Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The depth of the matter

Fad or the future?

That question has been posed about every technical innovation from talking pictures to Technicolor to Cinemascope to melted cheese nachos at the concessions counter. And it is a question that has been asked over the past several years about 3D.

My personal opinion on this keeps going back and forth. For most of my life I have seen 3D in movies as a gimmick that wasn’t very satisfying. The cardboard glasses with a red piece of plastic over one eye and a blue one over the other—which was the 3D state of the art in the 1950s and 1960s—did not produce a great quality image and was mostly annoying. My recollection of those days (and I don’t actually remember sitting in the cinema watching that many 3D movies) was that you mainly put up with keeping the glasses from falling off (maybe I just had an odd-shaped head), waiting for something to come projecting out of the screen, like a sword or, memorably in the 1970s, a pool stick held by a s stewardess in a tiny skirt leaning way over a pool table. I don’t think anyone who saw a movie that way ever thought they wanted to see every movie, or even most movies, that way.

But then a few years ago, animation studios like Pixar and Dreamworks started regularly releasing 3D versions of their flicks. But now the glasses were wrap-around plastic instead of cardboard. There was a price to be paid (aside from the significant extra charge collected from the cinema) in that the technology necessarily made the image darker. But the quality was much better than that achieved around the mid-20th-century mark. You could sort of imagine putting on the glasses, if not for every single movie you saw in the cinema, then for many of them. Very quickly it became de rigueur for any spectacle-type movie to be released in both 2D and 3D. The biggest boost for the format came with the release of James Cameron’s Avatar. The 3D aspect was nearly overshadowed by Cameron’s technical achievement in rendering a photorealistic digital world and characters. But the 3D was impressive because the film was conceived and produced to exploit three dimensions. This had two results among discerning movie audiences. On one hand, we could see how well 3D works when it is integral to the filmmaker’s vision. On the other hand, it showed us—by providing a contrast with other movies—how clunky 3D can look when it is retrofitted to a movie after the fact.

After Avatar, I was quite open to the idea of 3D becoming an integral and regular part of my movie-going experience—knowing full well that somewhere down the road I would be pressured to spend money to watch these movies at home in three dimensions as well. But I found my acceptance being undermined by weekly exposure to anti-3D propaganda. As a regular and devoted listener to BBC Five Live’s Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s film review podcasts, I have been listening to Kermode agitate against 3D for some time. He calls it a gimmick that adds nothing to the filmgoing experience and in fact detracts from it because of the aforementioned darkening effect. And, as I listened to his harangues, I had to concede that one of his main points is a valid one. To put it in my own words, our brains do an amazing job of converting a two-dimensional image in three dimensions in our minds—without any help from plastic lenses. And, conversely, when we watch a movie in 3D, our mind does something similar in reverse, that is, we take on board the three-dimensional effect and adjust for it. I’m sure I’m not the only to watch a 3D movie and, the longer it goes on, the more the 3D doesn’t really seem to matter—except in those specific incidences when something pops out of the screen at the audience. (This gimmicky aspect was lampooned to great effect on a skit years ago on the sketch show Saturday Night Live, in which the actors kept pointing things at the camera for no obvious reason.)

But rather than trust my own instincts about the future, I consulted the future directly. I got into the habit of, every time a new movie came out in both 2D and 3D versions, I asked my kid which one she wanted to see. To my surprise, she got to a point where she regularly answered that she preferred seeing the 2D version. Her reasoning was that she didn’t like wearing the glasses. I took this as a sign that maybe this era of 3D movies was mainly going to be seen as another fad, like outbursts of 3D in decades earlier. I had to concede that scenes with a perspective from a great height were just as dizzying in 2D as in 3D. The magic was in my brain, not in plastic glasses.

But something changed a couple of weeks ago. When I asked my kid which version of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo she wanted to see, she quickly said the 3D one. She may have heard me quoting Scorsese and some reviewers talking about how integral to the movie the 3D was. More likely, she was influenced by the source book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik, which has had a prominent position on our bookshelf for some time. Like the resulting movie, it is a love letter to the movies that blends words and images in a new and different way. It creates a world that interlocks in complicated and interesting ways, and I think she and I knew instinctively that the movie would interlock visually in a compelling way as well. And it did. I don’t think either of us questioned whether it was worth the bother and expense of going to a later viewing to get the 3D version.

The same week that Hugo opened in the UK and Ireland, BBC Five Live aired an interview with Scorsese conducted by Mayo and Kermode. And the filmmaker made an enthusiastic and convincing argument for 3D as a format for many if not most or all movies. But his best argument was Hugo. I can imagine most 3D movies as 2D movies, but not this one. I mean, I can, but not as the same movie. If film is a visual medium, then this movie truly works in three dimensions. But that raises the question of whether Hugo proves that 3D is valid as a standard movie format or whether it is the exception that proves the rule. Should conceiving a movie visually always be done in three dimensions? And, if a filmmaker cannot or does not want to approach it that way, should he or she bother making the movie in 3D?

The attraction of 3D for the studios is obvious. They can charge more for a 3D movie and it offers audiences something they can’t (at least not easily so far) experience at home. The question was always whether it was valid artistically. Scorsese has settled that question. How often the format gets used, however, will be decided by the marketplace. History suggests that 3D and 2D will coexist, neither completely supplanting the other. Black and white movies never completely went away when color took over. Occasionally, a movie gets made in the old 4:3 ratio, even though it hasn’t been the standard for years. And, in the future, some percentage of movies will be made in 3D, and some percentage won’t.

Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate it!

-S.L., 22 December 2011

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