[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: If there's anything that can excite an impassioned debate among film fans, it's the topic of 3D. The technology has been around for a long time in one form or another—the first 3D films were released in the 1950s—but its popularity tends to wax and wane, sometimes reaching peaks where it's a huge fad and a box office draw, while at other times the technology falls into disfavor and disuse. We are currently, without a doubt, in the middle of one of 3D's peak periods, and there are even those, like James Cameron, who argue that 3D is the future of film. It's pretty rare these days for any big animated film or summer blockbuster to get released to theaters without being in 3D, and older hits from the Star Wars series to Titanic are being refitted and re-released with 3D effects grafted on.
Our entry point for this conversation is provided by the release of two 3D family/adventure flicks made by esteemed directors working in the 3D format for the first time. Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin are very different movies, both in their own right and in how they use 3D. Scorsese's latest work is a deeply personal (but also, paradoxically, uncharacteristic) ode to the early cinema, a formalist celebration of the joys of movies. Spielberg's film, an adaptation of the beloved comics by Belgian artist Hergé, is arguably less of a personal work, a propulsive, often funny, action movie that hardly ever pauses for breath. Though both films share a certain witty European sensibility and both are family-friendly crowd-pleasers, it's hard to imagine two more different movies in terms of tone: the breathless, wide-eyed wonder of Hugo and the kinetic, nearly slapstick violence and adventure of Tintin.
Precisely because these films are so different, and because they're the product of two highly respected American directors rather than just two more disposable holiday-season spectacles, they provide a perfect opportunity to discuss the merits of 3D, to consider whether this technology really is, as filmmakers like Cameron seem to think, the future of film and a valuable aesthetic tool, or if it's simply a faddy gimmick that's cycled back into popularity before people get tired of it again. These films provide an interesting case study for these questions. One curiosity is that the brasher, louder Tintin arguably uses 3D effects much more subtly and minimally than the comparatively low-key Hugo, which suggests that 3D can easily be separated from the other elements of a film's style and tone. I wonder if that disconnect between 3D and the rest of a film's elements provides some proof for the viewpoint that 3D is an unnecessary gimmick rather than a truly vital means of expression.
Jason Bellamy: Before I grapple with that thought, let me back up a moment and provide a brief account of my history with 3D as context. I don't remember exactly when I first donned a set of perception-distorting glasses, but I do know that prior to this recent 3D craze I experienced the sensation of swimming with fish through a vertical kelp maze in an underwater short at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and long before that I saw portions of The Birds in 3D at MGM Studios and had a Muppets 3D experience at another theme park (Disney's California Adventure, I think). There were other 3D exposures, too, here and there, but the first 3D Hollywood feature film that I saw in its entirety was Cameron's Avatar. Since then I have seen four 3D movies: Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Hugo (twice), Tarsem's Immortals and Tintin, in that order. Of course, seeing a 3D film these days means suffering through about 20 minutes of 3D trailers, so while I didn't actually attend recent releases like The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides or The Three Musketeers, I saw enough of their 3D imagery to get a sense for the way those movies try to swashbuckle into the audience's lap with penetrating swords. Likewise, I have a sense for how the re-releases of Star Wars and Titanic will look with an extra "dimension."
I mention all of that to make it clear that my experience with 3D makes for an extremely small sample size. But, if we're honest, that's true for almost everyone. We're having this conversation now because two revered 2D directors, Scorsese and Spielberg, have dipped their toes into 3D waters. But that leaves countless revered 2D directors who haven't come anywhere close to the pool (and it ignores the possibility, however doubtful, that Scorsese or Spielberg might someday decide to commit to 3D altogether). 3D might not be "new," but as an art form it's in its infancy, and great filmmakers like Scorsese and Spielberg are in the infancy of their 3D careers. With improving technology, there are possibilities available to 3D filmmakers today that weren't available 50 years ago, certainly, and probably even 5, and even if those technological developments don't continue (and I suspect they will, for a while), 3D could remain cinema's New World for decades, as filmmakers partake in a kind of 3D land-grab, racing to be the first to put their signature on a shot in the 3D format that might have been memorably accomplished in 2D before they were born. (Whether there's true "invention" in that is another debate altogether. Point is, someone will look to be 3D's Orson Welles.)
Time will tell how this all plays out, but I'll admit at the outset that I'm stunned at how much my physical response to 3D—never mind my critical opinion of it—has changed since seeing Avatar only two years ago. What not so long ago felt distinct, odd and even nauseating (the 3D effect has been known to give me migraines lasting for hours), now feels startlingly, well, normal. Put another way, the more 3D I see, the less 3D I "notice." And while that might sound damning (and, indeed, maybe it is), and while you wonder if the disconnect between the overtness of the 3D effect in Hugo and Tintin and the overall style and tone of those movies might expose 3D as empty gimmickry, I see the same thing and wonder if we might be heading toward a time, maybe even very soon, in which 3D becomes so unassuming that it becomes difficult to argue that it has a significant negative effect, as many traditionalist cinephiles are quick to argue. So while today the challenge is often to demonstrate 3D's value in order to justify its very existence, are we approaching a point in which the more difficult challenge becomes arguing 3D's impediment and/or impairment?
EH: That's a good question, and before I answer it, I'll admit that, like you, my experience with 3D is fairly limited. I don't enjoy the effect, so I tend to avoid 3D showings unless I have a really strong motivation to go, like the opportunity to see what a favorite director like Herzog or Scorsese does with the technology. For me, anyway, 3D still has substantial impediments. I agree with Jim Emerson, who wrote (regarding Avatar, though his words are equally true for almost any 3D feature), "[Each] layer looks flat, stacked in front of or behind some other layer. So, people for example look like cardboard cutouts rather than rounded figures. What's worse, if the camera's depth of field holds something out of focus in the foreground or background, you can't do anything about it. If you look at something that's closer or farther away, your eyes have a natural tendency to bring it into focus. 3D camerawork frustrates that instinct."
The technology keeps improving, and filmmakers may get better at avoiding the worst headache-inducing tendencies of the form, but I don't think the basic situation has changed since Emerson wrote that in 2009. I think he's right that 3D filmmaking is essentially "dictatorial" in a way that 2D imagery is not: 3D assumes a certain way of looking at an image, and a viewer who tries to see the image in a different way than the director intended will only be rewarded with eyestrain. A good 2D director tries to guide the viewer's eyes to the important aspects of an image, not to force the viewer to look at one part of the image and one part only. There's little room in 3D for visual ambiguity: try to imagine a 3D version of the final shot from Michael Haneke's Caché, a crowd scene in which the viewer must scan and search for the meaning. I think that 3D encourages a substantially different—and more limited—way of seeing than we're accustomed to from 2D movies, or indeed any other art form. Whereas in most art the ideal viewer is an active viewer, the ideal viewer for a 3D movie is passive, because being a thinking film viewer—really looking at the composition as a whole—is strongly discouraged by a format in which certain parts of the frame seem to be hovering in midair while other parts are blurry and indistinct.
For that reason, 3D has, historically, primarily been a medium of spectacle and entertainment, and in my opinion there are serious obstacles to it being anything but that. Even if the technology improves to the point where some of the current visual limitations—like the dimmer colors and blurriness—are overcome, which is very possible, the larger issue of active versus passive viewership remains. The two movies we're focusing on during this conversation are again a perfect example. With Hugo, I had two extreme reactions to the 3D imagery: I thought it was inventive and powerful at times (especially in the recreations of Georges Méliès' films) and distracting and gimmicky at others, as in all the shots where something juts out of the frame just because it can. While watching Tintin, on the other hand, there were long stretches where I barely noticed the 3D. Some of the frenzied action sequences were perhaps a little more disorienting than they would have been in 2D, and occasionally I felt that familiar and uncomfortable 3D sensation of having my gaze ripped from one focus to another. For the most part, though, I felt like Tintin did very little with 3D, for good or ill, but maybe that's just because it's such a different movie than Hugo. Tintin hurtles along, delivering one action set piece after another, ramping up the outrageousness until it climaxes with that ludicrous crane duel at the end, and it's easy to get swept up in its rush of images. Hugo is a much more deliberate and patiently paced film, and its 3D compositions seem more deliberate, too. Scorsese does some interesting things with 3D in Hugo, but because he calls more attention to the 3D effects, I found that on the whole I enjoyed the easy-to-forget, unambitious 3D in Tintin more. Which, again, raises the question: even if we leave aside the technological and physiological issues with 3D, if the more enjoyable 3D movie is the one that does so little with the device that it can mostly be ignored, what does this say about the creative possibilities of the form?
JB: I'm not sure it says anything, actually. See, the trouble with much of the conversation about 3D at the moment is that it supposes that this effect with the rare ability to be in your face must wow us with in-your-face imagery to be valid, because otherwise why bother? I understand that line of thinking, but I wonder if it might be outdated. If we were to discuss great achievements in CGI, for example, your mind might reflexively call up images from innumerable summer blockbusters that exist primarily to show off their ostentatious effects, and yet some of the best CGI is the stuff that goes entirely unnoticed. (As luck would have it, one of Emerson's latest posts at Scanners touches on this very subject in describing how David Fincher combines multiple takes within the same frame in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) So I wonder: why doesn't 3D deserve the chance to be thought of in the same light, as an effect to subtly accentuate compositions or to lie dormant for the majority of the film and come out of hibernation only when needed?
That's kind of the way Herzog uses 3D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Each scene isn't approached with the intent to embrace the 3D effect, as there are numerous traditional sit-down interviews that render the effect moot. But we accept the moments in which the 3D is incidental for the opportunity to see 3D put to brilliant effect in Herzog's examination of the Chauvet caves. Before I saw the documentary I came across several interviews in which Herzog insisted that 3D was the "only way" to make Cave of Forgotten Dreams, because it was the "only way" he could accurately convey how the ancient cave art makes use of the natural undulations of the rock canvas, so that a bulge in a cave wall accentuates the hump of an animal's back, and so on. Uncle Werner is prone to exaggeration, so I must admit that when I heard these claims I assumed he was merely trying to hype his film and validate his use of 3D without losing his art-house cred. Once I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams, however, I couldn't help but agree. Indeed, the 3D improved my appreciation of the cave art's use of the topography of the rock walls while also enhancing my basic understanding of the overall cave environment, all of which heightened the all-important feeling of being there.
Looping back to your previous comment about the compatibility of the 3D effect with a film's overall tone, Herzog's 3D use would seem more than justified, because the effect is a direct extension of Herzog's cinematic intent. And yet it's only fair to point out that one of the reasons the 3D is so noticeable in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is because Herzog is constantly calling attention to it by explicitly commenting on the shape of the caves. That's not to say that we wouldn't feel the power of the 3D on our own, but it's worth asking, what if the Chauvet caves were simply the setting and not the subject of Herzog's documentary? What if the caves provided the environment for a movie like The Descent? In that case, the 3D effect might not seem necessary, and certainly it wouldn't be so pronounced, as our focus would be on the action in the narrative and physical foreground, but that doesn't mean the 3D wouldn't be effective, enhancing our claustrophobia and/or sense of confinement on a comparatively subconscious level, heightening our feeling of being there.
I bring that up to get us here: If we approach 3D with the attitude that it can only be justified when the effect is noticeable and significant, what we're essentially saying, I think, is that 3D is valid only if a 2D projection of the same film would be cinematically and dramatically inferior. In the case of Cave of Forgotten Dreams I would argue that, yes, a 2D projection is inferior to the 3D version. I wouldn't say the same of Hugo and Tintin, I admit, but I'm not sure it's actually fair to look at them that way. After all, if we were to adjust our collective attitude and put the burden of proof on 2D, I wouldn't call the 3D projections of Hugo and Tintin inferior either. In moments? Absolutely. On the whole? No.