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COW Blogs : Notes from a Gearhead : movies
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The duality of stereography.

The term "3D" has become ambiguous as people use it interchangeably for both 3D modeling and for referring to stereographic images that give the illusion of a 3D space. I'll refer to "3D cinema" from now on as "stereography."

I have mixed feelings about stereography. On one side I was really excited after I watched "Monsters vs Aliens" in iMax 3D. It's quite the experience. Still the presence of the glasses was strong and can't be ignored. Even movies like Avatar look artificially "flavored" to me, when using the 3D glasses. I enjoy the experience but at the same time I cannot avoid being aware of it.
When I sit on my couch and watch a movie on my HD TV I'm more engaged than in a movie theater with some polarized glasses covering half of my face.

A few days ago I watched "All That Jazz" again. As far as I'm concerned that movie embodies the whole cinematic experience. It's perfect. It's dramatic, funny, sexy, brilliant, impeccably directed and acted. The lighting is wonderful, the cinematography is masterful, the story is engaging and compelling.
A stereographic version of "All That Jazz" would not add anything to it. It would not just be un-necessary, it would actually be a detriment to this movie. Same for "Glengarry GlenRoss". Same for "Pulp Fiction," "The Godfather," "Naked Lunch," "Silence of the Lambs" and many more movies that I consider the masterpieces of cinematic art.

So here is the dilemma: Is stereography really adding anything or is a repeat of the '50s? After all, all this "3D mania" came after the big flop of 2005, one of the worst years for American cinemas both for quality of the releases and box office returns.

On the other hand, movies like "Serenity," "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" would be probably quite a bit of fun to watch in stereography.
So stereography can work but on a selected type of movies. Therefore we have to ask ourselves how much the "3D experience" is really adding to a movie. In other words the movie first and foremost has to stand on its own "2D legs" and then use stereography add "punch" to it. But exactly how much effective that punch is, I'm not sure.
But here is another piece of duality, and this is a favorite topic for me.
The movie industry is bent out of shape toward the theatrical experience. Movies are still shot on film out of the insistence of cinematographers and directors who claim that the image quality of film is superior to the one shot by a Sony F23 or a Panavision Genesis. Technically, these people are, temporarily, and only to a certain degree, right. But all their effort and money spent on handling expensive and delicate film doesn't even account for 50% of the movie experience. On top of that, unlike the experts, most viewers cannot see the difference between film and digital even when projected on the large screen.

We all know that a movie has an average "lifespan" in the theater of two to three weeks. After that it's gone. The vast majority of the life and profit of a movie is based on the home experience. All the subtleties of film color, the 11 f/stops of latitude of film and all the other wonderful qualities become less and less relevant when the movie is converted to BluRay, let alone when it goes through that digital shredder that is the DVD's MPEG2 encoder.

Stereographic movies present this dilemma with even more contrast. What is the point of spending so much money and time in making a stereographic feature film when people at home cannot enjoy the experience? Some of the titles that have been released as "3D" on DVD still use the old anaglyph trick, re-enforcing the idea that we are witnessing a '50s technology comeback and absolutely destroying the little that was left of the color integrity of the work.
So, in this case a stereographic version is actually less than the bi-dimensional one.
If the stereographic movie wants to capture the attention of people past the fad time, past the novelty time, then it has to deliver a convincing experience in the home theater and it must work with affordable hardware. Spending $5,000+ for a TV set is not something that people are willing to do, especially considering that the vast majority of TV content is bi-dimensional.

Stereographic technology has to improve to a point where it's enjoyable without glasses and at an affordable price. Otherwise it's confined to the movie theater and that will wear off soon enough.

Some people say that the addition of “the third dimension” to movies is like when sound was added to the old silent movies to create the "talkies". As if it was a fundamental needed and inevitable “next step.” However, they ignore a basic fact of the human experience: to hear a movie I don't need to add some special headphones to my ears. And yes, seeing people talking on the screen and not hearing the words is rather silly-looking.
So while there is a big difference between a silent movie and a "talkie", the jump between bidimensional images and stereographic ones is not as dramatic.

Since the invention of pictures, scratched on the walls of a cave, human beings had accepted and enjoyed "flat" images as engaging, artistic representation of our world. They are a suggestion to the mind of a different reality. A picture is a hint, and we, the viewers, have the power to "fill in" the spaces with our own images and feelings. Do you really want to see what's behind the corner or you would you rather imagine your own personal version? What's inside Marcellus Wallace briefcase? We will never know, we are not meant to and it's not important.

I'm not against stereography. I'm against the tendency to put "lipstick on a pig." Looking at the state of the movie industry I can't shake the impression that, using a Fark.com cliche', Hollywood is out of ideas and is using stereography to sell us bad movies that look good.
I'm quite convinced that, if George Lucas was to shoot "The Phantom Menace" today, he would use stereography, and that is a scary thought.

Can you imagine how even more annoying Jar-Jar Binks would be in 3D?


Posted by: Paolo Ciccone on May 6, 2010 at 9:35:19 am stereography, movies
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