Roger Ebert Says 3D Is Over & Won't Work Because Walter Murch Said So

by Edward Davis
January 26, 2011 2:57 AM
11 Comments
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Look, we dislike 3D as much as the next discernible filmgoer who finds little value in headaches, dim lighting, ephemeral visual tricks, and exorbitant ticket pricing, but Roger Ebert -- who is no doubt one of our best -- does have a flair for the melodramatic. A recent article of his making the rounds claims to once-and-for-all "close" the discussion on 3D -- and thus the absurd title: "Why 3D will never work. Case closed."

"I've received a letter that, as fas as I am concerned, ends the discussion on 3D," Ebert writes with dramatic flair. The letter comes from the great Walter Murch, one of the greatest editors (and sound designers) of our time whose award-winning work (seven Oscar nominations and two wins) is integral to the brilliance of such films as "Apocalypse Now," "The Conversation," "THX 1138," "The English Patient" and "American Graffiti" to name a few.

Here's what Murch, the man who essentially coined the term "sound design" had to say.

I read your review of "Green Hornet" and though I haven't seen the film, I agree with your comments about 3D. The 3D image is dark, as you mentioned (about a camera stop darker) and small. Somehow the glasses "gather in" the image -- even on a huge Imax screen -- and make it seem half the scope of the same image when looked at without the glasses.

I edited one 3D film back in the 1980s -- "Captain Eo" [starring Michael Jackson and directed by Francis Ford Coppola]-- and also noticed that horizontal movement will strobe much sooner in 3D than it does in 2D. This was true then, and it is still true now. It has something to do with the amount of brain power dedicated to studying the edges of things. The more conscious we are of edges, the earlier strobing kicks in.

The biggest problem with 3D, though, is the "convergence/focus" issue. A couple of the other issues -- darkness and "smallness" -- are at least theoretically solvable. But the deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen -- say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what.

But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focussed and converged at the same point.

If we look at the salt shaker on the table, close to us, we focus at six feet and our eyeballs converge (tilt in) at six feet. Imagine the base of a triangle between your eyes and the apex of the triangle resting on the thing you are looking at. But then look out the window and you focus at sixty feet and converge also at sixty feet. That imaginary triangle has now "opened up" so that your lines of sight are almost -- almost -- parallel to each other. More here.

Great, we really can't disagree, but c'mon Roger, because Murch said it, now it's final? He's actually not saying anything any of haven't already thought (though maybe haven't articulated aloud or in print as well or in such an educated and technical manner) and this reads like the "nyah, nyah, toldja 3D sucks!" post written by Mallory Keaton. We know you're trying to influence and sway a wide and broad audience Rog, but we expect better.

3D here to stay? In the long, long, term probably not, but in the short term, yes. Currently there are 18 more films scheduled for release in 3D this year (including one by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg) and 7 scheduled for 2012. Yes, they are all large, spectacle-fest movies and it will probably stay this way (no dramas or comedies in 3D). But with James Cameron recently reiterating that "Avatar 2 & 3" are aiming to arrive in Christmas of 2014 and 2015, we're going to see at least two more gigantic 3D event pictures in our lifetime (though, let's not remember, Cameron promised "Avatar" for years and even after it was written and shot, it arrived well past his talked-aloud due date). Frankly, those silly enough to keep paying for 3D deserve it. We just wish more press screenings (and public ones too) would give viewers the option of just watching the film in regular 2D, but hey, studios don't want you to do that. They want you to pay maximum price. So Roger can say one thing and it can get a lot of press, but the studios are probably going to shrug and continue with business as planned unless business drops. You can rant and rave about it and or you can simply just vote against it with your dollars, choice is yours. Btw, we highly recommend the book, "The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film," and it's already on several must-read film book lists.

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More: Vintage Filmmakers, Walter Murch

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11 Comments

  • jim k. | January 28, 2011 5:31 AMReply

    Full disclosure: Ryan is my boy.

    But I disagree with a key point of his: that thepaylist is required to, as a journalistic entity, show some restraint, or, as he put it, the site ought to have had a "bit more of a discussion about it’s editorial content" in allowing this article to run 'as is'. That TPL is entitled to halt a peon from peeing on (thx Weezy) a prince. Nay, I say. Run away. Let Mr. Davis take any stab he wants to take at anyone he wants to stab. Such is the power when one wields a pen. To make such a poor argument is the real injustice here.

    How can you posit that a man who you describe as "one of the greatest editors," someone who has proven his expertise in his award-winning films, is, "saying nothing new?" The mere fact that he is articulating it all in a novel way, with a thoroughly explained and technically elucidated argument that, because of its scope and brilliance is really irrefutable, is saying something new. To paraphrase Ebert, he is closing the case.

    I guess that all of us "discernible filmgoers" that somehow can't really discern the important things about 3-D technology or ocular function have always been thinking it, so we get a pass.

    Just as film editors are known for showing restraint, so too should you exhibit a similar characteristic. Refrain from spouting half-cocked ideas lest your articles be left on the cutting room floor.

    wink! ? ;^ }

  • Ryan | January 28, 2011 2:21 AMReply

    Actually, I take it back. The piece isn't really disrespectful. I overreacted. Sorry.

  • Ryan | January 28, 2011 2:18 AMReply

    *commenters? I wasn't as thoughtful as I hoped.

  • Ryan | January 28, 2011 2:16 AMReply

    I'm not saying anything you guys are writing here is incorrect, but as film journalists, I'm a little surprised you'd lower yourselves to making a swipe at Ebert. He's done more than any journalist to advance the credibility of film criticism and at the risk of sounding like Judd Apatow, this piece feels like the equivalent of a young film editor taking a shot at Walter Murch, for example.

    There's nothing wrong with adding to the conversation on 3D, but I think if this piece were written in a print magazine, there'd be a bit more of a discussion about it's editorial content. I love that you guys publish as many posts as you do each day and I think you're the best place to go for film commentary and news (print or Internet). I just think this piece could have been written with a bit more respect. In the same way that I'm sure you'd all agree many commentators could make steps to be a bit more respectful and thoughtful in their own writing (as I hope I have been here).

  • Josh | January 27, 2011 3:15 AMReply

    I hope Avatar 2 will be made at 72 frames per second

  • jimmiescoffee | January 27, 2011 12:17 AMReply

    i'm sorry but roger ebert has become redundant. and his new show is rubbish. i mean honestly, a 'third man' tribute in black and white with the score in the background? hasn't that been done 50,000 times? the entire show was awful. and vishnevetski or whatever his name is does it no favors. this is coming from someone used to read ebert religiously.

  • Marrrk | January 26, 2011 10:25 AMReply

    MDL, that's a very good point regarding the illusion of movement. i guess my only counter is semantic, in the sense that a "motion picture" promises exactly what it says, whereas a "3D film" isn't really at all.

  • MDL | January 26, 2011 9:49 AMReply

    marrrk
    I sort of half way agree with you but note that movies themselves don't really provide movement but the mere the illusion of movement. So your argument won't work against 3-D.

    I think 3-D is here to stay but I wish it were not only because it does not improve the experience - it just makes it novel for a while. And then people eventually go back to the story itself.

  • marrrk | January 26, 2011 5:17 AMReply

    shouldn't the people who think they need 3D be unimpressed with 3D?

    if you need that extra dimension in your filmgoing experiences shouldn't you be annoyed that 3D doesn't really provide an extra dimension but the mere illusion of one? it's just (poorly) manipulated 2D. if you rrrrrrrrrreally want 3D, you should also vote with your dollars and force these gluttonous studios to get to work on actually having Johnny Depp stand behind you, whispering in your ear while Penelope Cruz performs a striptease in front of you, tossing her brassiere in your face.

    this is your Sputnik moment, people.

  • Alex C. | January 26, 2011 4:17 AMReply

    I wonder if decades from now we will look back at the 3D critics and laugh at how glib and conservative they were.

  • rodie | January 26, 2011 4:01 AMReply

    Good for Ebert! 3-D, no matter how it is done, is and always will be a fad in filmmaking. Cameron was just blowing smoke about it being the future of everything in order to make more money on Avatar.

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