I think I can fix 3D cinema

I’ve just been to see World War Z and in terms of the film itself, it wasn’t as bad as I feared. What made it so difficult to watch, however, was the 3D effect used on the film. I tend to avoid 3D films because I wear glasses and having two pairs on at a time just feels ridiculous. Added to which, there’s some sort of conflict between the lenses and the whole experience isn’t that pleasurable.

As the plot of World War Z doesn’t require that much attention, I spent most of the film trying to figure out exactly what the problem is with 3D cinema in the modern era. This is what I’ve come up with.

Note: This is all based on live-action 3D. Not all of them may apply to animation, particularly computer-animated films.

Problem: Eyes and Cameras focus differently

We all see things in 3D all the time, so why do 3D films feel so wrong? In terms of live action films, I think the problem is to do with the physical properties of cinema cameras. While my eyes do have apertures (we call them irises) they don’t produce such shallow depth of field that things closer to and further away from the object of attention appear blurred. This is a visual disparity that the brain has to overcome with every single shot and adds to the feeling of unreality. This problem is exacerbated by the trend toward shallow depth of field, with a particularly narrow area of sharpness, surrounded by fuzziness front and back.

Possible solution: Deep focus

Orson Welles used it to great effect on Citizen Kane, so why can’t it be put into effect more often in modern cinema? Surely it’s possible to get the whole field of vision in focus? If not, can’t this be an area where CGI is used in order to fake it? It would probably take the effects industry a while to unlearn all the tricks it’s been using for the past few years. In an attempt at authenticity, visual effects houses spend a lot of time and energy trying to replicate the physical flaws in cameras that we as viewers understand as part of the language of cinema. Just have a look at the amount of lens flare in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek for an example. Making things look clear and in focus should be a walk in the park. 

Problem: Tight framing

This is something that affects film generally, in that more and more films are shot like television programmes. Close-ups are getting closer and faces fill the frame, often cutting off the hair and chin during dialogue. This is disconcerting enough when every pore on an actor’s face occupies a square inch of screen, but it becomes even more problematic with 3D. These “missing” pieces aren’t just out of frame, but out of reality. Their disappearance makes the literal image we’re seeing unreal – a floating rectangle of flesh, hovering in front of us – but also throw the mental compensation processes that parse visual information. The brain is already using those processes to translate a series of still images into motion and also deal with the incongruity of camera optics seen in three dimensions through our own eyes. Adding disappearing information just confuses it further. This is mental energy that should be dedicated to immersion, plot and action, but instead is used just trying to process the scene on its most basic level. It’s not just in close ups, either. Long and mid-shots become more difficult to process when limbs disappear into the void.

Solution: Move back

Pull the camera back. Use more of the screen and more space for full bodies. Even full heads would be a start. I’m of the opinion that 3D would work better if it more closely reflected our own experience. I don’t think many of us have experience of making love to a giant, so at least getting back to arm’s length might be an idea.

Problem: Pop-out

To my mind, a lot of the problems with current 3d films are that they calibrate the majority of their 3D in the wrong direction and fling as many elements out of the screen as possible. The fundamental problem with the “pop out” philosophy is that the pieces are going to be incomplete. The most successful 3D elements in World War Z were whenever a helicopter was on screen, simply because it was a complete element that could plausibly be suspended in mid air. These are the things you want to pop out, not 2/3rds of Brad Pitt’s beard.

Solution: Add depth

Rather than trying bring incomplete elements out of the screen, 3D should be used to add depth to the frame, making the viewer want to lean forward and dive in rather than be pressed back in their seat. I will confess that I don’t know how well this would work. It’s one of those things that might get proved wrong straight away when you see it in action, but I feel like a few good things whooshing out at the viewer would be more effective than hundreds of half-baked ones.

Problem: Add-on 3D

Some films are shot in 2D and then are handed to a specialist company who adds in the 3D effect. If you’ve ever seen a film that looks like it was a series of 2D flat layers at different depths, that was probably converted to “3D” in post production.

Solution: Stop doing this

It’s a bad idea to add any intrinsic process after the film is shot. Yes, you can add visual effects and special effects after a film is shot, but adding something inherent in the nature of the film afterwards just never works. Dubbed subtitled film… wrong. Colourised black and white films… wrong. Stop doing it. It doesn’t work.

Problem: Crappy glasses

Watching World War Z was extremely uncomfortable. The post-production 3D was part of it, but the main issue was with the glasses. The Empire Leicester Square is a good cinema and the glasses weren’t the usual plasticky ones that I’ve had at the Peckham Plex. As it turned out, these fancy glasses were really heavy, with a bridge and pads that seemed designed for six year olds. Everyone I went with complained about them and had divots in the sides of their noses afterwards.

Solution: Better glasses

For all their faults, the old red-blue cardboard glasses were at least light. There’s got to be a half-way house between them and the half-pound Cyclops visors we got at the Empire, surely?

Problem: The Wrong Films

Fundamentally, though, the main problem with current 3D cinema is that the wrong films are given the 3D treatment. Budgetary issues, either with filming in 3D or the large amount of post-production required to fake the process, means the monetary investment needed is considerable. This means that the only contenders for the extra dimension are blockbusters – megabudget, effects heavy action films. The problem is that these types of films are perhaps the type least suited to 3D. The entire ethos of the modern blockbuster is to throw as many elements around the screen as fast as possible – confusing at the best of times, but exponentially worse when one adds poorly implemented 3D into the mix. As well as the complex onscreen kinetics, the rhythm of blockbuster editing means that no shot can last more than a few seconds, meaning that the brain has to reorient itself continually on a constant basis, separating the viewer not just from the story (which is often a secondary consideration) but also the experience (which is seen as the main selling point and trumps all other aesthetic and artistic considerations). Rather than being the missing ingredient for the hectic blockbuster, 3D actually works against the rhythm and pace of the action film, taking away from the experience rather than enhancing it.

Solution: Art house 3D

It needs people with visual panache, but who aren’t tied to a particular way of seeing things. It needs reinvention and Michael Bay or James Cameron aren’t the people to do it. (I will confess that I haven’t seen The Hobbit and having had these thoughts I might now go and have a look, even though they sound boring as hell. Still, I will admit that Peter Jackson might just be the man to get 3D done right.)

This isn’t to say that the new wave of 3D needs to be static stage plays. Dredd was one of the few films I wished I had seen in 3D. It felt like it had been made with 3D in mind, using care and attention to make the most of the technique. I felt while watching it that the the slow-mo sequences would actually benefit from the extra dimension and it’s the first time in the modern generation of 3D that I’ve felt anything like that.

Perhaps it’s going to take an entirely new aesthetic and mindset to truly make the best of 3D cinema. Just as silent stars fell by the wayside with the introduction of sound, perhaps 3D will mean that a new generation of film-makers can expand the language of cinema in ways not previously imagined. I suspect it’s going to take a while for the technology to trickle down to the people who can really play with it and make something interesting. By that time, however, I wonder if the studios might have given up, consigning 3D back into the closet for another few decades before giving it another go. Perhaps they’ll scrap the cameras and sell them for cheap, leading to the sort of junk-store technological take up that lead to the birth of dance music. The question then would be a question of exhibition. Studies have shown that people who buy 3D TVs don’t consume a lot of 3D content. People might put on their glasses for a couple of hours in a dark cinema, but don’t seem that keen to do it in their own homes. 3D seems linked to the cinema and this is the aspect that might halt any meaningful development of an arthouse 3D movement. Of course, there’s plenty of people watching crappy 3D movies as it stands, so maybe there’s no need for a reinvention. It seems a shame, though, because for all it’s faults, there’s something about 3D cinema that keeps people coming back, whether they buy tickets or run studios. The question is whether it’s really the next step in the evolution of moving images, or if it’s just another boondoggle along the lines of Smell-O-Vision and RumbleRama.

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