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The Final Word: Is 3-D better than 2-D?

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April 30th, 2010 at 11:56 pm

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Welcome to The Final Word, a new series of editorials by myself (William Bibbiani!) and my colleague Julia Rhodes, in which we take issues relating to film that people think are debatable and dare to actually come to a conclusion. We could argue that everyone is entitled to their opinions (they are), and we could even say that all of those opinions are equally valid (even though they’re not), but frankly… that’s no fun. If anybody’s opinions are going to matter then we have to stick to them and feel confident about it. No “I” statements for The Final Word. No, “In my opinions,” because, well… of course they’re our opinions! We’re the ones saying them! If you need somebody to hold your hand and tell you that your opinions are just as good as ours, then you have a serious self-esteem problem.

And frankly, if Roger Ebert can declare that videogames can’t be art without actually playing a single videogame that might disprove his thesis – and expect to be taken seriously, no less – then I’m entirely within my rights to come to a conclusion about 3-D based on my actual experience with both 2-D and 3-D films.

Spider Jerusalem

Spider Jerusalem: Not just my journalistic hero, but also the only guy who ever made 3-D glasses seem cool.

Yes, that’s right, the first edition of The Final Word is about 3-D. Everyone seems to love 3-D these days. Wait, let me try that again. Everyone seems to love 3-D these days. As soon as Avatar came out 3-D, which had been officially relegated to “fad” status for many, many decades all of a sudden became an inevitable destination for all media. But is it really an improvement over 2-D? Is it really worth the trouble?

No. Don’t be stupid.

Oh sure, we’re probably going to be stuck with 3-D forever now that everyone flocked to Avatar like 5 year olds to McDonalds. You chipped in several extra bucks for the “experience” of wearing glasses while watching a movie – something those of us with glasses are less than enthused about (Have you ever tried wearing two pairs at the same time? It’s not comfortable) – and now the studios think you’ll do it every damned time. And you probably will, too, because you think it’s better. Well, guess what: It’s not. It’s just another illusion that you will inevitably get used to and take for granted, but by God you will shell out a lot more money just for the privilege of getting bored with it.

Movie Still: The Third Man

In this famous shot from Carol Reed’s The Third Man, you can’t tell how far away Valli is from Joseph Cotten because you’re not wearing 3-D glasses. Right?

You see, 3-D filmmaking creates an illusion of 3-Dimensions. But of course, you know that. This isn’t 1901 anymore. We know that the train zooming towards the camera isn’t actually going to run us over. The only thing being added to our films is a perceived added level of depth. Things that are far away from the camera look further away than things that are closer to the camera. Wow. Are you telling me you would never have figured that out? This is the same basic illusion that focal lengths have been playing with for over a century now, and paintings for many centuries before that. Are audiences really so jaded that they can no longer determine distance without paying as much as $5.00 extra for somebody to point it out for you?

Money

Every time you pay extra to see a movie in 3-D, this is how your money feels.

Oh, but it’s immersive is it? You get lost in the world of Avatar and forget that you’re in a theater? I hate to break it to you guys, but that’s the point of good storytelling (and, in the case of Avatar, even bad storytelling). People have lost themselves in the world of an image or narrative for centuries without 3-D. Did you ever hear of The Stendhal Syndrome? It’s not Dario Argento’s best film, but it is essentially the same mental process  you’re describing, and it was first documented over 200 years ago (albeit only officially named in 1979) . Over 200 years ago is prior to 3-D filmmaking, incidentally. Sure, 3-D can immerse you in a film. Nobody’s denying that it has that capability, but for 3-D to actually supplant 2-D in the media – which many studios and technology companies are really, really hoping for – it would have to actually be superior at doing so. And it’s not. It’s just another thing people invented.

And why did they invent it? Because they screwed up. They spoiled us. They made home entertainment superior to the theatrical viewing experience with surround sound systems, high-definition screens and storage. Theaters are expensive, noisy and really, really expensive (again), so audiences were staying away. For a while theaters simply raised ticket prices to hide the fact that attendance was down, but eventually they started to hit a breaking point where seeing a movie theatrically just wasn’t worth the added costs. So once again they trotted out 3-D filmmaking in an attempt to make you think the exorbitant amount of money you’re spending for essentially the same narrative experience was somehow justified.

Home Theaters

With home entertainment increasingly looking like this, Hollywood is resorting to trickery and marketing ploys to get you to pay more for the same basic experience and purchase gadgets you really don’t need. Naturally, everyone’s falling for it.

And the home entertainment companies are just as culpable this time: Once you upgraded to Blu-Ray, 1080p and 7.1 surround sound you were basically set for life. It’s hard enough to convince people that Blu-Ray has superior picture quality to DVD. Now that high-definition is becoming the standard, what else can they sell you? Why, $50 plastic glasses of course! Now you’ll really believe those movies are real! Because before 3-D you always thought movies were utter bullsh*t, right? Like when you saw Apollo 13 and couldn’t bear to look at the screen because you knew they weren’t really in space. It also explains why The Lord of the Rings movies were so unpopular, since everyone was hyper-aware that Middle Earth was only two-dimensional, and therefore fake.

But some people like it. That’s fine. Some people like smoking, but that doesn’t make it good for any of them. I’ve got an experiment for those people. It’s cheap, easy and won’t take more than a moment. I’ve been pulling this experiment on friends and casual acquaintances for months now and thus far everyone seems to get the gist of my 3-D complaints afterwards. If you saw Avatar in 3-D in theaters, try remembering a scene from the film. (If you didn’t see Avatar, but instead saw Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, or what have you in 3-D, just remember a scene from that instead.) Now, remember a scene from a 2-D movie. Pick one, it really doesn’t matter. Now, just remember something that happened to you today. Now… Are any of these memories more “3-D” than the others?

Movie Poster: Clash of the Titans

Clash of the Titans, “Also Playing in 2-D?” Of course, the film was actually shot in 2-D and everyone agrees it actually looks better in 2-D, but you’ll pay more if you don’t know that 3-D is just a gimmick.

To date I have never encountered a single person who could honestly say that they remember 3-D in actual 3-D (although I suppose if you have total recall this may not apply). If you actually do then let me know in the comments, but the rest of us are left with memories indistinguishable from any other movie. And frankly, no matter how many times you see a 3-D movie in theaters, the bulk of your life will – or at least should – be spent not watching the film. Your memories of the movie, how it made you feel and even how it looked are what you’re stuck with most of the time. So basically, you shelled out a lot of extra money for the exact same memories you would have had in a 2-D theater.

I hope you’re proud of yourselves.

And that’s… The Final Word.

  • boustierbiddy

    Agreed. Not only did it not add anything for me, it actually jarred me out of the narrative. I have to believe there will be a backlash at some point when people get over the novelty of it and stop paying the big ticket prices. I already have. At that point I feel sorry for those who had to invest big bucks to keep up with a burned out craze.

    If we’re stuck with it, I prefer the Alice in Wonderland 3D over Avatar’s. (Haven’t seen CotT.)It was subtler and less interfering. I felt that there was something wrong with Avatar’s–there’d be a person x number of feet away from you and the reflection in his eye would be 4 feet closer. It was just impossible to focus. Any kind of a shiny object with reflections is just… incorrect. The brain naturally discerns depth but 3D tries to force it on you, and it feels like you’re always playing catch-up or something.

  • DeVore

    William,

    I appreciate the arguments you have made in this column, and I agree with many of your past reviews on this site (and others). Yes, there really haven’t been any fantastic films that have been released yet utilizing this technology, including “Avatar”.

    However, I take exception with your argument against technological innovation. Of course this is a marketing strategy by the studios to get people back in the theaters. But the technology of film making needs to evolve past just “better CGI”.

    Would “The Wizard of Oz” have been as revolutionary if Dorothy would have walked onto a monochrome brick road?

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    Dear DeVore,

    Thank you for the kind words, but I suppose I need to clarify some things.

    First, my argument is not against technological innovation. Technological innovation, by itself, is fine. But… Wow, okay, you just opened a can of worms.

    The problem with technological innovation in filmmaking is that when something new is invented, and audiences respond to it, then it becomes the standard. And although color, for example, was a fantastic technological innovation that opened up worlds of possibilities for filmmakers and audiences alike, the fact that black and white has been all but sacrificed as a result isn’t necessarily a good thing.

    You point out that The Wizard of Oz would not have been as revolutionary had Oz not been in color. Maybe. Would it still have been a great story in black and white? Yes. Yes it would. Of course, color wasn’t invented for The Wizard of Oz. The only real innovation was combining color WITH black and white photography, but this itself was motivated by the great storytelling already at work.

    Perhaps a more recent example that people noticed was the rapid progression of American animated features into CGI. Because CGI was successful for a few films, the artistry inherent to 2D animation was pushed aside in favor of films which often featured a lower level of craftsmanship, in a fledging art style with a lot of kinks to work out, which depended heavily on novelty in order to reach an audience.

    And this is my fears for 3-D filmmaking. The assumption that in order for a movie to make money it must now be in 3-D, regardless of artistic merit, appropriateness to the actual story being told, or even the quality of the 3-D.

    Now yes, 3-D isn’t intrinsically bad as a technological innovation and has some potential from an artistic perspective. Werner Herzog is currently shooting a 3-D documentary about cave paintings in order to show off their contours and textures, and that’s an intriguing place to take the technology. But we’re already having it shoved down our throats, and the reason why it’s being shoved down our throats is out of a need to make money, not to make good films.

    If 3-D was allowed to evolve naturally as an artistic option – an option James Cameron CHOSE to exercise in Avatar, but new filmmakers cannot enjoy because studios are insisting that every major blockbuster now be either filmed in 3-D or converted to 3-D after the fact, regardless of the filmmakers’ wishes – then maybe I’d be a little kinder.

    The real issue I was debating was the principle of the thing: Is 3-D better than 2-D? And it’s not. It’s an innovation. I chose to argue the principle because if you only discuss the grey area, then you can forgive anything. 3-D really CAN be okay, certainly within specific contexts, but when it comes to the decision to convert the entire industry to 3-D – which has already effectively been made – then, on sheer principle, I (and many others) think we’re making a mistake.

    I hope this clarified my position a bit further for you. Thanks for reading!

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