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Monday, January 04, 2010


Why I can't be having with 3D

So, happy new year one and all, and welcome to a new decade. The noughties were the decade that published my books so I can't be entirely ungrateful, but as they were also the decade that gave us celebrity reality TV and George W. Bush, I for one am happy to see the back of them and here's hoping for better in the whatever-they're-going-to-be-calleds.

Which brings me tangentially to a subject I've been thinking about for a while: the new technology supposedly sweeping our cinemas - or rather, the phenomenon that attempts to sweep our cinemas every other decade or so then goes away for a while when people decide it really isn't worth wearing those stupid-looking glasses: to wit, 3D cinema.

3-D technology may be new, but the concept isn't. My big brother cherished for months his souvenir glasses on which he proudly inscribed 'I have been through Jaws 3D'; this, if Wikipedia informs me right about release dates, was in 1983, which would make him about nine years old, an age where little boys can reasonably be expected to be excited about the prospect of seeing severed limbs and big teeth in multiple dimensions - and even more, as his note on the glasses showed, to be excited about the boasting rights of having seen them afterwards. Little boys love to feel brave and to have trophies that prove their courage, and the three-dimensional shocks of the shark served my brother's purpose admirably.

Being six at the time and not invited to that birthday party, I never saw Jaws 3D in the cinema, a fact that caused me no sorrow, but among my favourite toys was my red plastic View Master (a toy probably familiar to many growing up in the eighties), which true to the era included a set of ET stills I could examine in three glowing dimensions through the lenses. I personally preferred my nature photography disks in which I could see foxes in their fields and a particularly fine shot of a mouse on a cornstalk silhouetted against the moon, but the fact remained that three dimensional cinema of some kind was available to children in my generation. It was around for a while, then more or less passed quietly away.

Nor was it the first outing; over the Christmas period the 1953 film Kiss Me Kate was on television where, in deference to the 3D it was shot in, characters had a rather disconcerting habit of chucking things at the camera which didn't sit very well with the restrictions of 2D - a point worth bearing in mind for later.

None of which proves very much except that 3D is an idea that seems to crop up at regular intervals, and has yet to actually take hold.

I'm inclined to doubt that it ever will. I'm certainly inclined to hope it never will.

A few months ago I went on an excursion to see Up at the London Imax, one of the biggest 3D screens. While the movie itself was a laugh-and-cry marvel of storytelling, it was also my first encounter with 3D on its current cycle, and I would very much have preferred, it transpired, to be watching in 2D.

Part of the reasons for this were technical: on a big screen, you need to be positioned exactly right for the 3D to work, and from where we were sitting the images kept drifting in and out of alignment. Paying full concentration to the film became somewhat difficult when I had to divert attention into trying to keep my eyes straight or searching the screen for the magic point from which all might coalesce.

That might be a problem that better seating or a smaller screen would resolve, but I don't think it's negligible. Inclusivity is a real issue, and if I was having problems it seems like a serious one because I have, with my glasses on, perfectly good eyesight. That's far from universal. I'm informed that a lazy eye, a pretty common thing to have, makes it almost impossible to keep the images clear. I watched as an adult; those enormous glasses handed out looked pretty hard to wear on a child-sized face. None of these problems seems small. If you're going to all the extra trouble of adding a third dimension and paying over the odds for it, it seems a fundamental requirement that it should actually work, and work for everybody who paid for their tickets.

Even if it could be made to work - and it seems vulnerable to all kinds of failures - there still remains the real problem, which in my opinion is this: it really doesn't seem worth it.

3D isn't actually a three-dimensional image. What you see, for those of you who haven't been to such a screening, is a series of two-dimensional planes layered one in front of the other rather like a toy theatre. Depth is managed crudely: there appear to be spaces between each layer, but perspective, curvature, connection between foreground and background, are flattened out. Rather than leading to the background, the foreground just sort of floats in front of it. An image coming straight at you can be dramatic because the screen can manage direct forward motion fine, but there's a limited amount of that you can do in the middle of telling a story, and for the most part things just sort of hover around.

This leads to the sense that we may indeed be watching a technological marvel, but that we'd be watching something more immersive if we only had two dimensions to cope with. Part of this is just the marvellousness itself: I actually found myself distracted from the story. Cinema is a big, boisterous, overwhelming form and always has been, but 3D ramps that up: unlike looking at a picture, you're looking at something that you'd never, ever see in the ordinary world, a fantastical optical illusion, one that aims squarely for the 'Oooohh!' part of the brain. Which is fine in its way, but sometimes 'Oooohh!' is not the emotion the movie is trying to evoke. Up! had moments of grand spectacle, but it also had small, domestic moments, moments of pathos and tender mundanity - that was the whole point of the story, really, that the everyday ordinary stuff is actually the most important part of your life - and that's hard to square with the sense of big, overwhelming spectacle. Possibly this might change if we became used to 3D, but I'm not so sure: like I said, 3D is never going to look entirely mundane because it's an optical illusion we need special glasses to perceive. We don't live in a world that will let us get used to that: I think it's always going to feel slightly surreal. If you want a big visual splash that's great, but cinema isn't just a visual medium, and with the visuals distracting from the dialogue and the music the other elements are overbalanced and the gentler downstrokes of narrative (and where would we be without them?) are going to struggle.

More than that, I really don't think we need technology to get a 3D experience, because here's the thing: two dimensions is all we ever see anyway.

The human eye is, like a movie screen, relatively flat. Close one of them and everything flattens out: we don't actually see in three dimensions. What we have instead of 3D eyes are sophisticated brains that are extremely good at intuiting the presence of a third dimension based on the appearance of the visible two.

Which is why, if you show us a flat image like a photograph, our eyes will immediately clock it as possessing depth, even if we know perfectly well it has no such thing. That's what our eyes do; it's what they're evolved to do. When an ability is crucial to your species's survival the species tends to become rather good at it, and there are few things less beneficial to your survival than continually walking into trees you thought were further away and off the edges of cliffs onto ground you didn't realise was a thousand feet below you. If we couldn't 'see' a third dimension out of two we'd all be strawberry jam smeared over the pages of history.

Which is why, when I look at a cinema screen, the thought, 'My goodness, how flat this looks' never passes through my mind. It doesn't look flat. It looks not unlike the world does: two dimension that my brain automatically cooks into three, maybe not quite as fully as with reality but fully enough that it passes without question.

Seeing it in 3D, on the other hand, calls attention to the limitations of the medium. If my brain is assembling a sense of depth it does a deceptively good job; creating a third dimension without distracting me is part of its vocation. If it couldn't do it while all my conscious thought was focused on other things, my ancestors would have been too busy going 'Ooohh!' to notice the approaching tiger: brain-created 3D is both convincing and ignorable in a way that works perfectly for storytelling. If, on the other hand, the cinema screen is waving a set of layers at me, the whole thing looks less three-dimensional, not more, because my brain can't put them together. It's an entertaining spectacle when it works, and would lend itself well to scenes especially shot to show off the device - there was a trailer for the latest Christmas Carol, for instance, featuring a series of icicles that 'you' smack into one after another, and even to someone as curmudgeonly about 3D as me it was quite impressive. But the trouble is, that's not storytelling, which is what most films do. It's what happens in the moments when you're racing from one part of the story to the next. It's narrative bridging rather than narrative. If the audience is going to follow what's going on between the characters, you need a fair proportion of shots where the camera is taking a fairly steady view of what's happening side-to-side instead of back-to-front, which is where 3D is at its weakest. Movies generally view things from the side, because that's the easiest way to see what's happening, but from the side is the shot most vulnerable to the toy-theatre effect. Spectacle can support storytelling, of course, but in the case of 3D, the spectacle is at its most dramatic when it's doing things that make little room for the plot.

Which puts another problem in front of us: unless we all go over to all-3D, and I really hope we don't, the requirements of 3D are going to fight the requirements of 2D. If you watch the Christmas Carol trailer, you'll see an example of a film that's working hard to take advantage of what 3D does best, and what 3D does best is have things looming towards you or racing away. The result is many, many shots where things are flying at full speed to or fro; it's probably fun in 3D, but in 2D it starts to get a bit obtrusive. That was a problem in Kiss Me Kate: the flying objects continually being tossed camerawards looked, on a television screen, messy and ill-judged rather than astounding and impressive. Contrariwise, what 2D does well is vistas, horizons, composition on the horizontal, and in 3D that looks kind of boring.

The two different methods, in short, require different kinds of shot to look nice - and since they both fall into the same art form, that's a problem. It's as if you had to write a book for two different audiences, one that wanted to read the page from left to right and the other from right to left. It would be a clever writer indeed who could reconcile the wishes of those two audiences, and any work they could produce under those demands would no doubt be very impressive - but it would be a kind of formal experiment, a work produced to meet a difficult set of constraints, and things like emotion, drama and expression tend to struggle under such formal conditions. Call me cynical, but a book where every line had to be a palindrome would probably not be the most moving story in the world.

3D versus 2D is nothing like as extreme a conflict, of course, but it faces the same basic problem: if you're going to make a work of art that works as both, it will be so difficult that other priorities - priorities that are probably, at the end of the day, more important - will be jostling for space. The simplest solution would be to have some scenes that worked best in 3D and some in 2D, but that means everyone who watches it in any form is going to have to absorb some bad shots, which hardly seems a good idea. My hat goes off to any director or cinematographer who can put together a film composed of shots that work perfectly in both forms, but I fear my money isn't on their likelihood of success.

It's for this reason, I suspect, that 3D tends not to last each time someone tries it. It puts a whole load of extra pressures on the cinematography that make it really hard to avoid bad shots one way or another, and the result at the end is a spectacle that's impressive as a novelty but doesn't add to the storytelling, looks flatter than 2D and is harder on the audience members with bad seats or eye problems. Faced with all that, a director may just throw up their hands and say, 'You know what people always go and see and have done for the past century? Good 2D films.'

Which is what I myself would prefer. Maybe someday 3D technology might improve to the point where it looks like more than a series of overlaid slides, but I don't think we're at that place yet, or anywhere near. I know we're living in the future and all, but some of our inventions are still a bit ropey, and till they're better I'd rather watch 2D movies that aren't ashamed of leaving the work of finding that always-illusionary third dimension to the device that does it best: the viewer's brain.

a lot of the work i do in college involves 3D visualisation - using what i'm told is the same projection technology that they use in cinema's - and we can project things curving into the distance and planes at an angle, so the technology does exist as far as i can tell.

i haven't seen UP in 3D, but i noticed the same cardboard cut-out effect in avatar and my bloody valentine (which i saw in 3D on dvd, not the cinema) and annoyed me to. I kept closing one eye so i saw the screen in 2D for those parts.

Where I found the 3D in Avatar to be really effective was in rendering things in the far distance, like a starscape or a landscape, and for rending a lot of complicated moving things in the far distance - but (and most of my friends agree) if we were going to see avatar again in the cinema we'd go to the 2D showing.

(and on the note of 3D not being new technology, I remember my grandmother telling me about how 3D films used to show regularly when she was younger, how she always wondered why they stopped making them. I've noticed the past can seem more futuristic then the future a lot lately)
I'll see Michael's grandmother's 3D movies and raise him a stereopticon. My parents have one of these in their house--it's still possible to find stereopticon slides in flea markets and antique sales in the U.S. Nineteenth century version of the Viewmaster. Of course, this was a time when photography itself wasn't so very much taken for granted, so there was the combined thrill both of seeing an actual picture of, say, the Tower of London or the Grand Canyon and of seeing it in 3D.

The analysis of the problem with 3D movies makes perfect sense. The kind of movie that works well in 3D is something like Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure. Not much of a plot--basically some paleontologists find a fossil and imagine what the life of the animal would have been like. She would have swum over a reef that probably looked like this, and dodged predators who probably looked like that. For what it's worth, I don't recall it being an IMAX theater, and that might have made a difference. It wasn't trying to do too much at once.
I would venture to say that you physically aren't seeing the movie the same way I'm seeing it. Your "lazy eye" is a physical disability which prevents you from seeing the illusion, and also probably prevents you from experiencing the real world in the same way somebody who has "normal" vision does. I didn't see Up in 3D (I did hear that the 3D was much more subdued in Up than in other 3D films.) But just having seen 3D Avatar, and having seen Coraline in 3D (Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!) and a bunch of 3D movies at Disneyworld last year, I can say that I did not experience "two-dimensional planes layered one in front of the other rather like a toy theatre." The objects absolutely looked bulky.

Your statement that we don't see in 3D is wrong. Each eye sees a 2D image, and the brain pieces tham together into a 3D image not just by clues in the image, but by taking into account the angle at which each eye is viewing the image to triangulate the distance. It is not true that "show us a flat image like a photograph, our eyes will immediately clock it as possessing depth." One of the coolest illusions in Avatar 3D was 3D photos on a refrigerator, which clearly (to me) had depth to them even though they were posted on a "flat" 3D surface rendered at an angle.

I also don't think "inclusivity" is so much of an issue as you make it. I'm truly sorry if you can't experience 3D movies, because they are really spectacular, but I don't think that should stand in the way of anybody else seeing them any more than the existence of blind people should stand in the way of anybody seeing a movie at all. As far as the bulky glasses go, I imagine if the technology sticks people will be able to buy their own fitted glasses; the things can't be more than $2 to make. Or maybe the theaters will rent out glasses in Small, Medium, and Large. I can't speak to your experience with bad seats, except to point out that I hate sitting in the front 1/3 of any theater, especially an IMAX theater, and that doesn't seem to stop theater companies from putting seats there.

Even if it were true that the 3D effect worked "best" when things were flying at you, and and vistas looked "boring" in 3D, balancing those sorts of factors is what artists are for. If your movie has a lot of things flying at you in detriment to the story, then what you have is a bad movie, irrespective of the technology. And I disagree that showing things happening side-to-side is somehow better for narrative. One of the things you notice with older films is that a film shot in the 1940s will almost always show a conversation between two people from one perspective, from the side, whereas a modern film is just as likely to show it with two cameras pointing over each character's shoulder so you alternately see each actor's face head-on. Technology opens up more options.
@Lauren: Read over the post again: I don't have a lazy eye. What I said was 'I'm informed that a lazy eye...' Someone who does told me they had a problem seeing 3D images, but my eyes work equally well.

Your statement that we don't see in 3D is wrong. Each eye sees a 2D image

That's what I meant, and I think pretty much what I said: 'What we have instead of 3D eyes are sophisticated brains that are extremely good at intuiting the presence of a third dimension '. 2D images enter the eye, and it's only in the brain that the third dimension is constructed. That's my point: the brain constructs some kind of 3D whatever it's confronted with.

This is equally addressed to everyone: I don't mind being disagreed with, but please make sure you haven't misread what I said before leaping in. That just wastes both our time.


On the subject of blind people versus sighted: I don't think that's an appropriate comparison. 3D isn't an entirely new art form the way films once were. It's a technology that takes an art form already in existence and makes it better for some and worse for others.

In the hypothetical extreme that every film ended up 3D - or even just that film the lazy-eyed person really, really wanted to see - it's not as if you're doing something that can't be avoided. If you make a film, you can't help that someone blind can't see it. You're not taking anything from them. They can still come and listen to it; it's as open to them as it's ever going to be.

But if you shoot in 3D something that could be shot in 2D, that's actually taking away an experience that was previously available to lots of people. It's like taking out a ramp because stairs look cooler and then shrugging if wheelchair users complain. Yeah, they're a minority, but I'd like to think we cared about minorities too.

It's only one consideration among many - like I said, my eyes are perfectly up to 3D technology and I still didn't rate it much - but lazy eyes happen to a lot of people. If a film absolutely has to be made in 3D then it has to be made in 3D, of course, and the problems of people with lazy eyes in that case actually can't be helped. I'm just sceptical, because it didn't look that good to me.


balancing those sorts of factors is what artists are for

...nnno, artists are for creating art however it seems best to them. (And, y'know, for living their lives like everybody else.) Many times in the past, artists have ended up deciding that 3D wasn't really worth the trouble. Maybe some of them will decide differently this go-round, and if they do then that's entirely up to them, but that doesn't mean that pointing out the problems they'll face is illegitimate.



This is an interesting article about the success of Avatar and the effect it may have on 3D. One of the points it makes is that studios may want 3D for financial rather than artistic reasons: a 3D image is much more difficult to pirate.

While we all have our living to make, I hope that pressure never gets extreme enough that studios insist films be shot in 3D when 2D would suit the content better.

(I also wonder how much 3D had to do with the film's takings; it was, after all, the first James Cameron film in a very long time, which was always going to draw big crowds.)
I haven't ever seen a 3D movie, but nothing I've heard about it makes it seem like I would like it. While stereo vision and angle/focal length of the eye are some of the clues our brains use to reconstruct a 3D image you're absolutely right that they're not the only thing, and films and photographs contain the other clues (perspective lines, relative sizes of objects, etc) that our brains use. My experience with still 3D images is that they don't look 3D in a normal, unremarkable way, but that they actually seem to "pop" out of their frame. I can't imagine how this would be anything but distracting while I'm trying to watch a movie.
Something else that just occured to me: So our brains are reasonably good (though not perfect) at reconstructing a 3D idea from a regular 2D image, probably at least in part because we are exposed to lots of 2D images from a very young age. The set of clues about dimension that those images provide access to is a set that our brains are used to dealing with. Because we live in a three dimensional world, our brains are also used to dealing with the full set of clues. But in a 3D image, our brains get a somewhat different set of clues. In addition to the clues provided by a 2D image (perspective, size), it adds some but not all of the clues provided by the three-dimensional world. I.e. stereo images are provided, but the information from eye angles and focal length is not, because in fact the "far away" parts of a 3D image are in reality no farther than the "close up" parts, and therefore require the same angle/focal length to look at. So our brain is having to contend with a set of clues it's not used to, it's either missing clues or has too many (depending on your point of reference), and isn't as good at processing that set, and that causes the popping, floating quality of the image. Maybe if we looked at all pictures and films in 3D, with special glasses, from childhood, we could perceive them normally, but we don't so many of us can't.

Also, IMO, as long as you need to give your audience special light-filters to put over their eyes, 3D images don't count as living in the future. I'm waiting for the images to look 3D because they *are* 3D.
I'm waiting for the images to look 3D because they *are* 3D.

I went to a wonderful technological marvel that did exactly that recently. It was called - oh, what's that new-fangled word? - oh I remember: a 'theatre.' ;-)
Well, crud.

I thought I had submitted this long pretentious comment from the perspective one who does lack binocular vision about how stereoptical fusion was only one (and a relatively minor) visual cue for the brain to create the illusion of three dimensional perception, and the failure of these films to properly integrate or balance it with the dozen or so other cues was why they generally created a disturbingly artificial "uncanny valley" type result....

...but blogger seems to have eated it.

I assure you that it was very clever and cogently argued.
I will just assume it was so dazzlingly clever that Blogger ate it for fear it would stun the multitudes... ;-)
Another interesting point, this time from Mark Kermode: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVBHApQcknQ&NR=1

He comments that studios are excited about 3D because it can't be pirated, but that pirating is more an industry problem than a consumer problem - partly because it looks like a lot of pirate copies actually come from within the industry, but mostly because people who watch pirated movies don't necessarily want to get something for nothing. It's just as likely they want to watch at home (and given the amount of yacking in cinemas, I really sympathise with that). Given downloadable or pay-per-view options, people would probably pay, the same way that people nowadays buy from iTunes at least as much as they download pirated music.

Personally the idea that 3D is driven by an antipathy to pirating seems like a bad one partly because if I see a movie I like - and I don't think I'm alone here - I'll buy it on DVD. Then I'll watch it in a format that doesn't lend itself to 3D nearly so well, because it plays on a smaller screen. I will, as a result, end up in a situation where I see the film once the way it was shot to be, and ever after in an inferior version, which seems pretty hard on consumers who actually were willing to pay for the DVD.

It is a point worth considering: that piracy may be less about theft and more about some people preferring a home viewing experience. Which, if that's the case, is something the studios could quite profitably address. The cinema experience has got so overpriced, scuzzy and full of blabbermouths lately that I'd certainly prefer to pay a home viewing option.
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