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In Defense of “Obnoxious” 3D…

Discussing the upcoming adaptation of Marvel’s The Avengers, it was strange to hear director Joss Whedon assure fans that the film would not be “obnoxiously 3D.” I am hardly the biggest fan of 3D, for a multitude of reasons I’ll undoubtedly get into in a minute, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. After all, since Whedon isn’t filming in 3D, what’s the point in doing it at all if you aren’t at least going to treat it like the gimmick that it is?

Out of their depth?

I’ll confess, I’m not sold on 3D. I think that it darkens the colours on screen, and has a fairly significant impact on the director’s vision. More than that, though, I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with the 3D experience, given how much extra I am paying for the movie ticket in the first place. I really liked Thor as film, for example, but the 3D added nothing to it. Similarly, I enjoyed Captain America: The First Avenger far more at home than I did in the cinema, if only because the colours weren’t so muted on my 2D television.

More than that, though, it simply doesn’t feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. My better half has a strategy, one I may have covertly coopted, where she’ll occasionally lift up her 3D glasses to see how much 3D is actually being used. In most cases, it’s fairly easy to watch a 3D movie without wearing 3D glasses, which should be the most basic quality test applied to any 3D movie. Why am I paying more, and wearing clunky colour-dulling glasses, for an experience that is completely indistinguishable from watching it in 2D? Even as somebody who is far from sold on this whole 3D “revolution”, that feels especially cheap and cynical on the part of the studio in question.

Hammering the point...

I’m going to be frank here: if you’re going to charge me an additional bit of cash to see a movie in a different format, and make me wear these silly little goggles, than I at least expect to notice that I am watching a movie in that particular format. I want obnoxious 3D, because it’s far superior that lazy, poorly-conceived and haphazardly-executed 3D. I am not a cinematic snob, I can enjoy cinematic trash as easily as I can appreciate artistic masterpieces. If you’re going to use a shameless gimmick like 3D, then use it like a shameless gimmick.

That’s not to suggest that 3D is “just” a “shameless gimmick.” Despite my cynicism about the technology, I do think it has artistic merit in the right hands. So far, there are only three sets of hands I would consider to be “the right hands”, which is far too few if Hollywood is trying to convince us this technology is the future. James Cameron’s Avatar is the only film that I would absolutely insist must be seen by an audience in 3D, but Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo both demonstrated that 3D is a tool like any other – in the right hands, and on the right project, it can be a source of impressive wonder.

Countdown to the point where 3D becomes the norm...

However, there are very few film makers today who can be grouped with James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. That’s a cinematic truth, whether you’re talking about 2D or 3D. As much as I respect their efforts to elevate 3D to an artist’s tool, I think that work of their quality will probably remain the exception rather than the rule. And, to be frank, if 3D is not an artist’s tool, it is a gimmick. And there is absolutely no shame in that.

But a gimmick is inherently “obnoxious” and “tacky.” It’s not understated or subtle. It’s “in your face”, to use a very appropriate term. One of the very few times I actually enjoyed 3D this year was in watching the under-rated schlock-fest Fright Night. I thought it was a very silly, but very enjoyable little thriller, and I thought it worked because it acknowledged that the only reason for a film like that to use 3D was to throw special effects atthe audience.

3D with bite...

It was the very definition of “obnoxious”, but that was the charm. That automatically made the film’s use of the gimmick far more compelling and successful than any number of other efforts. It’s also worth conceding that Fright Night was post-conversion 3D, demonstrating that even that much maligned (and, to be frank, devoid of artistic merit) process can be used to enhance the charm of a film. It’s worth making the case that some people believe that it’s this sort of admittedly trashy and over-the-top use of 3D that audiences actually want, and might demonstrate the format’s staying power.

Of course, all this would be avoided if the studio would stop forcing film makers to render movies in 3D as the default format. Whedon claims that he’s excited about producing The Avengers in 3D, and yet isn’t filming it in 3D. If a director wantsto use 3D to enhance their film, and they have a vision that incorporates that usage, then I honestly don’t mind. However, I think a lot of frustration around the format comes from the fact that the execution is often so half-hearted and cynical.

Steve expands into the third dimension...

If you’re producing a 3D movie, I think you should either aim for the same sort of artistic approach applied by Cameron and Scorsese, using it deepen your frame and craft a real window into a fictional world, or at least treat it as the gimmick that it is, exploiting that extra dimension and giving the audience at least a cheap thrill. Even at the added cost facing movie-goers, a cheap thrill is better than no thrill.

7 Responses

  1. The biggest problem is that a lot of directors don’t have the clout necessary to be able to say “Please don’t convert my film to 3-D.” There are directors who have embraced it, but unless your someone like Christopher Nolan, who has had a billion dollar blockbuster under his belt, one that nearly reached that, and has “saved” the Batman franchise, you usually don’t have a choice whether your film gets the 3-D treatment or not.

    • Yep, that’s a fair point. Rumour has it John Favteau had to fight tooth and nail against post-conversion 3D for Iron Man 2 (though I may be mistaken). Still, part of me feels that, if the relationship is like that, the director has an obligation to try their best with the tools afforded. All mainstream blockbuster directors find themselves wrestling executives, and it’s often a losing battle, but I respect those who make the most of the hurdles thrown at them. I’ll always appreciate the director who says, “That wasn’t my idea, but I tried to make it work” more than the one going “But I had to, so what could you do?” I don’t mean to imply they shouldn’t fight for creative independence or resist bad ideas. But – if you can’t fight it off – try to make the most of it. It’s like Ed Norton’s studio-mandated cut of American History X. I can’t reckon the actor was happy to have to that to the film, hijacking the editting suite, director locked outside, but he produced one hell of a piece of work in the circumstances.

  2. This article sounds a bit like one I wrote:

    http://filmverse.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/in-defense-of-3d/

    It seems that a lot of movie people (and critics) badmouth 3D movies that use the effect as a gimmick, like with “Piranha 3D,” but often that’s the appeal. It’s great that in movies like “Avatar” you can see the depth of the image, but it’s easy to forget that subtle effect while watching the movie. I think people wouldn’t be bashing 3D conversions so much if the studios didn’t rush cheap conversions and try to force them on the public.

    • Great minds think alike, Jamie!

      I’m a guy who’ll defend trashy cinema to the last – I don’t believe a film has to be important or enlightening. If they are, great! I want to be entertained, and that’s what the cinema is to me – it’s a trip to a strange world, but it’s also about getting me to feel stuff, or to jump. Stephen King once summarised three types of fear (in his recommended – if outdated – Danse Macabre). King basically charted them from the most base revulsion to the purest unadulterated terror. The richer the feeling, the better the quality of the work, but the low-grade shocks are also solid instruments in clever hands. I think a similar metaphor can be applied to film. When Avatar and Hugo might be the purest most artistic type of 3D, there’s no shame in using it as the sort of cheap gimmich that it is.

      • One person’s trash is another person’s art. There have been Oscar winners that bore me to tears, but “bad” movies that I watch over and over again because they’re extremely entertaining. How else can movies like “Transformers” be explained? If 3D is used to enhance the enjoyment of a film, then it’s being used exactly as any other filmmaking tool is used. Unfortunately, the studios have forced an inferior version on us at a higher price, so the movie-going public feels burned and exploited. Studios should back off and allow filmmakers to decide what format is best for the movie they’re making. Instead, you have directors like JJ Abrams having to think in terms of what the image will look like in both 2D and 3D, much like framing had to be done for both cinema and TV.

  3. Here, here! I actually “bought” the 3D pitch, as well, after first seeing “Avatar.” Now, only a few years later, I have become increasingly weary of paying a premium for the extra dimension because, to be honest, most of the lazily post-converted films I’ve seen simply don’t have any (extra dimension, that is).

    I tend to watch for a “filmed in 3D” tag on the trailer for an upcoming blockbuster and will occasionally go to see a bad movie simply because the use of 3D looked great. Whether it’s giving the foreground a major “pop” or adding some real depth to scenery, I have seen enough “wow” moments in the past few years to know that if filmmakers were putting more thought into 3D composition and theory, we could be seeing some truly amazing stuff on the silver screen.

    Color was a gimmick before filmmakers realized they could use it as a tool to shape the meaning and impact, not just the aesthetic, of their work. “Avatar” looked great but I feel like 3D is still waiting on its “Wizard of Oz” to really make a statement.

    We’ll have to see how whether Peter Jackson’s sweeping camera can give 3D a second wind. It doesn’t have to die, it really doesn’t.

    The truth is, Hollywood might be pinning the nail themselves by pushing the format so relentlessly.

    • Yep, I think that it might have been better to roll it out slowly, like they did with digital film, where it wasn’t (and still isn’t) forced on directors and audiences.

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