3D Overkill

When “Avatar” was released in 2009, both expectations and doubts were high. It was the first major film to be released by director James F. Cameron since his international hit “Titanic” sailed into cinemas in 1997 and became the highest grossing film ever at the time. But at an official budget of $237 million, making it the most expensive movie to date, and a troubled production stemming back as early as 1994, “Avatar” was plagued with rumors of its inevitable failure. But the film proved pessimists wrong; it beat out “Titanic” to become the highest grossing movie of all time, pulling in a total of $2.78 billion and transforming the movie industry with its pioneering use of stereoscopic filmmaking. Its success both critically and financially sparked an upward trend in the release of 3D films. But is the revival of 3D a watershed moment in movie-making history or simply a fad? Hopefully the latter is the case, as many 3D films are visually overrated and are significantly increasing ticket prices, reducing cinema attendance.

Watching “Avatar” was an undeniably breath-taking experience on the basis of its stunning special effects alone. Cameron himself was involved in the creation of a camera designed specifically for the film, a new system for lighting massive areas, and the largest motion-capture stage ever built. The result of his efforts was the most visually astounding piece of film ever created, praised by Richard N. Corliss of Time Magazine as “the most vivid and convincing creation of a fantasy world ever seen in the history of moving pictures.”

However, “Avatar” is the exception and not the rule when it comes to the visual appeal of 3D films. “Avatar” was amazing to watch because it was filmed specifically using stereoscopic cameras, which creates the effect of providing depth to the screen. But when films are converted after having been filmed in 2D or when non-stereoscopic cameras are used, the effects of 3D are limited and almost always result in various bits and bobs poking out of the screen at random points in the film. This is confusing, disorienting, and gimmicky at best while adding nothing to the appeal of the film. Such a visual overreach can be seen in “Clash of the Titans,” a poor quality, visually disgusting critical flop which cost Warner Bros. $4.5 million to convert to 3D.

Walter S. Murch, the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema, who is above all famous for his work on “Apocalypse Now,” recently sent a letter to Robert J. Ebert explaining why 3D films are visually inferior to their 2D counterparts. He cites “convergence/focus” as the biggest problem with 3D. All living things with eyes have always focused and converged on the same point, which, in the case of film, is the plane of the screen. But during a 3D film, the audience’s eyes must converge on something that is much closer than the plane of the screen. As a result, it takes a few milliseconds for the eye to adjust to each shot, which is why people tend to get headaches after 20 minutes of watching a 3D film. To put it succinctly, 3D films are “dark, small, stroby, headache inducing, alienating. And expensive. The question is: how long will it take people to realise and get fed up?”

Apparently, not too long.  Ticket prices for 3D movies have increased across the country by up to 26 percent resulting in a reversal of the surge of support for 3D following Avatar’s release. Support for 2D has begun to increase once again. Although 80 percent of viewers chose to watch “Avatar” in 3D upon its release, the trend is actually moving towards a preference for 2D over 3D. Only 38 percent of the US box office revenue for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” came from 3D tickets, the first time more people opted to see a film in 2D rather than 3D. This was followed quickly by “Kung Fu Panda 2” the following week, which grossed very little from 3D screenings earned the nickname "3Disaster" among film critics. But the decline in ticket sales extends to cinema attendance as a whole, not just to 3D films. A quarter of a survey’s respondents said that they are put off going to the cinema because of 3D. It seems that support for 3D is dying, and that studios should be focusing their efforts on increasing the quality of 2D films rather than spending far too much of their budget unnecessarily producing 3D films.

3D is not working at the moment. Its expense and lack of visual allure is diminishing the quality of the movie-watching experience in the cinema, and studios need to focus their resources and attention back to improving 2D movies. But the potential of 3D films in the future, particularly overseas—where 3D ticket sales make up 65 percent or more of the total gross movie income—means that they should not be completely killed off yet. Rather, efforts should be made to lower production costs and increase the quality of 3D films before studios continue to mass produce films of little merit and quality.

Heather L. Pickerell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.