Saturday, 25 September 2010

3D: a low-end gimmick or the future of cinema?

I'm back in Brighton now after a week and a bit working as a sub-editor on the Cambridge Film Festival Daily, and I thought I'd post an example of the sort of thing I've been writing whilst I've been away. This was in yesterday's paper:

Mark Kermode has confidently predicted the end of it within two years. On the other side of the Atlantic, Roger Ebert has told Newsweek that “It is unsuitable for grown-up films of any seriousness. It limits the freedom of directors to make films as they choose.” The industry-led resurgence of 3D films has steadily gained momentum over the last few years, reaching an all-time high with James Cameron's box office conquering Goliath, AVATAR, at the start of this year and attracting the ire of traditionalist movie critics the world over. Since then 3D films have looked set to become even more prevalent. Even features not shot purposefully for 3D, such as ALICE IN WONDERLAND and CLASH OF THE TITANS, have been taken into the world of plastic glasses and inflated ticket prices using a widely criticised post-production conversion process.

Some filmmakers have even begun to challenge the studios, speaking out against the ubiquitous use of 3D – including TRANSFORMERS helmer Michael Bay. I asked long-time Stanley Kubrick collaborator, Jan Harlan, whether he suspects the master filmmaker (ever the innovator) would have been at the forefront of this current craze. “He was interested in all technology that improved the image that he wanted to portray, and 3D isn't one of them... The only film he made where 3D could be interesting was 2001, in parts. But with a film like EYES WIDE SHUT why would you bother?” Echoing those comments of Ebert, Harlan added, ”if you want to make a deep film, it's distracting almost.” Bill Lawrence, an expert in the history of filmic innovations, is similarly unconvinced, seeing it as just one in a long line of gimmicks which diminish the quality of films made: “Quite often now they use the 3D effect to sell poor stories... to try and get an audience in.”

Many of these critics are willing to write the practice off, but film historian Ian Christie sees something fundamentally different in the current push towards the format, that sets it apart from attempts made in the fifties, seventies and eighties. For one thing, Christie suggests the technology behind it now is much better, giving it more appeal. But more important than that is the business side. ”I think now the mainstream industry is throwing a lot more behind it than was ever the case in the past.” Big electronics firms in particular are putting a lot of investment into it too: “the technology companies are determined to make it work. Sony in particular are throwing everything at it, and they see it as a massive solution to a lot of problems they've got.” Not to mention the fact that massive investment has already gone into upgrading many of Britain's projectors to support the push.

Another factor counting in 3D's favour, is that attitudes towards it have changed from within the creative side of the film industry. Speaking of earlier attempts he says, “It was seen as a gimmick, and it was actually seen as a sort of low-end gimmick. There is still a lot of that about at the moment... with PIRANHA 3D. But the difference is that some pretty serious filmmakers want to do something with it.” He was of course referring to the likes of James Cameron, but also more critically revered directors. “Scorsese's current picture is 3D as well. And I think that's going to be a real game-changer, because it's going to be hard for people to just write it off.” Meanwhile, Werner Herzog just premiered his first 3D film, a documentary on cave paintings, in Toronto.

Speaking to Christie is refreshing, as he expresses a sincere interest not really in vogue in film criticism. “I personally feel very enthusiastic about 3D, it's a wonderful resource and a whole new generation of filmmakers has to learn how to use it. It's not immediately obvious, it's a learning process. So if it can establish itself, then I think we might see a new generation coming through.” Perhaps the reluctance of people to seriously consider the process is not wholly unprecedented: “Cinemascope was bitterly attacked on all sides... and sound, was bitterly opposed, and colour. Just about every big development in the history of film has had its detractors – by defenders of what they consider to be true cinema.”

For Christie 3D is full of possibilities, and certainly nothing to be dismissed out of hand. “Cinema thrives on novelty” he enthuses. He ends our conversation on a similarly excitable note: ”I'd just like to see some more varied 3D films made. Bring them on, I say!”

Photos provided by the Festival's official photographer, Tom Catchesides. Thanks Tom!

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