Is 3D getting better, and what does it add to the movie watching experience?

As Hugo aims to enchant audiences with a 3D story about the birth of cinema, Mark wonders whether 3D’s improving, and exactly what it adds to our experience…

Please note: there’s a slight spoiler for Joe Dante’s The Hole a bit further down. It’s clearly marked.Last week saw the UK release of Hugo, and if you weren’t expecting a 3D family film from Martin Scorsese, you might be even more surprised to hear that his film boasts the most adept use of Real-D 3D since the resurgence of stereoscopy in the cinema.

Hugo, which is possessed with a love of early cinema that is as accessible for young children as it is for hardened film buffs, actually finds a thematic use for 3D. It directly recalls the first audience who saw the Lumière brothers’ Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat. They reportedly ran away from the screen, because it was like the train was really coming towards them.

As well as the added sense of depth afforded to Hugo’s carnivalesque train station and Parisian landscape, Scorsese quite gleefully points things in the audience’s faces, too. At one point, Sacha Baron Cohen’s station inspector gets in Hugo’s face, and, simultaneously, in the face of every member of the audience too.

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While any opinion of Hugo in 3D is subjective, James Cameron’s declaration that it features the best 3D he’s ever seen is surely an indication that Scorsese’s first run with the technique is something very special indeed. In a time of post-conversions and inflated ticket prices, Hugo has justification for its 3D, and for once, it actually adds something to the film. Are there many other 3D films from the last couple of years about which we can say the same?

3D aficionados will surely speak up for Avatar and The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn, which seem to be ideal examples. I liked Avatar a lot, and loved the experience of seeing it in the cinema even more, but it’s the film that I remember, and not the 3D. When I went back to view the film again, I didn’t feel any need to don the plastic glasses once again, and the film is just as good in 2D.

Yes, the optical illusion fills out the world of Pandora and all of that, but if we’re honest, that planet, brought to life on the big screen, looks stunning because it’s completely computer-generated. It’s a huge step forward in special effects, in precisely the way that the 3D wasn’t.

There was a pre-feature cinema ad going around recently, which featured Simon Pegg, someone who has spoken against 3D on his Twitter account in the past, talking about Tintin, and saying it was “the best use of 3D I have seen in any film.” Fair enough, but Tintin is a much more recent film, and I don’t even remember anything memorable about the 3D in that either.

As with Avatar, I was far more impressed with the visual effects, and the performance-capture animation that brought Hergé’s characters to life in such a vibrant fashion. But as mentioned, enjoyment of 3D is subjective, and it’s not to say that those films were technically unsound in their use of 3D. Some supporters will say that it’s so good, you don’t even notice it, which begs the question of why it needs to be there at all.

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From a personal standpoint, I would look to Joe Dante’s The Hole and the far more anarchic Jackass 3D for the best uses of live-action 3D on the big screen. Although subject to the little technical problems of 3D, especially ghosting, The Hole, in the tradition of Gremlins, is an enjoyable, entry-level horror film for kids, which uses 3D to embellish some of its creepier scenes.

Here comes The Hole mild spoiler.

Yes, Dante indulges in a scene where young Lucas lies on his bed, throwing a baseball up towards the camera, but later on, there’s a terrific scene in which the hole in the kids’ basement is revealed to contain their worst fears – specifically, their childhood home at a time when their abusive father was still around.

The exaggerated scale of the sets, representing how the rooms appeared to the kids when they were very young and frightened, is filled out by the 3D in a really unnerving way. 3D was used to a similar effect in the animated Coraline, another family movie with elements of gothic horror, and a showcase of what can be done with stereoscopy in terms of storytelling.

Spoiler ends.

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Perhaps it undermines any of my arguments to say so, but one of the few other 3D films I enjoyed for its 3D was Jackass 3D, which transformed that film series from extended episodes of the TV series, into a more cinematic and imaginative extended episode of the TV series.

Having not been a huge fan of Jackass, or the previous two films in the series, the third instalment was genuinely improved by the use of 3D, putting the demented imaginations of Johnny Knoxville and the rest of his team to the test. If 3D is, as some critics have said, a fairground attraction, then Jackass 3D was its gloriously visceral freakshow, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Those are both films for which I would say 3D is really essential. Even Hugo, which would definitely be the film to see if you’ve somehow avoided the surcharges and the glasses on your cinema visits up until now, is pretty special even without 3D. But Hugo is still an instance of 3D working very well, and it’s not the only one.

If there’s one thing we’ve noticed, it’s that 3D works best with floating or flying objects. The snow in Hugo, the lanterns in Tangled, the embers of dead vampires in Fright Night, the mountain banshees in Avatar and, of course, Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon. With Jeffrey Katzenberg’s commitment to make all of DreamWorks’ films 3D from Monsters Vs. Aliens onwards, How To Train Your Dragon was the real watershed moment for the studio’s 3D output.

In fact, DreamWorks has generally done a grand job with 3D, relying less on gimmicks and things popping out of the screen, and more on the kind of spectacle that makes it worth the price of admission. Although Shrek Forever After particularly suffered from the light loss inherent to the technology, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a great example, and even has a terrific sequence of hand-drawn animation that looks astonishing in 3D.

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So if there’s demonstrably a fair amount of 3D that does work in movies, even though it’s not always essential to the experience, why this perception that it doesn’t work? Typically, 3D gets far more bad press than good, despite the hype juggernaut, because of the proliferation of post-conversions.

The most infamous examples would be last year’s Clash Of The Titans and The Last Airbender, which are prime instances of studio tendencies to rush through a post-conversion after the mammoth box-office success of Avatar. The awful 3D in Clash Of The Titans came together in about six weeks for its April 2010 release date.

For a time, there was an astonishing lack of quality control. The only time a studio has ever admitted that their post-conversion was sub-par was with Warner Bros’ Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1, and they actually cancelled the planned 3D version of that film, just one month before release.

Having had more time to work on the final instalment, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 proved to be another pointless endeavour in its 3D variant, with the dark palette looking even duller when saddled with the usual light-loss problem. Some cinemas were even reported to have put up signs, warning customers that the film was “very dark” in 3D, to stave off complaints.

James Cameron, the most obvious champion of Real-D 3D, has complained about how the succession of shoddy conversions is damaging the potential and development of 3D, and has even set up a classification board. His plan is to certify filmmakers’ use of 3D in the same way Dolby certifies quality sound, to establish a standard beneath which 3D should not fall.

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Elsewhere, Cameron is painstakingly converting his Best Picture-winning epic Titanic for an anniversary re-release in 3D, in April 2012. Likewise, a six-year plan to re-release the Star Wars films in 3D will begin in February with The Phantom Menace. Time will tell if the popularity of older films in 3D will hurt or help the development of the technology into something that is taken more seriously.

This seems like the best possible way to assure quality control in the future. If even the really good 3D has seldom proven itself essential to the film to which it’s attached, then we’re at a point where a shoddy post-conversion just won’t do. 3D is presently the forte of CG-animated movies, which are much easier to convert without ghosting or light-loss than their live-action competitors.

With decreasing revenues from 3D screenings as opposed to 2D screenings in the States, the future of Real-D seems as unclear as Clash Of The Titans. Peter Jackson is using 3D to shoot The Hobbit. Christopher Nolan didn’t use it on The Dark Knight Rises. So there are clearly still divisions, but if 3D is to become the norm, filmmakers must make the inflated ticket price and the wearing of the glasses as justifiable as Martin Scorsese has done with Hugo.