3-D filmmaking’s radical, revolutionary potential

Forget “Avatar” and “Step Up 3D”: When filmmakers finally master 3-D, it will mark the start of a new art form

Is digital 3-D the future of cinema or an annoying, overhyped fad? The movie industry is understandably torn. On one hand, money talks, and some of the biggest hits of the last six months earned a major share of their box office take from 3-D exhibition: “Avatar,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Toy Story 3.” (The latest entry in this mini-movement, the tween-targeted musical sequel “Step Up 3D,” made $15.5 million in its opening weekend.)

But the 3-D frenzy has also sparked a backlash. The naysayers include critics who argue that the essence of cinema is two-dimensional — that its nature is bound up in its mural-like flatness, and that when you add another dimension, you turn it into something other than cinema (see Roger Ebert’s widely quoted Newsweek piece calling 3-D “a waste of a perfectly good dimension“). Directors also resent the pressure to turn every big film into an event that costs three to five extra dollars to see — either by shooting it in 3-D when they feel it isn’t necessary, or by retroactively processing a 2-D movie to create a shoddy-looking, faux-3-D effect (this was done to three-quarters of “Alice in Wonderland” and all of “Clash of the Titans“).

Ultimately, though, the current debate is misleading because the format is still, for the most part, terra incognita. Aside from a brief flowering in the ’50s, an aborted comeback attempt in the ’80s and the current incarnation, which apes the preceding ones with more up-to-date technology, audience have gotten a limited, distorted sense of what 3-D is and could become.  Pronouncements about what it is and isn’t good for strike me as premature at best, reductive at worst, like judging a feature film based on having seen a 30-second commercial.

Most contemporary 3-D movies are the same-old same-old, with something else added on top: standard blockbusters that you’re mentally half-into, half-out of: part fish, part fowl. Sometimes they’re satisfying in a traditional way (as commercial narrative features — by which I mean linear, goal-driven, conservatively told stories). Other times they give us a more visceral kick, but one that temporarily shatters suspension of disbelief. (When you’re thinking, “Oh my God, this 3-D makes me feel as though I’m really being attacked by a Kraken!” you’re not into the movie — you’re outside of it.)

For the sake of argument, though, let’s think about what might happen if 3-D movies embraced only the first or the second parts of that description — if they became more intimate and character driven, or if they went in the other direction and became more structurally and stylistically abstract, even trippy.

The result could be genuinely revolutionary. It could let us experience movie storytelling — and movies, period — in a new way. It might even give rise to a new art form, one that’s related to its ancestor, cinema, but that takes off in new directions and does things we can’t even imagine yet because so few people in the entertainment industry have been willing to look beyond entertainment as they’ve always known it.

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