As long time readers will know I’ve got a bit of thing for the technology of recording pictures both of the still kind in the form of photography and, more recently, in that of the cinema. I was truly fascinated by the amount of work that James Cameron put into creating Avatar as in the past 3D had simply been a gimmick used for attractions at amusement parks and not something for serious cinema. I feel like Avatar changed that (although I do admit that it’s been heavily misused since then) as it opened up 3D as being another tool in the director’s cinematography kit, one that can be used to great effect.
Indeed apart from Avatar and TRON: Legacy, both films designed to be visual masterpieces, there hadn’t been any movies that I felt used it to proper effect. There were many where it was inappropriate (Hot Tub Time Machine anyone?) and some where it didn’t add nor subtract anything (Dredd comes to mind) but there wasn’t any that I felt took that careful, considered approach to ensure that the 3D was used appropriately. That was until I saw this video from the production set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Whilst I’m sure not everyone will find that video as enthralling as I did the short of it is that the 3D rigs that were used in the filming of The Hobbit are essentially unique in their design as they set out to do things that no movie had ever done before. Primarily this was because they didn’t go with more traditional 3D cameras which have specially designed lenses and sensors in order to do 3D. Instead they were using RED EPICs a camera capable of delivering resolutions up to 5K and, more importantly, at a frame rate twice that of traditional cinema. These cameras then required special rigs in order to get the 3D effect right which were marvels of engineering in and of themselves.
I had been drooling over the camera set up for a long time and finally managed to see the final results on Saturday. Now I was a bit worried about what I was about to see as many film critics had said awful, awful things about how HFR had ruined the entire experience for them and since I had broken my rule of avoiding the hype my expectations were much higher than they normally are. It got worse when I got to the cinema and I was handed a pair of polarized 3D glasses rather than the active-shutter ones I thought they would use but I didn’t let that phase me and settled in for the next 3 hours.
What followed blew even my fan boy level expectations out of the water.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the above still was a retouched shot (done solely for the promos) but the entire movie is like that, drenched in luscious colour and with incredible amounts of detail everywhere. I will admit that the 48FPS takes a little getting used to thanks to its prevalence in the cheaper forms of media elsewhere but for things like wide open panoramas and dialogue scenes it’s something that you’ve just got to see in person. It’s not perfect yet as some of the green screened sections didn’t feel quite right but Peter Jackson really is onto something here and I’m sure the next 2 instalments will only improve on the original.
I won’t go as far to say that this is the future of cinema however as there was an incredible amount of investment done in order to get this to work the way it did and whilst duplicating it might be cheaper thanks to The Hobbit footing the R&D bill I can’t see many wanting to take it on. Indeed I hope that it stays as esoteric as it is now as that will mean that only those who want to invest the time in doing HFR 3D right will attempt to do so, rather than the rampant band wagoning we saw after Avatar premiered. With all that said it should come as no surprise that I recommend you see The Hobbit and do so in HFR 3D as that was the way it was intended to be seen.
3D is one of those technologies that I’m both endlessly infatuated and frustrated with. Just over a year ago I saw Avatar in 3D and for me it was the first movie ever to use the technology in a way that wasn’t gimmicky but served as a tool to enable creative expression. Cameron’s work on getting the technology to the point where he could use it as such was something to be commended but what unfortunately followed was a long stream of movies jumping on the 3D bandwagon, hoping that it would be their ticket to Avatar like success. Since then I’ve only bothered to see one other movie in 3D (Tron: Legacy) as not one other movie demonstrated their use of 3D as anything other than following the fad and utterly failing to understand the art that is 3D.
Last year was the debut of consumer level 3D devices with the initial forays being the usual TVs and 3D enabled media players. Soon afterwards we began to see the introduction of some 3D capable cameras allowing the home user to create their very own 3D movies. Industry support for the format was way ahead of the curve with media sharing sites like YouTube allowing users to view 3D clips and video editing software supporting the format long before it hit the consumer level. We even had Nintendo announce that their next generation portable would be called the 3DS and boast a glasses free 3D screen at the top. Truly 3D had hit the mainstream as anyone and everyone jumped to get in on the latest technology craze.
Indeed the 3D trend has become so pervasive that even today as I strolled through some of my RSS reader backlog I came across not one, but two articles relating to upcoming 3D products. The first is set to be the world’s first 3D smartphone, the LG Optimus 3D. It boasts both a 3D capable camera and glasses free 3D screen along with the usual smartphone specs we’ve come to expect from high end Android devices. The second was that NVIDIA’s current roadmap shows that they’re planning to develop part of their Tegra line (for tablets) with built in 3D technology. Looking over all these products I can’t help but feel that there’s really little point to having 3D on consumer devices, especially portable ones like smartphones.
3D in cinemas makes quite a lot of sense, it’s another tool in the director’s kit to express themselves when creating their movie experience. On a handset or tablet you’re not really there to be immersed in something, you’re usually consuming small bits of information for short periods. Adding 3D into that experience really doesn’t enhance the experience at all, in fact I’d dare say that it would detract from it thanks to the depth of field placing objects in a virtual space that in reality is behind the hand that’s holding it. There is the possibility that 3D will enable a new kind of user interface that’s far more intuitive to the regular user than what’s currently available but I fail to see how the addition of depth of field to a hand held device will manage to accomplish that.
I could just be romanticising 3D technology as something best left to the creative types but if the current fad is anything to go by 3D is unfortunately more often misused as a cheap play to bilk consumers for a “better” experience. Sure some of the technology improvements of the recent past can trace their roots back to 3D (hello cheap 120Hz LCD screens) but for the most part 3D is just used as an excuse to charge more for the same experience. I’ve yet to see any convincing figures on how 3D products are doing out in the market but anecdotally it’s failed to gain traction amongst those who I know. Who knows maybe the LG Optimus 3D will turn out to be something really groovy but as far as I can tell now it’s simply yet another gimmick phone that’s attempting to cash in on the current industry obsession with 3D, just like every other 3D consumer product out there.
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.