Director Rian Johnson has a new movie coming out called “Looper,” a time travel action thriller starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s exactly the sort of movie that, these days, comes out in 3-D. But “Looper” is not in 3-D and, in a post on his Tumblr, Johnson reveals why.
While conceding two facts — 3-D is the future of cinema, and the introduction of stereoscopic photography to motion pictures is analogous to the introduction of color to black and white photography — he explains why he will never (never!) shoot a stereoscopic 3-D movie (that’s the modern standard in 3-D technology, where two projected images get decoded by special glasses as one three-dimensional frame) and why he continues to avoid watching stereoscopic 3-D movies whenever possible.
On the surface, that might look like a contradiction in terms. But I love the comparison Johnson makes in his essay, which really gets down to the idea of comparing 3-D and early color film. When he says “introduction of color” he doesn’t mean “The Wizard of Oz” and its Technicolor splendor; he means the period of film pioneers like Georges Méliès, who were so committed to the idea of a cinema that perfectly replicated the totality of human perception that decades before the technology to photograph in color was available, they would hand tint their film stock in order to approximate it.
Johnson says this revelation came to him while watching Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” Scorsese, of course, is another director who thinks 3-D is the future — but obviously since he shot “Hugo” in 3-D he also thinks it’s the present. And, Johnson says, by using it in a story about Méliès, he also connected it to the past — and provided him with this revelatory comparison:
“Hand painted color is a beautiful and wondrous thing. The aesthetic effect is unique and unworldly, but the most profoundly affecting aspect is the Icarus-like striving of this primitive and back-breakingly labor intensive process to reach the next height of what film is capable of. That is everything I love about Méliès, about film, and if we want to get unnecessarily grand (and after that Icarus invocation why the hell not) about the human race. On that level it is evocative and beautiful, even if on a literal level it has as much to do with color in the real world as stereoscopic photography has to do with our mind’s true perception of depth.”
Just as the eventual standard of color film was not an incremental improvement in hand tinting, Johnson believes the 3-D of the future, the one he’ll eventually embrace, will be a wholly new innovation beyond stereoscopic 3-D. A sound theory in a well-written piece. If this directing thing doesn’t work out, or if the entire film industry transitions to stereoscopic 3-D and Johnson is forced to choose between going back on his word or retirement, he could have a real future at this criticism thing.
Read more of “Some Thoughts on 3-D.”