Feb 11

The Impending Demise of the Third Dimension

Humans love stories. In fact, we love them so much that we have been attempting to make them more like real life since the late Paleolithic era. First came pictures, than much later motion, followed by sound, and eventually color. For the last few decades, we have, with varying degrees of success, attempted to add a new feature to this list: an extra dimension. As many of you have probably noticed, 3D is making a comeback, with many new releases coming out in “exciting!” and “eye-popping!” 3D. Yet, I cannot help but wonder: does the extra dimension contribute anything more to the experience than the usual combination of (2D) picture, motion, sound and color? Indeed, should we strive to produce movies that are completely physically immersive, with additional tactile, gustatory and olfactory stimulation? Would this embody the ultimate in storytelling? While I may very well bite my tongue half a century from now, I am presently inclined to say no. Not at all.

3D is both praised and maligned: some, like Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, espouse its wonders, whereas others, like movie critic Roger Ebert, struggle to find any redeeming feature. I consider myself part of the second camp. In order to settle the score, however, I propose that we develop a new field of study, called Cinematic Science. The first research project would be to show a variety of films that combine the core elements in every different way possible: moving/still images, sound/silence, color/black and white, and 3D/2D. (For the scientists among our readers, yes, this is a 2x2x2x2 research design.) Subsequent to each viewing, we would assess each participant’s level of engagement with the film. At the end of the experiment, we would be able to determine the degree to which each feature and combination of features promotes engagement. My hypothesis: the combination of moving images, sound, color, and 3D or 2D will contribute significantly more variance than any of these features alone; however, I expect no significant difference between 3D and 2D. In other words, I suggest the combination of these basic elements can together draw in an audience, but 3D is by no means a useful tool for increasing audience engagement.

As far as I am concerned, movies achieved perfection when they became, as their name implies, moving pictures. The addition of sound and that of color, while revolutionary, were merely add-ons, much like the addition of an extra dimension. The difference between sound & color and an extra dimension, however, is that sound & color open up doors toward more artistic possibilities. Imagine Walt Disney’s experimental Fantasia (1940), for example, without any music or colors. Inconceivable, right? Now imagine Fantasia, only in 3D. I would hardly call this new version an improvement. After all, 3D merely adds an extra layer of depth; artistically speaking, there is not much you can do with that. You can throw things every which way at your audience, but that is hardly the mark of art. In fact, many critics claim that 3D amounts to no more than a gimmick meant to distract moviegoers from the declining quality of movies. While it is true that most movies coming out in 3D are not Oscar contenders, that accusation does not represent a fair assessment of the true value of 3D. The question is not: can 3D make a poor movie excellent? The real question is: can 3D enhance an already excellent movie? From an artistic point of view: no. But what about from an experiential point of view?

Proponents of 3D contend that it promotes audience immersion (i.e., engagement). As reflected in my hypothesis, however, I believe that what contributes the most to this factor is good old-fashioned storytelling, in the form of capable screenwriting, directing, cinematography, scoring, editing, and so on. Walter Murch, reputed film editor and sound designer, recently wrote to Roger Ebert, pointing out the limitations of the 3D image. In his letter, he also describes how well-told stories cause us to become emotionally and intellectually invested, immersing us in a fully dimensional imaginative experience. Murch explains: “3D films remind the audience that they are in a certain “perspective” relationship to the image. It is almost a Brechtian trick. Whereas if the film story has really gripped an audience they are “in” the picture in a kind of dreamlike “spaceless” space. So a good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with.”

Indeed, no amount of added dimension will ever make Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) sadder, Zucker’s Rat Race (2001) funnier, Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) scarier, Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985) more thrilling, DeBlois and Sanders’ Lilo and Stitch (2002) more endearing, Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008) more thought-provoking, or Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) more perfect. Ever. And with the risk of biting my tongue twice, I guarantee it.

Note: If you want to spend your extra dollars on a fully 3-dimensional entertainment experience, my boyfriend recommends you buy a ticket to one of your local playhouses, which have all been retrofitted for 3D capability since 1836. Just make sure you avoid one of those shows where the actors come into the audience. This tactic, sadly, is the theatre equivalent to cinema’s 3D.

UPDATE (09/16/2012): In my post, I propose a new field of study, which I call Cinematic Science. Little did I know when I first wrote and published the post, such a field already exists. In fact, I recently came across The Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image (SCSMI), which has been promoting research on the psychology of moviegoing since the late 1990s.

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