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3-D Divide: Upfront vs. Retrofit

3-D Divide: Upfront vs. Retrofit

Thompson on Hollywood

No one in Hollywood will listen now that Avatar and Alice in Wonderland have scored the mother-lode of grosses as 3-D movies. Could Alice have done as well in 2-D as a perfect match between name director, beloved children’s book, and family-friendly studio? No, confirms Disney, because 70% of its grosses came from 3-D screens.

This isn’t just about the appeal of the technology for viewers—which will wear off as soon as they get burned enough. It’s about greed: charging more for tickets. Avatar‘s premium numbers are dancing in studio chief’s heads. Apres Alice, the deluge.

Truth is, Cameron knows how to do 3-D: he set a mile-high standard with Avatar. I’m spoiled. James Cameron has been proselityzing for movies designed from in-front to be 3-D: smooth, immersive, not in-your-face. The folks at DreamWorks (How to Train Your Dragon) and Pixar (Up) also know what they are doing with CG and 3-D. It makes sense in the digital universe to move the viewer’s eyes around inside a 3-D space. Doing it well is expensive, though. Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Joe Letteri are building on Weta Digital’s Avatar knowledge for the 3-D performance capture movie Tintin, another movie that will likely look sensational in 3-D.

Thompson on Hollywood

What bothers me most is the retroactive refitting of movies into 3-D. When designed in advance and shot in 3-D, a movie can work really well. But turning movies into 3-D after the fact looks awful. That’s what happened with Warner Bros./Legendary’s Clash of the Titans (forcing a clash of the studios over 3-D turf) and Alice. Clash of the Titans throws you out of reality, blurs and muddies the action, makes the movie look even worse than it probably is. That good old-fashioned feeling of getting lost inside a fantasy space is GONE.

Tim Burton is a tactile guy who hates CG and prefers putting his hands on real objects. (“Nous ne faisions pas Avatar!” he told Le Monde.) Alice in Wonderland‘s 3-D was weird and fake. Again, I’d rather see it in 2-D. From now on, I will see every movie in the format it was shot in. It makes sense that Burton plans to return to 3-D with the stop-motion animation project The Addams Family. Then he can fold his brain–and hands–around puppets in a real space: like Corpse Bride.

Bourne series producer Frank Marshall (@LeDoctor), who knows a thing or two, tweeted thusly: “So far, feels like it’s better to shoot in 3-D rather than convert…” He’s right. And so is Cameron, who also hates the 3-D conversion craze, along with Michael Bay. Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) tweets, “3-D is a distracting, annoying, anti-realistic, juvenile abomination to use as an excuse for higher prices” (and expounds further here).

Ridley Scott wanted to turn Robin Hood into 3-D–probably wanting to add some pizazz to a pricey project that needs to be as commercial as possible. But Universal balked at the extra cost, thank God. To his credit, Darren Aronofsky was reluctant to shoot MGM’s RoboCop remake in 3-D. Financeer Relativity asked Stephen Norrington to direct his reboot of The Crow in 3-D, but the director didn’t want to shoot that way, figuring they can do it retroactively.

No! The whole point of 3-D is to immerse the audience in exotic worlds like the jungles of Pandora and Up. It’s not about the pop! wow! pixel-antics of Clash of the Titans. If audiences flock to see that too, Hollywood will continue to rush in, ruining a good thing by trashing, debasing and over-using it. As always. Too bad.

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Sergio, when you wrote that in Avatar “after a while I forgot I was looking at a 3D film. Everything looked “flat”. In Titans I was constantly reminded I was looking at a 3D movie,”, did you realise you hit the send button a bit? The clock hadn’t quite clicked over to April Fool’s Day at that point.


Joe Valdez, interesting that you bring up Vincent Price here. I remember reading a comment of his where he thought Marlon Brando was the worst thing that had happened to Hollywood, because classical actors like himself were being edged out by any and all of the new breed of “method” actors Brando represented.
Smart directors to this day still embrace black and white if it suits their purpose. All it all means is you can get something different; but at the cost of giving something else up. I trust artist making art. As for the suits, that is a different story.


I’m a stereo supervisor, worked on both G-Force and Alice. IMHO it’s not fair to hold Alice up as an example of why 3D conversion is universally a bad idea; the problem lay in the director’s idea that the real world scenes should be flatter than normal, and the wonderland scenes should be accentuated 3D. Intellectually it’s not a terrible idea, meant to be like the B&W in the beginning of Wizard of Oz, but the unfortunate practical result was that the audience had nothing normal to hang on to, so it all tended to look fake. If the real world scenes had been done normally, the whole thing would’ve played better. Live and learn.

The problem with Clash is craftsmanship, or lack thereof. The studio got the work fast and cheap; why would they think it could also be good? As Ms. Thompson notes, greed is a problem. One hopes that there are quality-focussed producers out there, and that this is just another mistake not to be repeated.

BTW, shooting 3D is not necessarily a panacea; one can no more shoot perfect 3D on the day than one can shoot perfect exposure, or color. Add to that the fact that most movies which will be shown in 3D will be VFX-heavy means that 3D will continue to made out of whole cloth, regardless.

I recommend less hyperventilation, and more attention to craft.


Whatever your opinion of James Cameron he always goes for the pop! wow!
The difference is, that’s his bottom line concern.

Joe Valdez

Nifty piece, Anne. Although I don’t know if I’m more enlightened or despondent now.

I can’t recall one movie I ever saw wearing 3-D glasses where I thought they improved the story or action or made the moviegoing experience more satisfying. Can you?

Ebert is right on. I didn’t even enjoy seeing UP or AVATAR in 3-D, where in order to get my money’s worth, I felt I had to pay attention to objects in deep focus in the background like trees, ignoring characters or story in the foreground. Wearing sunglasses in a theater is annoying and so are the ticket prices.

Even the old Vincent Price version of HOUSE OF WAX is scarier when you get absorbed in the story, which I don’t get wearing glasses.


A lousy 3D movie is still just a lousy movie. Yet in a very weird way, I sort of liked the rush job 3D conversion in Titans because it was VERY old fashioned 3D like the type in those 3D movies from the 50’s. There’s always an object up front while everything else is recessed back. I prefer that into the so called “total immersion” 3D in Avatar. After a while I forgot I was looking at a 3D film. Everything looked “flat”. In Titans I was constantly reminded I was looking at a 3D movie.

Crow T Robot

I stand militantly with Roger Ebert on this one. 3-D is a just a big gimmick that brings nothing to the storytelling (after 15 minutes, the effect all but wears off).

It could actually take away from a moviegoing experience, using up a good portion of the way our brains processes information… Another milestone in the ADHDification of the American mind.

I actually couldn’t remember any of Worthington’s opening narration in Avatar. Too busy focusing on the new depth of field.


Remakes of ROBOCOP and THE CROW?! What’s next? Remakes of BRAVEHEART, THE MATRIX, FIGHT CLUB and AVATAR?


You are one hundred percent right. Avatar was visually stunning and immersive. Alice was a blurry, muddled mess, and I will now be actively seeking out a 2-D screening of Clash. Unfortunately, the studios’ ears will be clogged with dollar bills on this issue, but as long as I have a choice (in a decent theater – hopefully ArcLight), I can deal. I hope movie reviewers will continue to press this issue and point out which films are retro-sh%tted to 3-D.

Chuck Tryon

I agree completely and imagine there will eventually be a backlash, especially if theaters push the “premium” prices too far. If a family of four wants to see a new 3-D movie, we are talking $50 before popcorn. I’m not sure that many financially struggling families are going to be happy with that, especially if the 3-D is retrofitted and looks fake or cardboardy.

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