Saturday, 4 July 2015

Seeing Film in Three Dimensions

I remember when Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over was released, and trailers for it were everywhere. The funny thing is that most of the advertisements said little about the movie itself. There was some basic information about the plot: an evil video game developer had a super-exciting game that was designed to take over the minds of kids who played it, leading to the titular kids having to go undercover and play the game to stop him. However, most of the focus was on another aspect of the film, namely the "3-D" effects and the fact that the film came with "your own set of 3-D glasses." The ads loved to play this angle up, usually by showing Alexa PenaVega thrusting her mechanical-looking arm out of the screen towards a startled audience. At the time, this seemed like something amazing.

This is the extent of the film's amazing 3D.

Unfortunately, when I finally saw the film, it hardly lived up to the hype its advertising gave. The 3-dimensional effects made almost no difference from seeing it in two dimensions. The only thing the supposed 3-D entailed was that the film would occasionally try to scare the viewer by flinging objects at them, but it never created the illusion of coming out of the television like the ads claimed. Perhaps it was for the better; after all, Sylvester Stallone is a bad enough actor in two dimensions, nobody wants to experience him in three. Movies like Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over are perhaps the primary reason why the format of 3-D films has been so widely condemned.

Many critics dismiss 3-D as becoming nothing more than a simple marketing gimmick, and a failing one at that. To a degree they are right. Some movies like Dolphin Tale have been released in 3-D regardless of whether the story actually warrants such a format. There have also been efforts to re-release older movies in 3-D. In 2010, George Lucas began a project to re-release his entire Star Wars saga in 3-D, though he only managed to do this for The Phantom Menace. There was also an even more absurd period in which Disney began releasing two-dimensional animated films in 3-D. The point is, there was never a time when it was not a marketing gimmick, and it is only now that people are beginning to understand and find ways to use 3-D for something more.

The concept of 3-D films was actually born in the 1950's as a result of television coming into popularity. Because audiences were starting to spend more time at home instead of going to the theater, Hollywood studios believed that there was a threat to their business. One solution to the problem was simply to make deals with television networks to have their movies screened. However, at the same time there was also a perceived need to compete with television to make people more interested in going to the theater. This meant trying to find ways to give audiences in the theater an experience they could not have at home.

There were a variety of solutions proposed with varying degrees of success. More films were produced in colour with narratives that lent themselves to special effects. One of the first technical solutions was Cinerama, a widescreen method in which the film was simultaneously run on three different projectors and played on a curved screen. More embarrassing was the short-lived movement of "smell-o-vision" which as its name implied was based on the idea of trying to give the viewer a more authentic experience by simulating odors from within the movie. Among other ideas was the concept of 3-D, something television had no hope of competing with.

One of the earliest 3-dimensional films was a movie called The Charge at Feather River, a 1953 western that attempted to startle the audience with its 3-D effects. Those effects hold up poorly today, especially considering the film is better known as being responsible for popularizing a sound effect now known as the "Wilhelm Scream" (named after Wilhelm, the character who cries out when he takes an arrow to the knee). The story concerned a group of American cavalrymen trying to rescue some white women who were abducted by Native Americans, and the filmmakers tried to take full advantage of the 3-D effects. They literally threw everything they could at the viewer in an attempt to shock them, not a whole lot different from what the ads for Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over purported the film would do.

The truth is that this tactic has only ever been known to work once in the entire history of cinema, which suggests the true roots of 3-D filmmaking. Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery came out at a time when audiences had never seen anything like it. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the first film to tell a story (having been preceded by Porter's own Life of an American Fireman and the work of Méliès) but it was among the first to use editing to convey a narrative. One touch would become especially famous in later years: the final scene. In this final shot, a man stands facing the camera, he draws a gun, and fires. Audiences of the era were baffled, many of its first viewers genuinely believed they were about to be shot. In many ways, 3-D filmmaking has often served as an attempt to replicate the initial reactions to The Great Train Robbery for an audience more familiar with moving pictures.

Like many other things in the 1950's, 3-D didn't catch on for audiences. Trying to shock them by flinging arrows at the camera never had quite the same effect as that final moment from The Great Train Robbery. Over the following decade it would occasionally re-emerge in blockbuster films, Jaws 3-D being an infamous example, but ultimately it would not be recognized as a viable tactic until the 2000's. Movies like Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over began to popularize it once again, with the ads shamelessly claiming the film would shock audiences the same way The Great Train Robbery did in 1903.

Several other 3-D films would attempt a similar practice over the course of the decade, until 2009 when James Cameron released Avatar, a film specifically designed to be seen in 3-D and in Imax theatres. What made Avatar stand out from movies like Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and The Charge at Feather River was in the way it used the 3-D effects. Most attempts at 3-D tried to utilize the format by literally throwing anything they could at the viewer, regardless of whether it actually added anything to the film itself. Cameron decided to try something different, instead doing precisely the opposite.

Cameron's vision of Avatar was one in which the audience would experience the 3-D effects as though they were looking into a terrarium. This meant that rather than try to directly interact with the viewer the objective was instead to use the 3-D to add depth to the world created within the story. For the first time 3-D became recognized as something more than just a terrible marketing gimmick; it was actually something that when used right could enhance the filmgoing experience. Unfortunately, for many viewers this has one unpleasant side effect. After becoming the highest grossing film of all time and receiving massive critical praise in theatres, it started to gain a negative reputation upon its DVD release. People began hating the film, usually citing similarities to Pocahontas  or Dances With Wolves. The problem was simple, on a DVD release the film was stripped of the 3-D and Imax experience that Cameron had intended, leaving viewers with nothing more than the story that went with it.

Only four years later, director Alfonso Cuarón would do something similar with Gravity, this time learning from Cameron's mistakes. Cuarón made his film much simpler in tone. On its own, Gravity still works as a straight forward science fiction thriller with some incredible visual effects. When seen in theatres in 3-D, the format enhances the narrative by emphasizing the vastness of space and heightening the sense of desperation faced by Dr. Stone. In other words, unlike The Charge at Feather RiverSpy Kids 3-D: Game Over, or Avatar before it, Gravity was not specifically designed as a platform for 3-D. Instead, it was made as a film that could be experienced to great effect in 3-D but did not rely exclusively on that format as the primary draw for viewers.

Gravity's predecessors were often made more for the 3-D effects than for the films themselves. For the most part, the primary draw of films like The Charge at Feather River or Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over was the possible (but ultimately unfulfilled) experience of seeing objects come flying out of the screen. The same can also be said about the various attempts that have been made to re-release iconic films in 3-D, especially when this approach was taken with 2-D animated films. Gravity was a success because it did not rely entirely on the 3-D effects to impress viewers. It also displayed a simple but compelling story and brilliant special effects even when not seen in 3-D.

As is shown by films like Gravity, the idea of seeing films in three dimensions can be more than just a terrible marketing strategy. Many have criticized the practice, and in some cases not unjustly, but the ways in which this format has been abused does not make it any less valid. It can be used to amazing effect when done correctly and used to enhance the film itself rather than as a cheap way to shock viewers who will likely be indifferent at best. Many believe that 3-D will never catch on, that it is simply a passing fad, but it has been around since the 1950's and slowly improving. Many critics also said precisely the same thing about early sound films, and how many silent movies are still produced today?


  1. Great read, man! I've actually didn't see Avatar in 3D. It still worked for me, though. As the years have gone on, though, no. That is not a movie I want to go back to. Gravity is incredible, with or without 3D glasses. One of the best uses of 3D I've seen is Ang Lee's "Life of Pi." That movie did 3D beautifully and is a great movie without as well.

    1. That seems to be a major part of it. The movies that seem to work the best with 3-D are the ones that can still be appreciated without it, where having it helps but the film can still be enjoyed on its own.

  2. Wonderfully researched post. I'm not a fan of 'Avatar,' but I am very thankful for Avatar for the exact reason you mentioned. Because of Avatar we got 'Gravity,' which was one of the best cinematic experiences I have had.

    1. Well, I suppose that means there is at least one good thing that came out of Avatar, even for those who hated it, which is that it proved 3-D can actually be used aesthetically and to great effect.

  3. Another excellent read. I think part of the reason 3D isn't seen in a good light is because studios insist on slapping it onto every big budget movie they have whether the story warrants it or not. And it's all in the name of making more money. There are way too many movies unnecessarily in 3D so they can charge a few extra bucks per ticket. I agree that the ones that work best are excellent regardless of the effects not because of them.

    1. That is certainly an accurate summary of the history of 3-D technology, considering it literally originated as a method of deterring audiences from television and attracting them to movie theaters.