author’s note: i spent several hours writing and shaping the below, only to have this article circulate the Internet literally hours after stepping away from the keyboard: Walter Murch to Roger Ebert regarding 3D. quite frankly says more in less space than i ever could. please read it first if you haven’t already. if you’re still interested in my personal thoughts (which cover a few areas Murch’s letter does not), i have decided to post them anyway.
is 3D better than conventional cinema and television?
not that it matters, but personally i like 3D. i like it, but i don’t prefer it for traditional film. the 3D Muppets thing at Disney World is really fun. i have no desire, however, to watch Casablanca in 3D.
narrative film in two dimensions has established contemporary cinema language, some of which works for 3D, some of which does not. cinema as we know it will primarily remain 2D, at least for a long while. 3D cinema may eventually become something all its own, but at the very least it will exist as a subset — just like opera, musical theater, and dramatic theater are all separate, though similar with regard to production and exhibition.
currently, 3D glasses are awkward, hurt your eyes, and cost extra. converting theaters to 3D requires a digital conversion first, then an expensive add-on setup which will only be occasionally used. post-converted 3D movies don’t really provide a great experience for a myriad of reasons, and films made for 3D often focus more on technical and technique than on story.
watching 3D at home is evolving but is still confusing and expensive. like a theater conversion, it requires most homes to buy a new television, media player, and 3D add-ons. it also still requires glasses for the time being. i’ve long said that until people can watch 3D in their homes without glasses, 3D will remain a gimmick. several companies are working on this, so it may happen sooner than later.
mise en scene
so much of commonly-understood cinema language relies on mise en scene, the construction of the frame — not just the frame in an instant, but the frame as it evolves over time, including movement of the frame, movement within the frame, and montage/editing theory.
as Christopher Nolan points out, a film is three-dimensional.
“The truth is, i think it’s a misnomer to call it 3-D versus 2-D. The whole point of cinematic imagery is it’s three-dimensional. … You know, 95% of our depth cues come from occlusion, resolution, color and so forth, so the idea of calling a 2-D movie a ’2-D movie’ is a little misleading.”
no one imagines they are looking at a flat world. so much of montage theory evolved around trying to clearly establish and navigate a three-dimensional space with the viewer in mind. a director’s choice of shots takes into consideration these foundational geographical principles and builds storytelling and expectations on top of them.
today’s 3D films often try to speak the same language, but use a different voice. imagine trying to sing a lullaby with a kettledrum instead of a clarinet; it could work, but there are certainly other musical styles more appropriate for kettledrum. contemporary cinema language was founded on representing three-dimensional space in a confined two-dimensional area.
take focus. in a 3D film, shallow focus is more confusing than helpful. in 3D, deep focus gives the viewer the ability to explore the different layers just as he would in the real world. if you shoot a scene in 3D, but everything except the actor is out of focus, what’s the point?
a shot from Time to Pass (p./d. paul skidmore, w. Kayla Crockett)
a lot of contemporary cinema language is built around cutting back and forth between multiple locations or shots. the editing builds a pace, a mood, a style. typical editing theory is antithetical to exploring the 3D environment. maybe that will change further down the evolution, but we’re in The Great Train Robbery era of 3D right now. viewers aren’t savvy to 3D and too much going on can lose an audience or, worse, make them physically disoriented and ill.
none of this means 3D is awful or inferior. it just means we’re just in the horse-and-buggy stage right now. and yet, we’re attempting mass transit with this horse-and-buggy art-form. this craft won’t truly evolve until it really comes into its own. trying to hop on the back of existing cinema may be one of the biggest factors really holding back development of some great content, not to mention the establishment of some technology standards.
so what should 3D be?
James Cameron’s concept makes the most sense for 3D — immersive, simulating realism (this is why he also pushes for higher frame rates over higher resolution). think holoodeck. the Terminator show at Universal Studios is a great example, i think. while im not saying 3D should be relegated to theme park rides, i am saying there is a time for an immersive experience.
i can see 3D working very well for a horror movie or even some documentaries. personally, at this point in cinema language, conventional cinema language is much more emotionally affective for things like a romantic comedy or drama.
an HD 3D sporting event at 120fps would give you the feel of being ringside, court side, in the bleachers, on the field. an HD 3D music video that cuts to a different shot or location every four beats would likely make you want to throw up.
so is 3D better than 2D?
is film better than theater? is television better than radio? is an mp3 better than vinyl? is facebook better than personal communication?
i love movies, but love local productions of Drood. i love House, and i love This American Life. i love free iTunes downloads, and i love laying back in bed with the lights out during a thunderstorm listening to Rachmaninov pop and crackle off the vinyl through my stereo speakers. i love quickly sharing info with friends i haven’t seen in years, but i still have coffee with Timothy every week.
is 3D better than 2D? sure. sometimes. but in most cases, i don’t prefer it, and i think most of the movie-going world is in agreement. but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a special place for 3D.
personally, i’ve found my place as a filmmaker in conventional cinema language. that’s where i want to push the boundaries, speak to people’s hearts and hopes, cast a vision for something Bigger than us.
besides, the only 3D film i’ve ever wanted to do was Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and someone beat me to it.