3D is The Future of Cinema. Sort of.

by |
02/06/2009 10:00 AM |

Henry Stewart has seen the future, and it is so multidimensional he has to wear special glasses.

I was skeptical, of course, when I read promotional materials calling the latest digital 3D technology "the future of cinema". And I was even more skeptical (skepticaler?) when Michael Lewis, the CEO of Real D, currently the premier digital 3D company in the country, told me "cinema up to this point has been a cheat" because "we see the world in 3D, not in 2D."

But now, my cynicism is starting to crack. I’m beginning to believe that 3D really is the future of cinema. And that that might be a good thing.

As we can gather from the steady stream of remakes stuffing multiplexes, Hollywood is generally averse to new ideas — thus the many incarnations of 3D. The technology first appeared in the 1950s, around the advent of the surge in television’s popularity, when movie studios were scrambling to find new ways to draw audiences into theaters and away from small-screens at home. This was also when the studios introduced widescreen presentation (Cinemascope! Vistavision!) and stereoscopic sound.

3D made a comeback in the 1980s, when the movie industry once again felt threatened — by videocassette recorders. (As Jack Valenti, then MPAA president, told Congress in 1982: "The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.") And now, when consumers have more entertainment options than ever before — cell phones, mp3 players, 1,000 cable channels, on-demand programming, YouTube and Netflix — once again the industry is pushing 3D.

Coincidence? 3D seems conspicuously like one of Hollywood’s old(est) schemes to convince distracted consumers to come back to the theater. But neither 3D nor widescreen nor any other gimmick seems to have ever had a serious long-term effect on box office attendance. In 1957, nearly 30 percent of Americans went to the movies once a week, down from 60 percent in 1944. That number has hovered around 10 percent since 1965.

"Every generation, they introduce 3D again, but to me, it’s still a gimmick," Harvey Elgart, who has owned Cobble Hill Cinema on Court Street for over 25 years, told me. "They’re making 3D movies now but, five years from now, I don’t think so." Convincing theater owners like Mr. Elgart to invest in the new projection equipment necessary to screen 3D films is the biggest challenge facing the technology’s proponents. Cobble Hill Cinema still has the special lenses, now collecting dust, that were required to screen 3D movies in the 80s.

Executives insist that this time is different. For starters, the digital 3D image is more precise and it doesn’t induce headaches, at least not like its analog forebear did. (For counterpoint, Slate’s Daniel Engber on the new My Bloody Valentine: "in the quiet scenes, the unnecessary 3D flourishes…are headache-inducing overkill." He also complains of nausea.) The flimsy, red and blue paper glasses have been replaced by sturdier Blues Brothers-y shades. "3D is here to stay," Michael Lewis told me. "It’s the biggest thing since color and sound."

Despite Mr. Lewis’ penchant for hyperbole, my own doubtfulness did not begin to wane until I spoke to Sandy Climan, the CEO of 3ality, a company that develops 3D technology. His enthusiasm for the new technology, and for cinema in general, is infectious.

He told me a few stories: while screening a football game filmed in digital 3D, he observed a viewer try to pick up the ball; during a showing of the concert film U2:3D, he saw a viewer ask a 3D member of the audience-within-the-film to sit down. It was like listening to a Lumiere brother tell me about audiences leaping out of the way of the Train arriving at La Ciolat.

Still, I was skeptical. "The thing about 3D is you actually have to see it," Climan said. "Until you see it for yourself, you have to withhold judgment." (He invited me to his studio in L.A. and promised to show me myself in 3D. "You’ve never seen yourself in 3D," he said, which freaked me out.)

Last week, I finally did see digital 3D for myself. Coraline, the latest stop motion animation feature from Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach), uses the Real D process, and it astounded me.

The film uses the technology in a way that few films before it have, judging from the reports I’ve read. From the 50s until today, 3D has usually been used largely as a gimmick. Slasher psychopaths strike their axe in your direction. Animated flies buzz right towards you. Things, generally, pop out of the screen, which is about as wowing as bright colors or shiny things. Many saw the 3D in last year’s Journey to the Center of the Earth as purely a ploy for profits — not as an artistic choice. "Some of the action seemed unnecessary, like they just needed a reason to have things jump out at you," Jennifer Prestigiacomo, who reviewed the film for the L, told me. "If it was fully integrated into the storyline, it’d be less goofy."

Coraline is not without these occasional boo! moments, but they aren’t its main attraction. Selick uses the technology to enhance his art, to create a depth of field that would make Gregg Toland green with perspective envy. Instead of watching puppets animated on a flat screen, it’s like watching animatronic figurines move through intricate dioramas — that is, every shot gives the impression that you’re seeing a live puppet show, sans puppeteer, and not a mere movie. It was, as Roger Ebert once described a different kind of 3D presentation, "like looking through a window and seeing the perspective of reality."

If 3D becomes a truly integrated storytelling technique, and not just a trick to charge audiences more money to experience Objects Hurtling Towards You, it should have a real future. It’s the next step in fulfilling the promise of Citizen Kane‘s revolutionary deep focus, in using film to achieve Andre Bazin’s "creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real." Ebert, who’s generally anti-3D, was right when he wrote, "we do not perceive parts of our vision dislodging themselves from the rest and leaping at us." But we do perceive perspective.

Not every movie will necessarily benefit from being filmed in 3D, just as every movie need not boast the depth of field of The Little Foxes. (As the old Film 101 maxim goes: form should match content.) But for those that will, which I think could include more than knuckleheaded action films and children’s cartoons, the trick will be "how to use it to bring you into the physicality of the story being told in an unobtrusive way," Sandy Climan told me. To use it like Coraline does.

"It won’t make a bad movie good," Climan admitted. But "when the movies are great, 3D will make it greater." I’m hear to tell you that — sometimes, God willing — that will be true. And it will be awesome.