Thoughts on 3D

Last week I finally got around to seeing Hugo.  I’d wanted to see it for a while, not only because it’s gotten really good reviews and is up for Best Picture and not only that it’s Scorsese’s first film that is appropriate for anyone under 15, but because he shot it in 3D.

I’ve never gotten too excited about the whole 3D thing.  Sure, I saw Avatar in 3D, because when James Cameron spends something like 10 years developing not only a film, but the technology to make that film, you kind of have to go see it.  While I was unimpressed by the 3D in Avatar, upon hearing that Scorsese’s next film would be shot in 3D, I decided to reserve judgement until seeing it.

Now I’ve seen it and the verdict is in:

I don’t like 3D.

Frankly, if the guy who is basically single-handedly responsible for the modern resurgence of 3D and developing the technology behind it, and one of the most renowned filmmakers of the last 40 years can’t prove the technology’s worth, I don’t think anyone can.

I have three major problems with 3D.  The first is physiological, the second is practical and the third is philosophical.

If you keep up on filmmaking news, then I’m sure you remember Walter Murch’s letter to Roger Ebert from just over a year ago.  In it, Murch lays out 3D’s fatal flaw: it’s working against the way our eyes have evolved over the course of millions of years.  I won’t go into details – Murch explains better than I can – but basically 3D forces our eyes to focus on one point, while converging on another, something they have no reason to otherwise do.  While our eyes can physically do that, our brains know something is up.  That’s why so many people get headaches or sore eyes from watching 3D content.  Like Murch says, short of holograms, there’s no way around this problem.  Consciously or not, you will always be able to tell something’s not right, you will always be aware of the illusion on some level.  So instead of creating a more immersive experience for an audience (which is the purported purpose of 3D), you are actually adding an element to pull them out of the film.

Secondly, 3D is unnecessary.  Most of our visual cues for depth perception are not a result of binocular vision.  That is why even when you have one eye closed you can still perceive depth.  The same goes for a painting or photograph; we can still perceive depth in the image even though we are only seeing it from a single viewpoint.  Furthermore, 3D adds nothing to the story nor does it help tell the story any better than the tools we have today.  Imagine if The Descendents or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had been shot in 3D.  Would they have been any better?  Is Avatar any better of a film when you watch it in 3D than when you watch it in 2D?  While Hugo did have one moment where the 3D effect was really engaging (when Sacha Baron Cohen leans into a tight close-up about midway through), it certainly didn’t make or break the film.  The moment, and the film as a whole, still would have easily worked without 3D.

Those points have been discussed quite a bit, but my last point is one that I haven’t heard brought up before.  Throughout history, dating at least as far back as the 32,000 year old paintings in Chauvet Cave*, part of the craft and skill of creating art in a two-dimensional medium has been in creating the illusion of three-dimensions.  Indeed, most of the major advances in art until the late nineteenth-century were related to creating the illusion of three-dimensions.  That’s why we use backlights and color contrast and camera movement; sure, they look pretty, but they look pretty because they reveal an object’s dimensionality.  3D changes that.  Now technology creates that depth for us.  If we’re letting technology create part of our art for us, where does that leave us as artists?

So that’s were I stand and I don’t think I’m alone.

*Interestingly, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about the paintings in Chauvet Cave and he shot it in 3D.  His reason for shooting in 3D was that the cave painters had incorporated the surface of the walls into their paintings and 3D helped to reveal that.  It’s the only legitimate argument for the use of 3D that I have ever heard.  (By the way, it’s an amazing film, even in 2D.)

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