The Extra Dimension

A couple of years ago, when studios began to announce more 3-D films, you could have counted me among the skeptics. After all, we had been down this road before. In the early 1950s 3-D movies were one of many attempts by film studios to compete with television. The trend did not last long. For the most part 3-D was a gimmick used for cheap exploitation films. Some samples noted by a recent New Yorker article include Bwana Devil, Black Lolita, Supersonic Supergirls, Those Redheads from Seattle, and Taza, Son of Cochise. Another 3-D entry was The French Line, starring the very busty Jane Russell. It had the tag line “It’ll Knock Both Your Eyes Out!” (As if there was any doubt what the movie was selling).

I had my own experience with 3-D during its brief comeback in the early 80s. Thankfully it was not Jaws 3-D. No, my dad took me to see Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. The best I could say about that film was that it was watchable, at least for a ten-year-old. Certainly there was nothing about it to make me think that I would be seeing more 3-D in the immediate future.

Based on the 3-D track record. I had every reason to believe that history would repeat itself. In the 1950s studios wanted to take audiences away from their TVs. In the 80s it was their VCRs. Now it was their DVD players and advanced home theater systems. It failed before, and this time would be no different.

Except it was. In 2009, 3-D films accounted for 11% of the total box office. That’s $1.1 billion in ticket sales, a 375 percent increase from the year before. At one point in early April 2010, 3-D films had finished #1 at the box office for 12 out of 16 weeks. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that James Cameron’s 3-D epic Avatar set new box office records. Given that, as the old saying goes, imitation is the greatest form of Hollywood, we can expect more to come. The next Toy Story movie will be in 3-D, and so will the third Men in Black entry and the next Ring movie, the next Spider-Man and the Alien prequel. Oh, if you think 3-D is confined to sci-fi and franchise films, think again. The great Martin Scorsese has announced his plans for a 3-D adaptation of the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

The bottom line is that 3-D is here to stay. With this realization comes the inevitable fears. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, “even as Hollywood goes z-axis crazy, many directors and writers are questioning the stampede... they point out that 3-D will affect much more than whether a filmgoer picks up a pair of glasses: It will change what films get made, and even the very nature of cinematic storytelling.” The New Yorker quotes one film scholar opining that someday “the very mention of 3-D will disappear from posters. At some point in the near future, you will go to see a ‘flattie’ for nostalgia’s sake, just as you sometimes watch black-and-white movies on TV today.”

First of all, people don’t see black-and-white movies for “nostalgia,” they see them because the ones that stand the test of time are excellent films. The same will hold true for 2-D films. However, since 3-D has staying power, the comparison with the advent of color film is valid. When color films first started popping up in the late 30s, it was for epic or fantasy films such as Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz. It expanded gradually in the 1940s, with musicals such as Meet Me in St. Louis also going that route. By the 1950s (again, as a way to combat television) color became more common, but it wasn’t until the late 60s that color became standard. In other words, it takes time for this type of shift. In the case of 3-D, it also takes money. Many theaters still aren’t equipped to use this technology. So while 3-D will continue to grow, 2-D is not going away just yet. I don’t think we will be seeing 3-D entries at Sundance for a while.

Some of the other fears are redundant. Another Los Angeles Times article predicated that 3-D would dampen the power of movie stars. Screenwriter Kieran Mulroney asked “If every movie becomes spectacle for the sake of spectacle, where does that leave the intimate conversation across the dinner table?” Star power eroding, more emphasis on spectacle: is this new? I don’t think so. The popularity of franchise films and the emphasis on CGI over the past 20 years was already pushing Hollywood in this direction. 3-D did not produce these trends. At most it provided some acceleration.

The problem now is that although 3-D is not a gimmick anymore, many studio executives are still treating it that way. They are insisting that films shot in 2-D be converted to 3-D in post-production. At a recent screening, friends of mine pointed out that the movies converted to 3-D had noticeable problems. Some had a lack of focus, with objects appearing blurry. Others did not have the depth of field you would expect with modern 3-D. Cameron said it best: “Right now you’re seeing the immediate aftermath of Avatar. Studio heads are trying to jump on the bandwagon – ‘Let’s turn our movie into 3-D’ – but you can’t do it that way. It should come from the filmmaker, who wants to have that as part of their palate. It shouldn’t come from the studio who just wants to rubberstamp ‘3-D’ onto scripts.”

Cameron got it right. He planned Avatar as a 3-D film from the beginning, and spent years developing new 3-D cameras and figuring out the best way to use them. Instead of relying on cheap 3-D tricks like projectiles shooting right at you or hands reaching to the audience, Cameron used 3-D to envelop you in a new world. The spectacle was mind-blowing, but it had a purpose. You fell in love with the Avatar planet Pandora just as Sully, the film’s hero, did and could understand how a man would shift from exploiting that world to fighting to save it.

Sure, eventually 3-D might become the norm, just as color films did. Whenever that happens, whether it’s 10, 20 or 30 years from now, the film landscape will likely be very different. Hopefully at that point filmmakers will find new and innovative ways to use 3-D so that it serves character and story, not just spectacle.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I don’t think so. A few weeks ago I saw Black Narcissus, a color masterpiece from 1947. At that point color was still being used for big lavish films. Since color technology was very expensive, studios wanted to make the most of it. That meant that filmmakers often splashed as much color as they could as brightly as they could. With Black Narcissus, directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and cinematographer Jack Cardiff chose a different path. They picked the types and brightness of the colors very carefully, using them to emphasize the feel of a scene or the emotions of the characters. They also toned down the color at certain points, bringing in darkness and shadow to further the mood and the tension. To this day, Black Narcissus is cited by film scholars and filmmakers (such as Scorsese) as an example of how to get the most out of color on film.

In many ways the rise of 3-D is not all that different from the advent of sound, color, widescreen, or the many types of special effects. It’s a new tool to make movies. As with any filmmaking tool it can open up new possibilities or keep filmmakers stuck copying what has come before. Once again, it’s all in how you use it.

Adam Spector
May 1, 2010

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