Working in the Wrong Dimension

The entertainment industry’s focus on rehashing old works hinders advances in 3D film.

Recently, 3D has been undergoing an identity crisis. For almost a century following its invention in 1915, the technology had been a gimmick of sorts—an optical novelty used to draw audiences to mostly cut-rate films—but this is no longer the case. With the success of 3D visual masterpieces such as “Avatar” and “Life of Pi,” films that have revolutionized the medium through new production techniques, there has been an increase in both interest in and expectations for 3D movies. However, instead of embracing the (admittedly expensive) techniques used in “Avatar” and “Pi” for new films, Hollywood has focused its energies in another direction: adding inferior post-production 3D to recent classics and re-releasing those films in theaters. This is a shame, because it unnecessarily dilutes rather than furthers the progress made in 3D of late. More than that, it misses the point—the demand to see these re-releases is almost entirely independent of them being in 3D.

Scanning the slate of recent and upcoming 3D films, the number of re-releases is simply astounding. Disney and Pixar have seemingly already begun the process of re-releasing every classic animated film of theirs, already hitting “Finding Nemo,” “The Lion King,” and both original “Toy Story” films. James Cameron took some time out of his deep-sea-diving schedule to dredge up “Titanic” for re-release. Most recently, Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” was brought back to theaters in 3D on Friday.

Looking at “Jurassic Park” specifically, what does the addition of 3D bring to the movie that essentially marks the beginning of the modern special effects era? The answer: not much. As with most 3D films that were originally shot in 2D, the bad aspects of seeing “Jurassic Park” in 3D are far more noticeable than the good ones. It’s a lot easier to be distracted by the constant fuzzy, out-of-focus blades of grass and leaves in the foreground than it is to appreciate the intimate sense of space 3D adds to the famous kitchen scene in which Tim and Lex are hunted by the Velociraptors. The lost image quality and brightness noticeably affect the entire film, whereas the few moments made extra-thrilling by 3D, such as when a raptor lunges upward through a ceiling tile at Lex’s swinging leg, last only seconds. Given the choice between seeing a film in its original 2D and a version using post-production 3D conversion, there’s really no room for debate—2D wins every time.

This is a shame, because 3D has already proven that it can, when used well, be awe-inspiring. It sounds obvious, but shooting a 3D film on cameras designed for 3D makes the film look better. A lot better. James Cameron’s pioneering Fusion Camera System brought an extra level of immersion and beauty to his “Avatar” and Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” mainly through its subtle ability to convey motion without sacrificing crispness. When the storm engulfs the ship in “Pi,” or when Jake first flies his “ikran” in “Avatar,” the addition of 3D makes the action feel supremely present, removing any sense of distance between the viewer and the film. Post-production 3D achieves this to an extent, but there are always imperfections that break the illusion. For example, in “Jurassic Park,” the scene in which Dr. Grant rescues Tim from a car stuck in a tree is made more engrossing by the way the 3D manipulates the viewer’s perception of the branches’ movement, but the scene also suffers due to how out of focus the leaves look. In short, the details matter.

It also seems as if the success of re-released 3D films (“Titanic 3D” grossed close to $60 million domestically) simply reflects a growing demand to see these movies in theaters, rather than a large demand for 3D versions of these movies. Essentially, the generation that grew up watching “Toy Story” on VHS and DVD is starting to buy movie tickets and is jumping at the chance to see old favorites in theaters, 3D or not. If this is true, Hollywood might be much better served by re-releasing more movies without 3D post-production than by going through the process of changing a select few movies into 3D. It would be cheaper for everybody: film studios wouldn’t have to pay post-production companies millions of dollars for every 3D conversion, and moviegoers wouldn’t have to pay the obnoxious three-dollar 3D surcharge. Win-win.

3D has an exciting future, but it won’t be as exciting if Hollywood keeps on using the technology to look backward. Instead, Hollywood should trust the quality of its older classics, re-release them without 3D, and focus on giving aspiring James Camerons and Ang Lees the tools they need to realize their visions.

—Staff writer Will Holub-Moorman can be reached at holubmoorman@college.harvard.edu.

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