What makes a movie great? Odds are it isn't just the comfy seats and movie popcorn.

What makes a movie great? Odds are it isn't just the comfy seats and movie popcorn.

Summer’s coming. That means there’s more 3D cinema in store at the multiplex, assuming you still like to spend a couple of hours eating popcorn in the dark with 200 strangers. (I do.) But before I spout what might be misperceived as oversimplification, allow me to put up some brief context.

Even though James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar augured the beginning of a whole new 3D world, 3D doesn’t really deliver as much of an immersive transformation as the industry wants us to believe.  It tantalizes with something novel, something we can’t see at home, considering that the home 3D television market has bombed so far.   But it fails to deliver substantively more than traditional “flat” movies. Most of us already see the real world in 3D except for 10 % of the general population who simply cannot resolve 3D images, including a subset who only have one functioning eye.

The argument made in favor of 3D claims it provides a deeper sense of realism than traditional cinema, that it’s more immersive and more engaging. (If you’re wondering, I’ll be discussing virtual reality’s immersive promises in an upcoming blog post.) But for the purposes of cinema right now, both in the theater as well as in the living room or specialized museum screen—or even a handheld mobile device—I don’t really want to present my creative efforts as simulacra of what’s real. For a real world experience, I’ll take Paris. For a real world experience, I’ll cook with garlic and peppers. Art, in counterpoint, concerns abstraction. “Flat cinema” is a vehicle that enables abstraction precisely because it tells us that it isn’t real in every…single…frame.

Only a Luddite would claim, however, that 3D will never be a good experience, that it’s fundamentally useless or bad or gimmicky. There’s no doubt that the technical aspects of the craft have improved profoundly in the era of digital cinema, and there’s clearly significant headroom above for future growth. But is it worth your attention?

I don’t like 3D because it never seems to get out of my way as a viewer. The glasses cut off at least one stop of brightness (that is, they block a bunch of light, if you’re not a camera person) and they cut off the field of view left to right unless you’re perfectly positioned in the theater. With rare exception, the effect of 3D objects moving forward and backwards in space feel contrived rather than integral to the narrative. Most importantly, I don’t generally feel like I’m missing something when I see the same story in traditional “flat” formats. Flat formats have been conveying a sense of depth for centuries using all sorts of perspective and lighting techniques. Our experience understanding them is not a surprise. When the Millennium Falcon jumps to light speed in Episode IV, we know it just escaped by flying away

So, what do 3D movies teach us? I’m tempted here to say, “Nothing”, but that would be reductively snarky, especially considering everything written above. 3D cinema teaches us something far more important than how to perceive depth on screens. It represents a philosophical rudder for creating new, daring things. It suggests that the newest techniques, technologies, trends, and styles in any discipline are not necessarily as important as really thinking about the point of what you’re doing in the first place. Does the latest technology get you anywhere beyond being able to claim that you’re using the latest technology? Maybe it does; I definitely care about being technologically out front when being out front matters! But beware the siren song of contemporary trends that distract you from being genuinely great. You might be hip, but that doesn’t make you good.

3D cinema makes me feel manipulated and not in a good way. When I see a magician, whether a street performer or a lavish stage production, I know his or her tricks are precisely thus: tricks. The differentiating aspect of the experience is the aplomb of the trick, the finesse and artistry of the performance itself. With 3D I feel like I’m having money taken out of my pocket that has nothing to do with the central experience. With a performance characteristic that makes my experience less enjoyable, I cannot say that the depth perception “trick” enabled by the technology adds anything immersive to the experience. There is no artistry fundamentally inherent to delivering the images in 3D, even if there is significant technical, even artistic muscle deployed when it’s done properly. Do I respect the technicians and artists who make it happen? Sure. It’s a challenging discipline. Do I want to pay extra to experience their effort? No. I also do not want to pay for food that I do not enjoy, nor attend concert experiences for music I don’t like either, no matter how much effort those things may take to create.

I’m likely going to give up a whack of hard earned cash this summer at the multiplex. I like seeing movies on a big screen, with a crowd, away from home. But I’m not going to pony up for 3D shows. What the 3D world reminds me is that your message matters more than your medium. Craftsmanship can never take a backseat, of course, but when the tools of craftsmanship becomes more of the show than the gestalt of the overall message, something vital has been lost, both for creators and consumers. 3D teaches us that the ability to do something does not necessarily justify the reason to do something.


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