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Three Dimensions of Drama?

Hmm… Last year I wasn’t so sure about 3D being the future of movie-making that everyone was lauding it it to be. And, being honest, part of me is still on the fence. The two biggests revolutions in the distribution of popular cinema have been the advent of sound and the introduction of consistent and effective colour. Home media is probably third, but that’s probably not what the major studios want to hear as they attempt to milk every possible cent out of the big screen in this era of pirated movies and downloads and such. Avatar pretty much knocked the digital 3D thing out of the park and demonstrated that the concept had a life beyond kids flicks like Coraline and Monsters vs. Aliens (the only time I mention those two together, I promise) and horror flicks like My Bloody Valentine and The Final Destination. James Cameron has taken what Alfred Hitchock memorably derided as a seven-day fad and made it matinee fare. And, of course, Hollywood has noticed. Clash of the Titans, one of the early summer blockbusters this year, is being reworked into 3D before release – probably as a direct result of Avatar’s success. Still, if 3D is to be as huge a game changer as colour or sound was, it needs to become the norm for films produced – it needs to become dominant. So when we are we going to see 3D prestige pieces?

The way things are meant to 3D?

Don’t worry, I scoffed at the idea myself. I still do, for example. But it appears that 3D might not just be a fad this time around, unlike back in the 1960s. In fairness, it’s not uncommon for a revolutionary idea to take a while to cycle through to ‘game changer’ status. Colour films were being produced in the early years of the twentieth century – A Trip to the Moon, the 1902 fourteen-minute silent film, was available at extra cost in glourious colour – but only really became a big thing in the 1950s.

Ironically, colour was pushed to the fore by the same force behind the recent move towards 3D. Home entertainment – specifically television – was the big factor in forcing Hollywood to engage with colour and start mass-producing colour films, as opposed to saving it for vanity projects and epics with lavish budgets. In a manner this reflects the fact that 3D is grounded in the desire by the major studios to offer viewers something that cannot readily be experienced at home. In short, to give the average family a reason to fork out a lot of money in the cinema to see something that they think will be on television for free in a few years or on DVD for cheaper in a few months.

Part of me wonders if 3D might have a shot at becoming as all-encompassing as colour did. Originally it was just event films offered in colour, but then that ballooned out. It got to the stage where even the smallest films were shot in colour. Part of me wonders if this might eventually be the case for 3D as well.

At the moment, there would seem to be two reasons for Hollywood not to start mass-producing (okay, they are mass-producing, but to mass-mass-produce, if you will) 3D films. The first is money. It costs extra to film in 3D. It costs extra to convert from 2D to 3D. From what I’ve read, it costs a boatload of money. So that’s your reason right there. Why put the money in 3D where it won’t make it back? People will pay extra to see Alice in Wonderland in 3D, but would they pay extra to see something like Precious in that way? I don’t think so. So money is the biggest issue that stands in the way of 3D becoming the norm (rather than simply ‘increasingly common’) in movies.

The second fact is related. It’s great to be engaged with James Cameron’s fictional utopia to the point where you feel like you can touch it. It is an undoubtedly visceral experience to see knives and blades and other horror shocks and scares leap off the screen. For kids it’s fascinating to see characters who can escape the confines of the preojected images. However, in most cases, the emotional investment in a movie doesn’t come from seeing a literal extra dimension to it, but being drawn into it. You might argue that 3D is the ultimate tool to literally draw you in, but it seems redundant if you’re talking about films like The Godfather, for example. I don’t need to literally see Michael and Sonny and Freddie and Tom pop off the screen, because – for me – they already do. The performances engage me, not the spectacle. I don’t need anything more.

The flip side to that argument is simply. I might not need 3D, but I might not also need colour, for example. Sure, we’d lose for of the beauty of Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematography, but who is to say that he isn’t equally competent in black-and-white? The core of the movie is unaffected by the addition of colour. Al Pacino would still be amazing and the film would still be utterly compelling. The same argument could be made for most films. If you shot The Hurt Locker in black-and-white it would still be absolutely stunning. Nobody would go to see it, because we’ve been conditioned to see colour as the default, but it would still be awesome.

And that’s essentially what I could see happening. 3D becoming the default more than the norm. There’s certainly an argument to be made. There are already serious discussions about home entertainment in 3D, much like High Definition and colour before that. And, as experience has taught us, once home entertainment has entered an arena, it becomes the norm to start outputting media in that format. When High Definition was announced, it applied to a handful of big budget shows. Now it applies to everything. The logic that – with a HD channel – your HD-ready telly is just a telly seems to be fuelling this desire to give audiences everything in High Def. And the home entertainment angle just gives the studios more reason to offer the vast majority of their output in 3D.

You could make the argument that we’re seeing it already, with George Lucas planning to go back and remaster his Star Wars movies in 3D. On the other hand, George Lucas remasters those movies more often than he changes his socks. Whatever keeps him away from Indiana Jones is good for me, though. On they other hand, they are reportedly working on the first 3D porn. They’ve even broadcast football in 3D. Yep, this is the future.

Part of me is still skeptical. I think it’s the studio hype machine. I think it will be a fad for a few more years before dying. But what if it isn’t a fad? What if it is here to stay this time? That’s a fascinating idea. Imagine, for example, seeing Frost/Nixon in 3D. Or the upcoming The Special Relationship. Where quirky indie films like (500) Days of Summer are rendered in 3D as well as huge blockbusters. I’m still trying to wrap my head around a weekly television show in 3D. It’s a strange place this future, and one that I never would have imagined years ago. I’m not entirely convinced by this future – I’m by no means a cheerleader – but I am an interesting spectator.

I’d better start stocking up on my 3D glasses while I can.

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