Film Fund-amentals: Should We Hate 3-D?

Roger Ebert says we should hate 3-D. He says so in a subtle essay slyly entitled Why I Hate 3-D. Ebert blames the process for everything from medical aliments to a disruption in the spatial/dimensional field of the universe (or was that in an episode of Dr. Who?).

But mostly, we all hate 3-D for the amount of time and attention it has forced from anyone involved in movie analysis. Jeffrey Katzenberg has convinced most of Hollywood that 3-D is the immediate future and will achieve wonders at the box office, stir audience passion and bring about an age of global peace and prosperity. Well, he has just about been that giddy on the whole thing.

Both sides have points in their favor. Relatively minor and unimportant points. Basically, Ebert just doesn’t like the process and Katzenberg is simply nuts about the whole thing. The truth is not to be found in the middle, but rather in a whole different location. Quite frankly, I find the issue to be a royal pain in the rear and I personally wish it would just go away (like it did in the 1950s). But it won’t this time. Modern media is headed toward many new forms, and this is one of the steps in that direction. Ironically, the current 3-D systems will all have a short shelf-life (the technology is already in the process of changing yet again). There is also the strange prospect that the process may have a negative financial effect on the entire film industry (especially in the short run).

First, it is useful to clear up some general misconceptions about the modern 3-D process. For all practical purposes, the modern process does not cause nausea and headaches (at least for the vast majority of viewers – Roger Ebert may be one of the few exceptions). Though Ebert makes this accusation, he basically admits that he’s referring to 3-D TV. This part is true. But heck, that is the least of your worries. The 3-D TV system also causes a sharp increase in exposure to various forms of electromagnetic radiation. That is slightly more serious than a mere headache. But this issue is with the TV system, not the theatrical form.

The potential problem with the theatrical 3-D process is to be found in perceptual psychology. Most versions of modern 3-D run at a high film speed. For example, the IMAX process runs at 48 frames per second rather than the traditional film speed of 24 fps. For anyone with a memory, think Showscan. Back in the 1980s, special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull created a process of screening movies at 60 fps. The main reason for this higher speed was that at that level, the human perceptual system could no longer distinguish between reality and the photographic image. That is why the public presentation for the Showscan system would start with a human presenter in front of the screen, and during the introduction the speaker would slip through a slit in the screen and be replaced by his own filmed image. The audience couldn’t tell the difference.

This is also one of the reasons why Avatar was a huge success. In the IMAX process, the movie was running right up to the border of this perceptual phenomenon. The alluring reality of another world comes through with a dreamlike and beguiling quality (less so in the 2-D version). For over two hours, the audience enters an alternate reality that’s better than the real world around them. The effect is almost like a legal drug experience.

Part of this is due to James Cameron’s masterful use of the process. But at 48 fps, even Bugs Bunny would look completely real. This raises a few question about possible addictive patterns among viewers. The best way I can at the moment explain this is by referring to the “Hollow Pursuit” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The story does a good job on the issue of technology and addictive behavior. Ironically, James Cameron’s original script for the movie Strange Days explored many of the same issues.

But there’s no need to get hysterical about an impending mental health crisis (heck, this is America and we’ve got plenty of those to go around). The possible financial crisis is potentially more lethal. The money question comes up at several levels with 3-D movies. The first level is deftly handled in a quick but witty video piece called The 3D Conspiracy by Grady Smith at The Box Office Junkie Blog. Except for ticket prices, his basic figures are correct. Since he originally posted the piece (back in January), ticket prices have risen several more times (especially for 3-D movies).

Likewise, there is currently a notable drop in ticket sales. Oh sure, every week we hear about the huge amounts made at the box office by the number one film. But look through the whole list. Virtually everything else is limping at the box office, and the gap between the top and the upper middle is growing wider every week. The beginning stages of this gap were noticeable last year. But starting with the first major wave of the 3-D blockbusters (Avatar and Alice in Wonderland), this pattern has become a harsh weekly fixture.

In a way, it isn’t surprising. Katzenberg may truly believe that moviegoers have an aggressive desire to pay top dollar for a quality presentation (see Grady’s video), but that is one of the reasons why he’s nuts. OK, maybe he isn’t nuts. Perhaps he just can’t read statistical data. But either way, he’s wrong. At best, they will once in a while pay top dollar for something deemed a special event, and then stay home for the rest of the season.

And everyone will eventually take a hit at the box office from this decline. Even Katzenberg.