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Film, Technology

Veni, vidi, vici!

What do Julius Caesar and 3D film technology have in common?  Not that much, to be honest.  But it is safe to say that 3D has finally conquered Hollywood for good this time.

First, some history.

The mostly abused gimmick was first commercially used in the 1950s in the exploitation film Bwana Devil (1952).  It attracted movie-goers with it’s novelty, though the tech had been around since the 1920s and would have been common if it hadn’t been for the Great Depression — yet another example of timing being everything. Great directors like Hitchcock experimented with the technique in the 50s, but interest slowly waned and by the 1960s Hollywood had gotten bored and moved on.

3D films had a resurgence just a decade or two later with the advent of newly developed techniques that can be seen in blockbusters like Jaws 3D (1983). Many 3D films focused on the final installment of trilogies (Movie, Movie II, and Movie 3D), further strengthening their reputation as cheap imitations of film (sequels are generally terrible, now combine that with cheap tech tricks — not impressive). The 70s and 80s saw more experimentation by filmmakers, but ultimately the tech crashed again despite the significant improvement in the technology.  There are many variables that must align perfectly for a tech to be adopted by Hollywood, all of which boil down to money. It needs to be practical for the theaters– 3D required special equipment; it needs to be “cheap” for the filmmaker — 3D was still quite expensive; audiences have to be willing to pay for it — they were tired of the cheap blue & red glasses.  The tech had to become cheaper and more “user friendly” for it to stick around.

thanks to http://www.swell3d.com/2008/07/bulk-ordering-3d-glasses.html

Remember these?

By the time the 1990s rolled around, IMAX theaters were showing a large number of documentaries in 3D, like those films about the Titanic by James Cameron.  I was a small child in the 90s, and I distinctly remember being terrified of some very large ballerinas I saw at the Science Center IMAX theater in 3D. These sorts of educational films were fairly common in my town, and I expect across the country.

Slowly, 3D started being applied to children’s movies as well, like The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D (2005) or Polar Express (2004). Studios began noticing that 3D was profitable around this time (early 2000s).  The glasses were changing and audiences were more accepting of the new edition 3D spectacles.

Then came the 3D movie to change everyone’s (read:my) attitude toward 3D films: Avatar (2009). The 3D effects added to the story and brought the film to life, rather than being distracting and annoying. In fact, the effects worked so seamlessly that they became the main strength of the film.  The internet and all forms of media were abuzz about how formulaic the plot was and how familiar the characters were (in a bad way).  The effects far outperformed most other aspects of the film. Here are some clips and a trailer you might find entertaining.  I was hoping to illustrate the epicness of the film with some shots of avatars flying on the backs of dragons, but I sadly couldn’t find exactly what I wanted.

Check out the dragon!

Trailer

Mute this and ignore the Train Your Dragon shots….

So, it was no coincidence that James Cameron directed Avatar. He had been perfecting his art for several decades by the time the Avatar project started.  It’s equally unsurprising that the 2D version of the film was completely unimpressive. As you can see from the few clips above, the 2D version looks pretty fake and 100% computer generated.

Since then, there has been a fairly steady stream of 3D flicks.  Summer 2012 has seen quite an influx of 3D movies itself. One weekend in my neck of the woods, more than half of a chain cinema’s films were 3D including MIB 3D (third of a series), Brave 3D, and Avengers 3D.

Brave Trailer

MIB 3D Trailer

There are a couple patterns that I noticed lately.

  1. Film Genre: 3D films seem to be mostly limited to exploitation action films, children’s films, and documentaries/educational films.
  2. Risk Management: Studios aren’t confident that 3D films can be profitable on their own, but they are willing to bet that 3D sales will bolster their net profit on a script.  As a result, theaters are showing 2D and 3D versions of the same films.
  3. Affect of Effects: If Avatar used 3D to maximum affect, the average Hollywood film does the opposite, I suspect as a result of pattern 2 above.  Films seem to be written and shot with 2D techniques in mind using 3D cameras.  This allows for filmmakers and their crews to fall back on their experience with standard techniques with which they are familiar without excluding the possibility of cashing in on the 3D fad. For example, MIB 3D had one scene that shot laser beams out into the audience (annoyingly gimmicky? Yes.), but otherwise could have been appreciated equally without the cool glasses.
  4. Respect for 3D: Filmmakers seem to have had their fun and are past the initial R&D phase with regards to 3D technology.  They are beginning to avoid the stereotypical scene where a ball is thrown or a monster bites into the audience.  Movie-goers are bored of this cheap effect, and filmmakers have moved on (for the most part). We are now moving into a new era where filmmakers are forced to use the tech wisely, rather than throw it at scenes randomly.  I would like to blame Avatar for this trend, because it allowed audiences to expect more similar to the iPad’s effect on mobile computing. Overall, it seems that filmmakers are finally getting a grip on how to use 3D, which I am very happy about.

I have avoided 3D films in general because I frankly don’t respect a large majority of those that I’ve seen.  I spent a good $13 to see a few films in theaters recently and was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t completely offended by the way the 3D films were executed.  Today, young children and teenage boys are clearly the studio’s target audience for 3D movies. Give it another decade, and I expect this demographic will broaden.  People go to the movies to experience something outside of life and the film community has straddled the line of reality and imagination since its inception. Soon Hollywood’s 3D techniques will meet this expectation and films will be that much closer to tricking their audiences’ minds into believing the film’s reality.

Once 3D is perfected, all we’ll need is perspective. Anyone else expecting the resurgence of CinemaScope?

Discussion

18 thoughts on “Veni, vidi, vici!

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    Posted by Official DeMarcus Ware Jersey | August 4, 2012, 6:44 am
  2. You should be getting paid for this sort of stuff!

    Posted by bettybls | August 4, 2012, 3:21 pm
  3. I confess, the only movie I have seen in 3D recently was Beauty and the Beast. They had some cute tricks but the 3D in the movie didn’t seem to add much to the movie.

    Posted by danceintheline | August 5, 2012, 12:30 am
  4. nice..

    Posted by Ravi Kumar | August 5, 2012, 1:38 am
  5. My father was involved setting up cinemas to run 3D movies in New Zealand in the 1950s. There was a major panic on in case TV killed cinema – the joke being that New Zealand didn’t have TV just then. But they did get 3D movies. The difficulty was that – as you point out today – the medium was used as a special effect rather than part of the experience; directors emphasised things stupidly erupting out at the audience. Also, the way it was done then was by ganging two projectors up with Selsen motors and running two films, polarised at 90 degrees to each other – but they always drifted a frame or two in spite of the mechanical linkages, with the result that each eye was slightly out of synch and audiences got headaches.

    The specific technical reason why 3D movies look phony is that humans don’t actually see in true 3D beyond a certain distance (we’d see further if our eyes were 3 feet apart).. The sense of depth beyond that is generated by a variety of mind-tricks which we do automatically. The problem with 3D movies is that they present everything as if close-up perception – and the mind can tell the difference. It’s unlikely to become a viable medium until this issue is properly solved, I suspect.

    Posted by Matthew Wright | August 5, 2012, 2:00 am
    • Thanks for sharing this anecdote! I’m fascinated by how the technology developed, and unfortunately the bugs weren’t recorded so these experiences are lost to history for the most part. I wonder if any of that equipment is still functioning in some corner of the world…

      Posted by moosettetheater | August 5, 2012, 5:18 pm
  6. Wasn’t 3D Resurrected largely as a way to a) stop dvd/blu-ray piracy and b) allow cinemas to charge a ridiculous premium at the box officer for 3D? Anyway, it does seems quite ubiquitous these days!

    Posted by bashothegreat | August 5, 2012, 2:42 am
    • I suspect this could be the intention of the studios. They seem to be correct about creating a new cash flow, but I highly doubt it will have any effect on piracy. I can think of a few different ways around any obstacles the new technology presents, and I’m sure the DVD pirates are motivated enough to think of a few more. The only way to reduce piracy is to make it less lucrative. Give them a better way to make money, or otherwise not worth their time.

      Posted by moosettetheater | August 5, 2012, 5:24 pm
  7. I saw “Titanic” in 3-D. Not bad. I like “Titanic” because I feel the set designers, costume directors and so on did a good job of recreating what it was like to be traveling on the Titanic and I was curious to see what the 3-D effect would add to the movie. The 3-D effect added an extra charm to the film because it felt as if you could actually reach out and touch the water.

    Posted by Eagle-Eyed Editor | August 5, 2012, 5:32 am
    • I was lucky enough to see a screening in NYC which was prefaced with an interview with James Cameron. I wish I remembered more about the questions he was asked, but he made it clear that it wasn’t an easy decision to convert his 1997 hit to 3D, that the process was technically advanced and highly detail oriented, and that zero new footage was taken.

      I completely agree that the payoffs were highest in the shots of the ship and underwater. I quite enjoyed those little masterpieces. I think I still like the original 2D version though, mostly for reasons based on nostalgia. But “Titanic 3D” is without a doubt another example of the technology being used wisely.

      Posted by moosettetheater | August 5, 2012, 5:35 pm
  8. Thanks for the historical perspective. I wore one of those glasses way back and remember thinking how idiotic I must have looked and I never did see what they claimed I should be seeing.

    Posted by poemattic | August 5, 2012, 7:55 am
  9. I remember CinemaScope well. I don’t know if you knew this but, Musician Fiona Apple references a CinemaScope in “Hot Knife”, a song off her 2012 album The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. She sings “If I’m butter, then he’s a hot knife, he makes my heart a cinemascope screen, showing the dancing bird of paradise.” Maybe this is the start of a resurgence of CinemaScope? http://www.segmation.wordpress.com

    Posted by segmation | August 5, 2012, 10:31 am
  10. 3D = headache

    Posted by elmer | August 5, 2012, 11:14 am
  11. I hate that I wasn’t able to watch Titanic in 3D, it’s my favorite film of all time. I’ve watch Avatar though and wasn’t that impressed with the story and characters. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about these movies in 3D, I like reading your piece. 😀

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    Posted by Alyssa | August 6, 2012, 12:44 am
  12. I’ve noticed that a lot of theaters around town will show only 3D versions of the film during busy time slots which is frustrating for someone like myself who doesn’t think 3D is that great. It’s aggravating because tickets are about $4 more than regular priced tickets.

    Posted by fatima | August 6, 2012, 7:19 pm
  13. thank you

    Posted by kollshi17 | August 7, 2012, 10:19 pm

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