Brendan Shick | Freelance Film, Broadcast, & Digital Media

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Why 3D is Destroying Movies

Mar 13 2012 by Brendan Shick Add Your Thoughts

Cinema has been around for roughly a century. That means we, the cinematographers and directors of the world, have spent the past 100 years trying to perfect the art of taking something from the real world and displaying it to an audience in two-dimensions.

Princess Leia appears in 3D hologram form in Star Wars (1977)Perspective, depth of field, production design choices, proper lighting setups, atmospheric perspective, good blocking, and a host of other factors allow us to represent a three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional canvas.

Some have dedicated their whole lives to learning this trade, and even then build mostly on those who came before them. Even before cinema, painters had spent centuries establishing the basic rules of creating artificial depth on the canvas.

Before I continue, I should say this is not a rant about how a group of skilled trade workers (cinematographers) now have their jobs threatened by a new technology that is forcing them to throw out what they’ve learned and start over learning the trade anew. It’s not even purely a rant about how 3D is destroying the 2D artform.

It’s quite the opposite. No one’s job is threatened. The fact is, producers of 3D movies are hiring the same cinematographers that they have always hired to shoot 2D movies, and, in some ways, that is precisely the problem.

Where’s the Problem?

2D – Current Film Grammar

It’s quite simple. There’s a certain grammar to the way a two-dimensional image is composed which is inherently incompatible with the grammar of a three-dimensional image. This involves many elements, tricks, and tools such as the ones listed above, but for ease of argument, let’s focus on one: depth of field (or lack of it).

It’s merely one tool cinematographers use. By keeping certain elements in focus or out of focus, the cinematographer tells our eye what to pay attention to or ignore. We can also easily perceive how near or far an object is based on how in or out of focus it appears (even though the image is actually projected on a two-dimensional screen).

Shallow depth of field creates a sense of distance between characters and the back of the bowling alley in Half a Heart (2012).

The trend in recent years has been to shoot with increasingly shallow depth of field. This is due partly to the transition from film to digital acquisition during the past ten years.

At their inception, digital cameras could not shoot with anywhere near as shallow a depth of field as their film predecessors. As newer cameras were developed, this became less of an issue (especially with the DSLRs of recent years – so cheap any consumer can buy and abuse them). In fact, it’s almost became a competition (for manufactures and cinematographers alike) to show off how shallow your digital camera could go.

To be honest, we all overcompensated, creating a fad that was taken to the extreme. However, the point remains that a lack of depth of field is both a practical and compositional consideration required by the very nature of a 2D image.

3D – A Different Species

James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) entered the scene just as this mad race for achieving the shallowest depth of field was at its height. As one of the chief proponents of digital technology in the industry, he was clearly not immune to the fad it had helped create.

This created a problem. The whole principle of projecting an image in three-dimensions is that it achieves a reproduction closer to what we perceive in the real world. There is space between a close object and a far one, and the human eye knows that.

Unfortunately, a healthy human eye also sees with a near infinite depth of field. When this doesn’t happen, we claim our vision is declining and pay thousands of dollars over the course of our remaining life to fix the problem through corrective lenses or optic surgery.

Notice how shallow the depth of field is in Avatar (2012). This may look okay in 2D, but becomes a jumbled mess in 3D.

This is where the grammar of 3D begins to divulge from the grammar of 2D. To reproduce 3D images in a way pleasing to the human eye, cinematographers must use extreme deep focus techniques. This apparently didn’t dawn on the crew of Avatar.

Marketed as the pinnacle of the new 3D experience, Avatar clearly was actually shot for the 2D medium, intentionally or not. Watching the 3D cut was a nightmare, with strange, out-of-focus objects drifting aimlessly across the background and foreground. This looked quite normal in the 2D cut, which was not the same level of cinematographical disaster.

But That’s not Fair…

True. It’s only fair to cut the pioneers here a break. They were trying something new and were discovering the ground rules for 3D composition as they went. They had years and years of practice and discovery on their side geared toward producing the 2D print that wasn’t applicable to the 3D print. Yet audiences were expecting that experience to yield itself perfectly to the new form.

The classic shot used to demonstrate Orson Wells pioneering use of deep focus in Citizen Kane (1941)

The problem is, these are two different mediums, and incompatible ones at that. Let’s assume that at some point someone develops a perfect working knowledge of 3D composition backed by a hundred years of development like 2D has now.

It would be possible, in this scenario, to create equally viable productions in 2D and 3D at this stage. The deep focus techniques necessary have existed at least since Citizen Kane (1941), but to use them practically means very limited choices in blocking and shot choice. It would be possible to create a 3D print using such methods, but it would always cause the 2D print to suffer, or in some way limit the artist’s choices.

Don’t forget, depth of field is only one of the issues causing incompatibilities. I discuss it solely because it was the most obvious in Avatar, which is now viewed as the trendsetter in 3D. Any sort of in-depth (no pun intended) look at all the incompatibilities is beyond the scope of this post.

Is there a Solution?

To make this work, films would need to be released as 2D only or 3D only, none of this both at the same time nonsense. Audiences don’t want to see a 2D print that has certain compromises built-in solely so that studios can make extra money off a 3D print. Likewise, they shouldn’t be asked to spend more on a 3D print that has certain compromises built-in because the studio also had to release a 2D print.

On the other hand, every artform has its limitations, so if the artist chooses to make a 3D film, those limitations are merely marked up to the artist’s choice of medium – and every artistic medium does have its limitations, but also benefits. For example, the selective use of 3D in only parts of Tron: Legacy (2010) was a brilliant move resulting from using artistic choice of medium to create a style.

Tron Lightcycle

I’m perfectly fine with paying to see a Rodin sculpture, but not if he’s also trying to pass it off a painting – that would be a scam. Likewise, Picasso can’t convince me that his portrait is doubling as a sculpture. In the same manner, segments of film intended for 2D cannot also be intended for 3D or vis versa.

Furthermore, if we ever reach the point where 3D can stand on its own with the same level of advancement as 2D, then expert cinematographers for 2D pictures cannot try to double as expert cinematographers for 3D pictures. It takes a lifetime of study to learn one or the other, and you simply cannot be a master of both without compromising the time it takes to learn the other.

Few are masters of more than one trade like this. I don’t care if Rodin tries to paint, and I don’t care if Picasso tries to sculpt. Either one may turn out to be decent at the other’s job, but there are thousands of others who are better at it still.


Brendan Shick

Brendan Shick is a freelance DP, gaffer, and sports broadcaster serving primarily the Chicago, IL; Pittsburgh, PA; Grand Rapids, MI; and Fort Wayne, IN, regions. You can find out more by following this blog, his recent work on Vimeo, or by connecting with him on Twitter or LinkedIn. Brendan is also an occasional contributor to the Project Updates feed for one of his most recent films, To Turn Back Time.


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