The “debate” over 3D has become a polarized polemic, a one-dimensional (sorry) and mind numbingly boring exchange of “3D sucks” “no you suck” back and forths. It gives “film vs. digital” a good run for the title of “discussion I’d most rather chew my own foot off than get sucked into on twitter.” So why am I writing about it? Because even as the debate has (sorry again) flattened, my feelings about stereoscopic photography have grown more complex and nuanced. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, technically or otherwise, but I’m setting down my current thoughts just to get them in order, and posting them for anyone who’s interested. If even one foot chewing incident is prevented or delayed, I’ll be happy.
One of the most provocative claims from the pro-3D camp is one I actually agree with, and I’ll sum it up in two closely related statements:
1. 3D is the future of cinema.
2. The introduction of stereoscopic photography is analogous to the introduction of color.
I agree with both of these statements.
I will also never shoot stereoscopic. I actively avoid seeing most stereoscopic movies. Generally speaking, I don’t like stereoscopic photography.
Most of what I’m about to write is concerned with why I don’t consider this a contradiction.
"It’s like seeing a moving sculpture of the actor and it’s almost like a combination of theatre and film … it immerses you in the story more"
That’s Martin Scorsese, waxing eloquent about stereoscopic photography at this year’s CinemaCon. Well respected filmmakers have been praising stereoscopic for years, and it seems like every month there’s another venerated convert to the format. None of it has ever held any water for me, simply because what they describe does not match up with my personal experience, and with what I see on the screen. To my eye stereoscopic does not create living sculptures, it creates artificial dioramas. It doesn’t immerse, it distances. This disconnect has always made claims like these from even the best filmmakers seem like crazy talk to me, and I had learned to dismiss them without much thought.
But I couldn’t dismiss Martin Scorsese. So I gave it some thought, and instead of letting the disconnect stop my thought process, I began thinking about the disconnect. That led to a modest revelation: if Scorsese’s words had fallen through a time wormhole and dropped into the ears of my 17 year old self, that is to say if I had heard the effects of this technology described without ever having actually seen it in practice, and if Scorsese’s words had been not a faulty description of what’s here but a promise of what’s to come, I would have been (to use the parlance of my 17 year old self) psyched.
Banish stereoscopic from your head and imagine what Scorsese is describing. Don’t think about the muddy, eyeball-half-nelsoning reality of stereoscopic movies, but just focus on what he’s talking about. If you can do that, it’s hard to not be thrilled by the possibilities.
I recently saw an exhibit of work by the artist Patrick Jacobs. Jacobs creates sophisticated miniature landscapes that are viewed through keyhole-like lenses of warped glass. You can see photos of his exhibits here but nothing can really communicate the experience of looking through one of these things. It had a profound effect on me. It was an artificial unreality brought to life through the heightened illusion of depth, captured and contained in a circle.
Looking through this portal, I could imagine what Scorsese described - true depth neatly contained in a frame, feeling the shape of a face, or the scope of a landscape. The reality of stereoscopic dropped away and my mind opened to an understanding of what an organic sense of depth applied to a moving picture would feel like. And he’s right, it’s the next step. It would really be the future of cinema.
Suddenly the analogy to the advent of color in film took on a new dimension, and seemed absolutely (even bizarrely) perfect.
Hugo is a beautiful film. It not only uses stereoscopic photography in artful and inventive ways, but more importantly (for me) it contextualizes 3D in the development of cinema. By connecting stereoscopic photography with the prestidigitation of Georges Méliès, it presents it not as a technical destination but as a pioneering invention grasping for the seemingly impossible. It also triggered another minor revelation in my 3D thinking.
3D is absolutely analogous to the development of color film, and on that developmental timeline stereoscopic photography is the equivalent of hand-painting color onto black and white frames.
This perspective gives (for me at least) a vantage point to finally appreciate and enjoy stereoscopic photography. Hand painted color is a beautiful and wondrous thing. The aesthetic effect is unique and unworldly, but the most profoundly affecting aspect is the Icarus-like striving of this primitive and back-breakingly labor intensive process to reach the next height of what film is capable of. That is everything I love about Méliès, about film, and if we want to get unnecessarily grand (and after that Icarus invocation why the hell not) about the human race. On that level it is evocative and beautiful, even if on a literal level it has as much to do with color in the real world as stereoscopic photography has to do with our mind’s true perception of depth.
Practically, the nuance and texture of a monochromatic frame from Sunrise evokes the colors of a moonlit field with more fidelity than the striking but flat color of a hand painted frame. Similarly, the cues that traditional photography uses to communicate depth are infinitely more effective and true to life than the garish and forced methods of stereoscopic. I subscribe to Chris Nolan’s recent assertion that calling stereoscopic photography “3D” is a “misnomer.” Yes we have two eyes, but our brain is not a camera, and it does not keep us constantly aware of the vertigo-inducing separation of depth between foreground and background, but uses that information to make us aware of that depth. Anyway this is whole other essay, but for reasons that have been better stated by more technical minded folks than myself, it’s my view that the world as we see it through our eyes is much closer to a traditional “flat” frame than a “3D” stereoscopic one.
To dig deeper into the analogy, the eventual development of realistic color in motion pictures was not the result of artists getting better at hand painting film strips. I don’t think the development of 3D will be significantly forwarded by artists “learning to use” the current technical model of stereoscopic properly, or refining how they dial it in. Technicolor was not a refinement of hand painting, it was a completely new technology. It was a different thing. I have no idea what it will be, what form it will take, where it will come from or when it will arrive, but I believe a similar quantum leap to a new technical way of capturing depth on recorded media will be what actually brings us into the 3D age. It’s going to happen.
Until then, it’s nice to let go of the notion of a debate, and (even as I drive 20 minutes out of my way to see the “2D” version of the latest big movie) to be happy appreciating stereoscopic for what it is and for the things it reaches for, and also for the things it portends.
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