- 07 September 2010
- By John Howell
A few weeks after James Cameron released his science fiction blockbuster Avatar in December 2009, following 10 years of perfecting the camera technology to make it all happen, his self proclaimed 3D renaissance was at its peak. Making the most financially successful film in history made studios, producers and other film directors sit up and take notice. Everyone wanted a piece of the 3D action and the announcements of upcoming 3D films came thick and fast.
Since Avatar however 3D films have not lived up to their original promise. In fact, the 3D effects in many recent films have been their worst feature — Clash of the Titans, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Shrek Forever After and The Last Airbender are cases in point. Badly applied 3D effects with dim footage and blurred motion can ruin a film that would have been better off remaining in two dimensions.
How long will it take before studios realise that 3D does not guarantee box office success (or even maximise it) and start to pull back from investing in 3D in the first place? How long before 3D generally is viewed as a distraction rather than an addition (a possible nausea inducing distraction at that). How long before audiences decide that paying even a small amount extra to see a film in 3D is just not worth it? Certainly a lack of 3D has not stopped directors like Christopher Nolan from making vast sums of money: Inception is one of the biggest hits this year.
Apart from Avatar, I have yet to watch a single film that has made good use of 3D effects. And where are the serious dramas in 3D? If it's not just a gimmick or a novelty why have we yet to see other mainstream directors (not working in science fiction and fantasy where its application seems obvious) embrace the technology?
A recent article in The Australian newspaper quoted film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, who recognises the recent resurgence in 3D as a pattern from the past.
"In 1953 when the first 3D craze erupted, Jack L. Warner made exactly the statements we've been hearing lately, predictions that in the future all films will be in 3D," Maltin said. "He even used that as the rationale to shut down Warner's famous cartoon department. Six months later, he decided he was wrong."
The article also quotes the entertainment website The Wrap which claimed that "No matter how it's spun, the data on the expected 3D explosion just isn't going in the right direction". The article then provides a breakdown of the diminishing returns from recent 3D films.
I get the impression that the 3D novelty is gradually wearing off, with the possibility that studios will follow audiences as 3D becomes an unwanted, unnecessary and incredibly costly filmmaking accessory. It's easy to forget that the whole 3D craze has appeared numerous times in the past and just as quickly vanished. Remember Jaws 3D in 1983? Friday the 13th in 3D? Even further back, the legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock shot Dial M for Murder in 3D in 1954 (the first time 3D became popular) only to release it in 2D at its New York opening because he was so displeased with the result.
Perhaps the unfulfilled potential and lacklustre application of 3D effects in recent films is why James Cameron is so openly critical of a recent 3D release, the pulpish horror spectacular, Piranha 3D: Cameron recognises the danger of inferior 3D films flooding the market and putting people off. In an interview with Vanity Fair, while discussing the Avatar re-release, he savaged the film.
"I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3D horror films from the 70s and 80s, like Friday the 13th 3D. When movies got to the bottom of the barrel of their creativity and at the last gasp of their financial lifespan, they did a 3D version to get the last few drops of blood out of the turnip. And that's not what's happening now with 3D. It is a renaissance—right now the biggest and the best films are being made in 3D. Martin Scorsese is making a film in 3D. Disney's biggest film of the year—Tron: Legacy—is coming out in 3D. So it's a whole new ballgame."
Interestingly, Movieline got in touch with Piranha 3D producer, Mark Canton, who responded to Cameron and added his own opinion on the place of 3D in film.
"His comments are ridiculous, self-serving and insulting to those of us who are not caught up in serving his ego and his rhetoric," Canton said.
"Let's just keep this in mind Jim...", he continued, "you did not invent 3D. You were fortunate that others inspired you to take it further. The simple truth is that I had nothing but good things to say about Avatar and my own experience since I actually saw it, and didn't damn someone else's talent publicly in order to disassociate myself from my origins in the business from which we are all very fortunate. To be honest, I found the 3D in Avatar to be inconsistent and while ground breaking in many respects; sometimes I thought it overwhelmed the storytelling. Technology aside, I wish Avatar had been more original in its story."
Canton went on to highlight that the different budgets filmmakers receive may be a factor.
"It is garbage to suggest that any film or any filmmaker who cannot afford to work to your standards should be dissuaded from following his or her craft by not making 3D movies.
"3D unto itself is not a genre Jim, it is a tool that gives audiences an enhanced experience as they experience all kinds of movies."
This argument between Cameron and Canton to me highlights why 3D may be in for a slow and painful death, even with the rise of the 3D Televisions and the continued growth of 3D equipped theatres. If it takes a significant budget to get it right (and let's face it, after Titanic, Cameron could have almost any budget he asked for) then only the mega blockbusters will have the chance to apply 3D in a way that will excite audiences, rather than annoy or distract them. Because of this, studios will discover that adding 3D does not necessarily create bigger audiences and larger returns, and they'll go back to focusing on actors, directors and standard special effects at the expense of scripts as they normally do. I may be jumping the gun, but if the 3D films I've watched lately are any indication, 3D is slowly dying. No one is getting it right and the hype will eventually fade. I guess only time will tell.
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