The problem with using 3-D for feature-length films is not so much the technology or its lack of contribution to the storytelling, it’s that human eyes were not designed to focus and converge on images at two different distances. Walter Murch, the legendary sound designer and editor, explains in a note to Roger Ebert:
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.
Werner Herzog’s new film is in 3-D; it’s a documentary about the 30,000-year-old drawings recently discovered in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in southern France.
Herzog gained extraordinary permission to film the caves using lights that emit no heat. But Herzog being Herzog, this is no simple act of documentation. He initially resisted shooting in 3D, then embraced the process, and now it’s hard to imagine the film any other way. Just as Lascaux left Picasso in awe, the works at Chauvet are breathtaking in their artistry. The 3D format proves essential in communicating the contoured surfaces on which the charcoal figures are drawn. Beyond the walls, Herzog uses 3D to render the cave’s stalagmites like a crystal cathedral and to capture stunning aerial shots of the nearby Pont-d’Arc natural bridge. His probing questions for the cave specialists also plunge deep; for instance: “What constitutes humanness?”
Herzog pursued the film after reading Judith Thurman’s 2008 piece about the cave drawings in the New Yorker.
With the announcement of releasing Avatar only in 3-D, James Cameron was supposed to cram 3-D down the throats of theater owners, movie goers, and everyone else. Except that didn’t quite happen and Avatar is being released in 2-D as well. Kristin Thompson sees other cracks in the plan for 3-D’s future domination of cinema.
One of the main arguments always rolled out in favor of conversion is that theaters can charge more for 3-D screenings. Proportionately, theaters that show a film in 3-D will take in more at the box-office because they charge in the range of $3 more per ticket than do theaters offering the same title in a flat version.
But what happens when, say, half the films playing at any given time in a city are in 3-D? Will moviegoers decide that the $3 isn’t really worth it? Even now, would they pay $3 extra to see The Proposal or Julie & Julia in 3-D? The kinds of films that seem as if they call out for 3-D are far from being the only kinds people want to see. Films like these already make money on their own, unassisted by fancy technology.
Thompson briefly mentions Pixar as well, saying that they don’t seem too keen on 3-D (or at least not as keen as Cameron or Katzenberg). But the zeal with which the 3-D-ness of Up was promoted was tacky and not at all typical of Pixar, a company that spent the last twenty years insisting that their films were not about the technology but about the same things that the makers of live action films were concerned with…real moviemaking stuff. To trumpet this 3-D technology that doesn’t enhance films in anything other than a superficial sense seems like a step backwards for them.
Roger Ebert is not a fan of 3-D movies.
Ask yourself this question: Have you ever watched a 2-D movie and wished it were in 3-D? Remember that boulder rolling behind Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Better in 3-D? No, it would have been worse. Would have been a tragedy. The 3-D process is like a zombie, a vampire, or a 17-year cicada: seemingly dead, but crawling out alive after a lapse of years. We need a wooden stake.
A collection of the often banal and artless images used in the development and testing of 3-D modeling technologies and digital imaging.
While the “end user” rarely sees any of these images or objects, a handful of them (Lena, the mandrill, the Utah Teapot, the Stanford Bunny and the Cornell Box) are well known to the point of being iconic within the digital imaging research community. They have even become the subjects of inside jokes between programmers and animators: 3D models of the Utah Teapot are hidden in Pixar’s Toy Story, a screensaver that comes as part of Microsoft Windows, and the Simpsons episode where Homer stumbles into a computer-generated “Third Dimension”.
The idea of a 3-D movie has been explored since basically the dawn of the moving image, but now, according to Portfolio, the idea is waxing once again, thanks to Jeffrey Katzenberg and several others. The rationale:
Studios are latching onto 3-D for much the same reason that Bob Dole took Viagra. Most of Hollywood’s businesses are making money — for all Katzenberg’s complaining, DreamWorks’ first-quarter profit was up 69 percent — but the sector that makes Hollywood feel best about itself, theatrical showings, is deflating, in large part because the difference between seeing a movie in your local multiplex and on a 52-inch high-definition TV in your family room is not that vast.
Pixar’s Toy Story 3 will be produced in 3-D. I like Pixar a lot but 3-D has never been anything but a gimmick, so I don’t know. TS3 will be out in June 2010. (2010! We’ll go together in my hovercar!)
Re Croquet and the ridiculous breathlessness about it, “3-D isn’t an interface paradigm. 3-D isn’t a world model. 3-D isn’t the missing ingredient. 3-D isn’t an inherently better representation for every purpose. 3-D is an attribute, like the color blue. Any time you read or hear about how great 3-D is and how it’s going to change everything about computers and services, substitute the word blue for 3-D.” (via bbj, who says “YES YES YES!!! ALWAYS REMEMBER: 3D INTERFACES ARE WHY THOSE KIDS ALMOST GOT EATEN BY RAPTORS IN JURASSIC PARK”)
Eyebeam’s Mike Frumin has released OGLE (OpenGL Extrator), a software package for extracting 3-D data from Windows applications. This means you can do stuff like grab the 3-D likeness of your World of Warcraft character and print it out on a 3-D printer or insert him into a Manhattan landscape (grabbed from Google Earth). Announcement here.