Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hugo and the Failure of 3-D Movies

A number of months ago, I saw the Academy Award-nominated film, Hugo.  I did not like it for numerous reasons.  I found it boring and pretentious, and it presumed too much that its director's preoccupations were those of the audience.  Alongside those things was the use of 3-D, which was a particular failure in the case of this movie.  For starters, a "2-D" image already registers to our eyes as 3-D due to a number of depth cues.  Literal 3-D lessens this effect.  Secondly, it disunifies what might have otherwise been a beautiful, well-composited image.  For me 3-D is a disappointment, more likely to frustrate with its limitations than to impress with its accomplishments.  Also, contrary to what many say, things popping out at you is exactly what the 3-D medium does best and something that Hugo had too little of.  Lastly, I don't like the attitude that if some critics and viewers don't like 3-D, they should just watch something in 2-D and stop complaining.  3-D is not the area where movies need to be improving.

2-D is three dimensional.  As Roger Ebert has noted:
"When you look at a 2-D movie, it’s already in 3-D as far as your mind is concerned.  When you see Lawrence of Arabia growing from a speck as he rides toward you across the desert, are you thinking, “Look how slowly he grows against the horizon”?  Our minds use the principle of perspective to provide the third dimension.  Adding one artificially can make the illusion less convincing."
There are all different types of depth cues that we take for granted but each one of them is superior to current 3-d technology.  

I like good cinematography and composition.  This is why I also like paintings.  I do not care for the pop-up book look that disunifies and image.  The aesthetic that was gone for in the 2-D is completely obliterated.  Directors and cinematographers are not ready for the new compositional relationships that 3-D brings with it.  Seeing things on separate planes that should be next to each other destroys the beauty, order and unity of the image.  Perhaps the conventions of 3-D will eventually be discovered, but they haven't been yet.  As I watched Hugo, I wondered how superior the images must look in 2-D.  I'd rather see a beautiful painting than a mediocre diorama. 

3-D technology is not what it could, should or will be.  Right now, we are in an interim period where, at least for me, the technology is more likely to frustrate with its limitations than to impress with its accomplishments.  The 3-D objects are not free to play around in an open world.  They are still trapped by the frame.  When a tracking shot goes down a hallway, you almost expect the walls to be on your sides, but instead they vanish into thin air.  In 2-D, we recognize that the frame is a window on a world that is bigger than the frame, but in 3-D, we have merely put the world into a box.  When things vanish out the side of the box, it is disconcerting.  This problem can be lessened if things don't come out of the screen.  The other problem is that you are taking 2-dimensional things and putting them on separate planes.  I don't know if the superior 3-D processes solve the fact that despite being 3-D, nothing is ever directly behind something else and these images cannot be viewed from the side.  It might be a lot to ask that the process be evolved this far, but the interim period is worse than the starting point.

One of my major disappointments with Hugo was that there was only one memorable shot of things popping out at me.  It was a beautiful shot of snow.  Many people have complained that things popping out at you is a "gimmicky" use of 3-D.  I believe it is the best use of 3-D.  It is using the medium to fullest effect.  To have 3-D and not have things pop out at you is gimmicky because that spectacle is about the only thing it is good for.  The 3-D serves no purpose otherwise.  Having things on multiple planes, at least in the case of Hugo, adds nothing to a movie.  The screen is already so far away.  Why take it back further?  Do people complain that the beautiful color cinematography in The Searchers is gimmicky, that only the blandest use of a medium isn't a gimmick?  Does this resign 3-D to spectacle movies?  Probably.  Mere multiple planes is a boring, needless gimmick.

There is a notion going around that if you don't like 3-D, you should just shut up and watch the 2-D versions of things.  There are a number of problems with this, especially for critics.  Everyone shouldn't be expected to watch a movie twice just to find what version suits them.  Secondly, when a movie is shown in 3-D, there is an implication that that is the way it is "supposed" to be watched.  It is the truest, most ideal version.  In the case of director Martin Scorsese, shooting a movie in 3-D was the "director's vision."  Showing it at all in 2-D is the compromise.  Therefore, a 3-D movie must be judged on the merits of its 3-D version, 3-D being a validly judged part of the package in that case.

3-D technology in film is a waste of time and audiences are catching on.  3-D is not the area where movies need to be improving.

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