Between the two James Cameron-related events I covered this week for Movies.com, I can’t shake wondering about the two questions posed in the headline. At the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards Monday night I got the director, who nowadays works in both blockbuster fiction and exploratory nonfiction, to state that he thinks “3D is a good fit for documentary almost more so than fiction film.” Given that 3D made it’s comeback partly through undersea docs (of Cameron’s) and has been a big draw now for IMAX nature and space films, I’d already agree. Having seen and been mesmerized by Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and Wim Wenders’ “Pina” (the latter of which he tells me he needs to see soon), I might go so far as to say it’s actually a better fit for docs. I wish I could find verification on this, but I bet the best reviewed 3D films of all time are nonfiction.
But not all docs would be good or work in the format. Stiff talking-head style docs might have no use for it, and films centered around a lot of archive material would also be difficult (though “Pina” does a great job with its minimal archival footage). Thinking about this year’s films, which could have been shot in 3D? Probably some of the other dance docs, especially the fantastical “Bombay Beach.” And even if he completely dismissed my even bringing up the idea, Frederick Wiseman’s “Crazy Horse” would have been neat in 3D (no, not because of the nudity). Certainly the year’s issue films, including “The Interrupters” and “How to Die in Oregon,” would not be taken as seriously in the format, so we can scratch that whole segment of the nonfiction mode.
Look at what has been a good fit for 3D in the past. So, more concert films would work, other theatrical performance things like “Pina,” and anything pertaining to natural discoveries, whether in caves, under the ocean, on Mars (Cameron’s next frontier), etc. Other genres that can be shot in 3D are surf docs, skateboarding docs, mountain climbing docs, animated docs, city films, travel films, some culinary/foodie docs and, as much as it might seem insensitive, I believe the next embedded war documentary ought to be in 3D. Put the viewer right in the shit. Earlier this year I wrote a Doc Talk column in which I called for the return of the adventure documentary, such as “Nanook of the North,” “Grass” and “Kon-Tiki,” exciting films that followed or recreated expeditions or rigorous migrations. All the more reason to bring back the true “doc-buster.” Those kinds of nonfiction films would surely be great fits for 3D, probably in IMAX.
None of those original doc-busters could be converted to 3D, though. But after previewing a short presentation of footage of next Spring’s 3D re-release of “Titanic” and hearing Cameron and producer Jon Landau talk about the worth and future of converting library titles, I’m wondering if any doc classics could also be “upgraded” to the format. This may be where Cameron and my belief about 3D’s fit for documentary fails us. But, then again, many of the recent films of the genres I mention above might work. How about 3D conversions of “Riding Giants,” “The Last Waltz,” “Restrepo,” “Touching the Void,” “Encounters at the End of the World,” “Winged Migration,” “Koyaanisqatsi” and just for the laugh, “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”? Maybe this isn’t so difficult, after all.
The difficulty for both questions, really, is cost. It’s more expensive to shoot in 3D, and for a majority of documentary filmmaking any way to do it cheaper is preferred (often this is an annoying truth for the mode). Also, to do a really great retro conversion into 3D is pricey and time-consuming. Cameron will finally show us (as I’ve witnessed) that 3D conversion of a live-action film can look amazing, almost as if shot in 3D. But the “Titanic” re-release is costing $18 million and more than a year’s time with 300 artists employed. I can’t think of any docs that someone would spend that kind of money and effort on. Maybe if “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” hadn’t been in 3D initially and was now being upgraded? Would the first two “Jackass” movies be worth it to Paramount? I don’t know.
Ignoring the cost issue, does anyone have any other ideas of subjects that should be filmed in 3D now or of classic documentary films that might work with well-done 3D conversion?