3D at first slowly, and now much more rapidly, has become the new “it” gimmick in modern filmmaking. 2009 alone has given us numerous films in 3D presentations (Coraline, Up, My Bloody Valentine, The Final Destination*, among others), with more on the way before the year is out and even more still in the years to come. While selling audiences 3D glasses with their tickets for the novel thrill of seeing objects fly out at them isn’t a new practice, the 3D experience certainly is becoming more prevalent; this illustrated guide depicts just how many 3D films have come out in the last 3 years, and how many are already slated to come out in 2010. (A brief caveat: Keep in mind that the list also includes movies shown to smaller audiences, so there are some kid-friendly educational films on there that were probably screened at, say, The Boston Museum Of Science.)
So what’s the big deal? Do 3D films really enhance the experience that much? There’s absolutely no doubt that a film looks prettier in 3D; this blogger was fairly dazzled by both Coraline and Up (reviewed here and here), both of which looked truly spectacular on the big-screen from behind my 3D glasses.** (Coraline in particular benefited visually from the technology.) And yes, aside from the enhanced colors and tones and overall effect of a film’s imagery, there is always that giddy, child-like thrill one gets from seeing a knitting needle jut out at the screen as though to poke the audience and remind them what they’re watching.
It’s only right and sensible to attribute the sudden rise in 3D to the renewed interest of filmmakers, though I’ll follow that up by saying that the increase in filmmaker attraction to 3D technology isn’t truly surprising. New technology inevitably picks up proponent filmmakers who promote its uses and generate interest in its capabilities, and ultimately they impel filmmakers to try it out for themselves. James Cameron is bringing his 3D spectacle, Avatar, to screens in December of this year, and both Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg are filming the Tintin films together using the same RealD technology. It especially shouldn’t be surprising that these three men in particular are so enthused with RealD and it’s strengths; we’re talking about like, some of the most prominent champions of the modern big-screen spectacle. If nothing else, they’re men, and we all know that men love their technology.
Which to them isn’t simply technology; paraphrasing Howard Hughes, it’s the way of the future. At this year’s San Diego Comic Convention, both Jackson and Cameron presented a panel in Hall H where they discussed at length the future of film and the role that technology, in particular 3D advances, will play in the future of film:
Cameron’s hoping for film to become more realistic, he said; he’d like 3D movies’ standard frame rate to move from 24 to 48 frames per second, “and then you’re looking at something that’s indistinguishable from reality. Even 2D films would look more sharp.”
One member of the audience asked if perhaps new technology might be driving too much of the state of film. “Once upon a time, sound was new technology,” Jackson replied. “We’re working in an industry that’s constantly evolving.”
Likewise, Cameron defended the extensive motion-capture technology he used in Avatar. “Not only does it not replace actors, but it empowers them, in ways that all the years of slapping makeup on their faces to create age or alienness didn’t,” he said. “I don’t like to call it motion capture, I like to call it performance capture. Actors don’t do motion, they do emotion.”
Their enthusiasm for the technology is undeniably contagious. Their discussions of their various visions for what 3D could mean for audiences, for the experience of seeing a movie, and for the task of world-building in cinema conjure breath-taking images of fantastic worlds the likes of which we’ve never seen even in the highest realms of movie spectacle. Imagine Lord of the Rings in a 3D format (something that Jackson hopes to accomplish, and let’s face it, he probably will); now imagine if those films had been originally created using the RealD technology of Avatar and the like. While I can’t really see 3D being a big deal for smaller scale movies (like Jackson’s forthcoming adaptation of The Lovely Bones), the effect it could have on much bigger movies is palpable. In the hands of talented directors, it could truly end up being more than just a gimmick; it could completely change how we view such movies, and it’s difficult to not get excited about that prospect.
Of course, despite their hopes and visions of what 3D could do for the next generation of filmmakers, and how it might enhance films of the future, there is a major roadblock: Studios. According to both filmmakers, it has up until recently been difficult to get studios to shell out cash for 3D movies; this is in part likely due to the monetary and time investments required for making a 3d film, but Jackson states that the bigger problem is lack of theaters equipped for presenting 3D films. Obviously this is a harsh roadblock, but there’s good news for Cameron and Jackson and Spielberg; more and more theaters are becoming 3D capable as more and more 3D films get made. According to The Hollywood Reporter, while summer 2009 saw a drop in admission sales, that decline was coupled with an increase in revenue after bumping up ticket prices. From the article:
“Summer 2009 has notched a 4% uptick at the domestic boxoffice in a record performance based largely on a not-so-secret extra dimension.
Premium ticket charges at 3D venues fueled a bigger-than-usual 5.5% increase in the nation’s average ticket price to $7.54. With the season’s final numbers now in, the pricier tickets helped shape a $4.30 billion summer that topped both last summer’s $4.13 billion tally and the previous seasonal record of $4.16 billion, set in summer 2007.
Still, admissions were down modestly from last summer, after accounting for the ticket-price inflation. Hollywood hasn’t marked a new summer admissions high since 2004, when 642 million tickets were sold, according to the National Association of Theaters Owners.
A total 570 million tickets were sold in summer ’09, or 1.5% fewer than in the previous summer. But despite any hand-wringing over declining ticket sales, the surge in seasonal bo represents fresh evidence that 3D is proving to be the boon industryites have been hoping for.”
For filmmakers, this is great news, as it indicates that theaters and by extension studios are embracing the 3D trend. Maybe in a few short years, it won’t be such an uphill battle for directors like Cameron to get their 3D visions from their imaginations and onto the big screen. But there’s another party here separate from the artists and the businessmen, and that’s the audience. This is win-win for the filmmakers and the suits; the filmmakers get to play with their (admittedly pretty sweet) 3D tech, and the studios and theaters both get to make more money despite selling less product. But what about the consumer?
Part of the business-side fascination with 3D despite its inherent risks and costs is its ability to provide a viewing experience that can only truly be appreciated in a theater. With the rising cost of ticket prices (coupled with the poor economy, I’d imagine) and the success of business strategies a’la Netflix, viewers are losing incentive to actually go to the movies to see their movies. What 3D represents to the studio and the big theaters is a way to pull people back in and generate increased profits, and going by the THR article, it’s working. At the same time, smaller crowds are showing up to the theater, and while this hardly matters since the people who are going are showing up to 3D films in large numbers, it’s hard to really argue that the theaters have been successful in pulling crowds back to their places of business. That’s not the point of course; the point is that Showcase and AMC Loews are making more money, and therefore 3D is turning out to be the shot in the arm that they needed even if audiences are still small.
But as much as 3D seems to be viable for now, how does the 3D experience get brought to home viewing? Movies often make a great deal of their money through ancillary sales, an important market when a film just doesn’t have legs at the box office or if it simply bombs with audiences. For now 3D holds a certain fascination to audiences, being the new trend in cinema; 3D films outsold 2D films over the summer in admissions. What happens when it comes time to bring 3D movies to at-home viewing? The current crop of 3D films, for example Coraline, Avatar, are meant to be viewed in 3D; what happens when you try to view them using your at-home set-up? Studios are more than warming up to the idea of 3D films, and theaters are seeing that they can make fistfuls of cash pushing fewer tickets by embracing 3D, but the technology has a final hurdle to overcome, and that is translating the 3D experience and delivering it to audiences in the comfort of their own homes. Films like Coraline include both the 3D presentation and a 2D presentation on their DVD releases, which works well for that particular film and other films like like it, but what about something like Avatar? Can a film of that level of ambition really be brought to the home viewer in its full intended glory?
There’s little else I can say to add to this; it should be obvious that I like the idea of RealD technology, and the potential for 3D to become something that truly does enhance the way that the stories of 3D films are told, instead of just a gimmick that makes them simply look prettier. I do have concerns about whether not this actually will end up being the case; we haven’t seen Avatar in full yet, and the footage that has been seen has been criticized for its appearance (something that is attributed to the fact that the film is not meant to be watched via Quicktime on a computer screen, which I alluded to previously as being a potential problem for the technology down the line). Cameron of course is aggressively assuring audiences that his film is going to change the world and cure cancer and solve world hunger***, but what else do you expect him to do? There’s no telling just how successful his project is until it’s released, and only then can it be determined if 3D is really all that its supporters make it out to be, or if it’s just a fad that will soon pass. For now, though? Consider me optimistic.
*Let me point out how bizarre it is that the majority of 3D films released this year can be split into children’s fare and gorehound horror delights.
**Complaint: Those damn glasses are horrible for people who actually wear glasses. I’m serious, the experience of watching 3D is absurdly awkward for anyone with a prescription.
***Okay, obviously, I’m joking here. It’s only going to cure the common cold.