Monday, August 8, 2011

The Monday Musings #2 - The 3D Dilemma - After "Avatar," where did Hollywood go wrong?

It's Monday morning, which means it's time for another Monday Musings column!  If you didn't read last week's debut article, here's how it works: Every Monday, there will be a new column where I discuss whatever's on my mind, usually related to film, TV, music, or general entertainment trends.  Today, we're taking a look at one of the biggest controversies for modern film fans - Hollywood's obsession with 3D, when it works well, when it doesn't, and how the industry needs to approach 3D moving forward.  Enjoy it, come back next Monday for more musings!  

Read "The 3D Dilemma" after the jump...

“After Toy Story, there were 10 really bad CG movies because everybody thought the success of that film was CG and not great characters that were beautifully designed and heartwarming. Now, you've got people quickly converting movies from 2D to 3D, which is not what we did. They're expecting the same result, when in fact they will probably work against the adoption of 3D because they'll be putting out an inferior product.” 
                                                      - Avatar Director James Cameron

It’s a little bit eerie how right James Cameron was when he spoke these words, especially considering that this quote was made while Avatar was still playing in theatres and grossing unholy amounts of money, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland had just hit 3D screens to such great success.  At the time, 3D really did seem like the ‘next big thing,’ something that would revolutionize the industry and change the way we watch movies.  People were excited, and the wave of 3D hype propelled films like Alice to gross far more than they would have under normal circumstances, due mostly to the $3 or higher surcharge imposed on 3D tickets. 

Flash-forward to the present day - August 2011.  We’re wrapping up a summer movie season where nearly every major blockbuster, as well as a handful of smaller films, was released in 3D, and the public attitude towards the format has changed drastically.  Not only has excitement for 3D waned, causing massive drops in numbers of 3D tickets sold, but the public attitude towards the format has become venomous.  Every time I’m watching a film in a crowded theatre, any trailers that announce the use of 3D are met with loud groans, and when I talk to friends about movies, everybody gets exasperated at the merest mention of the third dimension.

So...what happened?

The simple answer is this: as James Cameron predicted in 2009, the market has been flooded with a whole lot of shoddy 3D work, and combined with the inflated ticket prices 3D brings, the public’s attitude towards 3D has done a 180 from the excitement of Avatar.  But let’s take a closer look at the problem, because whether we like it or not, 3D will be a major component of cinema moving forward, and it’s worth discussing how Hollywood should and should not use the technology, and how they can bring people back into 3D theatres with a smile on their face.

First off, let me give you my opinion: I like 3D.  I really do, as long as it’s used well.  Films shot in 3D by someone skilled with the technology can be spectacular experiences.  When I walked out of Avatar, I was absolutely giddy, and in my review, declared it the most visually amazing cinematic experience I’d ever had.  Two years removed from the high of seeing it for the first time, I might temper that enthusiasm - after all, nothing can really beat The Dark Knight on IMAX for the title of “best visual tour-de-force” - but nonetheless, Avatar was groundbreaking, like nothing I’d ever seen.  James Cameron’s excellent use of 3D didn’t just add a pretty extra sheen to the visuals, but actually enhanced the quality of the movie.  Avatar is all about drawing us into the world of Pandora, allowing us to discover its many intricacies alongside protagonist Jake Sully, and nothing draws us into that world more than the 3D illusion.  Watching the film in 3D, it’s like you’re actually there, on Pandora, as if you could easily step into the image and go exploring.  That, more than anything else, made Avatar an instant classic.

Avatar is the benchmark for good 3D because of how well it integrated the technology into its story and style, but it’s not the only film to achieve this.  A few months earlier, Henry Selick’s Coraline, the first feature-length film shot with our modern, advanced 3D cameras, easily matched Avatar’s visual prowess.  In 2010, TRON: Legacy made expert use of the technology to bring the Grid to life, and in 2011, Transformers 3 demonstrated how 3D can be just as effective in live-action environments as in animated ones. 

In all cases, there are certain defining traits of good 3D that make me love the format.  First and foremost is the depth - it looks as if every actor is really standing there, right in front of you, not flat images projected on a screen, but vivid, living holograms that look just like the real thing.  It’s a bit eerie, seeing projections that look so much like the people we encounter every day, but also exhilarating, adding another level of realism to the images.  The same goes for sets and locations, which take on bold new levels of detail in the third dimension.  When all areas of depth are being photographed, every background detail pops out vividly, and each facet of the image looks sharper and more realistic than in a traditionally shot film.  3D can make action sequences more bombastic and exciting, and adds a compelling layer of realism to simpler sequences like conversations.  When 3D is used well, there really isn’t anything else like it, except for real life - and considering that film takes us places we often can’t go in reality, that makes 3D cinema very invigorating.

But only when it’s done right, and this where the 3D dilemma arises.  All the things I love about 3D simply aren’t present in most 3D releases, and though that may sound like a paradox, it’s actually quite simple: films shot in 3D with the proper equipment usually look great, but a film shot using standard methods like 35mm can never look good in 3D.  The sad fact of the matter is that most films released in 3D these days were never meant to be seen in the format; movies like Thor, Captain America, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, and many more were all filmed using standard 35mm film, and converted to “3D” in post-production.  But there’s only so much a conversion can do, especially when the film wasn’t photographed with that extra dimension in mind, and conversions usually wind up making the film look far, far worse than its traditional, two-dimensional counterpart.

The most common complaints about conversions are dark and blurry images, little-to-no discernible 3D effects, and various other problems depending on the quality (or lack thereof) of the process.  The first 3D conversion in the wake of Avatar was Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.  In its proper 2D format, this is a colorful movie boasting images full of depth.  In 3D, I found the film a struggle to watch.  The glasses darken the colors by 30% - usually more, thanks to lazy theatre practices - and though the conversion didn’t result in any blurriness, the attempt at adding an extra dimension was ultimately distracting, rather than exciting.  The actors and sets and objects, all the components that make up the image, didn’t take on any actual depth, but were instead separated into layers.  For instance, Alice in 3D looked just like Alice in 2D, but she was pulled a little ways apart from the rest of the image to give an illusion of ‘depth’; a Wonderland tree in 3D looked just like a Wonderland tree in 2D, but it was placed further back to make the image look multi-dimensional.  But it’s all artificial, and it’s all very distracting; at its best, Alice in 3D looked like a child’s shoebox diorama project; the 2D version actually had more discernible ‘depth.’

Indeed, this is one of the most important things to understand about filmmaking; whether or not the movie is released in “3D,” the depth of the image is always on the director’s mind.  As Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight and Inception put it: I think it's a misnomer to call it 3-D versus 2-D. The whole point of cinematic imagery is it's three-dimensional....95% of our depth cues come from occlusion, resolution, color and so forth, so the idea of calling a 2-D movie a '2-D movie' is a little misleading.”  It’s true – plenty of traditionally shot films look three-dimensional; Inception, for instance, has very deep and immersive imagery because most of the elements that allow our eyes to see 3D are already there.  3D technology doesn’t technically add a whole lot – according to Nolan, 95% of what we need is already present – so it should only be used in instances when the benefits of 3D really make a sizable difference on the effectiveness of the image. 

This is why conversions fail, because the people behind the camera didn’t make the decision, and therefore didn’t shoot the movie considering how the 3D effect would be overlaid.  The process has gotten slightly better over time, but not by much.  One of the best 3D conversions is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, but it’s still an insult to the integrity of the image.  Because the film takes place at night and is very low-lit, it’s unsuited to the 3D process.  But dimming the image isn’t the conversion’s biggest problem – no, the biggest flaw is what the process does to the light present in the picture.  Even dark images have to contain some form of lighting, be it a bulb in the background, a flame, or a spell being cast, and these sources of light all reflect off the glasses and create a glare across the whole screen, a glare that makes the 3D version impossible to enjoy.  Director David Yates didn’t shoot the film with 3D in mind, which is why the film’s natural composition creates these sorts of problems when converted to 3D.  There are other usual flaws stemming from the conversion – background details are sometimes blurred, colors are slightly changed (or not so slightly; Emma Watson’s hair looks red throughout the film), and there’s a disconcerting digitized look to the entire film.  Plus, there’s very little discernible depth, except in the most brightly-lit scenes.

Film is complex, and if something is shot one way, chances are it won’t look good shown in a completely different way.  This is why conversions fail, and now we reach my biggest problem with modern 3D, and the problem most Americans have - Hollywood actually charges you MORE for an inferior product.  Simply typing those words makes me angry.  When 3D is used well, as in Avatar or Transformers, it really is a ‘special’ event, and the $3 or higher surcharge is understandable, if not completely agreeable.  When a film is converted to 3D, invariably resulting in an image far less appealing than the standard 2D, the surcharge is an insult.  We’re being asked to pay more for less, which is a sickening truth. 

Some directors, like James Cameron, Michael Bay, and Peter Jackson, have embraced 3D as a means to improve the quality of their films - they see it as a method of artistic expression.  Studios, however, see 3D as a way to inflate ticket prices rapidly, rather than waiting the decade it would take for ticket prices to naturally rise, and the desire to make a quick buck demolishes the artistic integrity of filmmaking.

But here’s the funny part - people have already caught onto this, and are speaking with their wallets.  The early 3D blockbusters, such as Avatar, Alice, and Clash, all sold upwards of 60% of their tickets in 3D, encouraging studios to crank out more and more conversions.  During the summer of 2011, however, things changed.  For Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - which actually was photographed in 3D - only 37% percent of audiences elected to see the 3D version, and the trend continued throughout the summer.  Kung Fu Panda 2, Green Lantern, Cars 2, Captain America, Harry Potter, and more, all with 3D attendance hovering at or below 40%.  Some of these films, like Pirates, Cars, and Panda, all looked good in 3D, but clearly, audiences had had enough, and were no longer willing to shell out the extra cash unless the experience warranted it.

This is why Transformers 3, a film I and many others praised as the best use of 3D technology so far, made the most in 3D screenings this summer, with over 60% of its domestic grosses coming from 3D screens.  It is the only film of the season, however, to have broken the trend, and that’s a very positive sign.  If studios look at how audiences approached 3D in the summer of 2011, they’ll see that people started getting wise about shoddy conversion work and stopped getting excited at the mention of an extra dimension.  Audiences actively sought out ordinary, cheaper 2D screenings to see the movie in the best possible quality, but when a film was released that actually warranted the third dimension - Transformers - they did shell out the extra money.  The lessons learned this summer are simple: market saturation is bad (which a basic economics class should have taught the studios), but people will support 3D if the product is extraordinary.

Personally, though, I think we need to reach a point where there’s no surcharge at all for 3D.  If it really is just another artistic tool for filmmakers to use, consumers shouldn’t have to pay more.  When color was introduced in the 1930s, audiences weren’t asked to pay extra to see The Wizard of Oz, for instance.  Artistically, 3D will not be accepted as part of a filmmaker’s palette if the focus is only on the commercial advantages, and commercially, 3D will quickly die if studios focus on undermining art for the sake of higher grosses.  There are some very exciting 3D films coming out in the next few years - Steven Spielberg’s Tintin, releasing this Christmas, will be amazing in 3D, and Peter Jackson is pushing the medium even further with his upcoming Hobbit films by shooting 3D in 48 frames-per-second, rather than the standard 24.  I’m excited to see what directors Joss Whedon and Mark Webb will accomplish shooting in 3D for their upcoming Avengers and Spider-Man films, respectively.  I hope public opinion hasn’t soured too much by the time these movies hit theatres, because 3D is the way these upcoming films are meant to be seen, and I want audiences to experience them the right way. 

But that means that Hollywood has to cut the conversion crap ASAP; they have to tone down the surcharges or remove them entirely, and they have to focus on giving audiences a compelling reason to don the glasses.  We’re at a crucial turning point in the history of 3D, and I hope studios make the right choices. 

Finally, I leave you with a quote by Steven Spielberg himself from this year’s Comic-Con: “I am certainly hoping that 3D gets to a point where people do not notice it. Because once they stop noticing it, it just becomes another tool and helps tell a story. Then maybe they can make ticket prices comparable to a 2D movie and not charge such exorbitant prices just to gain entry into a 3D one, with the exception of IMAX – we are getting a premium experience in a premium environment. But to show a 3D movie in a similar theater in a multiplex next to another similar theater showing a 2D movie, hopefully someday there will be so many 3D movies, prices will come down – which I think will be fair to the consumer.”

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