Monday, December 10, 2007

Tech for Tech's Sake

I've recently seen two movies in 3-D: "Beowulf" and the re-release of "A Nightmare Before Christmas." Three-dimensional film technology has been around for about a half-century, but it has never been anything but a tiny niche technology, continuing decade after decade to be more of a gimmick than a serious theatrical artistic technique. It is telling that the director of "Beowulf" is Robert Zemeckis, who has made a career playing with new or fringe techniques -- some brilliant successes ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit?") and some not ("The Polar Express").

There is a good reason why 3-D has never caught on: It simply does not improve the movie-going experience. Having seen "A Nightmare Before Christmas" when it first came out in 2-D, it was especially disappointing to watch it in 3-D. The effects were affirmatively distracting, and the movie was a lot less fun to watch. "Beowulf" was proof that the technology is not really all that good, even after all these years, with the effect looking less like three-dimensional life than like the filming of two-dimensional cut-outs placed at various distances on a sound stage. Seeing a spear coming from the screen toward your eyes will make you jump, but that very minor thrill is hardly the basis for a choice of film technique. (Back in the 1970's, SCTV brilliantly parodied the silliness of 3-D, with John Candy and Joe Flaherty picking up objects and moving them slowly toward the camera to "enhance" the 3-D experience.)

Why mention this on a law blog? I have recently have read a series of law review articles that apply game theory to a variety of classic legal issues, and I have come away with the same feeling that I described above regarding 3-D movies: game theory techniques look at first glance to be somewhat promising, and they can sometimes offer a gee-whiz moment (deriving not from an insight into the merits of a scholarly argument but from seeing a simple point derived in a more circuitous -- yet somehow more "cool" -- way). Ultimately, though, legal scholarship relying on game theory seems mostly to suffer from the same faults as 3-D: not only do the techniques not add up to what we hope they will, but the results can be worse than simply using the old techniques. More than one legal scholar (to say nothing of economists) has gotten lost in the method and not been able to find a way back to the substance.

Many economists have made these points before. Franklin Fisher, one of the most prominent economic theorists of his generation and an emeritus professor at MIT's top-ranked economics department, wrote an article almost 20 years ago assessing what economists had learned from game theory in the study of strategic business interactions ("industrial organization," in the jargon). To roughly paraphrase Fisher's conclusion (from memory): Before we had game theory, we knew that concentrated industries behaved in ways not predicted by the theory of perfect competition, but firms' decisions depended on situation-specific details including the number of competitors, the nature of the goods produced, the number and types of consumers, the regulatory environment, etc.; but now that we have game theory, we know that concentrated industries behave in ways not predicted by the theory of perfect competition, and firms' decisions depend on situation-specific details including the number of competitors, the nature of the goods produced, the number and types of consumers, the regulatory environment, etc.

Never having been a Luddite, I am of course not suggesting that we should not try new techniques. We should always be open to new approaches, hoping that they will occasionally offer new insights (and accepting that they will often fail). Still, it is difficult not to notice when a technique consistently fails to make things better. Maybe 3-D movies will one day be a significant improvement on traditionally-filmed movies. Given the track record of many decades, I doubt it. Maybe game theory-oriented law review articles will one day provide insights that we cannot yet imagine. Given the track record thus far, though, I'll be surprised if it happens.

Posted by Neil H. Buchanan


Luis Villa said...

Overall, I agree with your point. But for what it is worth, speaking as someone who absolutely loves Nightmare Before Christmas (the only DVD I own, actually), I thought the 3D effect improved the film. Not by much, I'll grant, but I found the effects mostly subtly enhancing to the depth of the art instead of distracting.

Jim said...

You are way off base with your analysis of 3D - but of course you are entitled to that opinion.

Your examples of Beowulf (animated CGI Performance Capture) and Nightmare are NOT live action 3D. Live action 3D, in my opinion is where maximum 3D magic takes place.

Look to U2's new 3D concert experience, the first EVER filmed in Live Action Digital 3D. Then of course look to the massive epic "Avatar" by James Cameron coming in 2009.

Read more about all things 3D - - my blog on the subject. Thats all I do.


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