The Limits of Perception

Daniel M. Lynch

David can’t wait for the day when he can take on 3D computers.

Tao of Tao

It’s been a tough couple of years for fans of traditional cinema. Good old-fashioned talkies have been steadily losing ground in an industry where 3D blockbusters mean higher ticket prices for the consumer and new mega-yachts for studio executives. 2D denizens like Spielberg and Scorsese have capitulated to depthmongers like Cameron and Bay, and with recent advances in technology we’re just a few steps away from being able to feel the Autobots transform (an option I’m sure is already available in Japan). Respect for the craft be damned, Hollywood’s ruling moguls are coating bad scripts in CGI and pop-up book visuals, then shoving them down our collective throat like mom’s steamed rutabaga.

Television, of course, is following suit, and before we know it the cast of “30 Rock” will be standing in our living rooms, their self-parodying holograms complaining about Liz Lemon this and why-is-Tracy-marrying-a-tiger that. The nightly news will soon feature the day’s international riots in real time and all three angry dimensions, and just watching football will result in a mild concussion. And once game developers catch up to the new wave of 3D TVs, you can expect national productivity to drop even more whenever they release a new “Call of Duty.”

3D has quickly become the new golden standard for visual entertainment, and for those of us overwhelmed by the cars careening out of our screens and into our screaming faces, the immediate future seems like an overstimulating mess. The world’s becoming one big View-Master, only you can’t control what you see simply by turning the paper disc.

But perhaps we can learn from young Justin Bieber—himself the unlikely inspiration for a 3D feature film—in saying “Never Say Never” to the demise of 2D visuals. Indeed, the recording industry seems to precede movies and TV in terms of content shifts, and though Bieber’s omnipotence has marked the transition to digital downloads as music’s supreme vector, it also coincides with the resurgence of vintage platforms. Through a combination of hipster ingenuity and the influence of grammatically-transcendent artists like ?uestlove, more people are rediscovering vinyl for both its retro character and undeniably richer sound quality. Humanity has practically maxed out its options for listening to Lady Gaga on potato-chip-thin Apple products, and now we’re turning to our earlier roots for an altogether more wholesome listening experience.

I might be reaching here, but I think the same principles will eventually apply to the growing visual divide. 3D has the advantage in capturing audiences’ eyes, but no number of loincloths can hide the inherent shallowness behind the Na’vi. Filmmakers have yet to prove they can consistently utilize the medium without compromising plot, dialogue, and actors’ abilities to help define their own characters. Though 3D TVs will soon be within more people’s price range, the extra dimension could simply be too much stimulation for those who watch to relax at the end of a long day. Even 3D’s visual advantage is somewhat tenuous, as producing the effect requires screening at considerably lower light levels. The result—at least with current equipment—is a noticeably blurrier final product, which will be especially problematic once the technology reaches the adult entertainment industry.

In the war between 2D and 3D aficionados, the 2010 Oscars might have been a turning point akin to Gettysburg. That’s when “Avatar”—thus far the Holy Grail of visual “daaaa-amn”—lost the Best Picture category to “The Hurt Locker,” a movie chock full of scenes that were purposefully hard to watch. James Cameron’s 3D masterpiece lost to a film whose depth shone through largely independent of its visuals, with voters picking the beige tableau of an Iraqi desert over the grandeur of a bioluminescent dream called Pandora. 3D might be unparalleled in bringing fantasy to life, but comparing the two works shows 2D is still tops when it comes to giving the viewer a sense of reality.

Entertainment trends are cyclical, and while I can’t imagine 3D will ever fade back to the role of occasional novelty, I doubt it spells the end for 2D films and television. There comes a point when pushing the sensory envelope actually detracts from the viewer’s experience, a fact that will hopefully not be lost on the world’s entertainment visionaries. After all, how many 3D movies can you name that—apart from some admittedly insane visuals—were actually any good?

Well, except for “Up.” I cried during that one, too.

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