Editorials, Everything Else — April 23, 2013 at 3:00 pm

ALL CINEMA HAS DEPTH!

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Avatar-001I have lived on the fence about 3D ever since … well, since Avatar.  The film was spectacular from a technical standpoint – it was bright and shiny and very pretty to look at and did some remarkable things with motion-capture.  It was also Dances With Smurfs attached to some pretty questionable ‘white Messiah’ undercurrents and a healthy dose of rewritten history.  Which kind of killed the whole project for me.  But despite Avatar’s lackluster plot, it was certainly a remarkable and influential technical achievement.  What it launched, however, was the notion that everything has to be in IMAX 3D On Ice.

3D and motion-capture were Avatar’s raisons d’etre – without the shiny distractions, the film is fairly predictable and banal.  The world-building that Cameron managed was impressive because it seemed so real – but as a work of artistic merit, it fell flat.  The medium remained nothing more than an attractive gimmick.  It has now begun to slowly transform into something more, as we stop obsessing over things popping out at us and begin to demand more cohesive storytelling and cinematography tied with the new technology.  Some 3D films do not really need the 3D (The Avengers) ; others make very interesting use of it (Hugo).

Then there’s Jurassic Park in 3D.  Joining the trend of re-releasing older films in a new format, Jurassic Park certainly wins the award for taking a beloved film, repackaging it, and giving us the chance to enjoy it over again.  The theatre I saw it in contained myself and a friend, seeing it for the umpteenth time, and numerous little kids who probably were seeing for the first time.  I cannot argue with giving the younger generation a chance to see such an influential and incredibly entertaining film on the big screen.  The post-conversion, which I continue to view with skepticism, actually looks quite good – very little of the dark, squinty, ‘what are they doing now?’ experience that made Clash Of The Titans impossible to even enjoy from a technical standpoint.  But despite the excellent post-conversion, I was intrigued by the problems of taking a film shot in one format and then transformed into another.

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This screencap was necessary to my argument.

Jurassic Park was filmed long before 3D was viable option.  As an action film, it is second to none, combining still convincing special effects with live action performances. There’s nothing lost in the conversion – the dinos are still amazing, the plot still punchy. And I have no complaints about getting much closer to Jeff Goldblum’s bare chest.  But it points up the problems of taking a film intended to be seen in 2D and turned to 3D.  The close-ups are at times invasive – I enjoy Sam Neill, but having his face right in mine began to get a little disconcerting, and not in a good way.

In 2D films, the director and cinematographer make a choice about where the camera will focus and on what character.  The same is true for 3D, but because it adds another visual dimension, the viewer’s eye will try to focus and refocus on backgrounds and foregrounds that the limitations of the camera will not allow.  The result is somewhat discombobulating, as though there is something wrong with our eyes when we cannot manage to refocus.  In converting a 2D film to 3D, the effect is even worse than if it were originally shot in 3D, because deep focus was not the rule in the original photography.  The 3D actually makes the scene look less deep as it becomes obvious just how two dimensional the original shots actually are.

For years there were directors and scholars arguing for the concept of the camera as an eye – an eye through which we are all asked to look, and experience.  The camera will never be able to do everything that the human eye can do, but with 3D our films come that much closer to behaving the way our eyes do.  We can produce movies now with surprising depth of field, dwell on close-ups and long shots that Orson Welles (in his deepest-focus-iest) only dreamt of.  That issue has to be taken into account as we make movies.

The close-ups in Jurassic Park made me a little uncomfortable because their effects were not intended – but I can imagine a deep drama succeeding in making use of that discomfort, or utilizing an implied intimacy with an actor’s face, to remarkable effect.   I’m pleased that 3D has already begun to move away from the cinema of spectacle.  Hugo at the very least gave us a more complex vision of what 3D is capable of.  So did Herzog’s Cave Of Forgotten Dreams.  Films like The Avengers or Green Lantern fail to contribute much, but they do reinforce how impressive 3D can be.  I want to see 3D taken further away from the big cinematic spectacles and to smaller, more emotional stories.  While that will likely not happen until the technology becomes more affordable, it’s an intriguing prospect.  I’m done with being impressed by big set pieces.  I want to see what this camera can really do.

6 Comments

  • Glad to see someone else that doesnt believe Avatar is like the greatest piece of modern cinema or whatnot. Sure it looks pretty and Cameron does good with some of the technicals, but the story is garbage and the movie greatly suffers for it. I find it to be one of the most overrated movies of the past decade.

    Onto the subject, I’m done with 3D. I see no real use for it dramatically speaking and its becoming annoying at this point as just a gimmick. Sure there are exceptions, but on the whole its proven useless really.

  • I recently had this very discussion with one of my more film-savvy friends. I side with you- I want there to be a purpose to 3D beyond “HOLY SHIT LOOK AT THAT THING FLYING OUT OF THE SCREEN AT ME!!!” His point was that the spectacle is precisely what he’s paying for when he purchases a 3D ticket.

    I was kind of a grouch about 3D with stuff like Avatar (which might as well have been written by a 12 year old but somehow gets a pass because of the visual effects), but Hugo actually really turned me around on it. It certainly had moments of spectacle (the opening sequence) but by and large, it simply added subtly to the visuals and helped bring the world to life.

    The post conversion thing is another problem. I can’t speak to the quality of it, but it reeks of a cash grab every time post conversion is used. It bugs me.

  • I appreciate your thoughtful argument. I still avoid 3-D films whenever possible because of the surcharge.
    Your screen capture makes me want to see Jurassic Park on the big screen. Funny; my husband just saw the 3-D version but failed to mention Jeff Goldblum’s shirtless scenes.

  • Having just seen Jurassic Park 3D, I look at the up-conversion like John does; as little more than a money grab. It detracts from most stories (except for in JP3D when the raptor jumped into the ceiling). Otherwise I, like you, found myself wondering if we were meant to see so many of Dr. Grant’s pores.

    I am not of fan of 3D, though some movies like Avatar do it better while most others make it a blur of fuzzy booms that I’ll have to go re-watch in 2D to find out what happened. Funny thing is, I have an IMAX pass which gets me into all major releases, both 2D and 3D for only $5, so by default I’m always watching the 3D version even though I’d prefer the 2D.

    The idea of using 3D for more expressive storytelling is an exciting one. Using the medium to establish emotional distance and longing could prove far more groundbreaking than the plight of lanky smurfs with USB-enabled sex braid.

  • Normally I’m very anti-3D. If a movie is released in both formats, I will go out of my way to see the 2D version and enjoy it all the more because I know I saved some money and am seeing the same movie just without the gadgets and whistles.

    HOWEVER, Jurassic Park 3D was amazing. The extra dimension, if you will, took me to a place that I had never experienced before, even though I’d seen the film roughly 68 times. It impacted me in ways that I had never thought of before. This was 3D used to a great effect and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to check it out in this manner. (Also, the IMAX helped a bunch too – god, it was incredible!)

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