I can still remember my first 3D experience in a cinema, it was almost a decade ago now when I was in Tokyo Disneyland. My then only recently acquainted friend and I were in deep teenage angst about our current predicament having exhausted most of fun out of the place in a few hours, with our stay not scheduled to end any time soon. Having heard about this 3D show called Honey, I Shrunk the Audience! (don’t judge me) I dragged him along to try and past at least some of the time we had remaining. The show itself was quite a spectacle with the floor being able to move around and many other real world effects to augment the 3D. The actual movie itself was pretty dull and the 3D effect, whilst impressive at the time, really didn’t do a lot for the movie. My memory may have been sullied by the fact I wasn’t feeling too good that day but it was several years before I went out of my way to encounter 3D again.
My mind was changed when I saw James Cameron’s Avatar. Whilst I had troubles with the gear at the cinema it still didn’t detract from the experience. There were a few obvious “we’re doing this to remind the audience that they’re watching 3D” but for the most part the effect enhanced the story and greatly increased the immersion I felt. After seeing the movie I became somewhat obsessed with the technology behind such a feat, researching the different methods and finding out just how such a movie was made. I went as far to say that our next TV purchased had to be 3D, because really anyone serious about cinema would have to have it.
I think I underestimated just how wrong the world could get 3D. Just like the initial buzz that surrounded 3D movies that came out almost a decade ago nearly every recent major theatrical release has had the option of being viewed in 3D. Worse even are some films that have restarted filming just to start using 3D, wasting months of effort. I can kind of understand when it’s a completely CGI film and the 3D option is just another day or two of rendering time (well, probably more than that) although the effect is debatable as most 3D films tend to have a flat focus. The fact is that whilst 3D has been around for a while filming for it is still in the realms of “black art” and very few have mastered the technique.
Cameron managed to do quite well in Avatar as his dedication to bringing 3D into the mainstream had given him extensive experience in using the technology. Two of his mostly unknown documentaries were shot using 3D many years before Avatar graced the silver screen. Many of the directors who are now scrambling to use 3D for their movies have no such experience and as such the results have been quite underwhelming. The fact is that since regular cinema has been around for well over a century many of the nuts and bolts of it have been worked out. 3D on the other hand poses a whole new set of challenges to overcome and getting the basics right is still mostly art.
Sure there’s still an element of art to regular cinema as well (note I’m not talking about the plot or anything that both 3D and regular cinema share) but with such a rich history to draw on it’s a far simpler task to create a certain feel with traditional cinematography than with 3D. Notably whilst you still have depth of field in regular cinema when venturing into 3D it becomes a whole different ball game as you’re manipulating the end user’s DOF rather than just the camera’s. Additionally the use of things that jump out of the screen, whilst a cute reminder that we’re watching 3D, can easily serve to break audiences out of the movie. With 3D being so young all these variables that haven’t got a well defined sweet spot can easily swing a decent movie to a 3D disaster, something which I’m sure we’re all familiar with.
Until the industry learns that 3D is a tool with which to enhance story telling and not just something that “has to be done” we’ll continue to see films that incorporate the technology just because they feel they have to. Hopefully the 3D fad won’t last much longer and it will then be left to the experts to define and curate their art which will flow on to future works. Whilst I haven’t changed my mind about getting a 3D TV (it seems I won’t really have a choice soon anyway) I more than likely won’t be buying 3D media for quite some time. Not until the industry and technology matures at least.