Tuesday, February 21, 2012

3-D or Not 3-D?

It's nothing new, this 3-D thing.  There was a 3-D film as far back as 1922, and in the 1950s, of course, there were cheesy, comin'-at-ya films designed in response to the rise of TV -- moviemakers had to figure out a way to offer audiences something different than they could see in their homes, and you couldn't possibly get Cinerama, Cinemascope, Smell-o-Vision and 3-D on the boob tube.

Now, the public may be dumb, but it's not that dumb, and they saw 3-D for what it was: a gimmick, a gag, a diversion that didn't add a single thing to the movies they saw except, possibly, a headache.  Plus, those cardboard glasses cut into your ears something fierce.

So, 3-D came and went quickly, and though some big-name filmmakers (Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney among them) flirted with the concept, no one took it terribly seriously.  There were better ways to dazzle audiences ... like, for instance, making better movies.

In the early 1980s, the VCR began to take hold.  People were starting to stay home from the movies, driven both by higher ticket prices in the midst of a recession and ... well, lousy movies.  So, Hollywood dusted off the old gimmick and trotted it out again with some new bells and whistles, and for a few years movies like Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D and Friday the 13th, Part III in 3-D became popular.  But they were lousy films, though this time 3-D found a permanent home in theme parks, with short 3-D films added to Disneyland and Universal Studios.  But, both audiences and filmmakers realized there was a better way ... like, for instance, making better movies.

We think it all changed with Avatar, but we're wrong.  The underlying technology had always been interesting to some filmmakers, particularly those working in newer media like IMAX and digital animation, and by the mid-2000s, 3-D was a novel gimmick to movies like The Polar Express and My Bloody Valentine 3-D.  Because it was new, because it was aimed primarily at kids, 3-D films grossed more than 2-D films.  Hollywood loves money, and they started reckoning that if 3-D films that bad could make that much money, better 3-D films could make more money.

That's when Avatar came along.  Unlike any other film released in 3-D in the previous 50 years, Avatar was designed for three dimensions and shot with 3-D cameras.  People who would never have considered going to see a 3-D film were fascinated by the promise, and they went to Avatar in droves.  It became the highest-grossing film in history.

And then, something weird happened.  Instead of consistently out-grossing their 2-D counterparts, 3-D films started underperforming.  When given a choice, audiences were not always choosing 3-D.  Surefire, can't miss 3-D movies were ... missing.

Why were movies as diverse as Step-Up 3-D, Piranha 3-D, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, Gulliver's Travels, Rio, The Green Hornet, Tron: Legacy and the Oscar-nominated Hugo suddenly failing to score with audiences?  Worse, why, when they were released in both 2-D and 3-D, were fewer and fewer people opting to see these films in three dimensions?

An entire industry was ready to change its way of doing business -- big-name directors were embracing 3-D, talking about how they could offer something artistically new in the format.  Companies were planning to offer "permanent" 3-D glasses for sale, so you could take your own stylish pair to the movies.  Television manufacturers were beginning to create 3-D TVs, to extend the experience into the home.  And though there were some gargantuan hits, like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, The Lion King and Toy Story 3 (do you follow the common theme there?), audiences seemed overall to be shunning 3-D.

Despite those setbacks, there's still a rah-rah, go-team mentality among many in the industry that insists 3-D has a future -- though they seem a little less bullish, a little less gleeful than the post-Avatar days.

Perhaps that's because when many of these executives see their 3-D movies, they see them with perfect projection that compensates for the noticeable loss in brightness on the screen.  It's common knowledge among the lowly class that pays to see movies that 3-D films are dim, murky and make your eyes tired in different ways than the red-and-blue glasses did, but no less irritatingly.

In 3-D, movies just don't look very good.  Distract yourself for a moment by doing something like finding your bag of popcorn or your drink, or looking down at your watch, and you've done more than take your eyes off the screen, you have to re-adjust yourself.

Keep in mind, most 3-D films are still aimed at younger audiences -- the teen and tween set.  When they go to movies on date night, they often like to do things other than look at the screen.  Ever tried making out with 3-D glasses on?  (For the more chaste among us, ever tried simply resting your head on someone's shoulder while wearing 3-D glasses?)

Of course, 3-D's also a cash-cow.  Movie theater owners, studios, 3-D technology companies, they all make money from the 3-D surcharge.  Though this has never been done with any other technology invented for the movies, 3-D movies cost significantly more to see than do "standard" movies.  With a few films, like Avatar or Alice in Wonderland -- movies that take us somewhere we've never been, that give us real spectacle -- it's worth the extra three bucks.  Piranha, not so much.

In boring old 2-D, movies can envelop us, enrapture us, take us on flights of fantasy, show us a world we've never seen (even if that world is right down the street), move us, infuriate us, illuminate our minds, touch our souls.  They do that just fine in two dimensions, because movies themselves are illusions.  They are dreams.  They miraculously fool us into believing we are, for a couple of hours, somewhere, someone, something other than we are.

I've yet to meet anyone who came away from a 2-D movie thinking, instinctively, it would have moved or entertained them more with a third dimension, that if only they had been able to sense the spatial difference between Debra Winger and those two little boys, Terms of Endearment would have moved them more.

Except in rare situations (and even in those, it's certainly arguable), 3-D is always unnecessary.  Not usually, not frequently, but always.  And part of that may have to do with what we're left with when we are done watching a movie, what we're left with at the end of any day -- memories.  Unless I'm completely unique and my experiences are different than everyone else's, we don't remember in 3-D.

We can recall the images, we can recollect the sounds, we can piece together the moments, and in our minds, they unspool themselves and play themselves out much like a movie.  Funny how that works.

Besides, there are better ways to dazzle audiences, to get them to put down their hard-earned money, to fill theater seats ... like, making better movies.  Sixty years later, Hollywood is still trying to learn that lesson.

1 comment:

  1. I just commented this morning regarding 'The Great Gatsby' in 3-D, "What will we be seeing, an old Packard and wine glasses popping out at us?"

    I have mixed feelings about it. It's a tool that can be utilized effectively in certain situations.