Chris Parks is a founding partner and head stereographer at London-based VISION3 Ltd. He wrote this response to a story that The Playlist’s Oliver Lyttelton posted last month about "Brick" writer-director Rian Johnson’s opinions on the limitations of 3D. With the opening of "The Dark Knight Rises" from director Christopher Nolan, who notably declined to make the film in 3D, coming to theaters Friday, the 3D debate continues.
It is very rare that that an article about 3D actually contains enough informed arguments to draw me into a conversation. However, the well-thought-through, reasoned and observed blog by Rian Johnson, which seeks to explore both the comments of veteran filmmakers and his own experiences, and Oliver Lyttelton’s article on Indiewire, were exceptions. While I agree with many of the comments, the conclusions that I have come to are slightly different.
I have been involved with stereo for almost 20 years, initially with Imax 3D and special venue films and more recently with mainstream commercials, documentaries and features, and I am currently supervising the stereo on two films to be released next year – “Jack the Giant Killer” and “Gravity.” I also work in 2D, having been involved with films such as Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” in recent years. I love the aesthetic of 2D film, and a beautifully shot and well-told story in 2D is something that can have a profound effect on the viewer. I have no doubt, though, that an equally beautifully shot and well-told story in 3D can have every bit as much impact.
Rian suggests that the introduction of stereoscopic photography is analogous to the introduction of colour, and in some ways I would agree. I recognise elements of similarity between where we stand with stereo technology and the early stages of colour cinema with hand-coloured prints, and this analogy is particularly strong when comparing post-converted 3D with hand colouring — both are creating the effect artificially and require an artist to decide on what the depth or colour of each individual element should be, and both are a result of imperfect capture techniques.
I would suggest, though, that the stereo 3D in a film is much more analogous to the score. It is something that most of the time you don’t consciously notice, even when it is contributing to the richness of the scene, but take it away and you would feel poorer by its absence. There are times when both can be used self-consciously to good effect and other times when reducing their impact has the biggest impact of all.
Rian makes mention of muddy eyeball-half-nelsoning, which is something I passionately agree with. However, I lay the blame at economics and theaters’ desire to save money on replacing expensive bulbs rather than on the technology itself. It is perfectly possible with a well-graded 3D film projected in a well-maintained theatre to have good light levels that are comparable to 2D. What is an issue, though, are the glasses. As well as being one of the culprits in the ‘muddiness’ accusation, they are also responsible for taking the shared immersive experience and turning it into a remote and personal one. Until we can get rid of those, it is hard to see 3D becoming the medium that it promises to be.
The eyeball-half-nelsoning does occur, but only in films where the 3D has been executed badly. It is perfectly possible to cause significant pain to someone watching a film in 3D, but there is no excuse for it, either in native or post-conversion. Well-designed, -considered and -created 3D will not cause eye fatigue. The amount of work that you are asking the audience’s eyes to do is very moderate, and part of the skill of those involved is in creating a good 3D feel to the film without causing eyestrain. It has partly been that desire to avoid eyestrain, though, that has resulted in a lot of 3D films being remarkably flat and destroyed any potential that could have been gained from shooting the film in stereo.
This tendency comes from something else as well — and Chris Nolan alluded to it when he said, “The whole idea of film is that it’s three-dimensional on a two-dimensional plane.” Directors and cinematographers are very skilled at shooting 2D films with real depth. Many of the techniques that they use are designed to do exactly this. When you then add this stereoscopic depth on top, it appears unnecessary and false – after all, it wasn’t flat before, so why add something that isn’t needed?
This leads to a tendency to avoid anything more than a minimal amount of depth, and more importantly, to avoid stereoscopic roundness. This is the sort of depth that makes a human face feel rounded and correctly proportioned and is the opposite of the cardboarded 3D that we often see. Give it a little too much depth, though, and you go from something beautiful and sculptural to something distorted and ugly. This is exacerbated by the fact that in order to achieve that optimum roundness, you need to design the scene, the lighting, the blocking, the framing and the acting to enable it to happen without causing the eyeball-half-nelsoning that Rian talks about. This results in films shooting 3D that avoid any chance of achieving the moving sculpture of Scorsese’s talk.
Even in its current form, though — with the glasses, poor projection, risk of pain and dilution of the shared experience — there is a lot that 3D can be used for to genuinely help the director communicate with the audience, which at the end of the day has to be the goal of any element of the filmmaking process. Between the two films that I am currently in post-production on, we are using the 3D variously to add a sense of scale to the bad guys, to give a sense of claustrophobia to the homes of the good guys and to differentiate subconsciously between the two. We are using it to help build the sense of safety and cocooning when the protagonist is safe and the sense of isolation when she isn’t, and we are using it to give an otherworldly feel to a dream sequence. We are even using 3D to help add impact to a moment of shock — not by boosting the shock but by relaxing the audience in the lead-up to the moment so that the shock hits harder.
The future of cinema might be 3D, but as Rian says, it has a way to evolve before it gets there. That evolution may well take us past stereo to other 3D viewing-capture and display methods. I would suggest, however, that by using the current medium effectively, imaginatively and intelligently we have a long way to go before we have even caught up with the creative potential of existing technology, let alone the musings of Scorsese and Johnson.