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Discuss: Is Rian Johnson Right About 3D Technology Still Catching Up To The Ambitions Of Filmmakers?

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist June 14, 2012 at 12:03PM

We're coming up to three years since "Avatar" became the biggest-grossing film in history, and any thought that 3D film, which James Cameron's picture helped to revive, was a flash in the pan seems to have been wishful thinking. The top two slots at the current U.S. box office are taken by two 3D films that couldn't be more unlike one another: "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," a colorful, star-studded animated sequel, and "Prometheus," a dark, live-action sci-fi horror from Ridley Scott. And yet they happily sit side-by-side, raking in the cash without cannibalizing each other's 3D screens (not to mention those of "The Avengers" or "Men In Black 3," which are still very much in theaters). And these are hardly outliers: when you include the stereoscopic re-releases of "Titanic" and "The Phantom Menace," eight of the all time top grossers were released in 3D.

Johnson quotes Martin Scorsese as saying that, "It’s like seeing a moving sculpture of the actor and it’s almost like a combination of theatre and film … it immerses you in the story more,” and admits that to hear what he's talking about, "It's hard not to be thrilled by the possibilities." And yet, Johnson says that "None of it has ever held any water for me, simply because what they describe does not match up with my personal experience, and with what I see on the screen. To my eye stereoscopic does not create living sculptures, it creates artificial dioramas. It doesn’t immerse, it distances..." The "muddy, eyeball-half-nelsoning reality of stereoscopic movies" has never lived up to the wondrous 3D world described by people like Scorsese, Cameron and Peter Jackson.

Men In Black 3

And that's certainly been our experience. Almost invariably, post-converted films look like pop-up books, even when they're well-planned: we were actuallly impressed by the way Barry Sonnnenfeld shot "Men In Black 3" for the format, but we never felt immersed, we felt "oh, that's a cool 3D moment." Natively shot 3D is certainly preferable, but even when it's well acheived -- "Hugo," "Prometheus" -- we find ourselves seeing "ghosting" (blurring round the edges of characters or objects). And perhaps most importantly, the difference betweeen what you see with 3D glasses and what an ordinary 2D screening shows with cinematic tools like focus and perspective seems so minimal that we wonder why they bother. Film is essentially 3D -- as Christopher Nolan says, "The whole idea of film is that it's three-dimensional on a two-dimensional plane." Stereoscopic cinematography is the same thing, just with a little more artificial depth, and the bells and whistles -- the glasses, etc. -- don't immerse us, they take us out of the film.

But Johnson is right that the idea of a truly 3D, truly immersive experience is an exciting one. But what he has in mind is closer to the work of artist Patrick Jacobs, thinking of stereoscopic photography not as an attempt at creating reality, but as an artificial artistic technique akin to hand-painting black-and-white film frames, as Georges Méliès, the central figure of Scorsese's "Hugo" did. And that seems to be a good way of coming to terms with something that clearly isn't going away for the moment. But as a way of bringing down the barrier between film and reality, we concur with Johnson that the dreams of filmmakers are a long way off from the technology that exists today.

Does 3D work for you? Does it enhance your moviegoing experience? Sound off below.

This article is related to: 3D, Rian Johnson, Features

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