Thursday, March 18, 2010

Multi-Dimensional Thinking

Almost a year ago, animation journalist and historian Jerry Beck made a rather stringent pronouncement on his Cartoon Brew blog:

"3-D is a fad."

Beck, a self-proclaimed 3-D fan, was quite harsh in his then assessment of the future of 3-D presented films.  He made this arguement:

" . . . the studios are promoting 3-D films right now in an effort to convince the theaters to convert to digital projection. Once all theatres go digital, there will be no need for the studios to create expensive 35mm prints, they’ll be no more costs for reels and cans; the cost of transporting 100 pound film canisters coast to coast, the cost of storing prints in film depots and later, the cost of destroying worn prints will be eliminated. The savings to the studios will be enormous."

He concluded:

"  . . . as soon as all theaters (or a majority of them) eliminate film and go completely digital, I predict the current 3-D fad will end."

Other well known film historians and critics have weighed in with similar harsh assessments of the current wave of 3-D movies.  Roger Ebert commented in 2008, "The 3-D process is like a zombie, a vampire, or a 17-year cicada: seemingly dead, but crawling out alive after a lapse of years. We need a wooden stake."

But this current wave of 3-D is showing no real signs of abating any time soon.  The movie-going public has apparently embraced the process and are enjoying the enhancement.  It is by no means everyone's cup of tea.  But at least at my local multiplexes, customers are given a choice of 3-D or 2-D; no one is being slighted in the movie-going process.

So returning to Mr. Beck's seemingly adamant statement of 3-D being a fad, he and others of similar persuasion will need to bring a lot more to the argument before I myself am wholly convinced.

The previous high-water mark for 3-D movie exhibitions extends all the way back to the general debut of process back in the early 1950s.  It's ultimate mainstream demise by 1955 related not so much to a public rejection of the principle of 3-D movies, but an inability to refine the process enough on a technical level to overcome issues of eye strain, picture quality and compatibility with theater venues that were more and more expanding to accommodate widescreen presentations.  Today's digital projection technologies have dramatically overcome these prior hurtles.  Sure, there are still occasional criticisms relating to eye strain and picture quality, but they have been very, very minimal and do not seem to pose any type of threat to the long-term viability of current 3-D digital processes.

More notable is, that beyond the backlash from a very vocal but distinctly small minority of critics and moviegoers, both the public and the film industry seem to have accepted 3-D and moved on.  So much so that the average moviegoer seems to have no problem ponying up the extra $ surcharge that theater owners attach to 3-D tickets.  And a 3-D connection to a film no longer necessarily comes with any critical baggage, as all the various awards and accolades for both Avatar and Pixar's Up would indicate.

Relating this discussion to " . . . the many worlds of Disney entertainment," as our tag-line suggests, is fairly obvious.  The Walt Disney Company has been one of the leading proponents of Digital 3-D, and has very much been reaping the box-office benefits thereto.  My first exposure to a digital 3-D film was Disney's Meet the Robinsons back in 2007 and I was extremely impressed with both the movie and the 3-D process.  I have since enjoyed Bolt, Up and Alice in Wonderland in 3-D presentations; I regret that I was not able to see the converted 3-D versions of The Nightmare Before Christmas and the Toy Story films.  I personally find that animated movies are far more compatible with 3-D, but cannot deny that Avatar was stunning in its 3-D presentation.  I found the picture for Alice in Wonderland to be a tad bit murky and dark, but I'm not sure whether to attribute that to the quirks of my own vision, Tim Burton's vision, or to the fact that the film was converted to 3-D in post-production.

Speaking for myself at least, the intention on the part of Hollywood to draw people back to movie theaters via the enticement of 3-D, is in fact effective.  Since last year, I have been quite content to see movies for the first time via my own high-definition home theater set-up, but a 3-D presentation of a movie I particularly want to see will send me out to a big-screen venue.

In the end, current digital 3-D is simply an enhancement to the movie-going experience.  It appears that most enjoy it, some do not.  It is not an essential component of any particular film; I have thoroughly enjoyed movies such as Up, Coraline and Meet the Robinsons in non-3-D presentations.  At the same time, I do not think that seeing Monsters Vs. Aliens in 3-D would have redeemed it for me on any level.   Three-dimensional mediocrity is still, well . . . mediocre.

With all due respect to Jerry Beck, who I have long followed and admired (and Roger Ebert to some extent as well), making predictions is a dangerous way to gamble with your own credibility.  Is it really worth the potential "I told you so" payoff that, at least in the case of digital 3-D, may not materialize any time soon?


Marianne said...

Avatar made tons of money, not because the story was awesome, but because of the visual effects. Without it I can't help but think it's just a mediocre movie. 3D is what made people come out to see it, because they now it's not a movie to wait for the DVD.

It does enrich your movie going experience although if you wear glasses like I do it's kind of a pain.

Anyways, great post!

Cory Gross said...

You didn't miss anything by missing Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D. You'd think, being in 3D already, it would have been a perfect choice to upgrade. Frequently, however, it didn't really work (why is Jack's hand IN the wall?!?) and overall the 3D added nothing.

Which is about right for any 3D movie so far. I also had the misfortune of seeing Journey to the Center of the Earth in 3D and there were only a handful of times that it did anything of note. None of those, I should add, were the "look, we're in 3D!!" moments like Dr. Tongue's 3D House of Pancakes.

Unknown said...

I saw Nightmare in 3-D. It was ok. The 3-D did not add to it. It was great to see UP in 3-D. Avatar was astounding in 3-D.

I enjoy the process of seeing the 3-D films. It adds a little more to the experience of theater-going.

3-D needs to move beyond gimmicky (like in Journey to the Center of the Earth) and start becoming more like color and sound. Just a natural part of the experience.

Anonymous said...

Most consider 3D a novelty. At lest the films are not in red and blue.

One thing I don't want to do when I go to the movies, is have to wear a pair of glasses.

I think is shows some desperation on the part of studios to have gimmicks(like this). Instead of making good films, whenever I see something marketed like this, I make it a point to avoid it.

Jeffrey Pepper said...


I believe that the current wave of 3-D has extended well beyond the novelty phase. Avatar has become the highest grossing movie of all time--nothing novel about that.

Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, Avatar, Up and Coraline among others are good films, at least in the sense that they can stand with or without the 3-D enhancement. And again, it seems that almost all theater venues are offering 3-D and 2-D options. And consumers are certainly not rejecting these films when the hit the non-3D home entertainment markets. It's not quite the same dynamic that has been characteristic of Hollywood fads of the past.

I think the knee-jerk, 3-D=bad movie mentality is the latest in fashionable online negativity, but does not bring a lot to a balanced, intelligent discussion on the subject.

Jerry Beck said...

Don't get me wrong, I've been a 3D Film fan my whole life. In particular, I love what 3D brings to animation. I've been advocating for it my whole life. I'd love for 3D to be the norm. But the current "boom" is not fueled by any artistic vision (AVATAR excepted), but by the major studios desire to save money by having theater chains convert to digital projection. I'm delighted 3D is popular at the moment, but all it will take is a few mediocre films to tear it down. The gimmick will wear out its welcome (as it has several times before). I admit today's digital 3D (which is the version we have now - using one projector, as opposed to two projectors, the old method) is superior to 3D film technology of the past - but it's content, not technology, that will keep people coming to the movies.

Unknown said...

Both "Meet the Robinsons" and "Up" benefitted from the 3-D because they already were stories of true depth. (pun unintended) MTR has become one of our all-time favorites for so many reasons, even though it's 2-D at home.

Incidentally, over at they descriped "Avatar" with a Venn diagram: when "Ferngully" meets "Pocahontas." As visually stunning as it was, I think that about nails the plot. ;-)

harry said...

Really glad all of those classic movies have 3 D version.
Hope in the future more 3D will come.

Anonymous said...

For me, 3F had it´s fair chance, but failed completely - I´m through with it, and will never again see a 3d movie,not even for free. (and I did not even experience headaches, like many of my friends did).

Disney's Folly said...

I think the big problem here is that people are categorizing the current slate of 3D films under the same umbrella as what was considered 3D in the past (i.e. Jaws 3D or The Creature from the Black Lagoon Saturday TV matinees). Fitting it into the definition of fad or cyclical trend doesn't work because it is no longer the brethren of those previous fads. It's a new thing using the same name. Sort of like how my Chevy Malibu is not the descendant of the Malibus of the 70s and 80s.

This new 3D is an extension of CGI technology and is not about gimmick, it's about adding depth. Avatar was built around submersing the audience into that world. The Toy Story 1/2 rerelease (though retrofitted as 3D) was about adding depth to technology that could convert easier than live-action. I've seen concert films in 3D (i.e. U23D) where it was more about putting you on stage with the band. This is basically what we were told virtual reality was supposed to be.

I think the big problem is that adults are trying to make sense of something that is aimed at a younger core. I straddle that line, as I always have, because the internet/gaming/tech boom happened while i was in college (i'm 35). But anyone after me has grown up with plasma TVs, High def, insane game consoles, CGI movies, and all sorts of high-end fancy technological instruments (iphones, laptops) for most of their lives. Refuting it all comes across like a crotchety old man refusing to buy a computer thinking they'll fade away. The reality is that this is like any other young technological's going to have resounding success, and then there will some quick-buck retrofitting responses that don't always work. (Movies like Alice and Clash of the Titans were not filmed for 3D.) But this is a natural step forward for the CGI movement. 3D is not going to come at the cost of smart storytelling because CGI already did that. And CGI has lasted a long time. 3D is going to grow in all ways...good, bad, amazing, putrid.

On the business side, Jeff hit all the right points about saving Hollywood money. But it also earns them and the theaters money since I happily paid well more than $10 to see Avatar in the theaters twice. I never see movies more than once in theaters since it just costs too much. And here i had to pay more. PLUS, they are using this to expand TV technology and get people out buying 3D ready TVs. In a few years, those DVDs you upgraded to Blu Rays will have to be upgrade to 3D. Hollywood may be sneaky, but they ain't stupid.

Great insightful article Jeff. Always a fun read.

Zappa said...

I stumbled into this article while reading the old ones about the development of Lake Buena Vista. I always hated the 3D trend back almost 10 years ago. As of today, I am really glad to see 3D (I live in Italy) has completely disappeared from movie theaters in my country. Always thought it was crazy to have to watch a movie with a damn pair of googles to have an experience which is just a little bit more than the regular one. Time proved me right.