Thursday, May 28, 2009

How 3D changes film: thoughts on Coraline

I've never really been a fan of 3D movies. It's always seemed to me like a gimmick, just an excuse to poke things in the audience's face and make them go "oooh", without actually adding anything of interest to the film. But watching Coraline in 3D yesterday has made me begin to change my mind. It actually seems to nearly work.

Before I get stuck into some of the filmic details, I should just say that wearing the 3D glasses is a pain. The glasses themselves are damn good, way better than the old cardboard red/blue ones, and the 3D image is uncannily good, with a great sense of depth. Without my regular glasses, however, I find it hard to see the screen as crisply as I would like. It's not that I can't see properly, but my tired middle-aged eyes do find everything a bit blurry. And these modern 3D glasses, while all very slick, aren't really compatible with my specs. Now it may be that some of the visual issues I experience wouldn't affect me if I had 20/20 vision, but I don't, and neither do a lot of the rest of the population.

For me, the shots that worked best in 3D weren't the effects shots where things come out of the screen at you. I mainly found them tawdry and predictable. What worked well were the shots where they just added depth, and created a heightened sense of realism. Looking out through woods over a valley to Coraline's house (don't worry, no spoilers) looked truly amazing, and for the first time I got a sense of how flat 2D films and photographs actually are by comparison. What was odd, though, was having to relearn how to see. From birth, we're naturally used to focusing our eyes at the distance of the object we're looking at, and we actually have quite a narrow depth of field. As a result, when we shift our point of view from a near object to a faraway object, our eyes move and deform to get the right focus. However, in a 3D film, the objects aren't at the distance you think they are, and so you find yourself focusing on the wrong place. (Which is, I should add, made worse by the aforementioned glasses problem.) If the entire scene is in focus, but feels 3D, you have to learn not to refocus your eyes as you look around the image on the screen.

It's worth a slight digression here on how 3D works. It's not actually 3D, it's stereoscopic, and it's an optical illusion. The glasses are used to split the image on the screen, so each eye sees the world from a slightly different angle, as if it were looking at a real object. However, all you're looking at is a flat image (or two flat images if it helps to think of it that way). Everything you see is at the same distance - in my case, about ten rows or thirty feet away, so to get optimum focus, you should always focus at 30 feet.

Hence the confusion your visual system (eyes and brain) suffers: those hands that appear to be just inches away are in fact thirty feet away, and the trees outside the window that appear to be a hundred yards away are also thirty feet away. As a result, your brain doesn't know where to look to get the best view. And, more confusingly, as you move your head side to side, you can't get a different view of what's in front of you - you'll never see the back of Dad's hand, no matter where you stand. It ain't real. It's an illusion.

Which leads me to the second major issue, that of focus in the film itself. Over the last 80-odd years, we developed a grammar of film that we all naturally understand. Essentially, the thing that's in focus is the thing you should look at. That's how you direct your audience's view around a 2D image. But in a 3D world, it feels odd that there should exist parts of the world that you can't focus on, no matter how you try. In the real world, your focus is where you are directing your vision. You've never experienced a world where you can't control the focus. When you watch a 3D film, you feel you're looking into a "real" environment, even in a puppet show like Coraline, and using focus adds a strange and unexpected level of artificiality that makes you aware that this is still a film construct, not a miniature world.

It's even stranger when they rack focus during a shot. In the 2D world, we're used to this bit of film grammar. First we focus on Fred, and then as Jo speaks her lines, we focus on her. But in the 3D world, we're not used to having our focus pulled around in this way, and our brains have to work out what's going on. The result is quite disorienting at times, only momentarily, perhaps, but that's enough to interfere with your sense of relaxed viewing and with your total involvement in the story.

Staying with the theme of disorientation, cutting styles in 3D are something else that you need to relearn how to interpret. We're all used to cuts in films, whether they're from person to person, as in a dialogue, or from a long shot to an close shot. We've spent tens of thousands of hours getting used to watching it, and we know what it means. (And anyone who's ever done any editing will know only too well what it takes to learn to do it right, and how unwatchable it can be if you do it wrong.) In 3D, though, the experience is quite different, because of the heightened level of immersion. You suddenly go from looking down on a world, to being in it, or you teleport from one position in the world to another one. Again, it may be only momentary, but that's enough to make the narrative feel jerky. In a fast-cut sequence, where you may be changing your viewpoint every second or two, that's enough to make it completely unintelligible.

So, what does this mean for movies?

At times, watching Coraline, I felt like the early film audiences must have felt watching D.W. Griffith films, trying to make sense of his cutting style. It reminded me what it was like playing my first 3D first person shooter games.

Today, I saw the exact same movie trailers I saw yesterday, but this time in 2D. That really threw into sharp relief what works in 3D, and what doesn't.

I think we're going to have to develop new forms of cinematography for 3D if we're going to make it work. When it works, it's amazing. I found myself watching Dark Crystal today and thinking how incredible it would look in 3D. But we're going to have to adapt the rules of film to the new medium. We have to re-understand how to use focus; we have to come up with less confusing ways of cutting; we have to work out which shots work best in 3D, and how to composite the frame differently. And, perhaps most importantly, we have to drop the gimmicky shots that are only there to show the audience we can shove stuff in their faces. Do we really need any more tyrannosaurs leaping out of the screen right at us?

The technology is damn near there now, after over half a century of experimentation. What needs to happen next is for film-makers to learn how to use it effectively.

Oh, my review of Coraline? Go see it. Go see it in a cinema, in 3D, while you still can. Don't wait for the DVD and watch it at home, you'll be missing out. I nearly did.


Richard Grove said...

What a great, thoughtful post on 3D, Matt. I found myself nodding my head over and over. I wasn't able to see Coraline in 3D, but I did see Monster House and it was phenomenal. It's a whole new ballgame. Your analogy with D.W. Griffith is right on the money.

What's even cooler is that 3D is on a roll. I think it was the Hollywood Reporter that said there are a lot of 3D films in planning and production. If this ties with 3D gaming....look out!


Phil said...

3D is in fact "the new flat" as you say, and yes your post was as usual bang on. The grammar of film changes when you switch to 3D which is why so many Hollywood studios should pause a little before rushing everything they have in production into 3D.

In 2D you save the closeups for impact, but in 3D closeups are not so effective as slightly wider shots and you save those shots with a lot of Z depth for impact.

As you say though it's not just the tawdry popping out of screen effects but the deep immersive shots which absorb the viewer.

As ever I remain suspicious of any new artform/fad/instrument/gadget/cliche until someone creates a masterpiece with it. I would cite Godley and Creme's video for "Black or White" by Michael Jackson as a case in point using morphing, a previous visual effects fad. After that there was no point in using it anymore for impact.

My suspicion is that big studios desperate for any edge in the changing climate of the 21st Century will dive in head first and burn all the bridges behind. Again. I mean for sure, Disney will end up only releasing 3D movies before the year is out. :)

My 2p.

Kate Fosk and Michael R. Joyce said...

It is hard to imagine a 3d system that doesn't scream 'migraine' at me, so I am grateful for this thoughtful description of your experience Matt. As this is your first 3d film (I haven't seen any) I wonder how quickly you might adapt to cuts and edits in this environment. Maybe the complete change of approach isn't as necessary as it seems -Kate

Matt Kelland said...

Kate - this isn't my first 3D film by a very long way. I remember watching 50s zombie flicks in 3D at late-night horror shows as a kid. I saw Jaws 3D in the cinema back in 1983. I've been to IMAX 3D shows, and even saw that blasted Michael Jackson 3D surround thing in Disneyland (Captain EO). More recently, there's been stuff like Spy Kids 3D & Shark Boy and Lava Girl. (Though I missed Monster House - it was only in 2D at our local cinema.) It's a technology that I've always been interested in, but up until now, never seen it actually work well enough to be watchable. And yes, most 3D movies, particularly the ones using red/blue glasses, do indeed give me migraines. Coraline didn't.

Ricky - 3D gaming may not work as well, particularly for FPS. If the screen's small, the illusion of reality will be broken, particularly since you can't move your head to change viewpoint. On a huge screen, though, for the right type of game, maybe it'd work. Myst3D? Yeah, baby, yeah!

Phil - you're right. Studios will dive in to the tech, and it'll be like 1928 all over again. Jazz Singer does well, and everyone rushes to make sound films with no idea how to make them any good. Were there any good films made 1929-1932? I can't think of many, not until they figured out how to blend dialogue, FX, foley and music to create the soundscapes we're all used to, and scriptwriters learned how to write a screenplay that wasn't a radio play, theatre performance, or designed to be read. Hell's Angels is the only one I can think of, and that's because Hughes was prepared to do whatever it took to make it good enough (and could afford it).

Kate Fosk and Michael R. Joyce said...

That sounds hopeful Matt. If the technology can be used subtly, and a way found to make it more accessible to the majority of people with less than perfect vision, then it deserves a mass market. I believe that the best kind of story immersion is one that engages the heart and mind, rather than one that depends on sensory bombardment, and the kind of scenes you describe..the forest house..are very appealing on an emotional level. However, I found Imax, even in its non 3d form unpleasant and overwhelming -Kate

Saint said...

The interesting point is that Coraline seems to be the first non-CGI animated film in the current crop, and unlike Bolt/MvA etc the S-3D was embedded from day one, not an add-on, so had a chance to dfevelop as a 'grammar' within production. There is a clear use of the S-3D pallette- parallax and distance, like colour, are heightened in Buttonworld. As you mention, the grammar of the edit changes- you HAVE to cut to a shot with similar depth to avoid straining eye muscles.
Lastly, it's interesting to link process to grammar- most of Coraline was shot with ONE camera (they couldn't get two lenses close enough to get the two viewpoints). Their solution? to build a slide/armature. Take Frame 1. Click. Slide armature to notional second eye position. Take Frame 2. Click. Slide back, move model.
Thus, whilst constructing each frame the team was forced to think about binocular vision. This is why the film is as good as it is, I think. There's also the interesting notion that because of this alternating frames process, the final film is really two monocular films interwoven....

BTW, If you are interested in more about Coraline and S-3D Games(!) check out the next issue of IMAGINE end of June...


Matt Kelland said...

The binocular process is a fascinating insight, Saint, and explains a lot.

anaglyph said...

Monsters Vs Aliens is worth seeing in 3D too. I was also pretty skeptical about 3D movies until I saw that and I've seen a LOT of 3D in my time.

But what makes M Vs A stand out (aside from the superior 3D) is that, as you say, the filmmakers are now starting to understand how to make a language for 3D. Just as a 2D film (when done properly) skillfully draws your attention to the place you need to be looking on the screen, M Vs A deftly directs your attention spatially and emotionally.

Only a few directors have really understood 3D (it's worth catching Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder if you get a chance) and most of the history of 3D cinema is full of films that are really 2D but with another camera. I think though, that as you say, we're moving into a new era.

I've subsequently seen M Vs A in 2D and it was a little... flat...


Matt Kelland said...

Kate sent me this link:

I love the attitude: "I can’t say that I have ever been sitting watching a good film and thought to myself “This is great but I wish someone would start firing ping pong balls into the audience or something.”. I mean what does 3D add to story? Nothing. It adds to the spectacle. But there are so many films that are just spectacle and nothing else. Spectacle is great as long as there’s a good story and characters."

anaglyph said...

I deeply disagree with that point of view. I bet someone advanced that argument for sound as well, back in the days of the Silents. And I bet they used for the advent of colour.

A good filmmaker can use 3D to add meaning and content to the story, not just as a gimmick - look at the way Hitchcock uses 3D in 'Dial M For Murder'. The wonderful scene with Ray Milland and the key in the red bag works well in 2D but with that bag sitting in the foreground so close you could touch it, it is stunning in 3D. 'Dial M' works in 2D, there is no doubt. But it works better in 3D.

We see in stereoscopic 3D. It's not a gimmick - it's a fundamental part of the way we experience the world. When we have a language for it, 3D in movies will work just as efficiently as sound or colour.

Saint said...

The thing about S3D is that it hasn’t YET got an Avant-Garde who can drive this visual language forward- despite the tools being available- Nvidia’s S3D drivers, Nuke’s S3D tools, and the one-camera lens approach of Brian Huuys on Coraline.

Animators in Europe are starting to experiment with S-3D. Have a look at this year’s InvaZion winner Tina Braun with her graduation film “Deconstruct”
Another earlier film that created waves in the S-3D community was “Moving Still” by artist Santiago Caicedo as far back as 2006.
I worry about the UK though- there is only one serious S3D DoP I can find over here. I think we need to start training the next generation of DoPs. The Commercial imperative is there I believe- especially with new moves by the UKFC to encourage more VFX based productions to the UK. Here’s a link to my article on this matter

Saint said...

Oops Apologies for mis-attribution in earlier post. Brian Van't Hul was the VFX Supervisor on Coraline not Brian Huuys.