Monday, January 31, 2011

Never say never, Mr. Bond... I mean, Mr. Ebert.

Since I assume that I am brain damaged in some way, I can rarely tell the difference between genuine conviction in an idea and the low-down dirty attempt to invoke or simulate conviction for the benefit of some greater force. Every once in a while I run across a carnival barker or used car salesman that lets me see behind the curtain of deception a little, and I gain some tiny insight into how that mechanism works. But, it's not foolproof, and I am often tricked into thinking that I'm being tricked.

Had he not tried something similar before, I would not question Roger Ebert's recent declaration that 3D Film will never 'work'. Had he not made a bold statement some time ago that video games could never be art like a movie or a book or a painting, I might have believed unquestioningly that there were no larger forces at work and his current Luddite position against 3D movies was completely sincere. The house of cards that his video game argument was built out of came crashing down, and he even went so far as to apologize and admit his foolishness in breaching the topic - but it got thousands of comments and many times more page views in the meantime. Why shouldn't I think that he has an ulterior motive again?

Mr. Ebert has made some improvements this time. This time he has the opinion of a film editor to back him up, and not just some guy that worked on two effects shots for a direct-to-DVD horror film. He has the support of Walter Murch, editor and sound designer on some of Hollywood's most visually and sonically impactful films. To summarize Mr. Murch – the basic flaw with 3D films, in his expert opinion, is that we're asking our eyes to focus at one distance (the distance from your seat to the screen) and converge at some other distance (the distance from your seat to the perceived object on the screen where your eyes think they are looking). This is mostly problematic when the perceived object is well in front of the plane of the screen, asking your eyes to converge well ahead of the focus distance. I'm sure there is a substantial crowd of people that will cry foul at Mr. Murch's assertions on a variety of grounds. The first and most obvious point will be that similar complaints were lodged against sound and color when each of those were introduced to film. Another point is that a conventionally filmed movie already does funny things to our sense of perspective, focus, and convergence anyway so why should the 3D part matter? Yes, some people walk out of 3D movies with headaches. It may be that some people's brains aren't happy with the effects of simulated 3D. I would argue that those people now know not to watch movies in 3D, and in most instances can go watch the same feature in 2D in the same theater. I would love to do a thorough survey and testing of people that have issues with 3D films, but I'm guessing that the MPAA has no interest in a study being run by an engineer/mathematician/film nerd with no neurology credentials.

Part of the reason Mr. Ebert has to say this now and loudly enough for his peers to hear, is because Nintendo is about to put glasses-free 3D in the hands of hundreds of kids fairly soon. The handheld Nintendo 3DS comes out in March of this year which includes a glasses-free lenticular 3D top screen and adjustable depth slider. Nintendo is already adding 3D photography and looking into movie releases on the system. If you can't deal with the 3D, you can turn it down to nothing. If it turns out that it's a horrible flop, he has to say something now to look like a genius. Of course, if he turns out to be wrong, there's no harm because everybody will just go "Oh, that Roger Ebert. He's just a grumpy old man that doesn't get it." I think we heard that cry from the commenters before on the video game/art thing. The other part of the timing of this had to do with Mr. Murch's letter to Mr. Ebert primarily being a response to a tiny side note in Mr. Ebert's review of the new "Green Hornet" film where he complains about the 3-D film being "dim" - and we're talking about apparent brightness and not about a plot written for morons. I think on a certain level, we 'get' that there won't be quite as much light heading to our eyeballs since we're wearing glasses that are intentionally keeping some of the light from our eyes - the image that's for the other eye is kept out by polarization. That particular problem is surmountable, seeing as there have already been great strides in improving the reflectivity of movie screens since we started watching 3D movies. I think the biggest problem, and perhaps it is a problem that Mr. Ebert himself does not realize (or has blocked out in some strange case of dissociative amnesia), is that he has watched a lot of lousy 3D movies thanks to their recent resurgence. Walter Murch worked on one of the most-watched 3D movies of its era, Captain EO. But, like most of the other badly constructed 3D movies, they stupidly try to send a meteor way out in front of the screen, causing the very focus/convergence problem that Murch is complaining about. Another issue that I would take with the current crop of 3D movies is that many of the big-name films that were done in 3D were actually shot in 2D and had the 3D done in post-production, which is about like trying to take a still picture and turn in into a pop-up book, which looks like, a movie made out of a pop-up book. Everything tends to look like flat planes. Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton - that one's totally your fault), several Harry Potter movies, The Last Airbender, Superman Returns, G-Force, and the lousy (no offense to Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, or the late Pete Postlewaite) 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans were all shot in 2D. I find it sad that Paul W. S. Anderson's Resident Evil film team has to show up all of the alleged A-listers by using James Cameron's most excellent camera system.

Knowing that I was going to attempt to write about this, I trotted down to my local Sony Style store, and the kids and I put on some funny shutter glasses again and looked at a few things on the 3D TV's in the store. 3D TVs are inherently different from the movie experience - liquid crystal shutter glasses synchronize to the quickly alternating frames displayed on the monitor so that each eye only sees the relevant frames of the film.

We gave a nature documentary a try, and a little of Alice in Wonderland - I think it was the scene where Alice meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee while she's still small - and a little bit of Gran Turismo 5. Alice in Wonderland comes off very unreal - Tim Burton spends too much time trying to break the plane of the screen, and having things fly around in the foreground. Looking at the screen without the shutter glasses on, the objects on the screen are very far apart, much farther apart than they would be in your normal field of vision unless they were only a foot away. Gran Turismo 5, on the other hand, was hard to tell that it was in 3D unless you put the glasses on - and then the landscape was so well-rendered that it actually made it easier to drive because I had a better sense of the space. The nature documentary was somewhere in between the two in 3D quality - I am always wondering how they aim cameras in a 3D system, and whether there is any convergence, or whether they just aim the cameras straight ahead and make you slowly crazy with the unreality of it. The 3D needs to be a positive experience for the audience, and add to the experience, and more importantly not take you out of the experience.

Most people that I know that have had a positive experience with 3D movies have had their most positive experience with animated features. How to Train Your Dragon, Legend of the Guardians and Coraline were all mentioned. James Cameron's Avatar is easily at least half animated CG. Of course, in a computer animated feature, it is comparatively simple to add a second virtual camera to the performance data, and render the film in 3D. In processing a 2D film, you would almost have to create a CG wire frame virtual set and map the 2D film back on to it, draw in a bunch of missing textures not normally visible, and then add in the second virtual camera. The flaw in a system like that is that the natural variations in lighting in textured surfaces would not occur correctly and it would still have the flat, pop-up book effect. Conversely, I found that Legend of the Guardians had a very natural 3D look most of the time, largely due the the wood and feather textures giving the viewers very good visual depth cues, and most of the shots were at a distance that helped that work. I don't remember them breaking the plane of the screen except possibly in the opening credits.

So, I contend, that it is possible to make a good 3D film. Certainly, some things need to be done differently - maybe there should be less things jumping out of the screen, maybe there shouldn't be so many jump cuts in a 3D film. People seem to show up and pay for the bad ones that are out now, so I think to say that they don't 'work' is a gross overstatement that some box office numbers would certainly disagree with. A problem like that should not keep us from our path of self-improvement. Additionally, learning how to make a quality 3D film may give us important insight into the nature of vision and how the brain processes it. Just because a new media possesses some new technical challenges is no reason to dismiss it out of hand.

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