I Don’t Hate Stereoscopic Films

I continue to read a lot of negative opinion about stereoscopic filmmaking online, particularly within the postproduction community. Lots and lots, in fact.

While I have no great love of stereoscopy for its own sake, I must say that there’s a consistent criticism I read that makes no sense to me, either as a writer or as a postproduction professional. That criticism is that stereoscopy adds nothing to narrative, the implication being that it should be abandoned if it does not.

Roger Ebert articulated this when he wrote “It adds nothing to the experience. Recall the greatest moviegoing experiences of your lifetime. Did they “need” 3-D? A great film completely engages our imaginations. What would Fargo gain in 3-D? Precious? Casablanca?”

Okay, fair enough. But here’s a question in response: What exactly does widescreen add to narrative? Did Casablanca suffer due to a lack of widescreen? Citizen Kane? Sunset Boulevard?

Before you answer, recall that I asked what it added to narrative, not cinematography. As much as I believe that the purpose of cinema is to unify narrative with its visual representation as much as possible, I still draw a distinction between the two because any one narrative story can be represented via a plethora of cinematic approaches.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t cinematic advantages to be mined from the different shot compositions that widescreen allows. However, plenty of spectacular films have been made without it, and aside from how many closeups you can fit inside of a frame, narratively speaking I don’t believe that widescreen adds anything to a story that couldn’t be handled in 1.37:1. Let me put this another way—you’re a filmmaker who wants to make a film at 2.39:1, but you can only get financing if you shoot at 1.85:1—are you going to turn down the money because you can’t tell the story in a narrower frame?

Visually speaking, widescreen can be a fantastic and immersive experience, if used wisely by a director and cinematographer with a thoughtful approach to shot composition. As a moviegoer, this immersion is something I value. It helps me to become wrapped in the movie. It’s fun.

From what I’ve seen so far, if used well stereo visuals can also add to the immersion and atmosphere of a scene. On the other hand, if used poorly, it’s distracting and irritating. Two examples come immediately to mind.

Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo,” in my opinion, uses stereoscopic visuals well, lending oomph to the cavernous spaces and depth of the film’s shot compositions. Do the same shot compositions have power when watched in 2D? Absolutely. The traditional depth cues of perspective, occlusion, depth-of-field, and parallax still hold sway. However, stereopsis adds a little something extra, and in Hugo this something extra was wielded with appropriate care. I didn’t feel bombarded by eye-fatiguing craziness, I felt enveloped.

Not so with Clash of the Titans. I wasn’t particularly thrilled by the film itself, but the stereoscopic visuals (in this case, post-produced 3D conversions) were completely obnoxious. Distracting. Ill conceived and pointless. That was a case where stereoscopic visuals earned their derision.

So, there are some good examples, and bad examples. However, for many even the good examples don’t seem to be worth it. I’ll be the first to say that the reduced light output in projected 3D venues is depressing, and the reduced and shifted color that results saddens my colorist’s eye. Similarly, I don’t wear glasses in my everyday life, and I’m not terribly thrilled at having something sitting on the bridge of my nose in the theater. In production, 3D rigs sure seem like a pain in the ass. In postproduction 3D workflows are an even bigger pain in the ass, although as software tools become more accommodating and automatable, life seems to be getting better on that front.

But, all of these are technological limitations. Technology improves. Sync-sound projection once forced all of the same problems on production, postproduction, and theatrical venues that stereoscopy imposes now. The problems were solved, and another tool for cinematic expression was added to the filmmaker’s arsenal.

Which brings me to another point. I find it interesting that other cinematic developments have engendered similar criticism upon their introduction. Synchronized sound was not universally hailed on its introduction, and the criticisms of film sound were not all technical in nature.

Rudolph Arnheim, an early film critic and theorist, was a well-documented opponent of synchronized sound/dialog in film, believing it to push cinema towards an undesirable level of realism, defeating the symbolism that a more purely visual cinema manifested. British film critic Paul Rotha, quoted in a Wikipedia article on sound in film, said “A film in which the speech and sound effects are perfectly synchronised and coincide with their visual image on the screen is absolutely contrary to the aims of cinema. It is a degenerate and misguided attempt to destroy the real use of the film and cannot be accepted as coming within the true boundaries of the cinema.”

Honestly, I don’t mean to set these opinions up for ridicule, because they had a point. “Silent” cinema had achieved a visual vocabulary and cinematic efficiency that sound completely demolished, at least initially. It took years of aesthetic exploration before sound in cinema became the designed sound that we appreciate today.

I’ve read similar historical criticisms corresponding to the introduction of color as well, more or less to the effect of “color is good for popular entertainments and children’s films but unsuitable for adult storytelling.” And I’m now reading plenty of opinion back and forth about the introduction of higher frame rates, with proponents wanting to shoot and project at a higher temporal quality of 48 fps, and opponents insisting that anything other then 24 fps is uncinematic and unworthy of anything other then television news and sitcoms.

Which is fair. We who have grown up with 2D, 24 fps progressive, shallow-depth-of-field, front-projected films shown in dark theaters have come to associate these qualities with the cinematic experience. However, that’s an aesthetic based on what we’ve grown up with. I doubt any of us have the kind of meaningful opposition to either sync-sound or color that those who spent 30 years growing up with “silent” pictures had.

Furthermore, there’s another parallel between stereoscopy and film audio, one I’ve discussed previously. I would submit that neither stereo audio nor surround-sound audio make any direct contributions to the narrative of a film. Mix down any soundtrack from 5.1 to stereo, or from stereo to mono, and let me know if there’s anything you can’t understand about what’s going on, or any diminishment of the story.

But it’s still nice to have. Like widescreen, stereo and surround sound are enriching experiences that aid immersion into the world of the film. Both stereo and surround went through teething periods of overenthusiastic audio engineers creating hyperactive and exhausting mixes, before coming to some collective conclusions about ideal ways of using available surround channels to enhance, rather then distract.

Bottom line, I don’t care if stereoscopic visuals are useful narratively. They’re not. And that’s just fine. I’m more interested in the continuing exploration into how to best and most creatively use the potentially visceral depth that stereopsis provides to enhance and extend the rest of the moviegoing experience. To create another level of audience immersion, if the distractions and irritating technical limitations can, in fact, be overcome.

Here’s an anecdote that I find interesting. I was speaking with the eleven-old daughter of a friend of mine about “Up.” She said she saw the movie three times; the first time she saw it in 3D, the second in 2D, and the third in 3D again. At the first and third showing, she was so emotionally involved that she cried. At the second, while she still enjoyed the film, she didn’t. She brought this up to me, being somewhat surprised herself that 3D in and of itself was what seemed to be making the events so much more affecting.

Makes me think stereoscopy is worth exploring.

As an end-note, I feel compelled to say that with regards to the exploration of a new tool for visual entertainment, I suspect that the great filmmaker of the fantastic, Georges Méliès, coincidentally one of the characters of “Hugo,” would have been delighted at the potential of stereoscopic visuals, and would have had enormous fun trying to figure out how to use them to best effect.

(Incidentally, at the end of Ebert’s article “Why I Hate 3D (and you should too),” he says something I wholeheartedly agree with. “I’m not opposed to 3-D as an option. I’m opposed to it as a way of life for Hollywood, where it seems to be skewing major studio output away from the kinds of films we think of as Oscar-worthy.” Well said. Filmmakers should have the flexibility to use the tools and methods they believe will best suit the story at hand, discarding those methods that don’t fit. Making every film 3D makes as little sense as making every film cinemascope, or giving every film an overbearingly complicated surround mix.)

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5 thoughts on “I Don’t Hate Stereoscopic Films

  1. On this whole vein, I have never understood people who “just want to tell a story” choose cinema as their medium if they can’t handle the technology of it. Cinema is one of the most technologically complicated mediums ever conceived. If you want to tell a story without technology, spoken word is the only way to go.

  2. The problem isn’t that stereoscopy doesn’t add to the narrative. It’s that it DETRACTS from the narrative. Stereoscopy unlike stereo sound creates an unresolvable perceptual dichotomy the true focal plane never matches the implied visual plane.
    It is just irritating. This is very different from the so called opposition to the other technical changes from sync sound color etc.
    This is not about the aesthetic we grew up with. In the case of Film frame rate vs Video we have grown up with both! This is not something new being introduced to an un-accepting audience. Its something old being forced upon us.
    Don’t people get it? People don’t want narrative to look like real life.

  3. You make some interesting points, and from the perspective of personal preference, I can’t argue with you.

    However, I would point out that while we’ve all grown up with both film and video, we’ve also grown up with 24p film used consistently in theaters and home venues (albeit with 3:2 pulldown) showing movies, and 29.97i video consistently used in home environments for news, sitcoms, and other “non-cinematic” fare. We’ve all (myself included) cultivated a preference for 24p shallow-dof for our cinema based on this life-long dichotomy.

    I suspect, should high fps filmmaking, projection with brighter whites and a wider gamut, or more refined (and less invasive) stereoscopic or holographic projection become technically feasible and more firmly entrenched, a new generation may well wonder what all the fuss was about.

    Or, it’s entirely possible that I’m completely wrong and we as a species will continue to make non-stereo 24p movies projected at 16 nits for the next five hundred years. It’s hard to say.

  4. I would argue that while 3D is neither good nor bad, there are some (technical) issues with it that make it a somewhat double edged sword.

    1. We have to wear stupid glasses and keep our head relatively stationary to enjoy the movie, i.e. no slouching, cocking your head (leaning to your date or so), … So while most earlier and future technologies (sound, color, widescreen, 48fps, wider gamut, …) do not add inconvenience, 3D certainly does (at least right now).

    2. Many moviemakers and post production people are currently overwhelmed by the technology and use it poorly. It is also seen as a way of charging a few bucks more for a movie by many studios and therefore, they bring out everything in 3D, even stuff that wasn’t shot do allow for this really.

    3. Current estimates suggest, that around 15% of all moviegoers cannot deal with 3D, either because they don’t have enough sight or because they get headaches and nausea when trying to reconsile the “wrong” focal plane.

    3D like any technology isn’t good or bad by itself, but the majority of movies out there do it a disservice by just being plain bad 3D. I’d guess that it will take the industry another 5 years or so to actually be able to use 3D properly across the board. It certainly took color and sound a while to mature to a “proper” state.

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