The Third Dimension

Now that our taxes are behind us for another year, let's take a break and talk about movies:

Almost a year and a half ago, in "Tech for Tech's Sake," I described my reactions after seeing two recent three-dimensional (3D) films: "Beowulf" and a re-release of "A Nightmare Before Christmas." Although the two movies used very different animation techniques, each was heavily marketed for its "3D experience." For both movies, my reaction was that the technology was little more than a gimmick and that the use of 3D actually detracted from the viewing experience.

This was especially surprising considering that 3D films have been around for over 50 years. Documentaries about the 1950's regularly include scenes of movie audiences wearing the telltale red-and-blue glasses, screaming and leaning backward when something on screen seemed to be coming toward them. As I mentioned in my earlier post, this was most memorably captured thirty years ago by the wonderful "Second City Television" series, which ran a variety of 3D spoofs (listed here, apparently not available on YouTube) with such titles as "Monster Chiller Horror Theatre: Dr Tongue's 3D House of Stewardesses," and "Monster Chiller Horror Theatre: Dr Tongue's Evil House of Wax." The running gag was that the only difference between a 3D movie and a 2D movie was that the actors would pick up props and move them dramatically toward the camera (often while making scary noises).

The 3D fad ended a long time ago, and the big breakthroughs in film technology since then have involved special effects and film clarity. Even so, 3D currently is seeing a comeback, perhaps in part because it is one of the few excuses that exhibitors have found to justify premium ticket prices. Because I am always willing to give things a second (and third and fourth) chance, I recently saw "Monsters vs. Aliens" in 3D at a state-of-the-art theater in suburban DC. Notably, the previews before the film were all for upcoming 3D movies; but also notably, the previews uniformly involved showing objects flying toward the camera to make the audience lean back and scream. (Just like grandma and grandpa did when they were courtin' in 1955!!) The economic downturn at least coincides with what appears to be a desperate attempt to get people to pay extra to see something that used to by called "real keen."

To be clear, "Monsters vs. Aliens" is a really fun and funny movie. It is exactly the kind of movie that is great for both adults and kids, with plenty of Looney Tunes-esque jokes that only the adults will understand. In addition, the 3D technology itself is now better than it was even a year and a half ago, with the objects on screen seeming more rounded than before. (The two films from 2007 seemed to involve flat objects set at varying distances from the viewer.) We are nowhere near the point where watching a 3D film seems any more real than watching a traditional film -- which, when done even reasonably well, has always allowed the viewer to suspend disbelief and immerse herself in the world on screen -- but this is a step forward.

Still, it is difficult to see how the current raft of 3D movies will not soon be seen in the same jaded light as SCTV's "3D House of Slavechicks." The technology is still a distraction rather than an enhancement. The introduction of talkies completely revolutionized movies, and color film opened up creative possibilities (including the choice not to film in color) that filmmakers continue to explore. (One of the most startling uses of color in an otherwise black-and-white film is in 1945's "The Picture of Dorian Gray." See it!) Creative people might ultimately find a way to add 3D technology to the filmmaker's bag of magic tricks (and to do so without requiring audiences to wear silly glasses), but more than fifty years on, it is still little more than a carnival show.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan