I am a Melbourne based writer, primarily of speculative fiction. I find the writing process fascinating; the links below include examples of my work, fiction and non fiction, but also another story. How has a chapter evolved? How have places and the fictions of others informed and inspired my own. How do I research, develop ideas and turn them into narrative? Each page offers a different insight into the work and the story behind the work.

Friday, January 11, 2013

2d or not 2d?

I was, I have to admit, until recently a 3d cinema skeptic.  I saw a number of releases in the format in the year or so after Avatar came out, until I finally gave up bothering with it. Avatar wasn't bad, but in the main all I found 3d movies did for me was leave me with a bit of headache, make the film look kind of wishy washy and left a larger hole in my wallet because of the inflated 3d ticket price. In exchange I got the occasional scene where something looked a bit more 3d than usual and a lot of scenes where it didn't seem to make much difference or it was downright annoying.

These days I am a reborn 3d enthusiast. I look forward to seeing a select few films in 3d in the cinema and re-watching them at home on blu ray.

What exactly made me see the light? There were three main reasons.

Firstly I discovered that there is a massive difference between films actually made using 3d cameras and processes and those faked as an afterthought.  3d cameras are able to provide an illusion of a third dimension on the screen by mimicking the way our two eyes see slightly different viewpoints on objects and scenes. In everyday life the brain does the integration of the two images into a 3d impression. In the cinema the polarising glasses we wear (at least in Australia) create a similar effect (a more detailed explanation can be found here).

So, if the film is actually filmed with 3d cameras there is a second set of visual information that can be integrated to create the effect, because the camera has two lenses set apart in the equivalent fashion to ours in our heads. And although computer graphic animated films such as Toy Story weren't output in 3d originally, the 2d image was generated from 3d modelling software and the data can be reprocessed to output two images at different angles to create exactly the same effect as if it had been filmed using a 3d camera.

Many contemporary 3d films are not actually filmed in 3d, they are converted in post production. A movie filmed in 2d does not have a second set of visual information, it is extrapolated or essentially faked using software.  Basically something is made out of nothing, and I think it is safe to say that most of the time the approach does not work very well. Here is an article about contemporary 3d pioneer bemoaning the post production conversion process often used for today's blockbusters. 

The second factor towards my conversion was that it dawned on me that 3d, like any other aspect of film, might well be a different animal in the hands of different filmmakers. The director and production team need to both take the time and care and have or develop the skills to use the medium effectively. Besides using 3d judicially (eg not having things jumping dramatically out of screen every two minutes) and in a way that enhances the film, rather than replaces it with a cheap thrill, there are a whole host of technical aspects.

For example, sets for 3d films have to brightly lit and darkness added where needed in post production; filmmakers have to be able to think in different ways from when making traditional format films.  All these factors must come together successfully with the story and acting for the film to be effective. In that respect it is no different from any other film but there is more and different things to be considered and not all filmmakers are going to pull this off. 

Even at home using the active shutter technology I find the 3d in Tron Legacy often does not come off as well as it could do, and there are other examples. However, watch Martin Scorsese's film Hugo in 3d and it is a very different experience, he somehow uses the 3d effect to create a vivid and enchanting vision of the world of early twentieth century Paris and echo the intricacy of clockwork mechanisms central to the film's story. Ridley Scott's Prometheus uses 3d fairly subtlety, but effectively to enhance the other worldly nature of the alien environments the film is set in. In director Werner Herzog's documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams about prehistoric cave paintings in France, the 3d effect gives the viewer an impression and understanding of the contours and textures of the paintings  upon rock that would never be possible in a 3 format.  

So yes, a lot of 3d movies might be of less than sterling quality, and trying to bring a wider  audiences by using 3d as a gimmick, but there is nothing new about there being films around that rely on special effects rather than creative care and substance.  

The third factor that converted me from a 3d skeptic was that I bought a new computer monitor that is 3d compatible and it uses a different technology from that used in the cinema -active shutter glasses. Rather than polarising glasses that make light pass through at a certain angle to integrate the two sets of visual information, these glasses only show one frame to each eye at a time at a rate too rapid for the brain to notice, which has a similar effect. When I started to watch 3d movies on this monitor at home, I found the 3d effect was much much better than in the cinema. Suddenly I was actually watching 3d movies over and over again because I was entranced by what I was seeing.

I don't for a moment expect that 3d will replace traditional 2d movies entirely, and as a home experience at least, it is not yet an particularly affordable way of enjoying movies - if you don't watch the movies on a computer you need a special 3d blu ray player, a special 3d TV, a special high speed HDMI cable and a 3d edition of the movie (which is often more expensive than the 3d equivalent).  All the computer option does is cut out the need for the 3d blu ray player, but you still need a pricey commercial media player such as Cyberlink.

Doubtless all this will come down in price eventually and there are also new developments in the pipeline that may do away with the 3d glasses. They are not terrible, but I suspect it would be more comfortable watching 3d movies without them. 

3d is however, another option that a filmmaker can use in the right instances with the right material and assuming the production budget allows it, to create a unique cinema experience.  

On a final note, is a website that very usefully tells you whether films recently released or upcoming were filmed in 3d or were faked post production: 

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