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In a recent commentary posted at the Newsweek online Web site, legendary Chicago Sun-Times film critic and historian Roger Ebert has come out against 3D movies “as a way of life.”

Ebert posted nine reasons why “Why I Hate 3-D (And You Should Too),” decrying what he sees as a mad rush to make every new movie in 3D – and charge a hefty premium to ticket buyers along the way.

Read through the article, and you’ll see that some of his points are valid.  Not every movie needs to be released in this format, and there’s certainly no good reason to go back in time and re-master classics to 3D.  And cinematographers and directors have plenty of tricks they can and do use to create the illusion of depth in 2D movies, such as shallow focus and combining lens zooming with camera trucking (the famous ‘vertigo’ effect).

And yes, it is true that a certain percentage of the population cannot see 3D correctly for one reason or another. (I used to be a member of that group, until I had eye muscle surgery in the 1980s.)  And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of headaches from eyestrain as viewers tried to reconcile the vergence and focal distance of 3D effects. Think of the out-of-focus floating debris and dust after the Na’vi tree house collapsed in Avatar.)

But I have yet to pay a $5.00 ticket premium to see a 3D movie, let alone the $7.50 figure he quotes. (Where did that come from?) Our local Regal Entertainment multiplex charges $11.50 for a normal 2D release and $14.50 for the 3D version…a premium of $3.00.

Let’s go through his objections one by one.

1. IT’S THE WASTE OF A DIMENSION. I’m not sure what he means by this, but he uses the famous compressed long shot of Peter O-Toole approaching over the desert in Lawrence of Arabia as an example of a shot that wouldn’t be any better in 3D. I’ll rebut that statement with one of the most subtle but masterful 3D effects I’ve seen to date – the slow rack-focusing in the Avatar laboratory as Sam Worthington narrates his video log.

As objects come in and out of focus, they appear to expand into three dimensions, then flatten back into two dimensions. This is an incredibly subtle effect – you may even have missed it – but it is a perfect example of how 3D changes the look of a scene. And it’s my favorite type of 3D effect – low key, and not ‘in your face.’

Need something more compelling? How about the flight scenes in How to Train Your Dragon, which show 3D at its best? An exhilarating experience. ‘Nuff said!

2. IT ADDS NOTHING TO THE EXPERIENCE. Well, maybe not for My Dinner with Andre, or Claire’s Knee. But Dragon wouldn’t have been nearly the same movie without it. Neither would Avatar.  I will agree, though, that much of Alice in Wonderland benefited little from 3D – the best 3D effects were (ironically) the closing credits.

3. IT CAN BE A DISTRACTION. Yes, if done incorrectly. Cinematographers should understand the basics of human vision and how vergence and focal distances are resolved to create depth perception before attempting to shoot a 3D picture. The best 3D effects are subtle and mimic the human eye’s response to visual stimuli.

Rack focusing and shallow focus have long been tools for filmmakers to focus our attention on parts of a scene in a way we’d never seem them in real life. The same tools can be used in 3D (James Cameron really did his homework for Avatar) and they work just as effectively. The key is not to bludgeon the audience with 3D effects.

4. IT CAN CREATE NAUSEA AND HEADACHES. Yep, there are certainly people out there who just cannot 3D cues correctly, and as I stated earlier, I used to be one of ‘em. I suffered from a condition known as strabismus, where my eye muscles would not work correctly to converge and provide depth cues. In fact, my depth perception for a good part of my life was minimal and erratic.

After suffering through a double-image 3D film presentation of Captain EO at Disney World in 1984, I decided enough was enough and finally had the eye surgery. Now, I can see 3D effects just fine. But there are other people out there who still can’t handle them, and it appears some of them wear contact lenses (from my informal polling). Maybe prescription passive 3D glasses are the cure? In any event, these folks can enjoy the 2D release and save themselves three bucks.

5. HAVE YOU NOTICED THAT 3-D SEEMS A LITTLE DIM? A necessary evil. Projectors must toss half the light away as part of the polarizing process from camera to eyewear. The brightness issue varies from one projection system to another. In general, I’ve seen better results from Christie DLP projectors than the Sony SXRD models. But the theater is dark to begin with (ambient light isn’t an issue) and I can’t say I felt the 3D movies I’ve seen to date were too dark.

6. THERE’S MONEY TO BE MADE IN SELLING NEW DIGITAL PROJECTORS. Well, DUH! Of course there is. But the impetus to get rid of film projectors and go digital isn’t being driven solely by 3D.

Wake up, Roger! The world is embracing digital imaging with a flourish. You can buy 10 and 12 megapixel cameras for less than $300 now. That’s more resolution that you could ever get from Kodachrome 25! As a result, the market for photographic film is shrinking at an accelerated rate…and motion picture film is being similarly impacted. (Some analysts have given Kodak maybe another two to three years before declining revenue from film sales forces them to pull the plug entirely on the film manufacturing process. Fuji’s in the same boat)

Ten years ago, there were all kinds of arguments against digital cinema. Most of them were arguments based on opinions (digital cinema would never equal the image quality of projected film), but the most compelling were the economic arguments. And those arguments usually win the day.

Now, Hollywood is figuring out those same economics and embracing digital cinema. And while 3D works just hunky-dory with digital cinema projectors, there’s still at least one option for film-based 3D projection. I’m surprised Roger didn’t mention the Technicolor 3D process for film, announced last September at the 3D Entertainment Summit, which uses a split-prism lens mechanism and a top + bottom delivery format.

Even so, many of today’s movies are finished digitally anyway. A Digital Intermediate (DI) becomes the master file for the finished movie, and is used to strike release prints or make a digital release file. So the move to digital projection makes lots of sense.

7. THEATERS SLAP ON A SURCHARGE OF $5 TO $7.50 FOR 3-D. OK, where did those numbers come from? As I mentioned earlier, the most I’ve ever paid for a 3D ticket is $3 over the 2D price. And this was in first-run, stadium seating theaters. Guess I need to get out more?

8. I CANNOT IMAGINE A SERIOUS DRAMA, SUCH AS UP IN THE AIR OR THE HURT LOCKER, IN 3-D. OK, I’ll concede his point on Up In The Air. But Hurt Locker could have been even more intense in 3D.

Imagine the feeling when Jeremy Renner pulls on those wire igniters and six artillery shells slowly emerge from the gravel and dirt in 3D? Or he opens the trunk of the sedan parked outside the UN office to find it chock-full of rigged shells? How about those claustrophobic, tight camera close-ups when he’s frantically looking for the ‘dead man’ switch in that same car? You’d be sweating bullets, imaging you’re in the passenger seat and waiting for all hell to break loose any second.

9. WHENEVER HOLLYWOOD HAS FELT THREATENED, IT HAS TURNED TO TECHNOLOGY: SOUND, COLOR, WIDESCREEN, CINERAMA, 3-D, STEREOPHONIC SOUND, AND NOW 3-D AGAIN. No argument there. Hollywood has always been about giving moviegoers an experience they can’t have at home, which is one reason so many teenagers hang out at theaters on Friday and Saturday night. (Who wants to stay home and watch TV with mom and dad? Not cool!)

And what, exactly, is wrong with Hollywood trying something new? Look at all the good things that have come out of their efforts, such as surround sound and anamorphic widescreen formats for home viewing? In this way, theaters have become test labs for new entertainment technologies. And that’s always a good thing.

As for 3D, audiences will decide whether the format has legs, or whether it’s destined to become another short-lived fad like Senssuround and Smellavision. So far, audiences are voting with their wallets and saying they like 3D very much, thank you. The market will decide the winners, as it always does.

And I’m not surprised to see Ebert once again drag out his tired argument in favor of MaxiVision 48, a projection system that has been kicking around for more than a decade and for which studios have shown little interest. Theaters and studios haven’t embraced it simply because the momentum is now in favor of digital imaging, and it’s not likely you’d find any labs who’d want to invest in optical printers to master MaxiVision release prints…nor theater owners who’d want to install new film projectors. They can clearly see the writing on the wall.

By the way, Ebert doesn’t seem to have any problem with digital soundtracks, saying that digital audio makes the 48 frames-per-second MaxiVision possible. Well, if theater audio has gone 100% digital, then why stop there? The quality of digital projection has gone up immensely since the first demonstrations in the late 1990s, and I don’t see audiences complaining about a diminished experience from having watched 2D and 3D films digitally.

Times change, and so do entertainment experiences. While I respect Roger’s opinions and enjoy his reviews and articles, his reactionary stance against 3D movies comes as no surprise. He’s still living in 1999…

Posted by Pete Putman, May 3, 2010 10:51 AM

About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.