The Opinion Engine 2.0:
3D - do we actually need it this time around? And is it ever, EVER a good idea to convert a film into it?

Question asked by @Discodave75.

Film Usually when I’m asked for my opinion on 3D, a question which seems to crop up with a regularity second only to something Doctor Who related, I’ll usually say that film companies are desperate to find something to bring audiences back to cinemas and have fallen on the return of 3D with the same glee as sound, colour and letterbox. But that it would remain a gimmick until films are made whose stories or at the very least characters and themes are less comprehensible in 2D, just as some colour films are diminished in black and white, letterboxing is spoiled by cropping or panning and scanning and actually take advantage of format in the same way as sound, especially surround sound.

The problem has always been however that really all I’ve been doing is parroting out the views of Kermode, Ebert, Bordwell and a legion of internet commenters all of whom are firmly against 3D, essentially having, as some correspondents on This American Life suggested a couple of years ago, someone else’s argument. 3D to me has been either the two colour process, the experimental format employed for Doctor Who’s Dimensions In Time which required the camera to keep moving or in the present format an old style IMAX demonstration film from ten years ago and this admittedly positive Odeon preview of some trailers to really go on. I needed to see it employed in a narrative format at some point.

Which has meant, for the purposes of answering this question, I took a rare trip to the cinema this afternoon, to FACT Liverpool, for the 3D presentation of Martin Scorcese’s new film, Hugo. This wasn’t approached without some nerves. Thanks to so many horrible experiences with audiences, poor projection and immense ticket prices, I’ve gotten out of the habit of even attending the cinema, preferring instead the large television and comfy seating of my home, with the added plus of the pause button now that I’ve developed the bladder constitution of a pensioner at the age of thirty-seven. I’m pleased to report that this was an attentive albeit small audience, the film was beautifully projected and although the ticket price was £9, it included some reusable glasses.

The film itself is wonderful, magical and everything the less sniffy, more positive reviewers have led us to believe. The fictionalised story of an orphan who discovers the history of cinema and in particular pioneering director Georges Méliès in his bitter, penniless dotage working as a toy salesman in Montparnasse Station, it captures the magic of those earlier times through recreations of his film studio and working methods, as well as the simple pleasures of their stories through romances and chases in the station itself. Life affirming is a phrase ruined because of kitsch over-deployment, but in Scorsese’s love letter to the medium in which he's made his career, we’re reminded of cinema’s capacity to heal the soul.

All of which said, I’m disappointed to say that I’m not sure that any of those things wouldn’t be as true if I’d seen it in 2D. Hugo was shot using 3D cameras, and the director himself has also said that he’s still getting used to the format, suggesting it’s still in its infancy and should be judged as such. Certainly there’s a certainly breathless excitement as the camera cranes and zooms in and out of Hugo’s world, past trains (in homage to the early Lumiere film) and into the clock tower were he lives and hides, weaving between the cogs and mainsprings. Scorsese and his regular cinematographer Robert Richardson make full use of these new tools to dimensionalise the painterly Paris pioneered by Marcel Carné and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

But to some extent, as I expected, in the quieter moments, when the film isn’t putting images just in front of our faces, when two people are chatting in a room, I did wonder if I was tolerating the 3D, enjoying the film in spite of the format rather than because of it. Some of the most exciting moments are when clips are shown of  old films including the famous pink-tinted aerial shot of Babylon from Griffith’s Intolerance, during which I took my glasses of in order to marvel at them with my own eyes, especially since it’s the first time I’ve seen them projected at the intended scale with such a clean print. It’s not until you can see every figure on that ambitious set that you can fully understand the grandeur of what Griffith was trying to accomplish.

I'd also agree with Kermode et al, that 3D gives the image an extra layer of unreality beyond the CGI and artifice already inherent in cinema, thanks to how objects sit on the dimensional frame.  Some critics are suggested the effect is similar to a Viewmaster, in which figures seem rather flat, like cardboard creations in a child's table top theatre but the effect is also akin to the landscape sprites in early home computer racing games, just about acceptable as a car or in this case camera swoops past them, but without distractingly undimensional when caught with the corner of the eye.  Scorsese is also still employing focus with a two dimensional sensibility which means that very often an object fuzzily lurches out towards us drawing our vision away from the most important element of the shot.  Following the rapidly updating geography of the 3D picture is hard work.

There are also practical concerns. The glasses are uncomfortable and I spent most of the film fidgeting with them as they slide up and down my nose and made the side of my ears itchy. Although Scorsese makes it work to the film’s period, the glasses do make the image dimmer and the lenses were also reflecting visual information from behind and beside me, such as the light on the emergency exits. When instructed to put them on before the trailers, I also noticed a number thirteen floating in my peripheral vision. It wasn’t in any of the adverts and I feared I’d spend the whole of the film with it until I realised that the seat number had been screwed to the back of FACT’s comfy new seats. It went as soon as I hung my scarf over it.

All of which sadly confirmed everything I’d been hearing about the experience of watching a 3D film.  I am willing to admit that some of this might have to do with fulfilling pre-existing prejudices. Except, I’m a fan of cinema and was genuinely excited to see my first whole film in the format but there were just too many moments when I wanted to take the glasses off and simply watch the film without them, especially when shots were lost in a mist of hazing when the two images which make up the picture didn’t quite match (especially true of during one particularly important scene at the end). Scorsese’s tried his best, but the 3D’s distracting, the glasses are distracting and I can’t imagine why I’d ever want to go through this again.

So I’m back to watching everything in 2D again for a while. But 3D has changed the way films are constructed. Even when films are filmed flatly, it’s often with an eye to retrofitting which means the shot selection and pace of the thing changes. To some extent it’s helped action sequences especially amongst sympathetic directors and editors who seem pleased to be able to shift backwards from the punishingly fast shot durations which populated the thriller genre in the late noughties. But for technical reasons its also seen a vast increase in the medium close-up (heads and shoulders) and I do wonder if its had a knock on effect on tension in some character-based scenes. Would the Joker's interrogation in The Dark Knight have been as intense if shot for 3D?

When these films are retro-fitted such choices find their purpose, except if Hugo presents what a great director working at the top of his game with cutting edge technology achieves, I really hate to think what some of these faux-D films must look like. Hugo also highlights how Méliès himself indulged in a primitive form of retrofitting, shooting Le Voyage dans la Lune in black and white before hand-painting each frame in colour as part of his post-production process. Is this any different? Perhaps it isn’t. But having seen plenty of 2D presentations of these films over the past twelve months I can’t think of one which would have been benefited by an extra dimension, or at least may have become more entertaining.

But Méliès thought that by adding colour to his films, however crudely, he would enhance the magic of them and that’s been Scorsese’s thought in producing Hugo with the latest technology. But each time one of his directorial ancestors films appeared all I could think was how the Frenchman was able to produce what were then and are still visionary works in two-dimensions and how, in the few moments when that work is also retro-fitted during this work, it detracts from his achievement. Ultimately, then, from my meagre experience, I don’t think we need this form of 3D right now. Which isn’t to say when the technology moves on and we can watch them without glasses as has been hinted, my opinion won’t change.

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