Do We Really Need 3D?

Influential film critic Roger Ebert hates 3D. I know this because he says so in this piece in Newsweek entitled “Why I Hate 3D”. It’s subtitled “and You Should Too”, which seems a bit pushy.

Ebert is the grand daddy of film critics, but at 67 this opinion is hardly startling. What an old stick in the mud, I thought. It’s a “waste of a perfectly good dimension”, he says. How can we be wasting it? We weren’t even using it. After all, 3D has grown up now, become part of the picture, not the added bonus. 3D isn’t showing off any more. 3D just “is”.

Jim Cameron bangs on about 3D

But as I read the piece, I ended up nodding along. Yes, I thought. You’re right. Has 3D actually made the experience better? To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Avatar, granted, is the game-changer. At least that’s what everyone says: it’s a game-changer. But you wonder what game it’s changed: entertainment, or money?

Cameron always envisaged Avatar as a 3D film. And I’ll be the first to admit watching it in 3D is a fantastic experience. But no more so than watching it on a really big cinema screen. I don’t remember the size of screens changing any games.

No, the game 3D has changed is a financial one. Avatar didn’t just make $2.7bn world wide just because it sold a lot of tickets (it did, to be fair, also sell a lot of tickets). It also made it because of the extra charge that gets slapped onto every ticket for a 3D film. Did we have to pay more when Dolby surround sound came in? Or when colour did?

Now, everyone is on the 3D bandwagon, as if the extra dimension was the reason behind Avatar‘s success. Clash of the Titans got a hasty 3D re-fit. Alice in Wonderland got one too. Did 3D really make those films better? If anything, it made them worse: in Titans, people looked like cardboard cut-outs; the monsters looked more real than the people; Liam Neeson’s head seemed to be on someone else’s body.

Warner Bros have said all their marquee films from now on will be 3D, including the last two Harry Potter films (which, again, were shot in 2D). What it’ll do to Harry and his wand is anyone’s guess.

In his blog, Ebert makes a point that hardly needs to be made: great, character-driven films would gain nothing from 3D. Fargo wouldn’t be a better film with a 3D refit. 3D is for “experience” films – action films, blockbusters, horrors, epics, adventures. Fine.

But even here there’s problems. I was recently on the set of the latest Resident Evil film in Canada – Resident Evil: Afterlife – which is being made in 3D, using the same technology from Vincent Pace that Cameron developed on Avatar. The director, Paul W.S. Anderson, told me something interesting: it’s harder to scare in 3D, he said, because with the 3D tech, everything on screen feels exposed.

Things can’t be hidden as easily by changing the focus, because everything feel in focus. Ebert makes the same point. And so deciding where to direct the audience in any given scene becomes one less thing a director can do. The technology may be more advanced, but the films themselves are taking a backward step.

Not only that, but as Ridley Scott pointed out recently, when speaking of a possible Alien prequel in 3D, shooting in 3D requires shooting in bright light then “gritting your teeth” as a director, and digitally “repainting” it later. It worked with Avatar, because it was essentially an animated film. The problem is, 3D ends up making real life look animated too.

With plans afoot for countless 3D refits of old films – a 3D Titanic is on the way, and Star Wars will inevitably get the extra dimension treatment – you do wonder if 3D is really the “next big thing” as promised. Or, once again, another fad; a dimension too far.