3D Is A Gimmick, But That's Okay (Part One)

by Samuel Marlow. Published 13th February 2012

When reviewing Hugo, critic Mark Kermode who had previously been averse to 3D films, praised the use of the technology. Part of his reasoning was that it was justified by the movie's context as, in part, a history of movie-making and special effects.


While I think context has a lot to do with it, I do still think it is a gimmick. As we see in Hugo, motion picture itself began as a side-show attraction. A curiosity. A gimmick. There were no stories attached to these films, they were shots of people and things doing what people and things do. The novelty came from seeing them projected. No one was yet using them to tell stories.

My first exposure to 3D was in a museum that was playing a very ropey (even to my 8 year old self) stop motion animation of life in the Cretaceous. A triceratops and tyranosaurus were shuffling around their shallow focus world. But the antagonists jutted vividly into the dark little room so that they looked to be within arm's reach. I, along with all the other tiddlers in the screening room, was stretching out my hand trying to touch what seemed to be right in front of me. This is really what 3D works best at - spectacle.

3D has come and gone many times, one each occasion being used for a few films, then lapsing back out of favour. I think it if it is ever going to stick, it is likely to be now. The capture, processing and delivery systems can finally cope with it. In an attempt to make us all feel more intelligent, and convince us we are not being shovelled crap that we are dumb enough to pay over the odds for, a lot has been made of the "subtlety" of modern 3D. We are told it is "another tool to help the director achieve his vision", and how it "makes the movie-going experience more realistic and more immersive".


While it is true that most people experience vision stereoscopically, that is to say the parallax caused by the distance between our eyes causes us to perceive depth, this effect is actually quite limited. Past a few tens of metres our ability to judge distance has more to do with using relative size cues than 3D vision. Moreover my memory is 2D. That is to say when I recall something, it is as if it were a photo or movie, not in "glorious" 3D. When I recall scenes from Avatar, I remember them as if I had seen them in 2D. On the flip side, my brain uses depth cues when looking at a 2D image that causes me to experience it in 3D. The length of the Star Destroyer that thunders over the audience at the beginning of Star Wars was 3D in my mind. I could see it stretching off into the distance.

There are shots in Hugo that use 3D wonderfully. The first shot of the clockwork mechanism dissolving into Paris, and sweeping through the train station were wonderful. There were also occasions where Papa George and the Station Inspector seem to lean through the screen while eyeballing young Hugo and Isabelle. However, more often than not, I found the depth distracting. In Hugo this was made worse by the apparent omnipresence of soot in the air, so that whenever I wanted to be paying attention to what a character was saying or doing, I found myself looking over their shoulder or past their ear at what was going on behind them. I find this to be a real handicap in a movie with so many close-ups of so many wonderful faces. Whether it is the hard angles of Ben Kingsley's sculpted head, the wonderful creases of Frances de la Tour's skin, marble texture of Asa Butterfield's angelic complexion or the extreme proportions of Sacha Baron Cohen's features, Martin Scorsese does a great job of sticking the camera in the actor's faces and inviting you to feel what they are feeling. How off-putting to be losing yourself to an actor's performance when something flutters in the middle distance and your eye is drawn to that.

Read 3D is a Gimmick, But That's Okat - Part 2 in Real-D 3D!


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