Sunday, March 13, 2011

3D From Both Sides Of The Fence

DQ Film Advisor And Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand sent me an e-mail about 3D recently, and that morphed into a discussion that represented the two basic perspectives concerning the future of 3D. With his permission, I'm going to share it with you.

Here's the e-mail from Ben that kicked everything off:
As we have talked at length in the past about movie trends, here's one I don't think everyone sees coming: the possible/inevitable collapse of 3D on biological grounds.

I'm not a fan of the gimmick in general, so I am watching with great interest how the huge wave of next projects goes through the pipeline.

Ben included a link to Roger Ebert's blog that discussed 3D from the perspective of Walter Murch, a highly decorated film and sound editor. Murch had several technical objections to 3D, but this was his most strident:
But the deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen -- say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what.

But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focussed and converged at the same point.

...We can do this. 3D films would not work if we couldn't. But it is like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, difficult. So the "CPU" of our perceptual brain has to work extra hard, which is why after 20 minutes or so many people get headaches. They are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared them for. This is a deep problem, which no amount of technical tweaking can fix. Nothing will fix it short of producing true "holographic" images.

Later, Murch also mentions this:
And lastly, the question of immersion. 3D films remind the audience that they are in a certain "perspective" relationship to the image. It is almost a Brechtian trick. Whereas if the film story has really gripped an audience they are "in" the picture in a kind of dreamlike "spaceless" space. So a good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with.

I highly recommend reading the entire post (hit the link mentioned above), but that will be enough to continue if you're lazy (I certainly can't throw any stones about that trait).

Here's how I responded to Ben:
All of the limitations you mention about current 3D technology are absolutely true. However, it's also true that these issues are relative--3D is darker than 2D, not dark. And the color palette is not as rich as 2D, but I don't think it's poor. And some people get headaches, but not most people.

If you took 100 people, put them in a 3D movie, and asked if they noticed the darkness and the change in color palette, I'm almost certain that very few people would. I would, but that's because I'm a bit of a video nerd. Eli doesn't, and couldn't really care less.

So really, what we need to figure out is what percentage of people have a poor 3D experience because of the issues you mentioned, and whether improved technology can mitigate those issues. I know that there is one reader who consistently e-mails me to complain about 3D, and says his eyes are unable to do the separation necessary. But the positive e-mail is easily 15x or 20x that.

So if we say that 10% of people (I think that's a little high, but you probably think it's a little low, so a good compromise) have a compromised experience, is that going to kill the market for 3D? I don't think it would. What I do think is that crappy 3D movies have a much better chance of killing it. I've seen a few movies (quite a few of them animated, obviously, like Coraline) that were wonderful in 3D, and quite a few more that were more fun (Journey to the Center of the Earth is a good example). And speaking only for myself, "good 3D" definitely does things to immerse me in a movie that 2D just can't do.

In the sense of future improvements, there's a gigantic financial incentive for anyone who develops technology to improve the 3D experience. At this point, it's a cinematic Holy Grail, for lack of a better term. Actually, it could be much more than that--it could be a life preserver for the film industry, because really, I have a better movie experience at home with a 42" plasma, in many ways, than I do at a theatre.

I do think the line of reasoning that some people (not you, obviously) hate new technology is relevant, particularly when you're dealing with critics of a medium when that medium has been substantially altered. That's always been true, and I think it's those critics who are probably least relevant when discussing new tech, because they have very deep grooves in their head about film, for example, and 3D is an entirely new groove. Talkies were going to ruin movies. Films in color were going to ruin movies. Everything new is going to ruin movies. There's always a group of people, and they're often influential, for whom everything new is base compared to what came before.

3D also requires directors to think in new ways about how they want to film something. I mean, there should be additional artistic impressions available due to the natural depth that 3D allows (I'm not talking about cheesy effects). So they have to change as well. It seems like it would be as different, in some ways, as changing from shooting in black and white to color, or going from silent to talkies.

I still strongly believe that autostereoscopic 3D will be on 42" home sets by the end of this year or next. It will suck, at first, but within five years, it's going to be pretty damn good. And that's going to signal a huge shift in how television is watched. I've seen good autostereoscopic 3D once, and it was incredible.

I thought some of Murch's arguments were straw men, and that he sounded snobby in general (highfalutin', for lack of a better word). That entire "dreamlike" argument was just ridiculous--I know that Coraline, in particular, was incredibly engrossing because the 3D made me feel like I was looking into a real world, not seeing a flat one on the screen. There was a remarkable kind of intimacy, almost like I was seeing a secret world that existed inside the movie screen.

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