3D - a technological breakthrough or major threat to filmmaking as we know it?

Picture this:

Ever since you first got into music, you’ve been waiting for one of the world’s biggest bands, U2, to play a live gig that you can get to. Finally, they announce their tour. You buy your ticket, you take some holiday time away from work, you drive down to the venue, you queue for 3 days. When they finally open the gates, you run to the very front barrier as fast as you can. This is your chance to be the closest you will ever be to the greatest band in your world. You get to the front…. And find that just in front of the barrier you’re heading towards is a rather large camera crane. With TWO cameras mounted, and a larger than normal crew. All inbetween you and the stage.

The reason? U2 3D. Now in cinemas nationwide.

Last Friday 22nd February, through the NFTS, I was able to go to a Masterclass in the Cineworld at Shaftesbury Avenue (currently showing the film) which was hosted by the UK Film Council, and had a panel of people who’d been involved in the film and the technology involved from the start.

Things have come on a long way from the red/blue glasses and headaches usually associated with 3D. Polarisation has been around for a while now, but the ultimate application that they’re heading for is home viewing of sports without the need for eyewear at all (via hi-res lenticular screens… apparently already working on a small scale). But they decided to build the technology on the most complex thing they could think of - a 9 camera position (18 altogether, given the need for two cameras to function together as human eyes would to provide a natural 3D effect), multiple venue, 14 song live music tour of South America. In natural lighting. We didn’t actually get to see any of the final film because of time issues, but you start to get the idea of the scale of the project when you learn that they were in post for one year (including R&D).

They actually did the basic edit in 2D on an Avid. But had to think differently from the outset. For a start, fast cuts of the type usually associated with live concert footage were right out if the film was to be released in 3D. In their place, layering effects were utilised, and cuts made only when the drama of the shot naturally took you to a different angle. Balancing the depth of the 3D between one shot and the next was vital in order to avoid rapid eye fatigue from constant refocusing, and recreation of shots where the cameras weren’t working perfectly together (through tape change, lens issues, foreground objects, or any other number of reasons) had to be done to the pixel. An IMAX grade had to be performed separately because of the necessity of printing onto film rather than distributing digitally - and the 3D had to be imagined on that scale as well when deciding how extensive it should be.

In this film the 3D wasn’t to be used as a gimmick - it was a means of immersing an audience within a scene, rather than relying on things flying out of the screen at them. And it seems to be fairly appropriate. But the claim put forward that this is as big a technological step as going from silent to talkies seems a little far-fetched. Dreamworks’ plans to go entirely 3D starting 2009 as opposed to adding 3D elements to a finished 2D film sounds exciting, but certain film genres will never lend themselves to 3D. The limit on the speed of cuts will surely be a major sticking point in narrative film, and it seems possible to me that it will be pushing a bit too hard on the suspension of experience which allows editing to work in the first place - to view a 2D image jumping across to the other side of a room isn’t intuitive to the human eye and personal experience - but it still works. To effectively place someone in a room, then have them jump around within it, to another scene in a different location, back to that room… physically it seems disruptive, psychologically invasive and voyeuristic, and generally uncomfortable. You learn fairly early on that there are more important aspects of a cut than continuity on the screen or within the frame - but along this ‘z’ axis out of the screen, continuity will be key if people aren’t to reject the images because their eyes are constantly refocusing. The 3D elements invoking a very specific point in the overall image that an audience should be looking at - leaving open a massive space for action to be missed, and trust to be lost if that space is exploited. Once that trust is lost, we may as well all give up.

It sounds like a great tool, and it’s clear that a massive amount of thought, time and skill has gone into the development even in these relatively early days - but as things stand, I don’t see a major place for it in the non-specialised filmmaking process.