Don’t Despair, Roger Ebert: 3D Is Going to Die

By  · Published on May 1st, 2010

In 1982, Paramount Pictures released its first film shot in 3D, Friday the 13th Part III. The movie, which introduced the world to a very famous hockey mask, was highly successful at the box office, and owes a decent portion of that success to a technology that had been around for almost 150 years at the time.

That technology is stereoscopic photography, a technique which attempts to replicate the eye’s natural apprehension of depth and apply it to a flat surface. This is done, most popularly, by projecting two images that have been through polarizing filters which correspond to the polarizing filters placed in front of each eye via those nifty glasses they give you at the theater.

It’s a technology that Roger Ebert has grown to hate. Granted, in his carefully crafted editorial against the third dimension, he makes plain that he sees no issue with films choosing to use it. He takes issue with the over-saturation and dependency that the studio system seems to find itself anchored with. In short, he doesn’t like to see studios scratching their necks and fiending for 3D.

His points are well taken – that it’s unnecessary (because our eyes create depth naturally), that it’s nauseating (health-wise and budget-wise), and that it’s little more than a gimmick (except in Avatar). However, even though I agree completely with his hatred for what is most certainly a gimmick, my heart doesn’t seize at the idea of Hollywood latching onto it.

My heart doesn’t seize, because 3D is going to die.

Hollywood vs. Television

First of all, Ebert alludes to its death when he enunciates his #9 point against the fad – that Hollywood always needs something whenever television threatens to kill business. This has always been true. In the latest incarnation, it’s television, the internet, netflix, and handheld devices that all have it out for the old girl.

The main advantage that a theater has over your home theater is that its screen is always, always going to be bigger. Because of that, film producers in a bind can always fall back on the sheer largeness of filmmaking in order to shuttle fans into theater seats to behold the resplendent wonders they can only see buy passing through the box office.

In the litany of technology – Surround Sound, VistaVision, Color – 3D has the distinction of being turned to not once, not twice, but three times (at least) to do the job. The 1950s saw a heyday for the tech and delivered most of the films that we think of today when we think of 3D. The late 1970s-1980s saw a resurgence that included the aforementioned machete-thrusting Friday the 13th entry. Now, the Third Reich of 3D is upon us with either the capstone or the launching pad being Avatar (depending on your perspective).

So why, at the height of its popularity, am I not worried about its longevity? It’s precisely because Hollywood always turns to technology when television threatens its dominance.

There are two scenarios that play out here. One, either television adopts its own viable version of 3D, and Hollywood has lost its technological trick up its sleeve. It seems logical that studios would keep making 3D films to correspond with releasing their Blu-rays for 3D televisions, but that will only happen if it’s cost-effective. This, however, might lead to the two-headed juggernaut of movies and television coming standard in 3D. It’s possible, and it might seem likely with television manufacturers already rolling out models that handle 3D – but it will have the uphill climb of selling itself (and its higher price) to the mainstream purchaser.

It’s too early to make predictions, but in order for that to happen, television programs themselves would have to be geared toward 3D. In short, it would take a perfect storm of everyone making their entertainment using 3D technology so that that main purpose that televisions are used for could accommodate a great number of standardized 3D programming.

Two, Hollywood earns the dominance back of its own accord and doesn’t need a gimmick to get people into theaters anymore. Granted, movies will remain at their inflated price while we lose the third dimension, but 3D will once again find itself waning until the next time it rears its ugly head.

3D Isn’t New

That brings me to my second point: history. I’m unafraid of 3D because the beast has been slayed before. I see no significant difference in this current incarnation of the fad than the other three. All of those failed, and so will this one because 3D has, and may very well always be, a gimmick.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ebert on the point about our own eyes’ ability to fill in the gaps when it comes to seeing something projected onto a flat surface. We don’t need 3D, and, in fact, it robs cinematographers of a certain amount of nuance when it comes to creating depth through their shots.

Devin Coldewey wrote a fantastic rebuttal to Ebert’s piece over at CrunchGear, that likens the idea of not needing 3D to not needing sound because everything characters needed to say could be placed on title cards. It’s a funny way of hammering home the point that most technological advances are now standard in the process of filmmaking. Where I disagree with this is that 3D and sound are wildly different animals.

Without sound, my ears would not be able to fill in the score or the dialog, the swelling violin section or the gruff tones of a man about to take another man’s life, the lengthy monologue where the villain explains his plan. Without 3D, my eyes are perfectly fine to realize the depth of a long, sloping valley or a woman busting through a door to find her man in bed with another woman. Sound is standard because there was something lacking without it. The third dimension is not standard because there’s nothing lacking without it.

Plus, there is still a trade off when it comes to seeing a 3D movie. Pricing aside, you have to wear glasses (which seems immaterial until you talk to someone who wears eyeglasses regularly), the picture is dimmer (because you’re placing a black filter over your eyes), and you can really only experience the effect if you’re sitting close to the screen. Even in the early days of sound, there was no trade off to going to a talkie. It was your regular moving picture with the added dimension of vocalized dialog and sound effects.

Coldewey also has a fine argument that the technology is in its early years, which means that even though there haven’t been serious, classics-in-the-making made in 3D, a young camera-slinger might arise in the next few years to begin building that library. It’s an issue that I’m torn on because the technophile, Kurtzweillian in me would love to see a time where 3D could become a mainstay of filmmaking because of the experience it creates, but the realist in me has flashes of 180 years of stereoscopic projection and not a single example that could be considered serious filmmaking. I say this knowing both that Avatar was an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture and a computer generated movie that featured giant blue aliens.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but production houses and filmmakers still use a century-old technique for its Wow factor the same way a carnival boasts of the tallest roller coaster in the tri-county area. I’m optimistic that they will begin using it as a tool necessary to the process, but even Avatar didn’t need to have that third dimension. Until it stops being treated as a bonus, it will never be a standard.

Ebert’s Portable Nightmare

That brings me to my third point. I’m sure somewhere deep in Ebert’s mind, he sees a nightmare scenario where every single film is done in three dimensions, and the standard format has been wiped out of the cineplex. He sees this because there’s a goldmine rush of studios churning everything out in 3D because of their Pavlovian response to money.

However, on top of all the other reasons that 3D will eventually fade out of popularity (again) is the reality that not every film is suited for it. The filmic experience is a broad one that involves all sorts of visuals, storytelling themes, and depths of field. That’s exactly why Hollywood has focused on family features, horror films, and animated features so far – because they can’t go any further.

It’s not the case that an intimate drama doesn’t need 3D. It’s the case that part of its filmic value would be lost because of it. Say you’re a filmmaker who wants to create a sense of claustrophobia in your film where Ryan Reynolds is in a coffin for the entire run-time. Do you really want the albatross of shooting in 3D? Imagine you want to experiment with leaving elements of the scene out of focus, but you can’t because they’ll show up as fuzzy images popping out at the audience.

There’s been a lot written lately on how clearly it seemed Alice in Wonderland wasn’t planned for 3D – but the conclusion that no one is mentioning is that in a world of ubiquitous 3D, those types of shots that Burton used at the beginning of the film (that looked horrible in 3D) would no longer even be an option for filmmakers (because they’ll always look horrible in 3D whether its after market or planned for). The talk is of planning for a 3D film because there is a specific way to shoot a 3D film that is rigid and would otherwise limit the list of shots a cinematographer or director might want to use. While it broadens the dimensions of film viewing, it tightens the parameters on what a cameraman can do.

2D Or Not 2D

It may seem like I’m rooting for Ebert and standing in opposition to Coldewey, but they both bring up strong points. The truth is that no one knows what the future will bring, but I’d like to think that it will be one of two situations.

The first sees 3D dying out just as it always has, and the second sees 3D morphing into a worthwhile filmmaking method that enhances the experience in such a way that it earns its spot alongside sound and widescreen on the list of standard features. There is news every week of a new project aiming for 3D, but let’s all take a deep breath. There will most likely be 350 films made next year, and 3D will only be featured in a small percentage of them. It’s not taking over the world. It should be given a chance to flourish, but if history is any indication, it won’t be too long until it falls out of favor and dies.

And then rises like a phoenix again decades later.

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