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The worrying rebirth of 3D

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How movie studios’ latest cash grab is damaging to the artistry of cinema...

Twin technologies - combining or competing?

Two summers ago, due to my rabid following of its groundbreaking online marketing campaign and the good fortune to click on an innocuous e-mail in my junk folder labeled “Human Resources”, I was one of a lucky few here in Denver, Colorado, USA to win two IMAX tickets to see The Dark Knight in theaters a week before it was released to the general public. After lining up a babysitter and whipping myself into a frenzy of geekiness for several days beforehand, I accompanied my wife to the nearby theater, where the two of us spent nearly three hours witnessing epic storytelling on an astounding scale, assisted in part by the Colorado Center 9’s glorious IMAX screen.

Although IMAX had been a burgeoning technology for several years, it was somewhat slow in receiving the national spotlight, seen by most as only suited for specialty purposes, such as expos and planetariums. Indeed, the technology had been invented and refined since the late 1960s. But the process and inclusion into a movie on the big screen was seen for years as far too laborious and expensive. Not until I sat there on that early summer night in 2008, watching the Caped Crusader on the big (and I mean, BIG) screen, had IMAX truly arrived. The Dark Knight was the first major motion picture ever to use IMAX cameras. And I had never seen anything like it.

The Dark Knight (2008) - an IMAX break-throughAkin to watching films in a theater for the first time after going to the drive-thru for 20 years, the IMAX experience made standard movie outings pale in comparison. Surely, I thought, studios would jump at the chance to harness this new technology on a wider scale. This was it – THE technological filmic focus for years to come. The wave of the future. When I goggled at the hugeness in scope that IMAX offered on that day in 2008, at the near impossibly-intricate detail that its enormous screens could convey, IMAX was the undisputed king of the mountain when it came to cinematic breakthroughs. IMAX cameras were the most sophisticated pieces of equipment ever associated with film, and moviegoers were awash in speculation as to which mammoth franchises in the works, franchises like Harry Potter, The Hobbit, and the next round of superhero movies, were going to be given the IMAX treatment.

How things have changed. Little did I know that only a year after I watched a fifty-foot-tall Heath Ledger chew up scenery as the Joker, the 40-years-in-the-making technology of IMAX would be displaced as the cinematic hot topic by another decades-old technology that had also been given a major makeover: 3-D.

"There are innovations that come along that are generally beneficial to their industry, and there are those that are not. IMAX is beneficial. 3D technology is not."

You’ll notice by the title that I’m not writing this article as an “IMAX vs. 3-D” debate. IMAX and 3-D are not disparate technologies, after all. I’m merely highlighting a point – there are innovations that come along that are generally beneficial to their industry, and there are those that are not. IMAX is beneficial. 3D technology is not. Actually, I should clarify that point. 3D technology is an interesting tool with potential for fun in small doses, while there are those who use 3D technology in such a way that it is detrimental to film as an art form, while its proponents seek to use it as an unabashed cash vacuum of the average moviegoer’s pocketbook.

Traditional red-blue anaglyph 3D viewing glassesThe idea of three-dimensional television or movie viewing has been around since long before my parents were born. It was the early 1920s when the first crude attempts at anaglyph imaging were first rolled out to the general public, that of the blue and red paper eyeglasses motif. For the past 80 years, filmmakers have endeavored to perfect 3-D through a different number of methods – polarization, stereoscopic format, spectrum separation, and the list goes on. But for all the different techniques that individual filmmakers and movie studios have tried in which to create the most realistic and lifelike 3-D films possible, they all have one thing in common.

“3-D” is a fad and a gimmick, a gimmick that has been ostracized from, and crept back into, Hollywood more times than Elizabeth Taylor has tried on a wedding dress. Even the “Golden Age” of 3-D viewing in the 1950s only lasted a few short years. Can you guess what brought it to an end? If you’ve been to a 3-D film lately, you might, but I’ll get back to that in a moment. First, please allow me to run through the quick gamut of reasons that 3-D moviegoers are, quite simply, being duped.

It Came From Outer Space - a popular 1950s 3D outingFirst off, your eyes have been around for a while. They know when they’re seeing something in three dimensions and when they’re not. But most importantly for this particular discussion, they know when something is supposed to be perceived in three dimensions. If you go down to the cinema and watch a standard film, you’re watching the projection of a movie on a flat screen. Height, width, but no depth. Shouldn’t it all be a confused and jumbled mess? With shapes going to and fro, encompassing far too much information for your brain to handle? Obviously, the answer is NO. Through innumerable visual cues, such as color, level of clarity, object size, and distance between objects, your brain just knows what it’s looking at because it has years, if not decades, of experience in observing similar scenes. The film doesn’t need to be truly three-dimensional for your brain to see it as such. 3-D film, in this aspect, is entirely unnecessary.

Okay, you may be thinking, so 3-D is unnecessary. There are a lot of fun activities that people take part in that aren’t exactly necessary. Aren’t I maybe being a bit too harsh towards a silly little toy? Can’t I just let 3-D be a fun alternative to standard moviemaking and leave it at that?

No, I’m afraid I can’t, because the question of expediency in the 3-D debate pales in comparison to what lengths movie studios have shown themselves willing to go to in order to gobble up a piece of the 3-D box office receipt pie. For this, we have that inestimable auteur and self-proclaimed “King of the World” James Cameron to thank. After all, it was 2009’s flawed, but gorgeous, Avatar that kick-started the latest scramble for 3-D viewing opportunities. And anybody who doesn’t think that the option of viewing said film in 3-D didn’t play a huge role in it becoming the highest-grossing film of all time is fooling themselves.

The prime movers behind the 3D revolution

The aggressive marketing campaign that accompanied the epic from Pandora was akin to watching a flood of political ads during a voting year. To say that there wasn’t a single person in the industrialized world that didn’t know that a film called Avatar was coming to theaters, and in glorious 3-D no less, wouldn’t be much of a stretch. It was everywhere, and the money spent to make sure that it was everywhere largely contributed to Avatar sustaining the highest-ever budget for a major motion picture. The costs for marketing and promotion alone reportedly reached $150 million.

As anyone with any knowledge of the film industry knows, Hollywood is very much a “follow the leader” operation. If you have very little in the way of original thought, which is often the case in today’s major film studio world, then the status quo is to simply copy what has been done successfully.

Did a movie do good business 15 years ago? Time to green-light a sequel.

Did another movie studio make a film that you wish you had thought of? Rip it off.

Did one of the biggest directors in the world just harness an 80-year-old technology to unbelievable success? Start using it for everything you’re doing now, and I mean EVERYTHING, whether you initially meant to or not.

And here we come to the next major problem with 3-D. Films are using it that have absolutely no business using it. Say what you will about Mr. Cameron, but he is inarguably a visionary, an extremely hard worker, and a lover of film. Avatar famously took 15 years to conceive and create and Cameron devoted his career to making it everything that it could be, especially when it came to visual beauty. He may have opened Pandora’s Box, both literally and figuratively, but both his conscience and reputation are pretty clear. Despite its plot-related shortcomings, Avatar was breathtaking to behold.

Then there are the filmmakers behind such “masterpieces” as Step Up 3D and StreetDance 3D, who apparently thought it necessary to show 90 minutes of spinning, flailing dancers performing snap kicks straight at the audience as a way to woo more customers to the theaters. When something is used for no reason besides adding nonessential bells and whistles to an existing standard, it is a gimmick. And I can’t think of many things more gimmicky and ridiculous than filming a movie, based on who did or did not “get served”, in 3-D.

"in these cases, converting to 3-D not only added nothing to the experience; it actually made the movie worse"

Clash Of The Titans - criticized for cheap 3D conversionUnless it’s adding 3-D into your film after it’s finished, the lowest of the low pitiful attempts at hijacking your wallet. For this, I point to the two worst offenders last summer in this category – Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender, both films not initially meant to include any type of 3-D transference. Not until Avatar blew box office records out of the water, anyway, and then it was time to get a piece of the action.

Ironically, and probably consequently, both films were colossal critical flops. The 3-D post-conversion process was done so ineptly in both cases that, for example, the experience of watching a massive dragon flying out of the screen towards the viewer looked more like a massive blurry shape resembling a dragon swimming through a dirty pond towards the viewer. Several nationally prominent critics, including Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers and the Chicago Tribune’s Kenneth Turan, lambasted both attempts at 3-D-ifying after the fact as nothing short of feeble, saying that their 2-D versions were vastly superior. That’s right – in these cases, converting to 3-D not only added nothing to the experience; it actually made the movie worse.

This touches on one major point regarding the case against some 3-D movies - their shoddy final products. The “Golden Age” of 3-D in the 1950s that I mentioned earlier eventually ground to a halt for very similar reasons. In those days, the three-dimensional effect was achieved by displaying two dual images from two reels stationed alongside one another. This “stereo” method of 3-D was groundbreaking for its time, but required two projectionists to spool their reels at the exact same time and to keep them running in sync throughout the duration of the film. Failure to do so created a blurry screen image that would invite complaints of eye strain and headaches. Eventually, widespread problems with this dual-projection method led to an end of the 1950s 3-D fad. Fast forward to today’s glut of 3-D selections, where shameless attempts at bandwagon jumping by studios have led to rampant instances of poor 3-D transference, causing widespread complaints by moviegoers about dingy picture quality and headaches. Sound familiar?

"The Last Airbender’s ability to overcome its Ishtar-esque reviews to recoup its costs seems incredible and unexplainable, until you think about what kind of film it is"

Spellbound 3D viewersRegardless, critical disparagement and the occasional viewer gripe takes a back seat in importance to the real reason that 95% of films are made – money. In that sense, Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender did just fine, as far as the studios were concerned. Titans grossed over $497 million worldwide and is currently the seventh-highest grossing film of 2010. Airbender attracted even fiercer critical revilement and is one of the lowest-rated major motion pictures of the year, but even its avalanche of bad reviews couldn’t prevent it from eventually grossing over 300 million dollars and earning a modest profit.

So what does this all mean? What it means is that studio executives might not be able to concoct a fresh and original story if Shakespeare rose from the dead and joined their writers’ pool, but they know a good moneymaking scheme when they see one. The Last Airbender’s ability to overcome its Ishtar-esque reviews to recoup its costs seems incredible and unexplainable, until you think about what kind of film it is…

It’s no secret that children’s movies are infamously invulnerable when it comes to negative reviews, because children aren’t exactly known for checking movie critics’ opinions when it comes to their next trip to the cinema. Every year, a percentage of films geared towards kids are regularly ridiculed by the general public and press, only to gross unfathomably-mammoth receipts because fifty million children dragged their parents to go see it. And why do so many kids come to believe that they need to see these movies? Marketing tie-ins and gimmicks. Like 3-D. When 2010 comes to a close, over half of this year’s major studio 3-D releases will have been geared explicitly towards children.

It’s that little bit of disgustingly-pure capitalism that bothers me about this newest 3-D fad. The executives have conceived a simple equation: ‘3-D + children = money in our pockets’. There are other, concurrent equations, such as ‘3-D + rabid genre fanboys = money’, and ‘3-D + supposed epic = money’. But it’s the equation regarding children that shows the easiest route towards the big bucks, as well as the equation that should be the most troubling to those who view film as artistic expression.

What is the motivation for a cast and crew to create a brilliant and inspired film for children when they are targeting a demographic that wouldn’t know a “good movie” if you hit them over the head with the Oscar you just won for Best Foreign Language Film? The inexplicable continuance of the long-dead Shrek franchise into a fourth painful film, the unnecessary and un-asked-for sequel to Cats & Dogs, the atrocious Alpha & Omega, and the bizarre Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole are all recent examples of the tendency of many filmmakers to be content with troweling out a mediocre product because they don’t have to do any better than that. These films, and films like them, are virtually guaranteed to make tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in profit, regardless of quality. So why break your back when you can do the bare minimum?

"The reemergence of 3-D as a mainstream tool is the greatest thing to ever happen to the half-asser. It is the major movie studios’ gift that keeps on giving – one that will both create and excuse a job badly done"

Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)Why indeed. This question isn’t purely a kiddie flick problem by any means, but extends to all genres and manner of film. It is inevitable that lesser users of 3-D will not strive to bend three-dimensional technology to their medium, but will instead do the exact opposite. No longer will 3-D serve the artist; rather, these hacks will serve the glory that is 3-D. They will begin intentionally constructing movies around the premise that there will have to be a plethora of “gotcha” scenes. The axe murderer will be scripted to constantly throw his axe at the screen. The spaceship will regularly veer towards the camera, laser blasts and all. The goofy cartoon character and his hapless sidekick will find themselves contractually obligated to jump, leap, dive, and pratfall their way into the laps of their receptive preschool audience. Not to advance the story, not as a plot device, but purely so one can see 3-D in actu. Films making use of 3-D will become less a display of artistry and more of a carnival sideshow – all lights and dazzle, but no soul.

All of these things will happen, more and more, to the chagrin of the thoughtful and intelligent slice of the film-loving audience, not because these things will make any sense while happening, but because the 3-D technology will require it. Out will go any sense of realistic moviemaking, in will come adolescent and brainless “whoa!” moments. Why deal with excruciating writer’s block when, if stumped, you can just write in a quickie scene where the creeping monster jumps at the camera for no particular reason? The reemergence of 3-D as a mainstream tool is the greatest thing to ever happen to the half-asser. It is the major movie studios’ gift that keeps on giving – one that will both create and excuse a job badly done. A crutch for the lazy screenwriter.

Avatar (2009)In 2009, the year Avatar was released, there were 12 major releases either filmed in, or converted to, 3-D. That matches the number of 3-D films in the previous seven years combined. The year of 2010 will double that (24 major 3-D releases) when all is said and done. In 2011, there are already 30 3-D releases in various stages of development, a figure that is certain to rise even higher in time. Major motion picture studios seem to be throwing their lot in, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to craft enormous 3-D spectacles that won’t be finished for a year, maybe two or three, and hoping that moviegoers will still be titillated by the experience when they are finally released. The 3-D horse is being backed from every direction with incalculable amounts of money. If it stumbles and breaks a leg in the home stretch for whatever reason, such as a fickle and disinterested public, the fallout will be brutal.

Only time will tell how high the top of the mountain will be, how long the film-going public endures this newfound fixation with 3-D. Cinema has undergone this many times since the 1920s – 3-D crops up to bedazzle a new generation, only to be forgotten in a few years and dismissed as a silly fad. Then, years later, it shows up again to repeat the pattern, ad nauseum. And this is how it should be. Real film, real artistry, stands the test of time. Just as one can admire the breathtaking skill required to paint the Sistine Chapel, or to pen ‘The Odyssey’, hundreds of years after their creation, so can one admire the inspired craftsmanship in a Nosferatu or Metropolis. 3-D in no way, shape, or form could have improved those films, nor any other of the classics. It would have been a distraction, a gimmick. And so it still is. 3-D isn’t the future. It’s a sideshow, its proper place the sidelines, where it can (and will) serve as a notable oddity before the famously short attention span of the viewing public once again sends it on its merry way. Artistry endures, fads come and go, and so too will 3-D, in due time.

After all, the only thing that is sustaining 3-D’s momentum is multi-billion dollar movie studios adding five dollars to your movie ticket, while telling you, the consumer, how lucky you are to have such a majestic viewing opportunity. Remember that the next time you take your child to the cinema and watch 85 minutes of doggy drool and fake vomit being sprayed across the screen in glorious 3D for cheap laughs. What incredible majesty. What genius. What a scam.

 


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