The Third Dimension

Last night while my wife enjoyed a girly night in with a friend, I indulged my inner 10-year-old and went to see Journey to the centre of the Earth – 3D. Apart from wanting to experience the pleasures of an old-fashioned gee-whiz adventure story, I was interested to see what state-of-the-art digital 3D cinema looked like. The Kinepolis cinema on the outskirts of Brussels has been showing various Hollywood blockbusters via digital projection for some time now, and the improved image quality is noticeable: no more focus problems, or that slight wobble and colour shift as they switch reels, and the subtitles are clean and legible, rather than looking like they’ve been stencilled directly onto the film cel.

I took a pair of glasses and sat down. The glasses were light enough and transparent (no red and green lenses these days), although the lenses seemed slightly smeared, despite the announcement before the film assuring us that all glasses were collected and washed at the end of every showing. I wiped them on my jumper but they still weren’t as clear as I’d have liked. Maybe it’s also because I’m not used to wearing glasses in general, but I’d have preferred a more wrap-around style, so that I wouldn’t be constantly aware of the edge of the glasses out of the corner of my eye, slightly distracting from the image in front of me.

I’d seen a couple of 3D films before – one a short underwater documentary in a French theme park sometime in the mid-80s, I think, and another tourist-style trip through New York, seen on an IMAX screen in London in the late 90s. So this was the first feature-length fiction film i’ve seen in this format.

Last night’s film followed in a proud tradition of deliberately poking things into the camera at various points throughout the story (and characters spit water at the camera on two separate occasions), which is obviously a little distracting as it’s more about saying “Look! 3D!” rather than having anything to do with the story. By way of an analogy, imagine a director so excited about shooting a film in colour that he keeps putting brightly-coloured objects in the foreground as if to say “Ooh! look – RED! And look at that – it’s bright green!”.

Another problem is how it affects traditional film grammar. All new developments in film technology and technique initially have an adverse effect on other parts of the process. When sound came in the camera stopped moving so that everyone could stand still and talk into the large, static microphones. When colour was introduced it affected lighting, often making films brighter so that you could see all those lovely hues properly, and when the screen stretched to the Cinemascope ratio editing was reduced as directors realised that they could simply put everyone in the same frame all in a line rather than cutting between close-ups. And I think editing is the problem here – the dimensional aspect of this kind of film is the main selling point, but when you get that much deeper into an image it also makes it that much more jarring when you cut to something else, whether it’s a fast-cut action scene of intercutting between talking heads.

And this is the final problem – how and when to use 3D. No technique is inherently good or bad in and of itself; the tricky part is to use your skill and judgment to use the appropriate technique for the film you’re trying to make. We’ve all seen films with excessive or inappropriate use of CGI, handheld cameras, fast-cutting and so forth, which can lead to a demonisation of the technique itself. I have no problem with 3D per se, and it can be thrilling when done right, but at the end of the day I don’t think this apsect of the movie really made me enjoy it any more. Seeing it in 2D would have been pretty much the same experience. I can understand James Cameron using it for his kind of films, which are all about immersing you in a strange new environment (he says that he’s only ever going to shoot in 3D from now on, including, he joked, his home videos of his daughter’s birthday parties), but intimate dramas? 3D won’t help me empathise with a character or become involved in a plot. Jeffrey Katzenberg recently made some rather idiotic comments about how in 10 years time 2D cinema will be dead and everything will be in 3D. Yeah, and TV was supposed to kill off cinema too, wasn’t it?

3D issues aside it was an enjoyable and funny film, with a heartening “Science is fun (and useful)” theme and several subtle reminders that Jules Verne’s book is worth a read too, even if it’s not in 3D. Plus there was a lovely Icelandic mountain guide who was obviously there, as they say, “for the dads“.