Archive for December, 2011


The whole 3D thing

December 16, 2011


I’m not really sold on the whole 3D thing to be honest. Don’t get me wrong it’s a fascinating technology and I have no doubt that unlike it’s other attempts to break into the media mainstream during the 50s and the 80s, this time 3D will eventually succeed.


It isn’t there yet. At the moment, 3D is still treated as a gimmick, by both studios and audiences alike. It’s a way of charging more at the cinema (it’s over a tenner at our local flea-pit!) and more for the TV equipment and the broadcasts for something of an impressive effect. And audiences flock to it for that very reason- it’s the latest thing, it’s a spectacle, it’s an event.

And filmmakers are just as guilty of perpetuating this. I’ve seen a number of jobs in the micro-budget arena pop up, shooting some thoroughly un-worthy film in 3D because it’s the multi-dimensional hottest shit and they hope that by adding the immersive bells and whistles, people will buy their film no matter how wank it really is. Which is not how it should be at all. Not right now anyway…

Given today’s audiences and their preconceptions, 3D should probably only be used for films that make the most of it- and I mean more than just the occasional “stuff thrown towards the lens” shots. At the moment, 3D can’t be used for “normal” films because audiences won’t engage properly with it- if it’s in 3D it’s a spectacle and thus it’s counterproductive for the average drama/comedy/rom-com/period piece. But for big-budget, sci-fi/action event blockbuster type films- 3D can work very well. Take Avatar, the first major film most people saw in 3D. It worked because everything in the movie was larger than life- it was a scifi adventure flick with explosions, aliens, mech suits and an immersive world. It would have worked well in 2D (and does- I still enjoy the decidedly flat DVD) but became a spectacular 3D experience. Tron Legacy is another +1 in the 3D success story. The filmmakers used 3D as a way of making the computer world of the film different to the real world- the real world sequences are shot and presented in warm-graded 2D, while the sequences on “the grid” are presented in CG-heavy, predominately cool-tinted 3D. This is much the same approach the creators of The Wizard of Oz used in 1939- black and white in the real world and colour in Oz- and it serves to make the fantasy world more visually interesting and adds immersion and effect.

The big problem with 3D from a filmmaking perspective, in the lower echelons particularly, is that filmmakers still adhere to the old rules and conventions of 2D production. Some of these- such as the use of coverage, close-ups and cutting on action- still work, but many do not. It’s still early days in the world of 3D shooting, but here are my thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. Bear in mind, I’ve never actually shot 3D before so this is just theory and possibly smoke up the proverbial sphincter.

1) No fast camera movements. Dolly shots can work okay if they’re slow enough because audiences have a chance to follow the motion, but handheld shots or whip pans can be problematic. Audiences aren’t yet used to 3D and it takes a fraction of a second longer for us to adjust to changes between shots. Kinda like how early movie audiences needed to move from long shots through mid shots to get to close ups rather than just cutting in close. You know how some people complain of nausea when watching 3D? This is why, so if you want to avoid rivers of vomit in the aisles, don’t move the camera around like it’s on a bungee cord.

2) Lenses need to be very carefully chosen, even more so than in 2D. A telephoto lens will compress the distance between planes, which in 3D seriously messes with the perspective an audience takes away from the shot. Ditto for wide angle lenses with their stretching of the perspective. To preserve the way human eyes perceive the world, we’d have to stick to a 50mm lens (assuming we’re using 35mm imaging) for everything- but as any DP will tell you, this is both limiting and decidedly boring and uninspired. However, 50mm is perfect for close ups (for the most part anyway) since the human face is the thing we’re the most familiar with and a 50mm lens preserves the shape and depth characteristics we expect to see. If we use anything other than a 50mm lens on a shot, it will seriously alter our perception on relative space- so we’d have to make those choices very carefully.

3) Considering everything said above about lenses, it stands to reason that zooms are almost a definite no-no. The human eye doesn’t zoom and if 3D is supposed to be truly immersive it has to reflect our experience of the world- thus no zooms. Also, they’re shit and tacky anyway…

4) Also on the subject of lenses, focus pulls are a mite trickier in 3D. In 2D, focus is used to insinuate depth (along with lighting, motion and other depth cues) but in 3D this is a moot point. Focus itself is not really the problem, but the dramatic focus pulls so beloved of 2D cinema, can be. Since you already have depth cues through the 3D perspective, the focal changes feel like they’re forcing you to change your attention, rather than being as subtle as they feel in 2D. Also, in a 3D frame, the audience is drawn to areas of the image through the point of convergence- the depth plane where each eye’s perspective matches (if you take the 3D goggles off when watching a film, this’ll be the bit of the image that has virtually none of the double-vision effect). Because of the way human eyes work, biologically-speaking, this point of convergence is also the point of focus. For a filmmaker to decide to manipulate the focal plane without adjusting the point of convergence is visual mind-fuckery of the highest order and it’s one of the reasons some audiences get headaches and nausea from 3D viewing.

3D will definitely become the way we view video in the future. Just look at how colour overtook black and white. In the beginning it was badly executed, the equipment and processes clunky and awkward and it never looked right. By the 30s and 40s the systems and stocks had improved but the colours looked oversaturated and false and it was used as a marketing ploy. Something to draw audiences back to the cinema- particularly when TV started to gain a foothold in viewers’ homes. As the technology improved (and colour eventually became the standard for TV broadcasts), it couldn’t be used as a gimmick anymore and producers had to find other ways to promote their shows- like story, cast and how good it was! You know, little things…

This sort of situation happens with all new technology- widescreen cinema formats came about because they wanted to have something spectacular over TV’s 4:3 square frame to draw punters back in to theatres. Cinema surround sound was a response to the way home box office and video was stealing film viewers away from the silver screen and keeping them in their lounge. It’s always the same way- the domestic viewing approach starts to take the event experience away from cinema in the name of convenience and cinema has to retaliate with something bigger and better that TV can’t match… yet. 3D is just another step in the never-ending pissing contest of one-upmanship that cinema and TV have been engaged in for decades.

I suppose smell-o-vision’s next but I seriously can’t work up any enthusiasm for that one…