The Bigger Picture: In Glorious 3D!

200407955-001It is a time of economic turmoil. The markets are going berserk; reacting like the headless chickens we already knew them to be. Our nation faces numerous crises both domestically and overseas. And all the while, Hollywood is experimenting with a “new” trend to attract viewers, involving a pair of goggles that were only futuristic looking when Leave It To Beaver was considered edgy.

Remarkably, I took in my first 3D movie last weekend when I went to a late-morning showing of Coraline. 3D has been around my whole life in various other instances, but those glasses really haven’t changed much at all. Hey, it’s cool to be retro.

I recall getting those glasses with coloring books when I was very young. Even then I remember being very unimpressed. I always wondered if I was doing something wrong, sort of like those posters you have to squint at to see the poorly defined sailboat.

Flash forward to the beginning of February. 3D glasses we being given away in grocery stores for Dreamworks’ Super Bowl promotion of Monsters Vs. Aliens. I got my pair and headed down to a party thrown by a bunch of geeks who work for Dreamworks Animation. What better group of guys to be with to experience such a gimmick?

The second half ended and we all donned our dorky glasses and gazed into the screen. Ooh!  They started off with a paddleball flying into your eyeballs. The whole room reacted. Not a bad start. After this initial excitement, the air slowly seemed to be sucked from the room. The promo ended and the comments began. The general consensus was that it was unimpressive, and these were the guys who were actively involved in it. They all told me that the trailer didn’t use the technology as well as the feature will and that part of this was due to the cheap quality of the glasses. Then we heard another “Ooh!” as the TiVo in the other room finally caught up to the paddleball shot.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in the theater waiting for Coraline to start. The glasses were much fancier than the ones I had gotten from the grocery store, but these ones had the fingerprints of the previous viewers on them. I wondered if the experience would be any better than DreamWorks’ Super Bowl experiment. I looked around me to see the theater filling up with children and my hopes for a better experience were dashed. I like kids, but theaters filled with them never are enjoyable.

My other main concern for this new 3D push is that filmmakers will rely too much on the technology. This is a common problem any time new technologies are pushed. Remember how overused the rotating slow-mo camera of The Matrix became? The problem is that many films will likely use the 3D technology simply as a distraction. The paddleball flying out of the screen is cool and all, but somewhat shallow if it’s only done to impress the audience.

Coraline started and I donned my glasses. The first problem came immediately. I am a taller man, roughly 6’3”, and my head rests a lot higher on the seat than most audience members. I kept noticing that I had to tilt my head down to get the entire screen in the frame of my glasses. My neck started to ache almost immediately. Perhaps they could make different styles of lenses. A Kim Jong Il model would probably be large enough to cover the entire screen.

The movie went on, feeling more and more like some beautiful nightmare. For some reason, I never heard a peep from the children. My best guess is that they were too immersed and perhaps even frightened to speak. I also noticed that I was less conscious of the people around me because of the glasses. Whenever someone tried to pass me to get to the restroom, I didn’t even notice until they were tripping over my freakishly long legs. The creation of an immersive experience is truly a great advancement.

However, the actual 3D elements of the film were largely unimpressive. I found the visuals extremely rich and beautiful, but the 3D imagery rarely seemed to add too much. What impressed me most was the story, and herein lays the most important element of this process. The experience was immersive because it was a great movie both for adults and children, not just because of the 3D glasses. If filmmakers use the technology merely to show off their skills, it will ring hollow and the technology will probably disappear again.

I think we all know the true reason Hollywood is pushing 3D. It is so they can attract an audience for a marginally more immersive experience, sometimes charging an extra fee. Whether this experience is truly immersive really rests in the hands of the filmmakers. If they can use the technology to heighten the mood of a movie, 3D has a chance to really be adopted. If they use the technology merely to distract viewers from a paper-thin plot, 3D will once again end up in the waste bin next to the concessions stand. If the economy has not improved by that point, perhaps Hollywood will bring back Smell-O-Vision.

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Arend Anton
Arend Anton is a writer and filmmaker currently based in Los Angeles. As a child, Arend would make comedy shorts and stop motion animations with a borrowed video camera. Sadly, these films have not yet been lost to the ravages of time and may one day return to embarrass him. He is currently working on a Western set in modern day California that he hopes will be completed sometime in 2009.