Jan 27, 2010

Cinematters: 2D, or not 2D?

That’s barely, at least for me, a question anymore. Avatar was the one; it was the thing that supposed to prove that 3D was more than a gimmick, that it was a whole new way of seeing cinema. Well, it’s a whole new way for Hollywood to make money, but Avatar did indeed prove something; 3D is, now and forever, a gimmick.

In this Cinematters I’m going to consider the current wave of 3D films, and explain why I’m going to be working as hard as I can toward the death of this terrible idea. So, how do I hate 3D… let me count the ways.

1: 3D has nothing to do with storytelling.
Tell me a story that can only be properly told in 3D. Oh, you can’t. Of course you can’t. Cinema is, at the end of the day, a storytelling medium (and before anyone brings it up, that’s exactly as true about documentaries as it is fiction films). We’ve been telling stories since before we had language; what are cave paintings if not the first cinemas? Film allowed us to tell stories in a more immediate, more engaging way than ever before. The shock of the new was such that when the Lumiere Brothers showed their groundbreaking film of a train pulling into a station the audience ran from the screen, thinking that the black and white, silent, picture was real. We’re perhaps a touch more jaded now.

The early innovations in cinema were all about storytelling. Editing allowed directors to cut different shots together, to cut between parallel actions and generate suspense, to miss out large chunks of time. The close up brought us into proximity with actors, allowing us to see their emotions played out bigger than life. Special effects allowed filmmakers (such as Georges Melies, in his classic Voyage to the Moon) to go to fantastical worlds. Sound brought us music, brought us closer than ever to understanding the emotions on screen, because we could hear what was being said all of a sudden, and, more importantly, how it was being said. It’s arguable whether colour (which was being developed even in the early 20th century, but really first became viable with two strip Technicolor) is a storytelling device in and of itself, but there are certain films that are unimaginable in black and white (Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes comes to mind, as does Francois Ozon’s 8 Women) and in those instances colour can be said to be a storytelling device of sorts, because the story wouldn’t be as well told in black and white.

This, in my experience, is simply not true of 3D. It’s self-evident to a degree, because all 3D films, thus far, also exist and are released in 2D versions. So far I’ve seen two films in both 2D and 3D; Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Toy Story, both great films, both massively better in 2D, among the reasons for that is the simple fact that the 3D adds nothing to those films but an effect. Some things pop out of the screen, but at no point is there any story point, or any piece of meaning, that you can only pick up on in 3D.

Not everything that you do in a film has to advance the story, but when something is such a major component, when it is present in every shot of a film, shouldn’t we expect it if not to tell the story then at least to serve the storytelling? 3D does neither of these things.

2: 3D is distracting.
I like physical special effects, things that are clearly real, because they allow me to buy into the reality of a film much more than CGI, which has no physical presence, does. This is one of the major reasons (among many others) that my favourite version of King Kong remains the 1933 original. Willis O’Brien’s stop motion puppet may not be the world’s most sophisticated special effect, but it is real. It’s there, and when it’s fighting that dinosaur the two puppets are actually interacting. Set that against the CGI Kong in Peter Jackson’s bloated remake, and for me 2005 technology comes off much worse. During the CGI sequences I often find myself wondering why the characters seem oddly weightless, why they compositing doesn’t quite work, why this, why that, when what I should be focusing on is the story being told me.

For me, 3D simply exacerbates these problems. By making things appear out of the screen they simply announce their artifice. It hasn’t helped that in films like My Bloody Valentine 3D and The Final Destination 3D the CGI on the 3D effects has been extremely shoddy, but by having it pop out at us it feels even more fake. 3D horror films promise to make you recoil from their scares, make you think, in the case of My Bloody Valentine, that the killer’s pick is going to stab YOU in the face. In all the horror films I’ve seen in 3D that effect has never worked on me, and I’ve never seen it appear to work for an audience.

The big boast of this new 3D process (RealD) is that it is immersive. This is, supposedly, achieved through using the 3D effect primarily not to thrust things out at us but to create depth in the frame, hopefully drawing us in. The depth effect can be impressive (as in the opening scene of Avatar), but again, you don’t need it to tell the story, and again, the very fact that the effect is impressive is proof that I’m seeing it as an effect, which is the antithesis of the promised immersion. I’m not thinking about the story, I’m seeing the effect, so how immersive is that? The other issue is this? Who ever said that 2D movies can’t show depth? Citizen Kane pioneered the artistic use of deep focus, making some shots seem to have tremendous depth and it’s easy to arrange characters and objects in the frame to create the appearance of depth in 2D, in a way that doesn’t shout ‘look at the depth’.

3: When you see a film in 3D, you’re seeing it wrong.
Film is a medium of painstaking visual design, many directors toil over the look of every frame of their work for months during the post production process, and some are especially obsessive about the way the colours in their films are calibrated (Paul Thomas Anderson has gone as far as to include colour bars on his DVDs, to allow consumers to properly calibrate their TV sets, so that his films look as he wants them to look). RealD glasses are dark, they look a little like grey sunglasses, and this creates a big problem. The minute you put on 3D glasses you desaturate the colour of the film by 30%; you are no longer seeing the film that the hundreds of people who made it, notably the director, spent years to make, and crafted exactly as they wanted it, the colours are wrong, pain and simple.

Colour timing is a laborious process, and it seems that, thus far, 3D films have been colour timed for 2D, resulting in overly dark prints when seen in 3D. Disney’s A Christmas Carol 3D was plagued by this issue, with detail often obscured in what was already a dark picture by the desaturation caused by the glasses. I rally hope that, with the decision to go just made and a long lead time, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has 3D specific colour timing done for its RealD prints, because visually the series has trended darker with every instalment and with an additional 30% colour loss I imagine it will be all but unwatchable due to an extremely murky, near monochrome, picture and a muddy lack of detail.

This for me is the biggest flaw of 3D, because if I’m going to see a film then I want to see it as the filmmaker meant me to see it.

4: 3D is still technically flawed.
Some of the teething problems of the RealD process, notably the extreme ghosting which marred the first few releases, have been fixed, but other more subtle problems remain. For me the most distracting is the problem with fast motion, which seems to blur and smear in 3D in a way that it just doesn’t in 2D films, even in Avatar, which otherwise had technically excellent 3D, this problem kept recurring to distracting effect.

The other technical problem is harder to define, and may be a function of having to wear the 3D glasses over my regular glasses (I’m unable to see my own feet without my specs), but there’s an overall softness to the picture, as if there is a thin layer of gauze somewhere between me and the screen, it’s not film grain (largely because a great deal of these films aren’t actually made on film), it just seems to lack the sharpness of 2D.

5: 3D is no more than a way for studios to get more money out of you.
We all have to pay a premium when we see a 3D film (a premium price for a lesser experience, ah, progress). Cinemas have said that this is to pay for the new equipment (a lens) that they have had to buy. Fair enough, but 3D films have been packing them in for over a year now, so that excuse has had its day. The equipment is now almost certainly paid for, and if isn’t, well, 3D sells more tickets per show anyway, so it will pay for itself in short order, whatever the ticket price. However, the premium won’t be going away, especially now that Avatar has become the highest grossing film of all time - a threshold that it would never have been able to cross so quickly without 3D and IMAX ticket premiums. So, whatever the excuse, it is now just an excuse.

3D is also a way to avoid piracy, you CAN make a cam of 3D film (I’ve seen them posted online), but what’s the point, it won’t be in 3D when you sit down to watch it. This is what Hollywood longs for; a reason to go to the cinema. It was why colour became prevalent in the 50’s and 60’s, it’s why widescreen was invented and you can bet they’ll try to come up with something new once 3D comes home. I understand the value of making people go to the cinema, but lets not pretend that 3D has any other purpose. It’s a commercial decision, not an artistic one, not a storytelling one, it’s all about turning red ink black.

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