Thor and the future of 3D films

by phil on Monday May 9, 2011 3:01 AM

Heimdall wishing he was filmed in native 3D

A year ago, I created as part of the backlash against poorly-done 3D movies. This was around the time Clash of the Titans came out, which performed poorly in the US and was slammed critics (28% on Rotten Tomatoes). Most of the reviews said it was worse in 3D, as the surreal pop-up book effects and in-your-face swords and doodads were a distraction. That's what happens when you film a movie in 2D and rush it overseas to be converted to 3D. You need two eyes worth of content from two cameras to really get that native 3D film feel. You need to imagine the film from the ground-up for a 3D-theater.

Disgusted with the 3D-conversion movement, I researched all upcoming movies and made a list separating the ones that were shot natively with 3D cameras and the ones that weren't. I've been updating the list for a year now, and I've noticed some trends. Last year, the ratio between real to fake 3D movies was roughly 1-to-1. This year, the real 3D films outnumber the fake ones 3-to-1. And so it almost seems like there's a trend toward a future with no 3D conversions. This is what I believed until I saw Thor. Thor is the biggest 3D wool-pulled-over-your-eyes. This movie will signify when Hollywood finally got 3D conversions right, and by right I mean horribly wrong for moviegoers.

Go watch Thor and alternate closing each eye, and you'll see that the distance between near and far objects stays the same. For example, a tree in the background that's a foot on-screen to the left of Natalie Portman's face is the same distance away in both eyes. Which is smart. The artists weren't aggressive in their 3D conversion. They skipped extruding challenging features, like the human body or faces, and instead tweaked landscapes and towers, stuff that was already set on simple backgrounds. In many of the motion-blurred shots, the 3D was faked by rapidly alternating the streaks between each eye so you can't notice any errors. Also, atmospheric effects, like snow, were added in 3D to scenes that were otherwise flat, so that the audience consistently feels like they're in a 3D movie.

So instead of trying to pretend that it's the real deal, the filmmakers give you just enough 3D to make you forget you spent the extra bucks for it, but not so much that you notice the flaws. The result is a $66 million opening weekend, a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, and few critics talking about the 3D. This is a big win for Hollywood.

The problem is that it's still a waste of money for the consumer. The 3D did not add anything to the moviegoing experience. I got no heightened sense of atmosphere, which is a shame considering how gorgeous the Norse home of Asgard was, with its golden spires and iridescent cosmic bridges. Also, a good native 3D film will make the screen feel twice as large because of how much more immersed you feel. For Thor, however, the opposite was true, as I felt a desire to dive in and inhabit the space, only to be pushed away by the flatness of most of the scenes.

So will this mean more fake 3D films in the future? I don't know. On the one hand, the stigma from Clash already set the wheels in motion to abandon the practice. On the other hand, I just saw a rash of German 3D Blu-Rays re-releases (like Dune and Running Man) slip under the radar, as if Hollywood is market-testing conversions to see if they can get extra money from old hits. And oddly enough, the sequel to Clash, Wrath of the Titans will be converted to 3D after all.

So the future for 3D films is once again murky. Who knows, maybe things will change after Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Martin Scorsese's upcoming Hugo Cabret. It will be up to directors who are willing to push the limits of what 3D can do, before we can really take it seriously.


Nick said on May 9, 2011 3:17 AM:

Don't get your hopes too high; "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" has a lot of fake 3D mixed in with the real 3D. It's not a good sign when there's a "halo" of far-off cave that's at the same depth as someone talking in the foreground...

Michael W said on May 9, 2011 9:59 AM:

I saw Thor in 3D not because I wanted to, but because the 7:45 showing at the Alamo Village happened to be convenient.

I enjoyed the movie as much as other marvel studios films that have come out recently (which is to say I thought it was a fun "popcorn" flick), however the 3D only detracted from the experience. Even at the Alamo the projection felt "dark". The 3D in the film was the stereotypical "pop up book" effect one would see in most post converted films and was terrible distracting.

Avatar, Coraline, and Toy Story all used the effect remarkably, so much so that watching the films recently in 2D made me actually miss the effect. So it can be done well. I guess we are at the mercy of the studios and our own willpower to hold out for films that are either 2D or real 3D.

Phil Dhingra said on May 9, 2011 12:18 PM:

"willpower" is exactly right. We don't have the willpower to say no to spending a few extra bucks, if it means getting the most we think we can get out of that movie.

Roger said on May 9, 2011 9:20 PM:

Nice post, Phil!

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