The Movies Aren’t Getting Any Deeper

About six months ago, Wired Magazine ran a feature about how the future of moviemaking was in 3-D. The article followed at least half a dozen directors who were moving to the new texture of celluloid and CGI, and predicted that many of the blockbusters about to hit us are going to be sight-and-sound extravaganzas. The developments they’ve made allowing elements of movies to fly out of the screen at you are pretty cool, when used properly, but I’m starting to think we, the movie going public, are being duped a little about what is happening and what it’s worth.

I’m not going to wax didactic about how 3-D movies are actually accomplished (much), but it’s essentially a process using two cameras, so that objects in the foreground are in a different focus than those in the background. The fashionable multi-shade glasses they issue us at the theater bring those images into the differing focus, which is what makes the images fly off the surface of the screen. They draw us into the action and allow us to feel like the battle is flying past us on the left and right.

I’ve seen a couple of movies in 3-D with Alison and/or my kids: Avatar, How to Train Your Dragon, and Despicable Me. After those experiences, I have a couple of bones to pick with the industry about the way they’re using this technology.

First, let’s bifurcate the costs for 3-D glasses. Every time you go to the theater, you have to buy the shades. There’s a recycle bin outside the theater for the glasses, which makes me think that the theaters are disinfecting them (presumably … hopefully …) and re-shrink-wrapping them for resale. I don’t drop my glasses in there, I keep them. I keep hearing that television is going to go to 3-D at some point, and I keep hoping that movies will start allowing viewers to start bringing their own. It isn’t clear to me why I have to buy a set of glasses every time I go to the theater, when you could knock a buck or two off the price of admission if I bring my own glasses.

Second, let’s address the question of digital movies. True 3-D photography does increase the cost of moviemaking. The cameras are expensive and there is a process to melding the images together. When you’re doing a movie wholly through CGI, though – a Toy Story, or an Avatar, or a cartoon – those issues don’t really justify a per-person increase of $3-5 admission price. Images in the foreground and background are already separated. You already have to merge them together, so duplicating the different levels onto each other and collating them into the final scene is a question of math and a little computer time. The extra $20 million you’ll draw from charging 3-D prices for a blockbuster are ludicrous profit versus what it costs to make a cartoon three dimensional.

Third, use the technology correctly. Back when they first came out with 3-D, it seemed that directors staged parts of their movies to use the technology just to scare the audience. Remember how Jaws leapt directly out at you even when it didn’t make sense to the story? Now, with the method becoming more common, it seems like every movie is going to be offered in 3-D because of the economics and the novelty. I can afford to put saffron in dishes I cook, but I don’t add it to every one just because I can. Christopher Nolan had the option of CGI available when he directed The Dark Knight, but he chose to film some of the high wire scenes because it was darker and grittier. Directors: don’t hit the 3-D button just because you have it available. The nuclear option is not always the right one.

If 3-D technology is going to be something that lures us in to pay premium prices for tickets but I’m not going to have an appreciably different experience, I’ll just keep seeing the 2-D movies and judging studios on the quality of their animation and storyboards. Alison and I went to see Avatar last fall, and the effects were terrific for the first quarter of the movie. There were bits at the end where the experience was noticeably different, as well. For most of the movie, though, it was like they forgot that they were producing a 3-D movie and it would have been fine without any added texture to what was happening … really, it wasn’t there anyway. I hope they keep offering these movies in 2-D versus 3-D. My kids clamor for seeing movies in 3-D — it’s their way of getting me to take them to movies that they haven’t already seen. I like to offer them experiences they haven’t had. But for myself, I’m going to stop seeing flicks with the new technology until I’m satisfied that they know how to drive their new sports car.

When it all comes down to it, maybe none of this matters. I’ve taken my 5-year-old daughter to a couple of 3-D movies, and she refuses to keep her glasses on for more than ten minutes at a stretch. After all, it’s possible with the foolishness they’re putting on the screens anymore, maybe it doesn’t really matter whether the images are in focus. Maybe she sees that more clearly than those of us wearing the goofy glasses.

Fun 3-D without need for glasses, courtesy of Unfocus your eyes and you'll catch on after a minute.

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