Why Real 3D Still Matters
by phil on Tuesday Nov 26, 2013 8:52 PM
2009 may stand as the golden year for real 3D films. Nearly all 3D films shown in theaters that year were filmed with stereoscopic cameras or rendered from original 3D animated assets. As soon as Hollywood caught wind of the money-making potential for extra 3D sales, the studio heads scrambled for ways to convert already-filmed 2D movies into 3D. This led to a boom in 3D conversion outfits, many of them with animators working overseas in Mumbai. And so began the era of real vs. fake 3D.
I started Real or Fake 3D in 2010, at a time when about half of 3D movies coming out were natively filmed with 3D cameras, and half were converted in post-production. At the time, I heard a torrent of complaints from moviegoers about headaches or annoying 3D effects (think wrenches and fists flying out of the screen). While some demanded their money back, most moviegoers continued to line up for 3D blockbusters like Avengers.
Since that time, 3D conversion technology has improved substantially. I now get emails about once a week about whether Transformers 2 or Gravity or some other converted 3D film is actually real. Inevitably, I'll look-up said movie or cross-reference the links these readers send me, and it turns out the movies are actually fake 3D, but the directors are adamant that their process is as good as the real thing.
Normally when I watch a fake 3D film, it is with a group, and I don't get to veto the decision, such as when I saw Thor and Star Trek: Into Darkness. Nearly every other real 3D film I've seen, I saw by myself or with just one or two other friends. Movies like Hugo and Cave of Forgotten Dreams were meant to be seen in 3D because the directors took the pain-staking effort to film them in 3D. Yes, the cameras are much more expensive. Yes, it takes a lot of time and effort to convert your whole production pipeline into 3D. But this is what makes the results of a well-done native 3D film all the more sweeter.
When it came time to watch Gravity, I looked up the movie on my own website, remembered that I had put it in the fake column, and so I made sure to buy the 2D movie tickets. The movie was awesome, and I immediately felt pangs of regrets seeing it in 2D. When Sandra Bullock's character is stuck to a retracting arm of the shuttle, and she is spun around, I really wanted to feel like I was in free-fall to Earth.
The next day, when I told a friend that I had seen Gravity, his first question was, "Did you see it in 3D?" Then a few days later, I got a tweet from another reader trying to correct Gravity's entry on Real or Fake 3D. He sent me a link to a series of behind-the-scenes clips, and I admit I was impressed. I could see how they would extrude the geometry and re-shape Sandra Bullock's body for 3D, and for a few days, I thought to myself, "What if I have it all wrong? What if conversions are as good as the real thing?"
Maybe conversions were in fact like the re-coloring of black-and-white movies. Without knowing that classics such as It's a Wonderful Life were re-colored, it may not bother you the first few times you see it. Now that I know they were re-colored, it's hard not to see the cheeks of James Stewart as an overly fluorescent pink, or his various co-stars' blond hair as unnecessarily platinum. But for most people it's fine. Maybe it's the same with 3D conversion. In the behind-the-scenes for Gravity, the artist moves these gray extruded 3D shapes representing the depth map inside the space capsule, and it doesn't look like too much information is lost when they simulate 3D. Maybe stereoscopic 3D isn't that crucial. As Anthony Lane of the New Yorker says, movies are already in 3D.
So I decided to watch Gravity again, this time in 3D, to see if it was any better. I stepped into an empty theater during a matinee showing, and prepared to leave with a blog post announcing my apostasy. I could imagine the headline, "Author of Real or Fake 3D Says 3D Conversions Are As Good As The Real Thing." Within that fantasy was a proud assertion of my honesty. Here I was, the purveyor of a site that makes money delineating real vs. fake 3D, announcing that the distinction no longer matters.
After having now seen Gravity in both 3D and 2D, my verdict is that real 3D still matters. The scenes that I expected to blow my mind didn't. I rarely felt a sense of free-fall, and it didn't seem at all like the wild ride I had when watching Avatar. The problem is that 3D conversions have to mute many of their effects lest the illusion is shattered or they induce headaches. The result is that converted 3D films are a little flat. Oftentimes they veer towards just being pop-up books with a few digital 3D visual effects, like flying wrenches bounding into your face. When Sandra Bullock's character swings around miles above Earth, I expected to feel the same way that I felt in Avatar when Jake jumps off a cliff while learning how to fly. But I didn't.
To truly get that immersive feel, to get that sense that all your surroundings have disappeared and you are a living breathing member of the set you are watching, the movie has to be shot natively in 3D. Gravity is probably the best converted 3D film, but even the best 3D converted film can't compete with the real thing. Will this change a few years from now? Perhaps. Until that time though, my site will still be relevant.