Broken Window Filmmaking

What you’re not supposed to know about 3-D movies

Avatar director James Cameron believes that audiences should demand 3-D because, “We see in 3-D.” I like 3-D … if it’s done well. But more often, the technique is a gimmick—I’ve yet to see a 3-D film that comes close to the best 2-D films I’ve seen.

Variety’s 3-D guru David Cohen makes it seem like we’ll be wearing 3-D glasses for every movie we see some day. He compares the advent of 3-D to the arrival of sound in cinema. However, there are several reasons that 3-D film isn’t as “dimensional” as it looks.

First are the physical limitations. Only 70 percent of the population can properly see 3-D because of a variety of ocular anomalies, such as color blindness. Regarding its 3-D televisions, Samsung recently issued warnings of possible serious side effects to pregnant women, elderly people, kids, people suffering from serious medical conditions and people who are sleep-deprived or drunk. Nintendo has warned that children under 6 should not use its 3-D mode because it could permanently damage their undeveloped eyes. Personally, I don’t want the hassle of wearing 3-D glasses over my own.

The second problem with 3-D is the high cost. Hollywood’s current force-feeding trend of stereoscopic “immersion” has more to do with raising ticket prices across the board than it does in delivering a quality 3-D experience. Making movies is expensive regardless of whether they are 2-D or 3-D, so it doesn’t make sense to charge more for a 3-D feature. Retrofitting cinemas with projectors that can handle 3-D should be absorbed by the big studios as the cost of doing business.

True IMAX cinemas (with 76-by-97-foot screens) can get away with charging a premium because of the screen size and specialized glasses. But the mini-IMAX cinemas have standard-size screens, and they aren’t worth the extra money.

Finally, the most important deficiency in today’s 3-D market is quality. If 3-D is to attain any lasting stronghold with audiences, it must be used to embellish stories whose dramatic effect will gain something from it. But Hollywood’s attempt to blur the line between high-definition and 3-D to get audiences to spend more for an “immersive” experience, has little to do with the very thing 3-D is supposed to accomplish: putting the audience inside the fourth wall.

The best way to judge the current barrage of crummy 3-D movies is to compare a standard bearer such as Avatar to the far more “immersive” experience you’ll have watching Hubble 3D on a real IMAX screen. What you will come away with is a sense of how inferior Avatar is to Hubble 3D. That’s because the convergence level on the cameras used for Avatar was set to keep its 3-D effects behind the proscenium, while the IMAX 3-D process used in Hubble brings the action in front of the viewer’s face.

Avatar is an example of the same conservative approach being used by the current flood of 3-D filmmakers who are either too timid to put the technology through its paces or simply aren’t skilled enough to achieve the off-the-screen effects that make 3-D movies appealing in the first place. Such before-your-eyes tricks are referred to in the industry as “breaking the window.” It gives 3-D films their kick. The only 3-D movie of 2010 to take advantage of the practice was My Bloody Valentine. Disney’s idea of 3-D is just to blow up the images. It’s an open-handed insult to the technology and to the audience.

Personally, I think audiences should boycott 3-D films until Hollywood gets the message that they can’t charge extra, and that 3-D means breaking the fourth wall in a big way. Audiences may not have to wait long. Companies such as Cannon, Fuji and JVC are delivering consumer 3-D cameras so that anyone can experiment with 3-D. It’s only a matter of time before independent filmmakers are creating 3-D films that compete with Hollywood’s monopoly.

Suggested Next Read

Revealing A Life Shrouded in Secrecy

Book Jacket

Revealing A Life Shrouded in Secrecy

By M. Scott Krause

Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life (Random House, $27) is a reverent and carefully researched biography of the celebrated author of The Catcher in the Rye, but after 400 pages I’m not sure I know much more about J.D. Salinger than when I started. If there’s anyone to blame for the book’s shortcomings, it’s Salinger himself, who spent close to 60 years of his life avoiding the spotlight.