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Indies Go 3-D: How a New Generation of Directors Uses 3-D to Enhance the Storytelling

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire September 27, 2013 at 3:28PM

3-D is no longer synonymous with big budget action films now that indie directors are using it to immerse the audience in the cinematic experience.
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Most 3-D movies are "crap," said "Gravity" director Alfonso Cuarón earlier today during a press conference at the Zurich Film Festival, where the 3-D "Gravity" will screen tonight. "The problem with 3-D is that it's been completely misused...The problem now is that they make all these films that are not designed for 3-D and then convert them as a commercially afterthought and they are crap. They don't follow the rules of 3-D of what does and doesn't work."

Until recently, when directors have begun to truly experiment with 3-D and use it to enhance storytelling, rather than use it as a marketing gimmick or a ticket price maneuver, Cuarón might have been right. But, as he pointed out, "there are a handful of films that have used 3-D in a proper way so it can be an amazing tool." That's an understatement.

The list of directors who have recently used 3-D to great effect includes Steven Spielberg ("Tintin"), Baz Luhrmann ("The Great Gatsby"), Martin Scorsese ("Hugo"), Wim Wenders ("Pina"), Werner Herzog ("Cave of Forgotten Dreams") and Ang Lee ("Life of Pi"), among many others. That's not even including the upcoming 3-D films from Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet"), Dario Argento ("Argento's Dracula 3D"), and "Metallica Through the Never," directed by Nimród Antal, which opens today -- as well as "Charlie Victor Romeo," which will screen at The NYFF Convergence on Saturday. Then there's "3X3D," the 3D anthology film by Greenaway, Edgar Pera, and Jean Luc-Godard, which screened last May at the Cannes Film Festival. Wenders is spearheading "Cathedrals of Culture," a six-part 3-D documentary project directed by Robert Redford, Michael Madsen, Michael Glawogger ,Karim Ainouz, James Marsh and Wenders himself.

"I don't know whether I could go back and shoot a film in 2D." -- Dario Argento

Today's 3-D boom is less about the "coming at you" gimmicks of yesteryear and more about creating an immersive experience for the audience.

3-D "gives

you the opportunity to enter into the story with a complete vision: depth," Argento told Indiewire. "The three dimensions of space but also of the characters give that strength that 2D cinema seems now unable to give. Surely it is more complicated to shoot in stereoscopic 3-D especially for the times which are longer, but if technology is put to the service of the director and not vice versa, it can give great results. It has given me the chance to narrate an antique story through a modern vision. I don't know whether I could go back and shoot a film in 2D."

Charlotte Huggins, producer of "Metallica: Through the Never" has specialized in 3-D live action and animated productions for the past 19 years and has seen 3-D's change from big-budget gimmick to an effective storytelling device as the technology has improved and 3-D production went digital and became more affordable and therefore, more accessible to indie productions.

"The number one change I've seen in 3-D is digital media," she said. "There's capture, post-production and delivery. As those things switched from film-based to digital based, the cost, the availability, the number of cameras and number of screens, everything got cheaper, easier, faster and better. When we used to work in film, there was so much complication between the capture, post-production and play. There were so many problems that I used to say 3-D meant three times the problems."

John Parra/Getty Images for Sundance Channel James Hetfield in "Metallica Through the Never."
With "Metallica Through the Never," Huggins said the band always wanted to do the film in 3-D, but they had to wait until the technology was capable of achieving their vision. "Their vision was to make a 3-D movie, but they didn't want a bunch of 3-D gags," said Huggins. "They wanted a movie in which the audience felt like they were with the band in the arena and part of the event."

3-D was also used to create an element of intimacy in "Charlie Victor Romeo," which was based on a stage play.  "We had a very clear idea of what we wanted the work to look like," said Bob Berger, one of the film's directors (along with Patrick Daniels and Karlyn Michelson). "The whole purpose of 3-D was to remove a lot of the special effects and fuel air explosions and model airplanes from everybody's consciousness about movies about airplanes and show them a very close-up look at what people went through in these emergencies. It's very focused on the people. We never talked about 3-D as a special effect. It was a way of literally placing the film's audience in the best possible seat to experience the film as if they were there."

Initially, the "Charlie Victor Romeo" filmmakers assumed they wouldn't be able to afford 3-D, but through the support of 3-Legged Dog Productions, 3-D became a viable option. "They have been very interested in using 3-D technology to capture and archive performance," Berger explained. "We went there with the intent of renting a space to shoot the movie, but we were presented with the opportunity to apply for a residency and use their connections to shoot our film in 3-D."

Although the filmmakers had a limited number of takes and a limited number of cameras, Berger said that he found the experience of shooting in 3-D liberating. "We thought of it as empowering because we really had to think about the choices we were making."

Chris McGurk, chairman and CEO of Cinedigm, predicts we will be seeing many more independent 3-D film productions. "3-D technology is changing every moment and becoming cheaper and more efficient," he said. "All of these technological developments happening in the business are going to have a disproportionately positive effect on the independent side of the business. It will enable people to do all of the things they do in big budget movies very cheaply. But, despite all that, independent films succeed and do or die based on character and story. That's still the starting point." Because of that, 3-D is "just another filmmaker tool to both advance his or her art and give the audience what they want to see," said McGurk.

But just because directors are able to make a film 3-D doesn't necessarily mean they should. "The format needs to enhance the experience," said Bob Berney, CEO of Picturehouse, the distributor of "Metallica Through the Never." Or, as Berger said, when 3-D is done successfully, "it's like looking into a beautiful window at something happening in front of you."

This article is related to: Gravity, Dracula 3D, Dracula 3D, Charlie Victor Romeo, Charlie Victor Romeo, 3x3D, 3X3D, Tech