To 3D or Not to 3D?

What Happens in Vegas is Methodically Recorded

This week I was lucky enough to attend the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention in Las Vegas. Every year, thousands of vendors who do everything from designing and engineering the cameras we utilize to shoot content all the way down to making zip ties for iPhone headphones (seriously!) crowd the Las Vegas Convention Center with their wares and give all of us – the people who use their expensive gear to create stuff – a chance to see what’s coming out next.

So I walked away from the convention with three conclusions:

  • If film isn’t “dead” in the sense that nobody will ever use it again, it’s certainly dead to me. There are too many ways to create an image that’s the equivalent of film yet much more efficient and/or less expensive that I can no longer see the utility in shooting the plastic-coated-emulsion stuff anymore. But I’m open to be wrong about this.
  • DSLR’s have come into their own in an amazing way and are used for professional production every day, and the camera industry is the last to notice. Of all the camera manufacturers out there, only Panasonic has realized that filmmakers would love a DSLR sensor in a motion picture camera body.
  • 3D has arrived. Or has is?

Cardboard Frames, Plastic Lenses

Yes, 3D. I mean, can “Avatar,” “Clash of the Titans,” “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland,” and “How to Train Your Dragon” all be just riding the coattails of a fad? This year alone, over $200 MILLION has been generated by 3D movies, and much of that revenue has come from inflated ticket seats for 3D shows. And with the exception of “How to Train Your Dragon” (so far), I have been one of those seats that was sold. The industry is changing, and everyone had better keep up. And although a lot of us don’t quite get how to make it work yet, it’s on us to evolve and learn or be left in the sands of time like Rudolph Valentino’s squeaky voice.

Wait a minute… That sounds somewhat familiar… I think I’m about to have a flashback………..

(cue harp music)

Sundance, 2000

A year after “The Blair Witch Project” was released, flush with enough money to not starve for the first time in my life, I attended the Slamdance Film Festival where my short film, “The Meeting” was part of their online “Anarchy” competition.

Hmmm. “Anarchy Competition?”

And even though I was there for Slamdance, I spent a great deal of time checking out Sundance films. I’d only been to Sundance once before, in 1999 for all the “Blair Witch” hype – but something was different in 2000. Anyone who was in Park City, Utah that week in 2000 remembers that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING was all dotcom-ified. Just last month, I gave away a T-Shirt from one of the friggin’ dotcoms that saturated the film festival. They were going to revolutionize the filmmaking process, and not just by giving Pirate Bay a giant lawless open sea from which to steal content from filmmakers (read my previous ranting blog post for a longer diatribe).

Yes, the dotcom was here to revolutionize the film business, democratize the process, and take the indie filmmaker off the endangered species list. Those of us who didn’t know squat about web encoding, Flash animating, HTML, or how to soak rich people for lots of money with vague promises were in BIG trouble. The future is now! Revolutionary changes were on the way.

And in the end, they were. The dotcom changed the way we communicate, buy things, get our news – pretty much everything. But unfortunately for iam.com (which I guess is still there, and I still have their coffee mug), these people weren’t really at the forefront of the revolution. They were like that guy in “Star Wars” who shot the death star first, but only scratched the surface so Luke (in this case, Amazon.com, iTunes, NetFlix, and the aforemetioned douchey media pirates, et. al.) could finish the job. The truth is I don’t remember who most of those dotcom people were with their giant signage and huge, expensive parties and IPO’s and neither does Sundance. They were part of a bubble which burst less than a year later, leaving all of those brilliant pioneers on the bread line.

Good Business or Z-Axis Bubble?

I will not pretend to be smarter than my betters, people like Jeffrey Katzenberg, James Cameron, or the dude at the Panasonic display explaining to me that a 1/4″ sensor-having, minimum ten-foot-from-subject-converging, $21,000-costing camera was worth my consideration (or the dude with the $49K shoebox-sized, not-including-camera mini-3D rig, below). But I have to ask some questions to those people who want to cynically capitalize on 3D, a phenomenon which registers somewhere between a trend and a fad at the moment.

For just $49K, this metal box with a mirror in it can be yours!

Here are my honest-I-don’t-know-the-answer-to-these questions about 3D:

  • Where do we draw the line about what uses 3D well? I understand 3D for action movies and sports, but am I going to buy a $5,000 television just to watch sports?
  • How many steps back visually will viewers tolerate for the privilege of 3D? These cameras are larger and more bulky, requiring on-the-fly interocular and convergence adjustments. So will football fans, for instance, miss their flying wire-cam shots if the experience feels more dimensional?
  • Will we all really run out and buy a new television after we all just spent a few thou on TV’s currently sitting in our houses?
  • Are people going to stop multitasking while watching television because they’re wearing $130 glasses while they vegetate?
  • Should EVERY movie be 3D?
  • Is 3D really a way to bust piracy if 3D Blu-Ray (which, no surprise, will be able to be ripped and shared on P2P networks like anything else) is around the corner?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to any of this – and I should say that I LOVE 3D when it’s done well in films like “Avatar,” “Coraline,” or even “My Bloody Valentine 3D” but in “Clash of the Titans” or “Alice in Wonderland,” I found it distracting. That could simply be a matter of us all as viewers growing accustomed to a new visual grammar, or it could be that 3D isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be for every film ever. I will say this – at the NAB show the people who seemed the  most happy about 3D were those who were selling it, while the content creators (who have to use this stuff) almost uniformly dismissed it as a fad, no matter their position on the awesomeness of 3D itself.

The best argument against 3D catching on that I’ve heard so far was that this is the third time audiences have had 3D served to them en masse – once in the 1950’s, once in the 1980’s – and it never caught on as a mainstream process unlike every other innovation in film from sound (and ultimately surround sound) to color to widescreen. Even in their crudest forms, each of those stuck with audiences the first time.

And then there are giant corporate moves like Discovery Channel’s upcoming 3D network. Both Sony and Panasonic had plenty of underwater nature footage to show us in their booths. This year alone, we have 20 more 3D movies supposedly charging directly at our screens, dynamically reaching for our faces. Does this further whet our appetites or burn us out?

For those who want to see 3D take off, I would heartily recommend you check out DIY-3D smartypants-extrordinaire Eric Kurland and his blog for the most up-to-date info on 3D and how it can be best created and used.  I ran into him at NAB as well, and he had some choice words to say about a lot of the tech being peddled in that giant hall.


5 comments on “To 3D or Not to 3D?

  1. The 3D as combat to piracy is not so much about protecting films released on home video but putting a crimp on pirating of theatrical releases. Even a 3D camera can’t capture a 3D movie off the screen to be pirated. At least not yet. Give the pirates time, however…

    To me the larger issue is what value does 3D bring to us as storytellers. Shooting 3D is a different language than 2D and we are still in early days when it comes to figuring out the 3D film language. Coraline is an interesting example of how 3D can actually enhance the storytelling as opposed to simply enhancing the thrills or the explosions.

    The technology is great, but until filmmakers figure out how to use 3D so that it truly enhances the storytelling, it will remain a fad or gimmick.

  2. Word. We finally agree on something!

    I hadn’t really thought about the “camcorder in the theater” variety of piracy, although if you don’t care if you’re looking at the backs of peoples’ heads I suppose the purity of the 3D experience doesn’t mean a whole lot to you anyway, and all the 3D movies are also released in 2D. So I assume those movies will continue to be pirated in possibly the lamest way possible.

    On a personal level, I must say that after spending more on my Sony Bravia than all the other TV’s in my life added together, I’m in no mood to run out and buy a new one for the same or more and I can only assume in this economy that’s going to be a hurdle for the 3D-Vangelists getting their gear into peoples’ homes.

  3. The good and bad examples you give I am right in line with. Avatar was more of an immersion in the experience. Coraline had it’s gimmicks, but no more than any other animated feature and not to distraction. But both of those were shot for 3D. I have not seen Alice, but it and Titans were done in post. Having both seen Nightmare Before Christmas, we know that Post 3D can be exploited to great effect. What I have gathered on Titans is that Warner must have seen the Avatar sneak preview and panicked. They decided to Post in 3D, but only had six weeks to do it. They should have dedicated that kind of time to the Scorpion Battle alone.
    I popped in on that scene at work a couple of weeks ago. We are using the new Xpand Active 3D system, which is fantastic. In the scene that really could have been enhanced by this processes, I barely noticed it was there. Post 3D can work. But I would rather them go back and make the Star Wars films 3D and take their time, instead of trying to squeeze in MORE post production, into an already tight schedule

  4. […] been two years since I last attended the National Association of Broadcasters Convention (NAB) – a two-year period in which much […]

  5. […] years ago, I blogged about the the ubiquity of 3D technology which manufacturers presumed would be the next big thing as filmmakers prayed it would not […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: