Remember in college, how you would go to class, and the professor wouldn’t be there? In my college, the unwritten rule in such an event was that you had to wait 20 minutes before you could consider the class unofficially canceled, and you could go back to your dorm room to drink contraband beer, and read that next chapter in The Republic that you should have read three weeks ago. If the class was one of those four-hour lecture courses, then the wait time was raised to 30 minutes. Remember that? Well, that’s kind of what happened last week here at the Free Film School. Thanks to the rush and rumble of Comic Con, your stalwart professor was running late. By the time he arrived, you buggers had left, and class was canceled. I’m not going to apologize for missing class last week. Just to be sadistic, I’m going to place blame squarely on you, the student. Is it your fault? Well, no. But I have a right to be petty every now and again.
There was no Comic Con this week, and I am here, on time, and I have a new lesson for you. Time to sit up and pay attention again. Welcome back, dear students, to the Free Film School on CraveOnline. I would be nothing without you. (See? I temper my pettiness with humility.)
The lesson this week will finally address something that’s been infecting theaters for years; the notion of the 3-D gimmick. I will also be pointing to older film techniques that had already surpassed 3-D in terms of their visual impact, as well as giving a brief discussion of film gimmickry in general.
The current 3-D renaissance has, I think, outlived its novelty by now. Sure, it was fun for a while, but I think most audiences are tiring of the empty visual flair, and long for regular movies with good stories. The current wave of 3-D exploded in earnest, of course, with 2009’s Avatar, which, thanks to its excellent special effects and pointed, unapologetic use of 3-D, pretty much changed the way films were marketed for the next few years. No film would be worthy of viewing in a theater unless it was an ENORMOUS movie. The notion of an “event” film has been around as long as film has, but the size of the “event” film has, in recent years, become even bigger. And, the film in question had to be in 3-D. Thank goodness Christopher Nolan is such a vocal proponent of celluloid, non-digital, non-gimmick-laced film, so that we can have an exciting “event” blockbuster like The Dark Knight Rises that actually looks like a real movie, and not like a clean, crisp digital video game, replete with unnecessary 3-D.
(Yes, I am one of those Luddites who prefers celluloid film to digital projection.)
To give a brief history: The notion of 3-D (3 Dimensions) filmmaking goes back to 1952 (although 3-D photography goes back way further). In 1952, an obscure film, largely unknown today, called Bwana Devil was released in anaglyph 3-D (anaglyph is the old-fashioned red-and-blue 3-D). The film was evidently a huge hit, touting typically superlative claims on its poster (“A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!”), and ushered in the so-called Golden Era of the gimmick. The earliest 3-D film I have personally seen came out the following year; It Came from Outer Space, a movie about a mild-manned fellow who contacts a recently-landed species of intelligent, boxy aliens, did the 3-D effect much better than many of its forebears,and is, I can personally attest, a pretty darn good movie. In 1954, Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon would be released, and the 3-D craze would be officially codified as a trend. Finally, theaters could offer something that TVs could not.
Keep in mind, this gimmickry arose when TVs began to flood the market, and movie attendance slowed as a result. It’s been argued frequently that the recent move to 3-D has been an attempt to lure people off the internet, and away from their computers and smart phones. Heck, if it worked in the 1950s, it can work in the ‘10s.
Here’s my brief layman’s explanation on how 3-D works: A 3-D film is typically shot with a special camera that has two camera lenses, each representing a single human eye. For the sake of clarity, let’s say one is the “red” camera, and one is the “blue” camera. The film is then projected with both images overlapped. The red and the blue images are, when viewed with the naked eye, seen as being slightly adrift from each other. When you put on a pair of 3-D glasses, however, one eye only sees the red image, and the other only sees the blue. Because of the way our eyes register depth, the color trick forces our eyes to refocus on an illusory image, causing an illusion of depth, or sticky-outey-ness.
“Sticky-outey-ness.” I’m nothing if not technical and professional.
The 3-D craze continued throughout the 1950s, and scads of movies were released in the format (I recommend “Gog,” a fun film about a killer robot). In order to enhance the effect, some theaters took to using reflective silver screens (instead of the ordinary white ones) to increase the brightness and color of the 3-D image. And while the notion of a silver screen sounds cool for any film, regular films projected on a silver screen look weird. The trend started to fade as the 1960s came around, and 3-D began to be accepted as the cheap gimmick that it was. I want it said here that I have no objections to a good gimmick, so long as it is treated like a good gimmick. Heck, I’ve waxed rhapsodic in the Free Film School about the films of William Castle, the master of the gimmick, who once thought to convert theater seats into vibrating Percepto seats.
I would argue that, given the dubious history of 3-D, and its long reputation as a cheap gimmick, the only films that would be worthy of 3-D projection would be the cheap exploitation movies. I don’t want to see a big blockbuster like Men in Black 3 in 3-D. I want to see something cheap, horrific, or corny. Drive Angry deserved to be in 3-D. Step Up 3-D deserved it. Ice Age: Continental Drift, however, will have the same impact in 2-D. Theaters tend to like 3-D because it gives them (as I’m sure you’ve noticed) an excuse to raise ticket prices. I’ve always been a proponent of seeing films in 2-D as often as possible, unless you’re seeing something with a lot of blood, a lot of dancing, or a lot of boobs. Sure, there is something to be said for movies that feel like theme park rides, but I would perhaps argue that such huge “experiences” can’t really set the stage for a great film. If, however, you’re seeing Captain Eo, the 17-minute 1986 Michael Jackson vehicle that only shows at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, then such an event is perfectly appropriate.
Using gimmicks and new digital tools is all well and good, but when the tools become the function of the movie, then you’ve lost something vital. You’ve lost the notion of making a good film, of telling a good story. I have heard tales of the new digital widgets being applied to Peter Jackson’s next film, and to James Cameron’s. And while there are audiences and filmmakers who get excited by the new technologies, the best and most important draw you can have in a film is the strength of its story. The power of its drama. The fascination of its symbolism. The rapture of its tone. Gimmicks are not there to enhance. They’re there to distract. If a great movie is in 3-D, it won’t be the 3-D that makes it great.
(I have, by the way, found a way to convert 3-D glasses into 2-D glasses if they give you a headache. Just remove, however you can, one lens from a single pair of glasses, and replace it with the opposing lens from a second pair. Essentially, you’re making a pair of glasses with two “red” or two “blue” lenses. I’ve done this before, and it works. I first tried it with Thor.)
Can 3-D ever enhance a movie experience? Perhaps. Like I said, if it’s an exploitation movie, 3-D can make it better. A word that a lot of critics like to kick around these days is “immersive,” and they use it to describe how a 3-D film can surround them. I’m not sure if I buy this. 3-D makes my eyes ache a little bit, and I frequently have to remove my glasses to rub my forehead in order to make it through a feature-length film. I missed a great deal of the climaxes Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Avengers and others as a result of my headaches. I would like to counter-argue that we’ve already had the illusion of depth in movies for decades in the form of deep focus. We don’t need an optical illusion to make the screen pop out at us, as we already had special cameras to make the image look like it was extended deep into the frame. This is a technique that has been around since before the first wave of 3-D back in the ‘50s.
I hate to be one of those professors who is always hammering on Citizen Kane, but take another look at Citizen Kane. There are several scenes in the movie wherein characters are conversing in the foreground with a vast black indoor vista behind them. During the conversation, a character will begin wandering into the background… and keep wandering. Thanks to the deep focus, we suddenly see that the room was way, way bigger than we thought it was. We see that the characters are occupying a darkened and hollow emotional place. Just the visuals give is a sense of spookiness and hubris. If you were in the room with those people, you would see how big the room was, because your eye would refocus when it looked at the background. Thanks to the illusion of depth granted by deep focus, we can be tricked in a delightful way.
If you’re sick of looking at Citizen Kane, consider Jean Renoir’s 1939 film The Rules of the Game. That’s a film about a group of aristocrats who gather at a party in a huge mansion, and get involved in infidelity and deceit. The camera prowls around the mansion, looking down vast halls with a true voyeur’s eye. This is one of the only films I’ve seen wherein there are several planes of action occurring at once. In the foreground, we’ll see two character conversing. In the background, we’ll see ancillary characters sneaking around. Even further in the background, we’ll see the servants preparing things for the party. All of these things are in focus. It’s a kind of photography that could be ruined by 3-D. We’re already looking deep into the frame. And it’s awesome.
The notion of this deep focus is often referred to as “depth of field.” It’s a way to look at long, extended spaces, and keep them all in focus at once. Cameras typically require long lenses to capture such an effect. Occasionally, a special effect will be used to keep the foreground and the background in focus, but for the most part, it will be deep focus that does it. “depth of field” should not, however, be confused with another filmic notion of “deep space,” which refers to essentially the same practice of filling backgrounds with action, but keeps the background out of focus. A good example of the use of “deep space” (and I don’t know why this particular example is leaping to mind, but it works) can be seen in the slapstick 1991 comedy Hot Shots! In that film, a character is talking in the foreground, and through his office window in the background you can see a group of soldiers doing drills. As the scene progresses, the soldiers in the background begin doing more outlandish things like kicklines. It’s a hilarious way to call attention to the use of deep space.
When a filmmaker refocuses on various things throughout the scene (which is a surprisingly rare practice), it’s typically called “racking focus.”
But all of these, from deep focus to 3-D, are ways that filmmakers play with our sense of depth. Film is, after all, an inherently 2-D medium. It will always be just a beam of light projected against a flat screen. 3-D notwithstanding, we’re not looking into a window. It’s the illusion of depth that makes the medium unique. It’s the thing that has the medium lingering between the reality of the thing being filmed, and the enforced artificiality of its intentional construction. Gimmicks may be well and good, but we all know what’s really going on.
Homework for the Week:
See any 3-D film in theaters. Watch a portion without your glasses on. Try looking at the picture through one lens, and then the other. Get a feel for how 3-D works. Pay attention to what’s stretching away from you and what’s sticking out at you. Make 2-D glasses and see if they work. Watch The Rules of the Game. How does the depth of the shot relate to 3-D? When you see a movie, how often is the background in focus? If it is, how does that effect the way you see a shot? How does depth make you feel? Try filming a scene yourself using a big indoor space (if you have access to one). How would you use focus in such a scene? Would you want to capture everything in the room, or would you choose to focus on the actors? When is 3-D important? What kind of scene, or what kind of movie, can only be made better with 3-D?