Right now, it’s a gimmick

Posted: February 8, 2010 in Article

The 3D effects in Avatar distracted me from the story. Every time something was forced into the foreground, it reminded me that I was watching a 3D movie. Except, it shouldn’t have. It was a gimmick, pure and simple. The worst part is, it wasn’t needed. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore already did a masterful job of creating a depth of field that would have existed without the 3D effects. If anything, he did too good a job. There were enough things in the foreground and the background of most shots that in 2D we would still be talking about it having a sense of visual depth.

The problem is that a 3D movie shouldn’t have to create a sense of depth the way a 2D movie does. When you shoot in 2D, in order to create depth you place objects in the field of view and the focus on only one of them. This leaves some objects slightly out of focus and because of the different sizes, fools the brain into a sense of perspective. Look at this shot.

This is technically a bad example since it comes from a TV show and they have different rules than feature films do, but it’ll do for my point. The turkeys are clearly the focus of this shot, but you can still make out all the other characters and the back door is clear enough to be seen easily. Nothing is quite as sharply in focus as the birds, but you can still make everything out.

In essence, you need to shoot things like Akira Kurosawa or Stanley Kubrick might have. The style they used was to keep everything in the frame in focus. When possible, it would all be the same level of focus, thus giving the audience the chance to look at everything equally. Two reasons why no one else does that. One, it makes the image feel flat and uni-dimensional. Two, a good photographer will guide your eye towards the thing they wants you to look at.

Now you wouldn’t have to worry about a movie looking flat, since you’ll be using 3D to create the depth of field anyway and there are other ways to guide the audience’s eye without making sure you’ve got a hard focus on one object. If this whole 3D thing is going to get beyond the gimmick stage, it’s going to require a new kind of cinematography. If it could also be shown in a way that meant I didn’t have to wear glasses over my glasses, that would be cool too.

It’s not the first time new techniques have been needed. When sound came along, they had to shoot the movies in different ways to cover up the noise of the cameras. When color came along, a new style of shooting was needed. Color instead of black and white is probably the best analogy to use here, since the way black and white is shot is totally different from how color is shot. You need different styles of lighting, different costumes, and an understanding of how things will look if taken back to black and white. When color movies were first shown on TV, there weren’t any color TVs so they had to watch the movie in a much different way. Red and blue contrast quite nicely in color but they’re almost the same shade in black and white.

So this,

Becomes this

The directors of photography either had to decide to change the way they were shooting, or pronounce that it was to be viewed the way they shot it and just wait for home theaters to catch up. So you need to know how the new 3D will end up looking on 2D and either saying that you don’t mind the conversion or working around it by using methods that don’t work so well in the new format. Black and white shooting style looks sort of crappy when viewed in color, and 2D shooting styles look crappy when viewed in 3D.

It won’t be until we get some people who are really shooting in 3D and are producing and an image to be viewed only as 3D that we’ll see 3D get out of its gimmick stage. It might never happen, it hasn’t so far, but the technology has changed since then. I’m still not feeling it though, and I don’t like having to wear a second pair of glasses to watch a movie.

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