By Joel Davidson
3-D filmmaking has been on quite a roller coaster ride over the past 60 years. After its initial genre success in the 1950s and a brief revival in the 1980s, the runaway 3-D successes of The Polar Express and Avatar, coupled with some game-changing technological advancements, have brought the third dimension into the limelight once more. Now it seems as if every blockbuster coming out today is getting a 3-D release.
Asbury has also had a hand in making 3-D movie history. Back in 2011, barely a year after Avatar came out, Professor Joshua Overbay made a short film entitled “Breathless” with a number of Asbury students. Shot using Panasonic’s latest 3-D camera, the short film was proclaimed as the first student-made production done in that format.
But all of this makes me wonder—is there really a future for 3-D in cinematic storytelling? It is a question that has been debated since Avatar and before, and maybe bringing it up this late in the game is a little untimely, but I still have to ask. It’s a neat gimmick and a pretty cool option for big spectacle movies, but what about its applications outside of that realm?
James Cameron, director of Avatar and a major force in the 3-D revival, stated that even small-scale dramas could be improved by the added dimensionality. After directing the 3-D Oscar-winner Hugo, Martin Scorsese said that he laments not shooting his 1976 classic Taxi Driver in the format. In a more general sense, 3-D is occasionally touted to be as much of a game-changer as the transition to color.
Granted, it might be as much of a hassle and undertaking to make the transition, but, unlike color, I fear it might ultimately be too trivial of a change to positively affect storytelling beyond its gimmickry. Audiences got used to color because it was important in telling many different types of stories, but I don’t think 3D has the same widespread applicability.
I’m not saying there aren’t good uses for 3-D, and, over the past few years, we’ve seen a few of them (Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity being a recent example of the format’s breathtaking possibilities). But, when people talk about 3-D, they always seem to bring up the “3-D experience.” Is the art of film really all about experiences though, or is it the emotions, stories and themes that touch us and engage with us as humans?
The strongest connections we make with films are often based on memories. It might sound obvious to say this, but it is important to understand with regards to how we interact with film and what we take from it. It brings me back to something that Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said about shooting in color vs. black-and-white:
“In everyday life we seldom pay any special attention to color,” he said. “A black-and-white film immediately creates the impression that your attention is concentrated on what is most important. On the screen color imposes itself on you, whereas in real life that only happens at odd moments, so it’s not right for the audience to be constantly aware of color.” (Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986)
While I don’t completely agree, I think it’s safe to say that whatever truth there is in that statement can be exponentially applied to 2-D vs. 3-D. If humans don’t explicitly remember color, then they remember depth of field even less.
And it’s beginning to appear as if ticket-buyers feel the same way. The ratio of 3-D to 2-D ticket sales for films released in both formats has dropped considerably, and the much-talked-about 3-D conversion of the Star Wars films has been put on hold.
I don’t say all of this to suggest that 3-D has no place in cinema, but I would like to submit to you that, despite its widespread use and relative success, we haven’t found that place yet. As 3-D technology becomes less expensive and enters into the hands of independent filmmakers and students like us, it’s time to start looking.