3D or not 3D, that is the question

Philip Berne - Jun 28, 2010
3D or not 3D, that is the question

I like 3D movies. Actually, I should say I like some 3D movies. But if I had to make the choice between making all movies 3D or doing away with the technology altogether, I would gladly kick 3D to the curb and declare it no great loss for art and entertainment.

I remember the first 3D movie I saw in a theater. It was “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.” It was a cheesy, throw-away sci-fi movie, the biggest claim to fame of which is that it was the movie Molly Ringwald did before “Sixteen Candles.” I loved it. I was 8.

Around the same time, the market was flooded with bad 3D. I remember seeing Jaws 3D in the theater, and already I knew the technology was in trouble. Even then, I wondered why no serious movie was being released in 3D. The answer was simple. It was the glasses. It was the headaches, the eye-strain, and the horrible glasses.

There were a few notable attempts to bring 3D back between the early 80s and James Cameron’s “Avatar.” There was a “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie with some 3D scenes tacked on at the end. There were 3D scenes in one of the theatrical versions of the “Superman Returns” redux. In both of these movies, a character on screen or a visual cue would tell the audience when it was time to put on the 3D glasses.

It was a bit distracting. Throughout the whole movie, you’re holding the stupid glasses in hand and waiting for the sign. In “Freddy’s Dead – The Final Nightmare” (not by a long shot, it seems), a character enters Freddy’s mind, where everything is 3D. When she puts on the glasses, you put on your glasses, too. In “Superman,” the filmmakers were not so subtle. Instead, there was a red picture of glasses that flashed on the screen for the brief instance of 3D.

This is precisely the problem with 3D. Movies are an immersive experience, at best. Sure, you might not think that you are the character on screen but, for a couple of hours, their world becomes your world. With the huge movie image wrapping around you, your entire field of vision becomes the director’s vision for the movie. Every sound you hear belongs to the movie world before you. Even when the audience around you reacts to the action on screen, at the best moments that reaction is just a full spectrum mirror of your own internal reaction, which is why comedies can be funnier with a laughing crowd, and why horror movies can be scarier when the entire audience jumps at the same time. The reaction doesn’t destroy the immersion, the reaction amplifies it.

Even the best 3D can destroy the immersion. I’m not going out on a limb saying that “Avatar” was the best 3D movie ever made. It was also, probably, the most expensive movie ever made. And yet, it still couldn’t overcome all of the obstacles of 3D.

3D works by projecting two polarized images on top of each other. The light is filtered in a certain way so that a lens attuned to the same polarized direction will let the image through, but a lens at a contradictory angle will block that light. When you put on the 3D glasses, your left eye can see the intended left eye projection, and it blocks the right eye projection.

You can see the same effect when you look at most cellular phones while wearing polarized sunglasses. Twist the phone a certain way and the image all but disappears. This is helpful when you want to filter out glare on a windshield or reflections off a body of water, but not so much when you want to send a text message.

So, when you go to a 3D movie, you are literally wearing a pair of low intensity sunglasses. That wreaks havoc with the picture. The entire image looks more dim and washed out, with a grey tone.

In a world of hyper-real colors and glowing, rendered scenery, like in Cameron’s “Avatar,” this might not make too much difference, but in fact the movie did suffer a bit for the 3D. Still, it was the best 3D movie I’ve seen, and it was better in 3D than it was as a flat projection. I could come up with objective reasons why this is the case, but I have a feeling it’s more about subjective aesthetics. It just felt better.

I can make objective judgments about why I hated “Alice In Wonderland” in 3D. The 3D was added after the fact. Bits of the foreground were cut out and placed on a moving, perceptual stage, while the background layers moved somewhat differently. The effect was more like watching a puppet show than watching an actual living, breathing spectacle. After seeing that debacle, I swore off most 3D releases. I skipped the 3D version of “Clash of the Titans.” I saw “Toy Story 3” in 3D, but I didn’t feel like it added much to the experience. It was a fantastic film. I think it would have been just as good in two dimensions.

This is the big question with 3D right now. Why bother? Does 3D make movies better? I ask this fully realizing that in 10 years the question itself might seem quaint, like a computer maker in the 80s arguing that 640KB of memory should be enough for everybody. Perhaps 3D is simply the future for all filmmaking, and one day our children will resist seeing old, 2D movies in the same way I, as a child, resisted seeing movies that were in black and white.

I don’t think that will be the case. I think the move from black and white to color, from silent films to talkies, was much more significant. While movies in black and white are certainly stylish and immersive, color adds a world of difference. Sound adds an entirely new sensory experience. If 3D were an equally important breakthrough, then after 20 years of modern 3D filmmaking, wouldn’t most movies look better in 3D?

Just as there are still movies made in black and white for a certain stylistic appeal, I think that 3D will be a style choice for years to come, not a mainstream expectation. The current technology is not good enough. The required glasses break the sense of immersion that is so important in movies. When 3D technology improves to the point we don’t need glasses any more, then I could see the concept growing in popularity.

Glasses present a different problem in the living room. I was at CES for the 3D explosion, and I must admit that 3D on a good, high definition television is much better than 3D on a movie screen. Because you’re sitting closer to the TV, it can throw a brighter image to counter the effects of the dimming lenses. The pixel density makes the image look sharper. But I still think the mainstream will not adopt 3D televisions until we can do away with glasses.

Television viewing at home is a social event. 3D glasses are very anti-social. First of all, they are prohibitively expensive. You can misplace glasses, and even under the best conditions they aren’t as convenient or spontaneous as simply picking up the remote. I have enough trouble keeping track of my remote control, now I need to find my 3D glasses? Even worse, I have to find all four pairs of glasses so that everyone can watch in 3D? It isn’t happening.

Second, wearing sunglasses while watching TV hides your expressions. It separates us from our friends and loved ones, which will make home TV viewing more impersonal. Besides the discomfort and goofy look afforded by the glasses, they disconnect us from each other on a physical level.

There are two notable exceptions here, and these two fields of entertainment drive much of the industry: porn and video games. I think that 3D adoption in the latter will succeed, while in the former it will fail. Without debating the merits or morals of pornography, it’s safe to say that porn is an immersive experience. Viewers are looking to put as little distance between themselves and the action on screen as possible. As much as pornography has the power to drive new technologies, I don’t see 3D catching on in the adult industry. They will try, I’m sure, but I can’t see viewers tolerating the artificial barrier that polarized 3D glasses create. I also don’t see porn spending the time or money to create a high quality viewing experience like “Avatar,” nor do I imagine porn directors will have the artistic ability to overcome these issues.

For almost the same reason, I think video games will succeed in 3D. Gamers are already used to artificial barriers between themselves and the game. The controller, the mouse and keyboard, these are already barriers that gamers overcome. What’s one more? Plus, the nature of game creation lends itself perfectly to 3D. Computers rendering images on the fly are much more capable of creating a 3D environment. Games have always pushed the visual envelope in terms of color, resolution and visual appeal, so the step into 3D would be much more natural for the gaming industry. Finally, games are already multi-million dollar productions. The leap to 3D would add negligible costs.

I know this argument could be anachronistic already. In 10 years, we might be arguing over whether 3D movies should make the leap to full, 360-degree holograms. But for now, all things are not created equal. The 3D viewing experience is not up to the standards of a great 2D movie, and there are few movies that would be greatly helped by a jump to the third dimension. Perhaps the 3D future is here, but it is not very bright.

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