Grading 3-D

Roger Ebert has an intriguing blog post discussing the new wave of 3-D movies hitting theaters in recent months.  Reflecting on a missed press screening of Fly Me to the Moon, Ebert sardonically imagines a film featuring flies buzzing straight towards the audience, reminding us just how little is truly novel about digital 3-D.  Ebert goes on to add that 3-D is essentially distancing, that rather than proving viewers with a “realistic” visual experience, it actually defies conventions of visual perception.  I haven’t seen Fly Me to the Moon yet–chalk that up to some last-minute scrambling as I get ready for a new semester–but I’ve been thinking about 3-D quite a bit lately (especially in my response to Beowulf), and while my initial impulse is to agree with Ebert, I want to tweak his argument just a little.

When I first saw Beowulf a few months ago, I remarked that I could never quite forget that I was watching a movie, that I never felt immersed in the world of the film.  Part of my reaction is due to the discomfort of wearing the 3-D glasses, which were a little too tight, but I think a secondary cause has to be attributed to the possibility that 3-D remains a medium tied to spectacle.  I’m thinking here of Tom Gunning’s discussion of the “aesthetic of astonishment,” in which Gunning challenges the myth of early cinema audiences fleeing from theaters in fear of trains rushing towards them and explains that while early cinema audiences may have been amazed by the technology of motion pictures, they were not duped by the illusion of motion presented in these early films.

I think something similar may be going on with 3-D.  We’re not necessarily meant to experience these films as realistic.  In fact, many of them are animated.  Instead, we are supposed to be “astonished” by the technology itself.  For me, I was acutely aware of the 3-D technology even while I was ostensibly watching a sixth century epic. Like Ebert, I don’t really regard myself as a fan of 3-D (although I’d like to see as many of these films as I can in the coming months), but I’m not quite convinced that realism or classic forms of identification–I never identified with Beowulf, for example–are the goals that motivate storytelling in 3-D.  On one level, of course, the goals are commerce (3-D films are harder to pirate and, for some, they are a novelty), but I think they are also an attempt to theorize the limits of film as a representational medium, of finding new ways to tell stories using images projected on a giant screen in a darkened theater.


  1. Jason Said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 11:37 am

    Hi Chuck,
    I know what you mean about last minute scrambling.

    As to the 3-D material, I haven’t seen any films of that sort in awhile, but I was struck by how much your discussion of the technology and visual perception resonates with my own recently revived interest in the logic of the simulacrum in media studies. The technology in a film like Beowolf may be (again I haven’t seen it) so un-self-effacing exactly because it tries to move so close to socially-conditioned notions of indexical “reality.” So the closer it moves to virtual reality, the more false, or at least uncanny in the Freudian sense, the affect of the image is.

  2. Chuck Said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

    Forgot to respond to this comment a few days ago, but the “uncanny valley” point is a good one. I know that Lev Manovich has talked about this in terms of the failure of movies such as Final Destination that sought to use digital effects to create life-like simulacra, and something similar may be happening here, epsecially when it comes to perceiving motion coming directly towards the viewer (Ebert is good on this point). So I think that needs to be taken into consideration as well.

  3. Erik Said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

    I am a big fan of the concept of 3D cinema, but what I have seen in recent films is not so impressive, largely, I think, because of what you point out: the tendency to use it for spectacle. No filmmakers I know of has thought about how best to use 3D technology for storytelling in its own rite, and not just, as jason says, a derivative of traditional indexical relations. The best 3D feature I’ve seen so far is actually James Cameron’s IMAX underwater titanic documentary, which is perhaps a genre that lends itself better to 3D? I would love to see some avant-garde 3d work as well, but that doesn’t seem likely given the high cost of the equipment.

  4. Chuck Said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    I saw an avant-garde/experimental 3D film at Console-ing Passions this year. It used 3D really well, and I remember being impressed by the film at the time, but I don’t recall the specifics. And, yes, I do think that experimental filmmakers may be able to figure out the potentials of that technique in ways that “indexical” filmmakers may not see.

    The Cameron film sounds interesting, and I imagine that his upcoming feature will probably use 3D in a more effective way. I’m no big fan of Cameron’s, but I think he’s more adept at using new film technologies better than most.

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