The problems with the 3D bandwagon

Warner Bros confirms Clash Of The Titans and Harry Potter are going 3D, and Transformers 3 is likely to be 3D too. But is a 3D bolt-on really the way to go?

Two interesting stories arrived in our mailbox today. Firstly, we had the news that Warner Bros was, indeed, confirming the rumours that it was bolting 3D onto a series of its already-in-production features. So, as reported previously, Clash Of The Titans is having 3D tacked on and its release date pushed back to April 2nd as a result, while Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore, Guardians Of Ga’Hoole and both upcoming Harry Potter films are heading for 3D as well.

The second story was about Paramount’s desire to do Transformers 3, which starts shooting later this year in 3D. Yet, according to Variety, “The big stumbling block is the extra time required to do production and visual effects in 3D, as the movie’s release date is already set.” Question marks are being asked about whether Michael Bay and his team have time – ahead of the 2011 release of the film – to take the film 3D. In short, adding 3D isn’t something you want to tackle overnight.

But isn’t that not far from what’s happening? Because as early as the start of last month, it seemed that Warner Bros hadn’t signed off on the decision to retrofit 3D to Clash Of The Titans. And now that it has done, the work is being done in triple-quick time, forcing, at worst, a two-week release date delay. I may be going out on a limb here, but unless Warner Bros has access to a serious impressive 3D post-production system, Clash Of The Titans is not going to be a 3D poster child. Instead, it’s a cash grab, pure and simple.

The catalyst for all of this, of course, is James Cameron’s Avatar. 3D screenings of the most successful film of all time at the box office (in terms of cash taken) have accounted for a substantial slice of the film’s revenues (on some weekends up to 80% of the film’s takings are reported to have come from 3D screenings). And the benefit, of course, to 3D is that you can whack a premium on top of the ticket price too, whether people want to see a film in 3D or not.

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The signs are, though, with Avatar that they very much do, and to be fair, this has been a film designed from the ground up with that in mind. Likewise with Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol back before Christmas. Whatever your take on the current 3D craze, it still, undoubtedly, works better when a film has been designed to take advantage of it from day one.

Warner Bros can’t say that of its features. Instead, it’s applying a post-production 3D fix to films that simply weren’t shot with the idea of being watched by an audience wearing 3D glasses. Cameron, you can truly believe, planned his movie top to bottom with that in mind. Louis Letterier, the director of Clash Of The Titans, was reported to be reluctant to add 3D to the film given the tightness of the schedule, and it’s a fair bet that when he first stood on set for the first shot some time ago, 3D was not at the forefront of his mind.

But it’s certainly at the forefront of movie studio executives’ brains now, and that’s why Transformers 3 will be in 3D, whether it’s added in post-production or part and parcel of the shoot. We’d bet on the former.

Last year, we interviewed one of the animators of Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs, Hans Dastrup (you can read the interview here), and he talked about how the stereoscopic team came in with just under a year left on the production of the project. That, he argued, was a tight squeeze, not helped by the fact that “a lot of us were not super-excited about doing it in 3D”. And while Dastrup went on to declare his happiness with the end result, the fitting of 3D to Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs could, perhaps, best be described as ‘very, very subtle’ rather than ‘impactful’.

The same could be levelled at Warner Bros’ decision to turn the opening scene of Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince into 3D lasy year. It allowed it to put 3D on the poster, no matter how ineffective the end result actually was (very ineffective, in case you missed it). And my suspicion is that whenever 3D is added as a post-production fix – and I’m more than happy to be proved wrong here – that its impact is dampened considerably. As noted before, at least when a project is 3D from the ground up, it’s easier to buy into.

That said, there are still the same problems that 3D technology is throwing up. The main one, and we’re hearing this a lot, is that it’s inducing headaches in some people who are sitting and watching movies with 3D glasses on. We spoke to a major Hollywood film director recently, who hasn’t yet made a 3D film, who expressed his excitement for the technology. But he did also say that about half the people he knew of who had seen Avatar were complaining of headaches. That’s anecdotal, certainly, but we’d be keen to see some solid work done on that. Because it does appear to be a significant problem, and one that’s being brushed aside in the 3D goldrush.

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There’s also, of course, the great unsaid. For the end viewer, how has the 3D experience actually changed since we sat in cinemas watching Jaws 3D? Apart from the fact that the films have got a lot better, I can’t help feeling that the jump in end result isn’t that seismic. We’re not seeing the 3D equivalent of jumping from mono to full surround sound here. The glasses are better, and the technology underpinning the 3D has improved. But the end 3D effect is slightly improved, rather than dramatically so, and perhaps film makers are more adept at using it.

I still don’t get the feeling that I could reach out and touch what’s coming out of the screen, and, ironically, it’s often the gimmicky films – such as the terrible Journey To The Center Of The Earth remake or numerous horror movies – that actually make better use of 3D. Journey does the equivalent of staring down the camera at you, deliberately firing 3D effects slap bang at the centre of your point of vision, arguably when the technology is at its most directly effective.

Major Hollywood blockbusters won’t, rightly, do that. Instead though, the 3D will be ‘subtle’, which is, arguably, an excuse for the ticket price to be a bit more expensive without a great deal of difference in the end result. At least Journey To The Center Of The Earth, for all its faults, was honest.

That said, this is a bandwagon that’s not worth fighting right now. Just look at the months ahead. Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland and DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon are both major 3D movies coming in March, and the former of these at least is the kind of project that, in principal, could be greatly aided by the technology, especially if it employs it in a way similar to Coraline (the film for which there’s an argument that it employs 3D better than any so far).

Plus, of course, there’s Clash Of The Titans in April, a film I’m doubly fascinated to see, simply to find out how much 3D can be bolted onto a movie in a handful of weeks, and how effective that process can be. For if Warner Bros’ gamble works, and there’s little reason to suspect that it won’t have a financial benefit to the studio, then you can expect a lot of films currently shooting to follow the same post-production 3D respray before they make it to the big screen…


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