4 Reasons 3-D Movies Don't Have to Suck
You don't have to go far to find someone complaining about how every damned movie has to be in 3D these days. It doesn't help that they cost more (and you never know just how much more -- it seems like theaters just roll a D&D die or something and add that number onto the ticket).
It's a large-print die. For the older customers.
And it's just a big stupid gimmick, right? If they're going to try to charge you up to $20 a ticket, you better damn well be getting something amazing out of it. But instead all you get is a big headache and something occasionally jumping out of the screen at you. Right?
Actually, there are ways to use 3D to actually make movies better, rather than as a big-budget version of a children's pop-up book. The film makers just have to be willing to do them:
Make Real 3D Movies
It's easy to think 3D is 3D, and the only difference between Avatar and Clash of the Titans is the difference between corny and extra corny. But there are actually two ways to do it -- the real way and the easy way. The real way is to actually shoot it with a two-eyed camera that films things the same way your two eyes judge depth and form a 3D image from it.
This camera is fancy and therefore expensive, so there's a lazy way too, which is to just shoot the whole thing with a regular one-eyed camera like a regular movie, and then you have some low-paid overseas workers basically cut out the actors digitally and turn it into a digital diorama.
Just like this, but on the computer.
That's why a lot of people complained about 3D movies like Clash of the Titans and the 3D parts of Superman Returns. They paid $13-$20 for a ticket and got something that looked like that dinosaur UFO shoebox there. Sure, you can convert 2D movies to 3D better than that, but it costs a lot more time and money, words that make many studio heads cough violently.
Fun Activity: Cut out the characters in this Clash of the Titans screenshot. Congratulations, you just saved yourself $5.
On the other hand, movies like Avatar were actually shot with a 3D camera, and though people may bicker about how shitty the story was, they have nothing but praise for the 3D and the visuals. Even people who thought it was a piece of shit thought it was a beautiful piece of shit.
Like Treasure Planet. Seriously, get that movie and watch it with the sound off.
CG animated movies are a slightly different case. All you need to turn Toy Story into a real 3D movie is to make a second virtual "camera," and since it's not an actual camera, it's just a piece of code, it costs virtually nothing. That's why studio heads don't have a coughing fit about shooting animated movies in 3D, and why every animated blockbuster is coming out in 3D nowadays.
Christmas 2011! Save the date!
So don't give studios extra money for just turning their 2D movie to a diorama. It didn't cost them, why should it cost you?
Create a World with Depth, Rather Than Make Shit Fly Out at the Viewer
One of the biggest complaints people have about 3D (other than, "$20 FOR A MOVIE TICKET???") is that they think it's gimmicky when things pop out of the screen at you. Some people enjoy that, and it's good for campy horror flicks like My Bloody Valentine or cheesy kids' movies, but many people feel like it takes them out of the story.
That's because when a hand comes out of the screen at you, you can't help but realize that you are sitting in a theater and looking at a screen. That's the whole point of the trick. "I'm sitting in a movie theater, and the movie is somehow coming out of the screen at me. Isn't that wild?" It's literally breaking the fourth wall.
But most movies rely on suspension of disbelief, expecting you to feel for a couple of hours like the world on that screen is real, and the people in it matter, and giant body parts coming at you just ruins that (unless you're watching porn). The majority of the time, you don't want 3D to come into your world.
The most dramatic way 3D can do this is with big landscapes, like in Avatar, Up and How To Train Your Dragon. If you've ever been to some grand natural attraction like Banff or the Alps, you might have noticed your crappy snapshots fail to capture the magnificence of the real thing.
Banff as in the Canadian national park, not the sound that a Nightcrawler knockoff would make.
Part of that is that you're a bad photographer, and part of it is that the grandeur of looking at the real thing comes from depth. That's what makes it feel so big, that your two eyes are telling you it goes on forever.
In the same way, 3D can one-up a traditional movie when showing a vast landscape of flying islands or a dragon flying in and out of crazy rock formations.
Instead of shouting "HEY LOOK IT'S 3D," you just follow the main character's flight, like you're used to doing in many movies, only the main character actually has somewhere to go, because the scene goes deep beyond the screen.
A big 2D landscape can impress you, but only as much as a good painting could. A big 3D landscape can make you feel like you're in it, which can make you feel small or alone, and I'm sure you can remember plenty of movies where that feeling could be important to the story. And this doesn't just apply to backgrounds. On a flat screen, a massive army or gigantic crowd just looks like a bunch of faces crowded close together. In 3D you can see each row separately, so you can actually see for yourself how far back the crowd goes (answer: really far).
Shameless plug: Go watch Megamind in theaters right now if you want to see how well this works.
You can even see if there are big gaps between rows, which kind of sucks for the artists, who could have gotten away with those in 2D. With 3D, movies can show how big an approaching army really feels from the defenders' perspective, without having to cut away to aerial shots to make the point.
Use it to Bring Details to Life
3D doesn't have to just be for huge obvious depth differences like hands coming out at you or deep landscapes going into the screen. If you are doing the film in proper 3D (see point #4 above) it's precise enough to show even little differences, like bumps on tweed or weathered wood, which they did in Up.
You probably didn't consciously notice that Karl's jacket was bumpy and you didn't go telling your friends, "That cracked wood was coming right at me!" but subconsciously, it makes tweed feel tweedier and makes old boards feel worn, the same way people and things feel older when photographed with high contrast lighting.
Without you knowing it, those textures do more to draw you into the scene than any big, sweeping spectacle could. When everything in Karl's house is slightly tweedy and worn, it really adds to making it feel like the house of an old man that time has passed by, without any of it standing out and catching your attention. It's that same musty feeling you get when visiting grandma, except you can leave.
Use it to Help Tell the Story
I'm sure we can all imagine how 3D could undermine a good story by adding a bunch of cheesy distractions ("3D Citizen Kane" is pretty much the catchphrase of anyone arguing against 3D) but if the technology's not being wielded by a ham-fisted spastic, it can also be used to help tell the story.
Ham-fisted spastic on the set of Dungeon Siege.
For instance, every movie you've ever seen has used the camera to help you feel something in a scene. You usually don't notice it (that's the idea) but every good film maker uses camera angles, lighting and color to help draw you in. Horror movies tend to be the least subtle; the angle and lighting on a face can make the killer look scarier:
Though the right casting helps
So for a director who knows how to use it, 3D can be another tool that plays the same kind of subconscious tricks on an audience.
For instance, normally the twin 3D cameras are placed about the same distance apart as the average person's eyes. But if the director changes that distance in a scene, it can immediately give you a sense of disorientation. If you saw Coraline in 3D, you saw a great example of this; they used that trick in the creepy spiraling tunnel that led to Coraline's weird-ass alternate world.
Watching that scene gives you the subconscious feeling that something is wrong, something you just can't put your finger on. For people who hate subtlety, they make it pretty obvious what's wrong later on.
It can also be used to up the tension; for instance in a 2D film, a heavy rain just partially obscures the scene. But when shot in 3D you subconsciously find yourself trying to squint and peer past the raindrops. That feeling of depth in the shot makes you instinctively want to work to see what's behind the obstruction. It engages you, and draws you into the shot to try to make out the monster, or psychopath, or naked woman standing back there. You'll squint and dart your eyes around and maybe even move your head.
But that's just the beginning; the most interesting uses of 3D are the ones great film makers will be coming up with 10 or 20 years from now, once the tool has been in the hands of dozens of creative minds, innovating across multiple films. Meanwhile, bad film makers will still be using it to make shit jump out of the screen.
That's really the point; when you boil it all down, 3D is just one more tool for a film maker to use, for better or worse, just as same knife can be used to carve a beautiful sculpture or stab a stranger in the dick. At the end of the day the invention of 3D is no different than the invention of color film.
To this day, movies don't have to have color to be great...
...but once given the tool, great film makers make amazing use of it.
3D will be no different. Sometimes, you may even get that rare gem that uses both.
Now playing in theaters nationwide, please go see it