2D or 3D? A Tale of Two Movies

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June 5, 2013 by Ian Goldstein

By Rafael Chaiken



In the last five years, multiplex patrons have increasingly faced a choice rare for previous generations: Should they see a film in two or three dimensions? 3D promises a high-tech, immersive experience for a few extra dollars; 2D is a traditional presentation for a better value.

The decision is not always clear, as all 3D movies are not created equal. While some films use the technology to add a higher level of creativity to the visuals (think of Avatar, which jump-started the current digital 3D trend), 3D seems totally pointless in others (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 comes to mind). I was reminded of this by two movies I recently went to see, J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

I watched Star Trek in 3D because that was the only way it was showing at my neighborhood theater, an independent cinema that needs all the business it can get. I soon realized that this was a mistake. There were few scenes that exploited the third dimension in a creative way, and the presentation was a technical disaster. Not surprisingly given the title, Star Trek Into Darkness is a dark film, and 3D only made it darker. Since the image is split between two eyes and the glasses themselves block some light, RealD projection—the most popular 3D technology—is merely 35 percent as bright as traditional film. Hopefully theaters will eventually install brighter projectors to compensate for this flaw in the system.

The second technical issue was motion blur. The movie had many pans and other camera movements, and the 3D presentation made these seem blurrier than usual; this probably had to do with a reduced frame rate. Peter Jackson solved this problem by releasing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in a 48 frames-per-second version. Though it took about twenty minutes to get used to, the high frame rate added clarity and detail to the movie, and I look forward to other filmmakers following Jackson’s lead. James Cameron, for his part, plans to release the Avatar sequels in a similar format.

The final technical problem with Star Trek was purely the director’s fault. J. J. Abrams is infamous for overusing lens flare in his films. Abrams creates glare in the frame by shining bright off-screen lights at the camera, believing this gives his films a more “organic,” less digitally processed appearance. The blue glow obscuring parts of the image was especially grating in 3D. At first I thought it was a wayward reflection in my polarized glasses, but when I took them off the effect remained on the screen. Let’s pray that Abrams comes to his senses and tones down the lens flare in Star Wars Episode VII (scheduled for release in 2015).

After this experience I was wary of seeing another 3D movie, so I decided on a conventional presentation of The Great Gatsby. Unfortunately, this too seemed like a mistake. The film looked to be expressly and creatively designed to be seen in three dimensions. Credits zoomed in and out of the screen, the camera flew around computer-generated 1920s New York cityscapes, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words were superimposed over scenes of Nick Carraway furiously typing. Jay Gatsby’s opulent parties also had dazzling fireworks. 3D excels at showing vistas that recede into the distance, such as Gatsby’s dock and the Valley of Ashes (inspired by Queens’ Flushing Meadows). This imagery looked impressive in 2D, but not seeing it in 3D felt like missing out.

My disappointment with these two films could be dismissed as the “grass-is-always-greener” effect; the 2D/3D option, after all, gives moviegoers a reason to second-guess their choices. Yet I think it gets to a deeper reality about today’s cinema landscape—3D is a movie-making tool that can be used and abused, just like just any other. Some directors are more skilled at using 3D, others less so.

It’s easy to gripe about problems with 3D presentations, but we should be grateful that studios and exhibitors are giving us a choice at all. Hollywood could simply decide to release some movies exclusively in 3D, and they might make more money due to higher 3D ticket prices. 3D projection is maturing as a medium, and new technologies including higher frame rates promise that it will only improve over time. In the hands of a capable director, 3D can add a whole new dimension (pun intended) to the cinematic experience.

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