issues for 3D movies. Cameron and his partners had the luxury of working with a fixed cut. Typically, 3D vendors must convert footage while the movie is still being finished. As a result, some of their conversion work ends up on the cutting-room floor.

Without a tight deadline or labor wasted on unneeded conversion work, Stereo D and Venture 3D had the time to carefully sculpt the contours of Jack and Rose’s faces. In terms of time and resources, Titanic 3D is an exception to the rule, but its artistic success implicates context rather than conversion as the actual problem. Critics seem to think 3D conversion is an instantaneous process, but their superficial dismissals efface more complex issues of labor.

Even if a film is successfully converted to 3D, poor projection can undo that work. Critics point to dark and blurry images as evidence of a poor conversion. Forbes contributor Seth Porges suggests the superiority of The Great Gatsby’s native 3D, parenthetically suggesting how “dimness and blur are common sins of 3D filmmaking.”

However, dimness and blur are actually sins of 3D exhibition, not 3D filmmaking. Theater owners turn down the bulbs in their projectors to ensure they last as long as possible. While it’s true that The Great Gatsby features some stunning 3D, it’s equally possible that Porges might have simply seen a 3D movie projected correctly for the first time.

Rather than post-production conversion, exhibition might be the most serious issue for 3D today. In his review of The Avengers, Joe Morgenstern criticized ArcLight Cinema, a respected California chain, for poor maintenance of its battery-powered, active-shutter glasses.

Rather than simply dismissing the 3D technology as inherently flawed, Morgenstern discusses the specific factors that can affect 3D quality. Dealing with the issue of exhibition will be incredibly advantageous to both sides of the issue: Audiences won’t waste money on poorly projected 3D, and the increasing quality of 3D conversion work can be appreciated.

With exhibition issues and overwhelmingly negative press affecting its perception, post-production 3D has not received a fair trial. In the discourse of 3D, there is a rigid binary between great native 3D and evil conversions. However, a closer look at a film like The Great Gatsby suggests that the line between these two different techniques is not so clear. In fact, The Great Gatsby features a good deal of 3D post-production conversion, done by the company Prime Focus.

Consider the stereoscopically enhanced archival footage at the beginning of the film or the sweeping shots of digital buildings. Like so many studio blockbusters, The Great Gatsby boasts a great deal of computer-generated visual effects. With so many of these films conceived and executed using computers, native 3D might not always be the best option or, more accurately, an option at all.

Further blurring the lines between native 3D and conversions, The Great Gatsby demonstrates that regardless of the technique used, 3D can suffer without a medium-specific visual syntax. Particularly in the first act, director Baz Luhrmann employs a great deal of rapid editing, which is far from ideal for 3D. In reality, our vision is continuous and free from “cuts”, so with each edit in a 3D movie, our eyes and brain need time to readjust.

Whether we know it or not, our brain can pick up on the falseness of the 3D image if it’s not successfully tricked. Filmmakers should be aware of these phenomena during production to create effective 3D movies. Even though The Great Gatsby was shot in 3D, its editing often renders the third dimension ineffective. Critics of 3D tend to be more focused on the mode of production, but in truth, they should be thinking about visual aesthetics.

The Myths of Action in 3D

Many of the films converted in post-production happen to be of a genre that generally does not work in 3D, such as action-heavy blockbusters. Audiences might be quick to assume that action and disaster are perfect for 3D, simply because these are the films that studios tend to release with the stereoscopic option. For the studios, 3D action flicks represent an opportunity to increase box office grosses and also foster the sense of an experience, essential for international success.

However, 3D does not work effectively when applied to the cinematography and editing of contemporary actions films. In fact, action filmmaking and 3D tend to undermine each other. 3D exacerbates the problems of action film aesthetics, and the chaotic visuals render the stereoscopic illusion ineffective.

Because our eyes are only so far apart, humans can only perceive a limited amount of the world in stereo depth.
In a series of visual essays, UCLA film scholar Matthias Stork coined the term “chaos cinema” to describe contemporary action aesthetics. Many of today’s blockbusters are shot and edited with little sense of spatial logic. Because of this trend, 3D is a particularly odd fit for action films. This is incredibly apparent in the early scenes of World War Z. Director Marc Forster proved unable to stage a coherent action scene in 2008’s Quantum of Solace, and similarly, the early scenes of mass destruction in his zombie tentpole have no sense of visual clarity.

These sequences rely on fast editing and tight framings. As discussed with The Great Gatsby, quick cuts prevent the brain from properly registering the illusion. 3D relies on a sense of space, but in most action films, there is no space.

Chaotic visual style is also apparent in R.I.P.D. Whip pans, quick zooms and fast cuts suggest that the film was not originally conceived for 3D. With both World War Z and R.I.P.D. , the primary issue is not necessarily the quality of the conversions but rather the movies themselves.

To be sure, R.I.P.D. boasts a few shots with effective stereoscopic depth. When Ryan Reynolds’s Nick first enters the building where he dies, the camera follows officers from behind in a relatively fluid camera movement. The film’s slow motion sequences also works incredibly well in 3D. These fleeting moments don’t redeem the decision to convert the film, but they reveal the quality of 3D conversions in spite of the movies and also point to what an effective 3D action film style could look like.

The issues of 3D action films run deep, even affecting films with a strong sense of space. Iron Man 3 features some of Marvel’s most impeccably staged action scenes to date. Tony Stark’s escape from Aldrich Killian’s cronies with only parts of his suit is a kinetic experience. The scene works primarily because of the editing by Peter S. Elliot and Jeffrey Ford, which skillfully orientates the viewer.

When the Soviet filmmakers of the silent era championed “montage”, they were thinking about medium specificity. They argued that film was unique precisely because of its ability to put two images together for a visceral effect. Action sequences in Iron Man 3 work well in 2D because directors and editors have experience putting images together. With 3D, filmmakers need to be thinking about how to juxtapose spaces rather than images.

The Myths of the Big in 3D

If filmmakers begin to think about 3D as an art of spaces, they also need to think about what sort of spaces work best. An understanding of human perception points to other common problems for Hollywood blockbusters in 3D: large-scale destruction and gigantic creatures.

More summer blockbusters are being released on IMAX screens, a large-screen format historically used for science documentaries. To studio executives, IMAX and 3D might seem a natural match, both offering experiences that cannot be replicated at home. But in reality, big objects and vast spaces are undercut rather than strengthened by 3D.

With The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan demonstrated how Hollywood blockbusters could and should take advantage of the full IMAX screen. More than 60 feet tall, real IMAX screens overwhelm audiences with their scale. This potential virtue is inherently undermined by 3D’s tendency to miniaturize. Our stereoscopic vision results from the disparity between what our left eye sees and what our right eye sees.

Because our eyes are only so far apart, humans can only perceive a limited amount of the world in stereo depth. We only see people and objects approximately within 20 feet of us in 3D, and everything else we parse through using other visual cues: the relative size of objects, linear perspective, etc.

This limitation of human perception has implications for how we perceive 3D movies. As some have suggested, 3D can turn a giant screen into a small window. Instead of a 76-foot image of a person, we see the three-dimensional illusion of a six-foot tall person. Star Trek Into Darkness features a great deal of footage shot on IMAX cameras, so these scenes fill the gigantic screens. But by converting the film to 3D in post-production, the film missed a great opportunity to capitalize on the IMAX screen’s size.

Just as 3D can “shrink” a large screen, the third dimension proves ineffective with large creatures and objects. If a large object is artificially rendered with stereoscopic depth cues in post-production, our brain assumes the object is within 20 feet of our vision. Instead of seeing a large spaceship or monster, our brain perceives small models sitting in our reach.

3D conversions have become increasingly sensitive to the issues of miniaturization, but the temptation to “over-convert” can be found everywhere during the summer. There are the Cyclops and Cronus in Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters. There is the Silver Samurai in The Wolverine. And most prominently, there were the kaiju and the jaegers in Pacific Rim.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is not the best candidate for 3D, precisely because it boasts battles between large monsters and large robots. However, the movie demonstrates how a film about monsters could still work in 3D. The movie uses many “tight” shots in the fighting sequences, focusing on just the head or chest of a giant monster. Converted to 3D, these shots allow the viewer to see what this machine might look like up close and personal. For some frontal close-ups of the kaiju, the viewer experiences the illusion of staring down the monsters’ throats.

This strategy follows in the footsteps of Universal Studios’ Transformers: The Ride. The excellent theme park attraction similarly relies on Transformers and Decepticons rendered in 3D as if they were fighting less than ten feet away from us. Large robots might be not be ideal candidates for 3D conversions, but a careful consideration of the relationship between visual aesthetic and content could lead to an enhanced (and not miniaturized) experienced.

Cameron was right to criticize the 3D conversion of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. The movie’s climactic destruction of Metropolis features both chaotic aesthetics and large-scale destruction, neither of which is ideal for 3D. The film’s 3D was particularly disappointing because Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole worked so well in 3D. Rather than shrinking the Big, the movie magnified the Small. With floating feathers, flying owls and slimy worms, the movie benefited tremendously from the stereoscopic illusion. The technology immersed viewers in a world that humans cannot otherwise experience, a world generally too small for us to see. If Pacific Rim suggests how to meld form and content to depict the Big, Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians suggests how Hollywood could benefit from a shift to the Small.

The Myths of 3D’s Death

In the early days of cinema, theorists such as Hugo Munsterberg, Rudolf Arnheim and Siegfried Kracauer tried to develop medium-specific ways of thinking about film. They wanted to free film of its relationship to theater and write how the art could differentiate itself.

Today, more critics and scholars should be thinking about 3D on its own terms. For several years, the technology’s most passionate critics have taken comfort in the likelihood that 3D would simply go away, die like it did in the ‘50s. But with ever-improving technology, stereoscopically enhanced entertainment is likely here to stay, at least for a little longer. After first accepting this reality, contemporary thinkers can begin to think about how to tap into 3D’s potential.

While it’s easy to praise the exceptional native 3D work by Ang Lee and Peter Jackson, there’s also quality work being done in unexpected places. Converted in post-production, James Mangold’s The Wolverine is mostly made up of intimate conversations in medium close-up. With a quality conversion by Stereo D to boot, the movie proved incredibly powerful in 3D. Although the film has a number of chaotic action sequences, The Wolverine primarily focuses on the titular mutant’s psychological drama and his relationship with the people around him. In real life, we see the greatest stereoscopic depth not with large machines but with the people standing right in front of us.

Early writers such as Kracauer and filmmaker Germaine Dulac championed the close-up as one of the film’s greatest tools. Similarly, filmmakers can benefit from thinking about 3D’s unique capabilities.

Todd Kushigemachi is a Master of Arts student in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies program, and his primary research interest is the invisible labor of post-production 3D conversions. He received his Bachelor's in Journalism at Northwestern University, where he also minored in Film and Media Studies. He has written features and news stories for various publications including Variety and TV Guide Magazine.

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