Why the jury is still out on 3D cinema

More films are embracing 3D, to not very impressive effect. Is it just a gimmick to relieve us of more cash, or is 3D the real deal? And will Avatar be 3D's defining moment?

Is 3D really the future of cinema?

December 18th 2009 could prove to be not just a pivotal date for 20th Century Fox’s accountants, but also the big defining moment for 3D cinema. Because that’s the day that James Cameron’s eagerly awaited Avatar finally makes its cinema bow. And it’s also the day where we get to see if there’s far more to 3D cinema than we’ve been treated to thus far.

Gimmick?

In the olden days, of course, 3D was regarded and treated as a gimmick. A fun gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. Thus, we trotted in to see films such as Jaws 3-D, A Nightmare On Elm Street 6 and even the third Spy Kids movie to sit and wear some daft looking glasses, spurred on by marketing lines suggesting we’d be getting ‘closer to the action’, or some such hokum. We never did, of course, but to be fair, we probably knew that when we walked in.

But then, a few years ago, several major film makers really started to talk up 3D as the future of cinema. At the time, I wondered if they were doing so simply because they wanted it – for various agendas – to be the future of cinema, but nonetheless, I was intrigued. This time, it seemed, many cinemas were actually going to invest in the proper technology for 3D films, and the movies too would be treated properly as well. This was no gimmick, it seemed. There was commitment on all sides coming through.

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Now personally, I’m always interested in anything that can enhance further the fun of watching a movie on a huge screen. I buy tickets for any IMAX release of a film I want to see over seeing said flick on a conventional screen, for instance. And while I’ve always suspected that 3D is the answer to a question that not many people seemed to be asking – films have, after all, survived in two dimensions perfectly well for a long time now – I do believe that evolution of the medium is a good thing. Even if, for some time, 3D was something that was there, but few really seemed interested in doing much with it.

The Journey

Any movie studio that was reluctant to embrace 3D film making, though, surely had its head turned by the performance of last year’s Brendan Fraser headliner, Journey To The Center Of The Earth. This was, to be fair, a shitty little film, but one that played for most of the summer, solely off the back of its 3D gimmickry. And said gimmickry was out in force, with the film feeling like a feature length version of those old 3D cinemas you used to get in theme parks. Any excuse to lug something unconvincingly towards the camera was not resisted, and the end result was a film that coasted by on its 3D work, and little else. Given that it took over $100m at the US box office as a result, it’s unsurprising that a sequel is on the way.

Yet Journey To The Center Of The Earth Again, or whatever the sequel may be called, will have a far tougher time when it finally arrives. For it now seems that there’s not a major movie studio out there that’s not trying to frantically re-tool releases old and new to make the most of the 3D ‘revolution’ while it’s in its infancy, and arguably audience interest is at its highest. Raiding through the archives, films such as the Toy Storys, Beauty And The Beast, Titanic, Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings are all rumoured or have been confirmed for the 3D treatment. I’m always cautious about ‘retrofitting’ such an effect to material that wasn’t intended for 3D transmission in the first place, but nonetheless, I suspect I’ll be buying a couple of tickets for some of those anyway, intrigued to see just what difference 3D will make.

Studios are falling over themselves to add 3D to their existing slate, too, no matter how far into production certain films are. Take the recent Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs. This was a two and a half to three year production, yet when we spoke to one of the project’s lead animators (link at the bottom of the article), he revealed that the notion of it being released in 3D wasn’t there from day one. Instead, a stereoscopic team was brought in, with less than a year of production left, to add the necessary effects. That, to us, sounds more like jumping on a bandwagon rather than attempting to properly integrate 3D into a motion picture.

I felt the same after leaving a screening of Monsters vs Aliens. I enjoyed the film, but, having been charged a couple of quid extra to attend a 3D screening, I wondered just what I’d paid my money for. Sure, there was a gratuitous shot of a ball on a string (I think that’s what it was) coming towards the screen, and one or two good sequences in space, but this, surely, wasn’t really a 3D film? Surely instead it was a 2D film with some 3D bits plastered on it, as an excuse to add a bit more to the ticket price? That’s very much how it came across from my seat.

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It certainly felt that way too after seeing Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince. I caught it on an IMAX screen, with ‘certain sequences’ in 3D. I sat there with my glasses on, waiting to be impressed, and got the strong opening sequence, and then Dumbledore and Harry having a chat. Honestly? I couldn’t wait to take the damn things off by that point. 3D has added pretty much nothing.

Fair’s Fair

Studios, for my money, have to play fair with 3D if they want us to continually stump up for it. DreamWorks, for instance, has now decided not to release a 3D version of Monsters vs Aliens on DVD or Blu-ray, simply because the technology in our homes isn’t up to the job. Having struggled to appreciate the 3D of Coraline by squinting through cheap cardboard glasses in the direction of my TV set, I think that’s a wise plan, and I appreciate DreamWorks avoiding the urge to slap 3D on the box, without it having much of an enhancement in the home.

But can we extend that to the big screen, too? To the studios: don’t just add a couple of 3D effects once the film is all but in the can. Actually commit to the process, and dare to experiment with it. That’s what’s made technological improvements in cinema quite so compelling over the years: when someone takes something new, and actually does something with it that’s to the good of the production concerned. Right now, 3D for the most part feels like something extra to put on the poster, and a good reason to relieve us of some extra cash, in return for something that, right now, is not wholly convincing.

And that’s why Avatar matters. Leaving aside for a minute the sheer fact that it’s a brand new James Cameron movie, which would have had us pre-booking our seats anyway, this is the work of a man who has continually pushed the technical boundaries of cinema. 3D needs an advocate such as James Cameron, and needs someone like him who’s willing to bathe his entire production in 3D technology. The film is a massive gamble on many levels, but if 3D is really going to be the future of cinema, then I suspect we’ll be getting an indication that’s so by the end of the year.

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Likewise, keep an eye out for another technical innovator, Robert Zemeckis. Before the aforementioned screening of Harry Potter, we were treated to a 3D trailer of his upcoming A Christmas Carol, and here, for the first time, I felt myself being genuinely impressed with what was being projected onto the screen in 3D. I can’t say I’ve got a desperate urge to sit through another telling of the classic Charles Dickens story – between The Muppets and Blackadder, they’ve already nailed that one for me – but I’ll be front and centre when A Christmas Carol opens. Because on the basis of the trailer – and I appreciate I might be falling into a trap here – I’m genuinely intrigued as to just how effective 3D could be.

Revolution?

Zemeckis and Cameron, though, I truly believe are the kind of guys who won’t just press the 3D button as a gimmick. They’re, instead, the kind of directors who believe in it, and will properly bother with it. That’s why it’s their films that could yet define how much of a revolution 3D actually is in cinema.

No matter how they do, an army of 3D films is still heading our way over the coming year or two. TinTin, Alice In Wonderland, Toy Story 3, How To Train Your Dragon, Piranha 3D, The Final Destination (and I do wonder if horror may yet prove to be the natural home of 3D cinema), Cats & Dogs: Revenge Of Kitty Galore, Shrek Forever After, Rapunzel, Step Up 3-D, Despicable Me, The Smurfs and Oobermind are just some of the titles looking to add a premium to your ticket price. Here’s hoping, though, that they do more to justify it than some of the ‘3D’ films we’ve sat through to date.

And Mr Cameron? We’ll be seeing you on December 18th. Because we really, really want you to be right about 3D….