Towards a 3D Aesthetic


“The cinema of the future will be in colour and three dimensions, since life is in colour and three dimensions,” said Erich Von Stroheim, probably adding, “and everyone will wear authentic period underwear.” First, let me say that Von’s well-documented knicker fetish may have been in operation when he insisted on his extras wearing the right undies, but the right underclothes affect how the outer clothes appear, and so he wasn’t being crazy or perverse to insist on absolute authenticity. I imagine in 3D it would be even more important. Oh yes, 3D, that’s what I was supposed to be writing about.

In AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, there’s an action sequence in which one of the youngsters is pursued by an alien shark-thing. What makes it particularly effective is the way our cyanated hero hides amid coral outcrops which the predatory fish tries to bash through. Whenever 3D is particularly effective, it gives us a clue as to what it might be FOR. Here, we have a situation in which at least three visual layers are dramatically activated — the hero’s, the shark-thing’s, and the intervening coral, for starters. The far distance is a passive element but does add immersion. Also, we’re literally immersed, underwater you know — so there’s the possibility for floating particles and smaller fish to decorate the frame and keep our eyeballs excited, And, as the hero swims backwards away from the threat, the camera moves with him and so new coral outcrops come heaving into view, surprising us.

Two things are happening — the concept of DEPTH is important to the action — the distance between blue boy and shark-thing is an actual matter of life and death — and the excitement is enhanced by a lot of foreground and midground activity.

It’s a shame that the talkie scenes in ATWOW are so choppy and random, because it seems to me that at least some of the same principles could be enlisted for dramatic dialogue sequences.

Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER tries to keep its long expository scenes lively by enlisting the foreground — there are more shots from behind lamps here than in THE IPCRESS FILE, and with seemingly less reason. TIF was a spy film, so the camera behaved like a spy. DMFM is a filmed play, and so Hitch settles for reminding us of the 3D to get a “you are there” quality, suggesting but not actually recapturing the thrill of live performance. But in the standout scene, the murder attempt on Grace Kelly, again depth becomes almost a character — the would-be strangler lurks behind her, murderous sash in hands, but she’s holding the telephone to her ear and he has to wait until her hand’s out of the way.

I promise this isn’t just a list of cool 3D sequences. It IS that, but each of them is nudging us towards an appreciation of what the form can do. I’m also going to mention some flat scenes that seem like they might work really well with the added dimension.

The AVATAR film has a lot of forwards camera movement. This is pretty effective in a forest, but sideways movement — as I pointed out regarding FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN — can be better. (I tend to suspect the film’s visual pleasures derive more from Antonio Marghertiti than from credited helmer Paul Morrissey.) The thing about forward movement is that it already feels three dimensional, because of the way the perspective changes. An exponential zoom or trombone shot might look really neat though. In Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT a sudden lateral tracking shot in a forest sets of a shimmer of captivating motion, because the foreground trees are passing the camera rapidly, the midground ones more slowly, and the far distant ones slower still. The different layers overtaking one another. It’s rapturous. I don’t want upscaling to 3D, but I do want filmmakers to borrow the right kinds of scenes for new 3D movies.

(Welles doesn’t NEED 3D, his films are so lively, dimensional, vigorous in all their pan-focus deep staging, but it’s fascinating to imagine what he might have come up with. The Michael Redgrave curiosity shop in ARKADIN would be momentous in depth.)

The Wim Wenders production CATHEDRALS OF CULTURE dealt with “the soul of buildings” — lots of tracking shots down hallways, none of them very effective — until we got a curved hallway, and then things got interesting. So it seems that straightahead single vanishing-point shots of the Kubrick variety are less effective than oblique, curving approaches. Ophuls would be the guy to look at for inspiration, or the Italians.

“The best inside-a-mouth shot I ever saw was in JAWS 3D,” said Martin Scorsese in Edinburgh, “A shark eating its victim, filmed from the inside, in 3D — a new low in taste!” And I believed him, until a friend told me it was the one effective spot in the film — a diver is swallowed whole and trapped in the shark — if he tries to swim out, he’ll be bitten in two. It puts you on the spot. And apparently Cameron’s seen that one, because he has a protag swim into a whale-thing’s mouth in ATWOW, there to mind-meld with its Day-Glo epiglottis.

My favourite shot in Joe Dante’s THE HOLE is when a kid lies on his back and throws a baseball in the air, catching it, re-throwing it. The camera is overhead, so the ball flies towards us, runs out of momentum, pauses, and drops away again. It provoked a gleeful reaction from the audience. It’s sort of decorative, I guess, but it’s not only permissible but desirable for a filmmaker to explore the visual possibilities of a situation. 3D seems to kick in on the second or third film, once the filmmakers’ have gotten used to it and have worn out the obvious ploys. Dante had shot a stereoscopic funfair ride prior to this one. Other filmmakers who have paid more than one visit to the third dimension are Cameron, Fleischer, Oboler, Arnold, Ridley Scott. Not sure Zemeckis ever improved. One issue is that the medium, if that’s what it is, hasn’t always been in the hands of the most expressive or adventurous filmmakers. William Castle! Lew Landers! Pete Walker! Harry Fucking Essex!

Throwing things at the audience has never really been the best way to get an effect. In CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, the best stuff tends to be slower — the slo-mo explosion at the start is exciting because you have time to appreciate the balletic motion of the rocks tumbling at you through space — it looks forward to the joy of GRAVITY, still the best 3D movie I’ve seen. All the same, I feel sorry for the creature.

(My enjoyment of moving vehicles in ATWOW doesn’t extend to the boat in CREATURE, probably because it’s standing still in front of a rear projection screen — the action feels like a couple of flat layers, something you might see in a toy theatre.)

Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic was the first film I ever saw in 3D that actually made me flinch, whenever bits of tiny space shrapnel zinged past. Interestingly, they got the effect by NOT firing them right at me. I was involuntarily blinking, and having more fun doing so than I ever did in a real life experience. But the movie’s true pleasure was in slower action — when Sandra Bullock, spacewalking, is in danger of losing a vital tool, Fiona actually reached up to grab the astro-spanner or whatever it was before it escaped. One again, space and distance were dramatically in play, and the 3D enhanced the fact.

A sequence that would work magnificently in three dimensions is the attack on the big car in Cuaron’s previous CHILDREN OF MEN. It’s already a (fake) long take, an aesthetic that suits the medium, not for the moving camera aspect so much as for the pleasure of looking at depth photography for long enough to appreciate its visual pleasures. And it’s a moving vehicle interior, something that works magnificently in ATWOW for the few seconds Cameron allows us in his helicopter gunships. It’s slightly mysterious already how Cuaron’s long take seems to enhance the terror of the occupants of the besieged car — maybe it has more to do with the fact that we don’t go outside, so we really feel trapped in the situation. The long take becomes an excuse for an excitingly restricted viewpoint. In 3D, we’d have all kinds of moving parts on different planes, mindblowing overstimulation for the eyeball combined with panicky confinement and a lot of urgency from the cast of actors we’re locked in with.

Scorsese may be the most visually imaginative director to use 3D, perhaps next to Godard (I’ve never had a chance to see ADIEU AU LANGAGE in 3D and get the headache JLG planned for me). I love HUGO — maybe it’s seriously imperfect as a film but it gets value for money from it’s visual depth. Lots of cinders and dust motes in the air — lovely. Two great close-ups, one where Sacha Baron Cohen looms ever closer to us, his nose an accusation, another where we move slowly in on Ben Kinglsey, his face becoming more and more dimensionally solid, hovering before us, enormous, like one of those Easter Island jobs but alive and responsive. You get to experience a very very familiar thing, the human face, in a new way — and seeing things afresh is a big part of what art is about.

It’s possible Scorsese was influenced by the opening of William Camron Menzies’ THE MAZE, in which a female narrator talks to camera while slowly advancing upon us. It gets increasingly freaky but also hilarious. It would be interesting to see more deliberately funny 3D — I wonder what could be done with visual gags. Keaton, Lester and Tati sometimes made comedy about the camera’s INABILITY to correctly judge distance: Buster would make mistakes like jumping on the wrong horse which only make sense from the camera’s position, not from his. I wonder what he might do with a genuine sense of depth?

Height may be the dimension filmmakers forget about. The early desert landscapes of Douglas Sirk’s TAZA, SON OF COCHISE are breathtaking, because they arrange the action in cascading planes / plains. The scene with the lineman up the pylon in Jack Arnold’s IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE are similarly thrilling — Arnold, not normally the most inventive filmmaker, was sensitive enough to keep learning, and he got to make more 3D movies in the 50s than just about anyone. Something about these high angles really works for me — a sense of vertigo, dramatic space, multiple active layers.

I’m still cross I never got to see PINA in 3D — I suppose I could have forgone my snobbery and seen one of those other 3D dancing films. It seems like a good medium for dance, though KISS ME KATE doesn’t prove anything either way. It’d be a great medium for scultpure also, but so far the closest thing to that is Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, which gets most of its best effects out of the shallow curvature of cave walls, a lovely and counterintuitive exploitation of the medium’s possibilities. In a flat film, camera movement makes sculpture appreciable, but 3D would work very nicely with or in place of tracking shots. Somebody should have done Henry Moore.

The pornographers were not slow to seize upon the form, but without any distinguished results that I’m aware of. It seems possible that 3D could amplify what Billy Wilder called “flesh impact.” The kind of shot that would work would be Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in DR. NO. A variation on the sculptural principle. Just as good with men — Daniel Craig would do well. And the sculptural approach could enhance physiognomic interest, as we see in HUGO. A long examination of an interesting face — Brendan Gleeson would be a gift to the stereographer. Linda Hunt. A few young actors are also interesting, even if their features lack the distinguishing crenellations: Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Or Beany and Cecil?

What this seems to show is that the uses of 3D might be quite specific. I think James Cameron imagines, like Stroheim, that all movies should be 3D movies. But we don’t want to go to the trouble of putting the specs on for just anything (I see they finally invented clip-ons for glasses wearers like me — the medium finally catches up with its audience’s needs, just before it rolls over and dies). I’d say that if a film naturally has a few highlights that really benefit from a 3D approach, it might be worth going that route, and then modifying the script slightly to make sure there are more worthwhile opportunities.

Without getting too silly about it.


23 Responses to “Towards a 3D Aesthetic”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Godard’s “Adieu au langage” was what convinced me that 3D cinema had a future. Seeing that at the Mumbai festival was a thrilling experience. As Craig Keller said at the time, Godard invented a new kind of shot for that film. Combining static shots with movements by overlaying both cameras at once.

    The movie is still Godard, dense and impenetrable. But it’s not a long movie. So it’s worthwhile seeing it if you get a chance. HUGO is the finest narrative mainstream 3D movie of course.

    It’s weird to realise that Cameron is the only contemporary revolutionary film maker. Avatar literally made 3D mainstream overnight and that continues to this day. He got Scorsese and Godard to make movies that wouldn’t exist without Avatar.And yet Avatar isn’t great and 3D didn’t really create the stereoscopic auteurist revival promised. It’s both more and less than the 3D fad of the 1950s.

  2. I wonder if Sacha Baron Cohen would have been cast in HUGO had Martin Scorsese seen ‘Allo ‘Allo?

  3. “Jeanne Dielman” in 3D, or some yet-to-be devised process whereby a movie can gradually move into (or out of) 3D, would be staggering.

    Everything great about 3D is going to seem counterintuitive, I bet.

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I think the 3D revolution fizzled out precisely for the impossibility of doing Jeanne Dielman on 3D. The cameras never got that cheap. Godard tried to make it happen with Adieu au langage of course. But certainly his fame and prestige helped with that project in a way it wouldn’t for any young director starting out (Chantal Akerman was almost entirely unknown when Jeanne Dielman came out and remained obscure for a decade or more).

    The French New Wave is of course about style and ideas but it was largely driven by film equipment becoming cheap, whether it’s the Eclair cameras or the Nagra recorder, or lighting becoming affordable. And maybe it’ll take CGI and 3D tech getting cheap for any change there.

  5. Other problems were that, early on, smaller films couldn’t get 3D screens, the arthouse cinemas didn’t always support them, a good part of the arthouse audience wasn’t interested, and even the Marvel/DC films didn’t find interesting ways to use 3D to make people feel like paying extra. A three-hour explosion-fest is headache-inducing enough without stereographic assistance.

    I think shooting 3D with two camera strapped together, as JLG did, is quite cheap. Not sure about postproduction but that’s all just tech stuff, probably not too pricey, and for those with software prowess potentially quite achievable. But then maybe you don’t get to show the film anywhere?

  6. The New Jersey revival house where I worked as an usher in 1973-4 had occasional 3-D midnight shows‐- the Canadian curiosity “The Mask,” the print of which shipped with a large box of the old cardboard 3-D glasses with one blue & one red ‘lens.’ These looked nothing like the cool goggles distributed on first release; they were exactly like the glasses bound into black & white 3-D comic books. And like those, they worked far better than expected. In theory you were supposed to dump your used glasses in a thoughtfully provided receptacle, but our midnight show audiences turned up wearing the glasses at subsequent, non-3D, midnight shows for weeks thereafter.

  7. The Mask is pretty nifty – I wish Vorkapich had charge of more movies! And I wish the story was more bizarre and interesting, to go along with his imagery.

  8. (second attempt to post, so this may be duplicated)

    Recall some local theaters briefly had special seats you could book, designed to move and rock in sync with noisy action flicks. Had this caught on, one wonders if filmmakers would find a way to use seat movement to non-literal effect, like music. Small, sudden twitches or vibration to induce anxiety, for example. Or a woozy “floating” movement to evoke disorientation or perhaps mellowness. Or tilting to lean a viewer into the image or away from it, imposing intimacy/identificaion or emotional distance.

  9. I recently saw a screening of the inexplicably 3D “I the Jury,” hosted by Eddie Muller. The 3D felt alienating rather than immersive, maybe because you don’t really want to be in the same world as Biff Elliot and company. You could get hurt, and you’d definitely get ridiculous.

  10. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Just found a dozen of your chiselings no longer available on old Chiz site will run soon, maybe give you the WHOLE issue — THE EVERGREEN INFINITE AND ETERNAL CHISELINGS OF THE SCOTTISH MOOK!

  11. Thanks, I think!

  12. the most effective 3-d movie i’ve seen was a three stooges with a huge hypodermic needle that came out of the screen and poked me in the eye. i think there was a gorilla in it.

  13. In the needle?

  14. As a kid I saw the movie-ization of the original Battlestar Galactica, supposedly in Sensurround. I remember it was VERY loud and gave me a headache. I don’t know if the seats vibrated but my ribs did.

    I would like to see I the Jury in 3D…

  15. i knew i should have clarified that after i wrote it… a gorilla in the movie, not in the syringe

  16. First 3-D film I ever saw was The Mask (Croydon ABC, early 1970s) Whenever the voice said “Put on the mask…” you would have to put on your 3-D specs. When I first saw Flesh for Frankenstein (a cinema in Old Compton Street in Soho, early 1970s) it was a) heavily edited, so you didn’t get to see the full spilled entrail effect, and b) with the 3-D incorrectly projected, so everyone in the audience came away with a headache; wasn’t until the 1990s that I caught up with a decent 3-D print at the NFT and realised how beautiful it was. I remember a great 3-D kung-fu film called Dynasty, which of course was full of thrown spears, thrown coins, flying guillotines, severed heads etc. Best 3-D I’ve seen recently was in Oz the Great and Powerful, where Sam Raimi knew exactly what he was doing. (I like that film more than most.) Imagine the tornado scene in 3-D!

  17. Though it may not be singular cinema, I think my favorite use of 3D was actually the film Dredd. It was only used whenever the movie moved into the perspective of someone who took a specific drug, and the 3D was paired with extremely slow motion.

    It was certainly distinctive, I’ve seen the movie without 3D since its premiere, and it really is a lesser experience.

  18. We had an first-run theater, once a Cinerama dome, that backed onto an old residential neighborhood. When they showed “Midway” in Sensurround the neighbors complained about the vibrations. I think the entire concept was volume.

  19. I saw Oz, enjoyed it, and remember nothing about the 3D. Did Raimi’s Dr Strange sequel appear in 3D? Should have gone to see it, if only for nostalgia. And regret missing Dredd on the big screen, I didn’t like it all that much when I saw it on DVD, but it was OK, and it looked lovely.

    Haven’t seen any Chinese or Japanese 3D movies, I can imagine them being very good! There are a few Russian ones too…

  20. After 3-D and Sensurround presumably we’ll get the “feelies” from Brave New World.

  21. 3D seems a more natural development, like stereo sound and colour, because it does involve the two main senses used in movie-going.

  22. Simon Kane Says:

    The huge problem for me with 3D is that – unlike real 3D – the camera still controls the focus, not your eye, even when, as in Avatar, the environments are completely computer generated, so nothing actually has to be blurry. The result is that it actually feels more fake to me than 2D. “Polar Express” was the first, and in hindsight maybe only moment I was gleefully conscious of moving my attention from something in the foreground (a ticket trapped in a vent) to something in the background of my own free will, rather than having the cameras’ focus dictate what my own tow eyes should be doing. It was also the first time I’d seen the Northern Lights in 3D, and realised was a thing.
    The only other time I really felt I was enjoying the benefits of 3D was Tron Legacy. Directed by an architect, its use of glass walls and reflections created astonishing compositions completely unique to the medium.
    (That said, my Dad has a 3D projector and has just showed me one of the Three Stooges 3D efforts. It is exactly what you would expect. Every single blow and finger now aimed directly at the viewer. Practically Twin-Peaks-the-Returnion in its reframing.)

  23. I recall one big focus pull in ATWOW which doesn’t really work, and several in Tim Burton’s ALICE which were awful, and would still be awful flat. It’s perfectly possible (if tricky) to do deep focus in 3D, and that’s when it tends to work. Or you can have Hitchcock’s lampshades, which don’t need to be totally sharp because the audience isn’t going to prefer them to looking at Grace Kelly.

    Yours is the second vote for the Stooges short, I think I can get my hands on it, maybe…

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