Friday, January 15, 2010

Thinking in Three Dimensions

Unless you haven't been to the movie theater this holiday season, you've noticed the recent surge of three-dimensional filmmaking. If you're anything like I am, you were slightly confused or befuddled. In fact, you've probably even mocked the concept or voiced your disgruntled opinions over the addition of cliché, 3-D gags to films that wouldn't need them otherwise. Regardless, I went to see Avatar - James Cameron's $500 billion, Dances with Wolves meets FernGully love child. Despite the option for otherwise, I decided to see it in 3-D, as my date and I figured, "might as well watch a film the way it was intended to be watched, right?"

As it turns out, good choice. Avatar was not only fun to watch (not to mention it contained the most absolutely gorgeous CGI I have seen outside of the Final Fantasy series), but it presented a multi-laden metaphor for industrialization, race relations, imperialism, and environmental responsibility. Of course, it's received a figurative grab-bag of reactions - leading one Chicago Tribune columnist to name it "this season's ideological Rorshach blot." Some critics have praised Avatar for its enriching, immersive experience, while others are put off by its "flat dialogue," predictability, and pantheistic preaching. One io9 blog-writer goes so far as to liken Avatar to a slew of caucasian fantasy pieces, "where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member." Myself? While not "$500 billion good," Avatar was an enjoyable, eye-buffet that managed to give its audience something to think about, as well as function as a tech-sample for future, effect-heavy films. And, yes - viewing it in 3-D was an experience that I fear those who didn't have lost. For some of us, the illusion of depth really does make you feel like you're right there on the main characters' shoulders - passively watching as the Na'vi fight tooth and nail against their would-be human oppressors.

Part of what makes it work is that 3-D gimmickery has pretty much fallen to the wayside - meaning "put on your glasses now" sequences complete with a tomato flying from the screen "towards" the audience are no longer present. No more blue and red saran-wrap (although, some form of eyewear is still necessary). Instead, the shots are simply enhanced - taking choice scenes from the film and imposing an in-focus picture over an out-of-focus background. When you put on your glasses, the background shifts into focus, causing the superimposed picture to "pop" away from the background and create a three-dimensional illusion of depth. The fact that certain scenes may be selected for three dimensions, while others left alone, means that 3-D can now be adequately used to influence storytelling and allow a director greater control over the audience's reactions. While the value may not be apparent to everyone (I muse over one audience member's reaction as I left the auditorium, "Yeah, I don't know. It was, like, the same thing as seeing it normal") the consistent presence of 3-D film now presents the question: "How does the 3-D experience effect memory recall?"

A certain 2004 study (linked above) suggests yes. In a world where 3-D movies may be widely installed to prevent internet piracy, another selling point may be that playing with your spatial memory actually keeps your brain occupied enough to pay more attention and recall more of what you've seen later. The implications are obvious - studio executives and artists alike are looking to improve movies any way they can. If 3-D enhances your memory of a film, you'll remember more about it, talk about it more, probably like it more, and it'll stay in the social consciousness longer. In a world where everyone is constantly looking to the "next big thing" the longevity of the public interest in a film is certainly an concern your average, big-budget director maintains.

Of course, one could apply this knowledge to other items - like learning aids for children, the disabled, and even juries. In a world where everything is literally at one's fingertips and the average human attention span gets beat out by your garden-variety goldfish, an efficient learning aid has invaluable social benefits. If people only remember 10% of what they hear, but 20% of what they see, and 50% of both, 3-D could be just another nudge towards that 100% recall mark. Which, of course implies that soon we're approaching memory download capabilities for human beings and The Matrix is quickly becoming a reality. But, don't worry, I think we're closer to defeating the uncanny valley first - meaning that the our own robot slaves will overpower their masters and bomb us into extinction before that happens.

Thank God.


B.Graham said...

I liked Avatar too, even though my head did hurt a bit after three hours of being beaten with a Message with a capital M. It's a Message I happen to agree with, though, so that made it a little easier to swallow.

The 3-D bit was impressive, though; my favorite was when it was pure ambience, like the dust or the night sparkles.

Jstone said...

Final Fantasy is really not the pinnacle of CGI IMHO. I haven't gee whized at an FF title since 8 really. Maybe I'm jaded...

Matt Lindeboom said...

I saw Avatar three times. (The third was unexpected.) The last two 3d Imax. Then a week later I bought the sound track. So that explains how I feel about the movie from a "how much I spent on it" angle.

The aesthetics were really what drew me in. B made a great observation about the dust and night sparkles. In the end, as an admirer from a distance of Cameron's previous work (sans Titanic, and maybe because I was 14 when it came out, a time period when the adjective "Gay" was used to describe everything from Di Caprio to gravel. Mostl likely it was doomed for me from the start, or vice versa), I was completely impressed by the experience of Avatar. The movie was a genius blend of sound, picture, and story that -- to say it simply as possible -- moved me.

Will DVD experience ever compare to what the original is? I don't know (probably not); maybe I should see it for a 4th time while I still can.

Matt Lindeboom said...

PS. What's with the centering format?

Alex said...

Ditto to all of B. On the drive home I kept going 'But it was all glowing!'

Ozkirbas said...

@Jstone - I just tend to hold them to a higher standard. I was really impressed with 10, and the cutscenes I've seen from the more recent ones have been fairly stellar (admittedly, I haven't really invested any time into the SquareEnix titles). Given, maybe VG CGI is coming to a plateau - which raises another question:

"3-D Video Games?"

@Matt - I tend to center justify either the paragraph following a centered picture or with the last paragraph of a post with pictures generally. That's just kinda how I've done it. Does it look bad?

Jstone said...

@Oz- Yes, 3D video games are in the works. Everything is still in the infant stage but I predict Microsoft's Natal being the first to utilize the concept even though the Wii can already produce 3D images on any TV if developers actually got off their butts and did something with the incredible technology they have.
There has been a 3D game already, but it was terrible at everything and no one has a 3D capable TV yet so the whole thing fell flat on its face.

Damo said...

I've been locked in grassroots battle for too long. I need to see this while I've got the chance. I have a feeling I agree with B, and Matt, and Oz too for the most part.

Technology is converging is synergistic ways creating a perfect storm of possibility. 3D is just the beginning. How about when it's a fully-rendered hologram and you can move around the action to get different points of view? Holodeck, anyone?

I give it 10 years, tops. Let's enjoy the ride, add to the dialogue, and make sure the medium doesn't become the message.