Roger Ebert in 3D

A few weeks ago, Roger Ebert argued in Newsweek that 3-D movies are a terrible idea, a waste of a perfectly good dimension.  Some of his arguments are technical (3D needs to be brighter), some reek of resentment that someone would make money on an idea (at least 2 1/2 of them), and some are things that people have been complaining about ever since “Jaws” (story is taking a backseat to gee-whiz).  His complaints about the surcharges for substandard product may have some merit. Audiences will get wise to this, and studios and theaters will start advertising “In Real 3D” to distinguish from multi-plane 2D.

Here’s the complaint that has merit:

8. I CANNOT IMAGINE A SERIOUS DRAMA, SUCH AS UP IN THE AIR OR THE HURT LOCKER, IN 3-D. Neither can directors. Having shot Dial M for Murder in 3-D, Alfred Hitchcock was so displeased by the result that he released it in 2-D at its New York opening. The medium seems suited for children’s films, animation, and films such as James Cameron’s Avatar, which are largely made on computers.

There is a risk that the technology becomes ghettoized, and that people simply don’t take 3D films seriously because they’re associated with pap.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that the technology itself is flawed, only that, like animation, it develops a barrier to acceptance in serious movies.

Ebert’s enough of a historian to hark back to all the other advances in movie technology:

9. WHENEVER HOLLYWOOD HAS FELT THREATENED, IT HAS TURNED TO TECHNOLOGY: SOUND, COLOR, WIDESCREEN, CINERAMA, 3-D, STEREOPHONIC SOUND, AND NOW 3-D AGAIN. In marketing terms, this means offering an experience that can’t be had at home.

He then goes on to plump for 48 frame-per-second film, which apparently offers a transcendent experience.  I have no doubt that 48fps is much, much better than 24fps, and I’m all for fitting theaters with it and handing film out like candy to directors and cinematographers.  Although proposing another technical fix because you don’t like the one being handed out – one which would also, incidentally, command a surcharge of its own – seems a little peevish.

But the long list of technologies suggests another answer, which is that filmmakers just don’t know how to use 3D properly yet, so it remains a toy. 

Color required an adjustment, as well.  (Remember the controversy about Turner’s colorization, because the b&w films were shot with a certain depth-of-field, and colorizing them confused the eye?)  Casablanca didn’t need 3D?  Apparently, it didn’t need color, either, but Seven Brides for Seven Brothers would be inconceivable without it.

The eye can fill in the third dimension?  There’s plenty of evidence that audiences were expected to fill in the colors for themselves, too.   Any number of films contain references to the color of a girl’s dress or of a car.

Ebert argues that since all the planes are in focus, the eye isn’t sure where to go.  That’s a technique issue that directors can solve over time, also analagous to what happened to color.

I could easily see a war picture featuring a room-to-room search and clearing of a building.  You don’t think a scene like that would be enhanced by 3D?

We see in color, we see with the periphery of our vision, we see in 3D.  There’s no reason that directors can’t figure out how to use 3D properly, just as they have previous technologies.  We won’t get another Casablanca, but by the time Lawrence of Arabia was filmed, we weren’t going to get another Casablanca then, either.

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