It was in December of 2009 that Avatar seemed to signal a new dawn. James Cameron’s bloated fantasia wasn’t the first of the new wave of 3D films by any means; various schlocky, ahem, “classics” such as My Bloody Valentine 3D had already been and gone. But it was the first 3D film that had a huge budget, a (mostly) coherent narrative and genuinely mind-blowing visuals. It was, in contemporary parlance, the first of the 21st century 3D-revival flicks that didn’t suck. Who could have suspected that it would also turn out to be the last 3D film – to date, at any rate – that was actually any good?
It’s not just in the movie world that the initial fanfare for 3D has petered out into a shuffling silence. Even if you own a compatible telly, do you ever use its 3D functionality? There’s still next to nothing to watch, and with most manufacturers going down the “active 3D” route, buying enough glasses for the whole family is an expensive exercise.
“People aren’t really that engaged with the 3D experience,” says analyst Adam Thomas. “They’re interested in one-off events and novelty things, but they don’t want to watch it that much. Having to wear glasses is a big factor and 3D TVs are still really expensive when you consider how many people have recently shelled out for a HD set.”
Similarly, the way the Nintendo 3DS renders an extra dimension without the need for glasses may be very clever, but it’s ultimately a gimmick – and a battery-draining one at that – which can’t disguise the handheld’s lack of great games to date. All the best titles so far are ageing Nintendo classics that have been “3D-ified”.
But it’s the movie world that best exemplifies 3D’s creative near-bankruptcy. While 3D movies are certainly making money – after all, ticket prices are higher to view them, and they’re almost all big-budget, family-friendly, tent-pole movies – there is the inescapable feeling that they are forgettable, middle-brow movies with 3D effects that are either barely discernible or obnoxiously show-offy, added simply for cash.
3D: How to make it work - 3D at the movies
June 2011 signalled another landmark moment in the short history of the modern 3D movie. When given the option of watching the summer’s bigscreen family hit, Kung Fu Panda 2, in 3D or 2D, the minority of cinema-goers – 47 per cent, in fact – chose to watch in the former. That compares to 87 per cent for Avatar.
It was the first sign that parents, hard pressed by inflation and looming recession, might not want to spend an extra £3 or so per ticket, especially if they have had unsatisfying experiences with 3D in the past. After all, eye-strain, nausea and more low-level niggles such as the 3D effect being under par have filled newspaper column inches all year.
Indeed, Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of 3D at Dreamworks Animation, has some harsh words for the industry. “Hollywood, in its rush to capitalise on what was a fantastic new opportunity, took the low road and put out a whole bunch of movies that were not, in fact, the best representation of what this technology has to offer,” he says. “It was not designed to be a low-end gimmick but rather a creative filmmaking tool that, put in the hands of great artists, would create an exceptional and new film experience.”
Of post-Avatar releases, only Tron: Legacy stands out as a shot-in-3D success – and even that was pretty turgid if you tried to experience it as a film rather than as AV overload.
There have been duds aplenty, most of which were shot in 2D, then made 3D in postproduction: Clash of the Titans, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Jackass 3D, Gulliver’s Travels, and Greens Hornet and Lantern spring to mind.
“I think it’s horrible and absolutely the wrong way to go,” Avatar director James Cameron has said. “It’s the studio making the decision and then handing it over to some company to process it through a sausage grinder and come up with some kind of faux 3D, or ‘2.5D’ mess.”
Despite this, Cameron still plans to put his Titanic film through the same sausage grinder – it’s okay, it’ll be “like 2.9D,” Cameron says.
“I think the reason Avatar was super successful in 3D had nothing to do with the fact that it was new and cool,” says Ziah Fogel, an artist who worked for Pixar for eight years, including roles on Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. “It was because James Cameron set out with the intention of making a 3D film.
“When you shoot with stereoscopic cameras and you’re thinking about that 3D space, it changes the way you make choices about how to lay out shots. A lot of the films shown in 3D were never intended to be. The director is making a 2D movie that he’s used to making and people are used to watching.”
Furthermore, thanks to a “super pain in the ass” process called rotoscoping, images often appear fuzzy to the eye. “If a film wasn’t meant to be 3D, it’s often weirdly jittery and things are skippy,” adds Fogel. “It actually starts hurting your brain and your eyes. People would rather watch a fl at screen than have a headache.”
Nick James, editor of cinefile magazine Sight and Sound, says that watching 3D is intrinsically unnatural: “According to [film editor on Apocalypse Now] Walter Mulch, 3D asks the brain to do something it has never done before: focus on one point, but converge our eyes on a different point at the same time. Nothing in nature has ever asked our brains to do that. Maybe that’s why the headaches?”
It cost Dreamworks a reported $30m to turn Kung Fu Panda 2 into a 3D movie but thanks to the 30 per cent ticket hike, it’s still a sound business model. Studios also perceive that creating a movie in 3D guards against piracy; camcorder bandits can’t bootleg 3D movies by videoing them in the cinema.
Part of the reason the multiplexes are overrun with artificial, low-rent 3D films is that few of the Hollywood elite have rushed to embrace the technology. The 3D event of summer 2011 isn’t a more thoughtful spectacle from Christopher Nolan, JJ Abrams or Matthew Vaughn. It’s Michael Bay and Transformers 3. Why haven’t more critically lauded auteurs been rushing to follow Jim Cameron’s lead?
“I think filmmakers aren’t really sure what they’re supposed to do with this yet,” suggests Fogel. “Most of those big directors are more interested in building a narrative and creating effective characters. They believe it’s not worth bothering if it’s not going to further the story.”