The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

3D Is Future Fiction

Written by: Jacob Kunnel, Special to CC2K

A daydreamer’s view on the current development of 3D movies.

Image3D has been around for decades, but the latest push in stereoscopic technology and breakthrough in digital projection might lead to a renaissance that could change the experience of watching a movie forever. The arguments are clear. Supporters say that this is a totally new movie going experience. You cannot record a 3D film with a camcorder or watch it at home. People need to buy tickets to watch these films – which opens a brand new market for consumers. Critics, on the other hand, describe 3D films as overly gimmicky and the technology as unsubstantial. I would argue that both positions are right and wrong in their own way. Great stories are still the future of the film industry. But stories that are written for a 2D screen will only produce films that use 3D as a gimmick. This essential problem leads to one simple question: What stories can be only told through 3D? 

This essay is a simple thought experiment. Let’s face it: 3D will not be the end of all traditional movies. BUT it will be the beginning of something new. When the first relevant 3D films appear, you won’t be able to imagine them as 2D movies. Much as you can’t imagine The Wizard of Oz without music or color. It will be a slow and adventurous process. To make 3D a relevant medium, filmmakers need to experiment and push the medium to different new levels. Here are some ideas on how 3D could serve the need for a new film language. This is nothing more than Future Fiction, but it might open up a discussion that goes beyond the general marketing and technology babble.

Where am I?

To me, one of the essential things that creates the atmosphere of a scene is its geography. Not only the set itself, or the distance between two actors, but also the relation between the camera and what we see. Might it be the endless tracking shots in Elephant or the surreal dream sequences in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – part of the fascination for these films comes from a distinct sense of geography. Usually, it is something really subtle, but it is one of the major reasons why we get invested. Remember the battle hill in The Thin Red Line, the derelict ship in Alien or the distance between the Bates Motel and Norman’s house in Psycho? A real sense of geography in films takes us directly into the place. And this is what we want from 3D films. Future filmmakers need to find out how to create the feeling of “being there”. It’s not just the technology; we need a language for this. 3D filmmaking could rely more on expensive tracking shots like the most famous scene in Children of Men, but there might be other creative ways to use this potential. Because we can recognize differences better in this medium, there is the opportunity to play with the focus or the depth of field. What if you digitally alter the difference between two actors, when someone who should be five meters away seems to be only one step away. Wouldn’t that be an effective tool for any horror movie?

Cut into three

A cut is a one-dimensional tool. It deletes the vertical and horizontal information and replaces them with new ones. In a 2D logic, a montage makes total sense. But what about 3D? Is the disruption that is created by a cut the same? While 3D montages haven’t stopped anyone’s enjoyment so far, filmmakers who work in 3D aim for a slower number of cuts. Whether this means that 3D films shouldn’t be edited like music videos or that moviegoers need to adjust to the new medium, the one thing that I find interesting are the alternatives. Transitions could be a key element of finding a new film language. Might it be wipes, dissolves or fades. They are still used as if the film took place in a 2D setting. Imagine a wipe that does not go from the left to the right, but throughout the kitchen. A dissolve that happens only in the background. There needs to be a certain playfulness with transitions. On the other hand there is always the danger of making a film look cheesy. But again, this could be another way of using the new potential. I’m wondering how a film like Irreversible with its inventive transitions would translate to 3D.

The celluloid affect

One of the hottest topics in digital filmmaking is the question whether you could achieve the richness and texture of celluloid with a digital camera. While the beauty and quality of celluloid shouldn’t be questioned, digitally shot films like Zodiak or Planet Terror have proven that it is possible to recreate that look almost to perfection. Every new stock and every new material is connected to different aesthetics, times and even zeitgeists. Super 8 takes us back into certain nostalgia, while films shot on video translate a feeling of authenticity. It will be interesting to see what the alteration of the digital 3D material will do to the new stories told. Imagine you are in the middle of the original Nosferatu, but as a 3D movie. What does the expressionist lighting do to the world in three dimensions? Will the harsh light make the film look unreal or surreal? How will the texture of the skin of the vampire look? Will a character like Rose McGowan’s Cherry Darling in Planet Terror feel more outlandish or like a real exploitation pin-up? Films like Days of Heaven with its rosy-fingered dawn or Traffic with its different color choices demonstrate what the texture can do to a film. It’s time that 3D filmakers go beyond the standard film look and explore these opportunities. It will be a most relevant choice for one certain genre: Documentaries. I could imagine how non-fictional films could get a new push if they were told in 3D. James Cameron is a pioneer in this field, but what about the smaller films? What would a 3D setting do to the narcissistic Tarnation or the disturbing Capturing the Friedmans?

Running through the fourth wall

While the stage of a theater play is only an imitation of a real setting, traditional films allow us to watch a captured and, in some sort of way, real moment. Finally, 3D movies will allow us to experience these moments. Films have always been based on visual tricks and special effects. From Georges Méliès to Stan Winston, it was always about inventive people who pushed the boundaries to create an illusion. In 3D films, special effects will not only determine what we see, but also how we see it. First of all, there will be new ways of creating huge battles, gory kills, car chases or dinosaurs. Going one step further, not only the dinosaurs will be relevant, but also whether we experience the film from the jeep with Sam Neill or through a god-like perspective from the top. With every new position, we will enter a new realm. The point of view, might it be the position of the camera or the narrator, will be essential in the creation of new worlds. How would we experience the famous Satanic Impregnation scene in Rosemary’s Baby, if it were told in 3D? What about the final moments in 2001 – A Space Odyssey? Until now, 3D films have been treated as something you watch much like a 2D film. You go to the movies and you can enjoy the effects on the screen. My assumption is that 3D films can only become relevant when they create the illusion of not just watching something spectacular, but of entering a new world with a 3 dimensional conscience. The key to it is a new subjectivity – the idea that a visit to a three dimensional setting is linked to a personal experience of the character or the narrator.

The new arthouse could be anywhere

While the idea of a 3D arthouse movie might sound ridiculous at the moment (obviously due to the huge costs), there will be those people that experiment with the medium, even on a rudimentary level. And they will play an essential role in our future understanding. There will always be the ones that push the boundaries, and by doing that, they will define the language in which we will “speak” and “read” movies. There will be the Ingmar Bergman of 3D, the Fritz Lang, the Guy Madden, the David Lynch. This will take a while until some user-friendly and cheaper cameras will be on the market, but once an indie-production can shoot in 3D, it will be an exciting time to watch movies. When this happens, the film industry, especially the American, will not be the same. It might be possible that other industries might play a major role in the creation, but also in the socialization of the market. Who knows? Maybe the future of 3D is in Nigeria? It all depends on where and when a bunch of starving artists decides to collectively redefine how we see films. There will be new genres that are defined through 3D, apart from Fantasy, Action or Film Noir. New myths, icons and themes.

The one that changes everything

Right now, this is all Science Fiction. The definition of a 3D movie in 2009 is either an animated flick like Monsters Vs. Aliens, or an event movie like The Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience. And it is totally understandable why. Might it be an already 3D-based-setting or a real-life experience like a concert, these kinds of movies seem to be made for a 3D screen. But they also play it safe. These films only feel like an extension of the 2D experience. Usually, changes in technology occur through one user-friendly device that is immediately accepted by a huge mass of people. For an emerging 3D film market, there needs to be one film that changes the way we watch the medium. Hopefully, this film is Avatar. But even if not, there will be a huge crowd-pleasing blockbuster that uses its 3D setting naturally, and not as gimmick. This will be the exciting moment when the audience will take 3D for granted. And it will allow the studios to invest in riskier productions, the Intolerance or the Metropolis of a new age in cinema.

This essay is not meant to be simply true or wrong. Treat it as Future Fiction, as an idea of what could be. My aim was to show just few of the possibilities of a medium that is usually treated as a gimmick. To me, it seems irrelevant that 3D could be the next cash cow of the studios or that they could recreate the old Star Wars films in 3D. Let’s forget all these things and be inventive again. There will be new ways to tell stories and new communal experiences at the movies. And for that sake, let’s get rid of the complicated term “3D movies”. Let’s just call them Ds.