3D cinema? Possibly. 3D television? Please get real.

January 6, 2010

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Avatar and 3D: The future of cinema? Not so fast.

The film industry has been trying to push 3D on its customers for a while now, but it has just in the past year or so shifted that campaign into high gear. 2009 had a number of notable titles to be released in movie theaters in 3D (most of them CGI-animated productions that easily lend themselves to the 3D process because they are completely digitally created).

Now comes the 3D "game changer" behemoth: Avatar. This is going to be the movie that changes everything, right?

Well, not so fast.

Avatar is the first modern 3D feature film that I've seen. By "modern," I mean the sort of 3D by way of modern techniques like circular polarization, as opposed to those 1950s-style red/blue glasses.

Avatar is a wonderfully entertaining and unsubtle message movie and a visual achievement (and no, I will not be reviewing it), but I am not convinced that it needs to be seen in 3D. Granted, the 3D was pretty damn cool. There were scenes where you could literally focus on foreground objects on the screen as if they were really there, and then switch your focus to objects behind them, and the foreground object would go double, just like in real life. There are some breathtaking shots in 3D, where the experience becomes immersive. And impressive.

But overall, I found the 3D experience to be a bit of a wash. As good as it was, it did not always work in a convincing manner. Often I was too aware of the effect, or perhaps my brain's attempt to defeat it, or that certain shots simply weren't in 3D at all. As much as it was obvious that James Cameron was trying to treat 3D as simply a tool in the toolbox — instead of a gimmick for the sake of itself — the format itself unavoidably drew attention to itself. Perhaps part of it was me and the fact that this was the first 3D film I'd seen. But I was not so blown away that I think 3D is where movies need to go.

There's also the problem that the glasses, with their darkened tint, wash out some of the color and put up a barrier between you and the movie. It's not a serious problem, but it's definitely noticeable. I couldn't help but shake the feeling through much of the movie that a traditional 2D experience would've been brighter, more colorful, less distracting, and equally immersive, if not more so. I would be concentrating on the movie rather than the 3D experience.

Avatar, created at huge expense, is supposed to be the gold standard of 3D. And so it is; I believe that. But I'd hate to see the average 3D feature's attempt. Actually, I think I did, during the pre-Avatar trailers for, among others, Piranha 3D, which had characters zooming at you in an awful 3D effect that I liken to cardboard cutouts being hurled at a camera.

I hate to be the old fogey here, but I've got to side with Roger Ebert on this one. 3D is at best Avatar (where, to me anyway, it's something of a mixed bag — sometimes awesome, sometimes distracting — despite being the best of the best), or at worst it's a painfully obvious and obnoxious gimmick used to fleece you for an additional premium charge. It's obviously a viable platform the studios are going to use, but I have serious doubts that it's for me or even most people.

Now on to television.

I saw this piece, and when I read the quotes of the 3D TV advocates (i.e., people who stand to make money in an emerging venture), you see that this is a case of technology pushers being optimistic to the point of being delusional. These companies develop these things, it seems, as if they have no regard for an average customer's utility, or the existence of content to support their platforms. All they can seem to see is the next moneymaker by way of rushed technological innovation. (They aren't the only ones; apparently ESPN is committed to the concept of a 3D channel. Don't ask me how that could possibly work when many of ESPNHD's games are still clearly not even broadcast at full 1920x1080 resolution.)

These advocates are already predicting a future where all TVs will be 3D-capable. Says Rick Dean, director of the 3D@Home Consortium: "I think we've come to the end of the HD conversion. I'd say that technology is fairly well baked, the next big thing is about an enhanced experience into the home."

Excuse me? In what world do you live in? Because the world I live in is one where HDTV is still barely in mass adoption. Sure, everyone's getting HDTVs (now that they can't buy anything else) and most of the big-name networks have HD channels. But many consumers are still piping regular 480i analog cable into their HDTVs; many cable providers still only offer maybe 25 percent of their actual lineup in HD; you still go to bars and see football games broadcast in crappy-looking SD via HD flat-screen TVs; secondary TV markets still broadcast their local news and programming in 480i; and Blu-ray has just barely, finally become acceptably affordable (which is not at all the same as being "worth buying") to the average paying consumer. The "end of HD conversion"? Maybe in about 10 years.

I think HDTV is great and would never want to go back. But my problem with HDTV right now is that (1) not enough content is offered in HD by the cable distributors, and (2) the Blu-ray peddlers have the audacity to charge me a premium for HD content even now that HDTVs are all that you can buy (though that admittedly may be coming to an end soon, judging by how Blu-ray has been slashed in price over the past year).

And now these people want to ram 3D down our collective throats? I don't think so. Just because the technology exists doesn't mean people want it. (I sure don't, and I don't think I'm alone.) Advocates of 3D make the same mistake that many companies who push technology make: They think the technology drives the market, when in fact it's the consumer who drives the market. And then, after that, it's up to the content producers to supply enough software to make the hardware worth having.

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18 comments on this post


    The thing you're talking about has been in the news a lot lately (Kind of along the lines of were do we expect technology to go in the new decade) and frankly, it kind of scares me. I haven't gone to a 3D movie, and I don't know if I intend to mainly because I don't want to pay the extra costs and I don't like the idea of having to wear extra special glasses just to see a movie. Now I hear TV is moving in this direction and I have to wonder, are we going to be a society where everyone is just wearing the 3D glasses because it looks "kool." I sure hope I don't. I hope a lot of this is just talk and this slows down. I can understand people wanting to make money on something, but can anyone say "Fad." I think in a few years time we'll look back at this and just think that was all it was.

    "There's also the problem that the glasses, with their darkened tint, wash out some of the color and put up a barrier between you and the movie."

    That was my entire problem with the thing. Lovely effects in times, but I was so distracted by the darkened colours and the mere fact that I was wearing glasses (which I normally don't) that I found myself not enjoying the movie as much as I know I would have otherwise. Which has prompted me to go see it again next week, this time without the glasses.

    I saw the U2 3D movie/concert at an Imax theatre (see www.u23dmovie.com) , and I thought this was a fun and appropriate use of 3D. It's been a couple of years now, but I can recall thinking that I almost prefered the 3D movie to the real thing. It cost far less than an actual concert would have, the sound was amazing, and the "view" was far better than anything I could reasonable expect to achieve were I at the live event. Not to mention the fact that there weren't 40,000 people to deal with. Maybe I'm just getting older and grumpier, but for a concert experience, I thought the 3D movie experience was nice.

    For most movies and TV, I completely agree with you about the mis(use) of 3D.

    I caught a sneak peak of roughly 20 mins of Avatar back in October. The 3D aspect was interesting, but I didn't feel it was essential and I didn't enjoy wearing the glasses (especially over the glasses I already wear). I saw the full film in 2D and found it to be a fine experience just like that (my bones of contention with the movie are plot related).

    I'm with you that this isn't really the "future" of film or TV...it's not something everyone will embrace. I think of it as something akin to the introduction of eBooks...everyone assumed no one would want to buy a book anymore, but they are two very different experiences and it's unlikely print will be replaced anytime soon.

    I saw Avatar first in 2D and then later in 3D. Yes, the colours were a bit brighter without those glasses, but not much. I think the movie is perfectly enjoyable in 2D. There were a couple scenes that were definitely enhanced by the 3D experience (esp in the forest at night, or the marines all milling about). Most noticably, oddly enough, the photographies of Sigourney Weaver's character and the Na'vi children that were stuck to a locker door... I noticed that these pictures (themselves CGI) appear as standard 2D photographies in the 2D version, but in the 3D version, these photos are suddenly 3D, too, which is a very cool futuristic effect.

    Fortunately the glasses fitted over my normal glasses, but they were a bit distracting at first because of the thick frame fencing in my visual field.

    As for 3D television... why do we need that? I can enjoy old Carry Grant movies on TV without any 3D fancy stuff.

    I went to see the movie in 3D with some friends; found my eyes got tired after a while. Partly because you had to be looking at the screen, peripheral vision wouldn't give a clear image (nor can you take off the glasses, because then you got that bizarre double image). Could have been where I was sitting (middle near the front).

    If they're heading for TVs, they need some sort of toggle switch. I don't want 3D if I'm tired late at night, nor when watching scenes with great heights or roller coaster rides. I don't get nausea/vertigo seeing that in 2D, but it's happened in 3D/Imax before. I also agree that we're hardly saturated with HD yet.

    I disagree. It was for me also the first ever 3D movie I saw in theaters, and I too found it slightly distracting at times simply for that reason. But most of the time, it allowed total immersion in the most visually stunning cinematic experience of my life. 98.4% of the value of Avatar is in the visuals, and this is GREATLY enhanced by the 3d feature.

    And I also think they did succeed making 3D a real viable option for actual movies (not Spy Kids and that kind of crap). And 3D TV? Sign me up. (Don't actually, that sounds expensive, but if it comes with a standard cable package thats dandy!)

    I saw Avatar in 2D because I've never been able to see 3D right, save for one time with a show on a Smithsonian museum, and it was kinda wonky.

    As for 3D TV, no dice. The "Monsters v. Aliens" kiddie film had a DVD release which included a 3D animated short and glasses; couldn't see squat either.

    "Avatar" is the first movie I've seen in 3-D since the brief revival of the format in the 1980's ("Friday the 13th 3-D", anyone? Yeah, I thought not). I've never been a huge fan of the technology. That said, I thought that the technology on display in "Avatar" is pretty impressive. It's still not a completed technology, but what it is is quite cool, and I do look forward to the future of it in theatres.

    But for the home market? No. No one that I know, even hardcore movie lovers like me, want to sit around watching TV with 3-D glasses on, especially people who, again like me, wear regular glasses. I lost track of the glasses during "Avatar" after about fifteen minutes, but I can't see putting them on every time I want to watch TV.

    Oh, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought polarized "lenses" were always what was used for 3-D in movies? From what I remember, weren't the blue/red lenses exclusively for still pictures?

    TV is not a 'hot' medium like film is. When we have our televisions on, we're often chatting with other people, or getting up to get a drink or some food, or dealing with other noise and distractions that are occurring contemporaneously. It makes it hard to consider donning 3D glasses and really watching the content closely like we do with film. With a film we are in the cinema for a very specific purpose; we're not channel surfing, we're bolted into a time and place with a very specific purpose. By all means, put on the glasses when you're there; but I doubt you'll be focused enough to do it at home.

    Personally, I enjoyed the way Cameron employed 3D technology on Avatar. It works in 2D, but it gives deeper immersion with 3D. I believe the use of 3D should be kept limited to films that have that kind of visual scope. It works in short epic bursts, but I wouldn't want it becoming some sort of cinema standard.

    I saw Avatar twice. I didn't have the same headache the second time. It's a matter of becoming accostumed.

    Partly, it's because movie studios fear diminishing box-office revenues, and are trying new ways to bring back their lost audience, in light of competition from other markets. In the 1950's, it was fake 3D, as well as introducing the widescreen format. Now it's realistic 3D technology.

    As for 3D TV sets, I agree it's a blatant attempt to ram the technology down the consumer's throat. I don't particularly care for it. TV programming is not that good to warrant putting glasses every time I sit on my couch. And I doubt DS9's epic battles against the Dominion would look that better. And I'm the kind of person who would pay for this kind of upgrade, since I care about the viewing experience as much as whatever it is I'm watching.

    This misguided notion that technology drives the market is exactly what put a hardware company like Sony in severe financial troubles. No wonder the Playstation became a bottomless pit of financial losses. The software became a secondary priority to the hardware. They completely missed the point regarding the consumer's importance. Meanwhile, Nintendo's Wii dominates the market further and further, with each year.

    What Josh B and Eduardo said, above.

    And also another point, that May brought up. 3D technology is all nice and dandy, but it should be a special option, not the standard. That is, you should still be able to watch movies in 2D if you want to. What about people with visual impairments? I can only imagine what the old red/green 3D lenses must've been like for people with red-green color blindness... useless.

    And now imagine someone who lost one eye to illness or accident (soldiers from the Iraq War, for example) or was born with only one functional eye: until we invent fully funtional cybereyes (or our TVs become truly 3-dimensional holograms, yeah right), 3D-TV would make TV viewing impossible for these people.

    Besides, even if you start selling 3D-TVs, millions, billions of people worldwide will still be using a 20+-year-old television set because they cannot afford it. Heck, I know friends here in Germany who stopped watching televison altogether, sold their set, and only watch a handful of series they like via DVDs. They use newspapers and the internet for daily news, and that's it.

    I loved the 3D effect of Avatar and think that it really added much to the film. Any sense of disorientation left after the first 10 minutes and after the 30-minute mark I was truly enchanted by the vistas of this movie. I also believe seeing Avatar in 3D is a unique experience and that the movie loses its 'life' in 2D, becoming just another CGI-character movie.

    That said, I won't go to see any 3D movie of lower standard (ie averything else available at the moment) nor I would ever use my TV to watch a 3D show at home.

    I read that Cameron used stereo double-cameras, created specifically for this film, to shoot directly in 3D (that's why he managed to get a 3D that seems natural) instead of adding the 3D in post production like everyone else does (ie making cardboards hurled at you). So, I say yes to 3D if it's state-of-the-art and I think Avatar gave us as high quality 3D as can be produced with current technology. I can't wait to see the 3D of the already planned Avatar II and III -- but to anything of lower quality I'll say no, thanks!

    One thing I'd like to say is that the idea that it never gets any better than Avatar is false. The technology will continue to evolve and people WILL get better with it. I agree that we're going to see a lot of average and sub-par uses of it though.

    Still for me 3-d represents a bigger shift than HD ever did. Neither is necessary for watching a movie. But 3-D if done right adds an extra depth to the image that I find to be more interesting than simply having a clearer picture ala HD.

    As for 3d television, yeah, it's pretty silly at this point. Especially when you realize that it requires a new TV and big heavy headsets (nothing like those light glasses at the theater from what I've heard). And you make a really good point about how we're really still in the middle of the HD transition.

    Still I could see it someday being worthwhile. It takes small steps to get us towards the future of entertainment and I see 3d being a part of that growth and I'm interested to see what people do with it in the future. Imagine kids who grow up watching 3d movies. They'll be the artists who can really imagine a movie in 3d from the start and I bet they'll be the ones to come up with truly innovative and interesting uses for it...

    P.S. I see a lot of people saying they were distracted by it. I bet a number of people were distracted by color in the Wizard of Oz as well. It's something new, of course you find it distracting. Over time you'll get used to it.

    I read an article about the TV version of the technology: it concluded that, simply, in a couple of years most HD TV sets will be able to do 3D. One simply will choose when to take advantage of it and when not to. I'd add that it's not only about 3D movies but 3D games too.

    (about the darkening thing: one would assume that the projected movie already compensates for that. Does anyone know if that's so?)

    I had to leave Avatar after 30 minutes because I got so ill -- headache and nausea. I was really bummed, too, as I found it a very intriguing premise and those avatar bodies were COOL! I had no choice--my theater only had it in 3-D.

    I just wonder how much of the population might react like I did? Maybe we need to form a lobby to protest. lol

    Did any of you hear when Cameron told an Avatar fan to f&*! off? Or is that being buried like all other "celebrities are never wrong" shtick? Like Cameron was right and the fan was.... I dunno, a serial killer trying to kill him or something. Honestly, I bet that fan probably thought, "My fault," and made excuses for him. If that was ME I'd get in his face and tell him "I always thought this about you but now today I can see I was wrong." And I would refuse to watch anything of his or think about him again -- except in a hateful manner.

    My two cents of Cameron telling an Avatar fan to f&*! off: I saw the footage of this, the incident took place at an airport (of all places--really, bugging celebrities at the airport!?). It struck me quite differently as I was sympathetic to Cameron 100%. He said 'no signatures', which was in my view reasonable, and in any case was perfectly understandable English, and this wingnut crackpot bugged Cameron through the airport, couldn't take no for an answer. I was clear to me that he wasn't so much a 'fan' as a speculator, looking to sell the poster he wanted Cameron to sign--I think it was supposed to be (unless I've got it mixed up) that the poster already had others' signatures.

    Again I side with Cameron 100%, although I heard about this, and had imagined that I'd probably be offended by his behavior. The other guy, just a total d%^&head. Cameron did use a profane word in there somewere, yes. And I would have done the same no doubt, if I had been similarly pushed.

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