Has it really come to this? I read in Variety, the film industry journal, that ‘Mark Thomas of Elsinore Films is producing a 3-D musical Hamlet targeting the Harry Potter and High School Musical market’. I am not concerned for Hamlet, which has been kneaded into so many preposterous shapes and survived. What horrifies me is the prospect of seeing the film in 3-D. Variety helpfully explains: ‘Hamlet lends itself to a 3-D treatment. The producers hope to include a ghost that hovers in front of the audience’s eyes, cannon fire that flies into the auditorium and a sword fight that appears to happen all around viewers.’ Yes, and no doubt Yorick’s skull thrust into our faces.
The 3-D process is an abomination that has died many deaths. It failed in the 1950s as a novelty, and again in the 1970s as a device to breathe new life into exhausted franchises. It even fizzled as a promising innovation in porno. Somehow, audiences didn’t find it erotic to witness the legs of The Stewardesses extending above them as they zeroed in on the money shot.
Simply put, has anyone ever attended a 2-D movie and thought, ‘If only it were in 3-D’? I doubt it, because 2-D creates a perfectly effective illusion of depth and dimension. When I see Lawrence growing from a dot far across the desert sands, it never occurs to me that I’m watching a 2-D image. When I watch 3-D, however, I’m constantly reminded that it’s in 3-D. Objects approach and recede alarmingly, drawing you out of the actual film.
Animators are among the worst perpetrators. They seem obsessed with a 3-D bungee effect, in which characters such as the Kung Fu Panda spring from far below into the near-foreground, their faces frenzied, and then fall back to earth like Wile E. Coyote. It crystallises much that is wrong with the process. The planes of a 3-D picture are rarely rendered into a seamless progression from foreground to background, as in 2-D, but call attention to themselves. Characters seem more concerned to demonstrate their dimensions than their personalities. And, by its nature, the entire 3-D image must be in focus at all times, depriving cinematographers of the use of focal planes. The process is an annoyance and a distraction.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, the high priest and snake-oil salesman of 3-D, has announced that all animation at his DreamWorks studio will be in 3-D. Pixar, the leader in animation, is apparently following. To promote his (pretty bad) Monsters vs. Aliens, Katzenberg barnstormed North America for a month, meeting personally with film critics and exhibitors. Two weeks ago, he keynoted an animation summit conference in Los Angeles to encourage cinema owners to upgrade to expensive new projectors and silvered screens.
Katzenberg knows animation. It is his infatuation with 3-D that is suspect. He masterminded the modern rebirth of animation at Disney in the 1980s with such titles as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Disney later purchased Pixar, which will 3-D versions of its Toy Story movies this month. Most worryingly of all, Pixar has technology that can convert any 2-D movie into 3-D from scratch; an ominous development, like the outrage of colorisation, that threatens existing films.
Movie critics are sometimes asked why all movies cost the same to view, even though some may have cost $100 million to make, and others $500,000. It’s a reasonable question. I suppose the reasoning is that you get about two hours of movie either way. Now 3-D has provided exhibitors with a subterfuge to force consumers to subsidise their upgraded projection facilities — which is deceptive, because most theatres are upgrading to digital projectors anyway.
Do kids really care? My experience with a good many children is that they either
For a director who takes himself seriously, to add 3-D would be like a novelist choosing a distracting typeface. The only encouraging aspect of this marketing outrage is that eventually we’ll have more cinemas with better projection. But it still leaves a bitter taste in the throat.