Questions in Three Dimensions

By: Ned Casey
By: Ned Casey

It is difficult to ignore the rapid expansion of 3D as a medium these days. Most mass-market animation films and an increasing number of fantasy-sci-fi films come in both 2D and 3D flavors and the 3D variety routinely outdraws its flattened sibling by significant margins. Films like Beowulf, Bolt, Madagascar, Journey to Center of the Earth all sell at least twice as many tickets in their 3D incarnations. DreamWorks Animation, the production company owned by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg recently laid out “tens of millions of dollars” according to Katzenberg to give away 150 million 3D glasses to promote the upcoming Monsters vs. Aliens during the Super Bowl. NBC followed suit with their own 3D spot promoting a 3D special installment of their comic spy series “Chuck”. Master-of-his-own-universe James Cameron’s 3D sci-fi film Avatar scheduled for release late in 2009 will combine live actors and real locations with computer generated versions of both which, according to Cameron should be indistinguishable from one another. The script for Avatar has floated around the internet for a few years with rumors of its imminent production but Cameron waited for the technology to catch up with his vision. Production tools necessary for “photo-realistic” CGI (computer generated imagery) clear ever more difficult digital hurdles seemingly on a monthly basis. A quick glance inside any digital production trade publication at the flood of newer, better, cooler digital compositing and 3D creation and rendering software demonstrates the regular leaps forward in this domain fueled by programming breakthroughs and increasingly fast processing power.

 Avatar poster and frame from Monsters vs. Aliens
Spectacular effects are now possible on a fairly inexpensive home computer with a good video card and ramped-up processors and memory; effects barely achievable within Hollywood magic factories less than a decade ago. All, for the most part, to make the unreal a reality.
Therein lies a question not only about 3D but about cinema in general. What is it about this form that makes it so compelling? Since the earliest days of cinema critics, analysts and philosophers have taken a shot at answering this question. Is it the apparent reality of film that provides us with such pleasure and commands our attention? Is reality or the appearance of reality the linchpin?
Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer who began writing about film in the early 1920s felt that film as a form had its most significant impact when used in the service of realism. He believed that film derived its power through the “physical redemption of reality”. Kracauer’s theories may have had their difficulties but he was one of the first to treat film seriously and his arguments making use of the psychological aspect of viewing films retain their power. After all, if reality isn’t important, why do filmmakers go to such great lengths to make non-existent worlds and characters believable? If fantasy did not require such measures to make a compelling case for its own existence why did Cameron wait for the technology to be improved before making a film he has been reportedly laboring over for years?
The attraction of realistic representation is not restricted to film or even to the hundred years or so that films have been drawing paying customers. Renaissance draftsmen and painters schooled in the latest advances in perspective used it to inject their work with startling realism. Artists such as Da Vinci, Mantegna and Albrecht Durer experimented with the geometric capacity of perspective to create compositions that drew the viewer into the frame and made use of contemporary studies of optics (how imagery is perceived by the eye) to endow their work with depth and three dimensionality. The use of single or multiple vanishing points within the frame of a picture provided the artist with a method for devising compositions with a spatial logic that offered a much more effective way of representing objects from the world within a realistic space.
Piero Della Francesca, View of an Ideal City
Della Francesca’s experiment in the use of geometric perspective demonstrates his use of a single vanishing point towards which all lines converge.
These representational techniques were adopted by most mainstream artists for centuries thereafter. Some, such as Caravaggio advanced the depiction of reality through dramatic use of light and dark. Later movements in realistic depiction led to such curiosities as trompe-l’oeil (trick the eye) painting. But all of these artists were determined to make their work as believable as their craft allowed; to recreate a believable image of reality using perspective, lighting, and exceptional technique.
Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew; Mantegna, The Dead Christ
Caravaggio’s combined use of perspective and oblique single source lighting makes his contemporary take on a Gospel story jump off the canvas. Mantegna’s command of perspective is brilliantly displayed in his tour-de-force of foreshortening, placing the viewer at the feet of the dead Christ.
This still leaves us with the question of “how real is real”? After all, an image on a canvas or a wall exists in the world as paint on a surface but what it represents is only “real” to the edges of the frame. The fact that it is framed at all gives the game away. Art historian Erwin Panofsky writing about “Perspective as Symbolic Form” unveils the secret at the heart of this magic trick: there is nothing real about it. Perspective by its very geometric nature concocts an image of space and depth that is unavailable to us in the real world. A well done image created in perspective relies on a stationary point of view. The slightest movement of body, head or eye will change our relation to objects in space. “Perspective”, writes Panofsky, “…transforms [real] space into mathematical space”. A trick, if you will. But a good one.
And a trick, with some variations, still used by those creating their own reality out of wireframe constructions, rendering engines and 3D lighting and motion software. When you think about it, most of what you see in film, in either dimensional flavor could never be experienced in the real world. Tracking shots, crane shots, quick zooms, reverse angles, cuts from one location to another (and we won’t even consider the problems posed by simple editing for maintaining a sense of reality)--none of this is “real” in the strictest sense. Many of these techniques have been borrowed during the early days of film from fiction. D.W.Griffith cutting from the damsel in distress to the cavalry riding to the rescue used a standard narrative device going back and forth in space and time. Homer in the Iliad takes us from the blood and steel of the battlefields of Troy to the quarrelling gods on Mount Olympus in a flash so this compression of space and time is not new and doesn’t seem at all strange to us. Reality? Nope. Good storytelling technique? Absolutely.
D.W. Griffith cavalry charge from his film America.
This begs the question then of what exactly films in 3D (or 2D) represent. In one sense films resemble nothing so much as other films. A documentary of the Sistine Chapel has more in common with Citizen Kane than it does with the physical space at the Pope’s residence in the Vatican. We might be able to say that a representation of the real world through the medium of film is not quite the goal. The true goal is often the creation of a new world through the representation of referential elements that we associate with certain kinds of reality seen in films. Often the artifacts and effects employed in this task refer more closely to modes of representation than to our direct experience of the real world. Take, for example, one of the most overused effects offered by Photoshop: the lens flare. Photoshop gives you the option of a variety of lenses to choose from and the ability to drop that flare anywhere you choose in the picture. Our eyes will register some kind of flaring at times depending on what we are looking at, especially bright objects, but the kind of optical lens flare that Photoshop provides is designed to mimic something seen by a camera through a manufactured lens. The flare offers a strong sense of reality because we associate it with an image that was (or could have been) photographed. In spite of the fact that we are unable to photograph the unreal the presence of this flare lends any image a measure of authenticity no matter how fantastical the subject matter. At the very least it allows a certain suspension of disbelief. There’s a reason believable images are referred to as “photorealistic”.
Two examples of the use of lens flare.
Now we begin to get to the heart of what makes 3D and film in general so compelling. It’s not so much that they offer us reality but they offer us an alternate if manufactured reality that we recognize and to which we respond. Sometimes this reality seems more vivid than the real world because it focuses our attention and does it in a way that we find comfortable and appealing or jarring and disturbing. The novelist Henry James in his short story “The Real Thing” developed a storyline about two members of the aristocracy who, after falling upon hard times, take a job as models for an artist illustrating a story about the upper classes. The artist eventually has to fire his unfortunate patricians in favor of two lower class models who are better at looking like “the real thing”.
This isn’t to say that the use of real locations and less flashy camera work and editing cannot provide the viewer with a visceral sense of reality. Watching Victor Mature racing down gritty sidewalks in and around New York City in Henry Hathaway’s 1947 film noir Kiss of Death is still eye-popping coming as it did after decades of antiseptic street scenes shot on Hollywood backlots. The Italian Neo-Realist movement used non-professional actors and real locations to great effect. Films such as Vittorio DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves and Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Citta Aperta are among some of world cinema’s masterpieces. Even the halting performances by the non-professionals feel pleasingly authentic, like flaws in fine leather which offer proof of its provenance.
Victor Mature shot in Sing Sing, New York state’s maximum security prison, in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death and a still from Vittorio DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves.
Film creates its own reality. 3D is simply another technique that allows for an additional level of “reality” even though most of what we see in 3D we could never experience in the real world. Film, like fiction, makes use of reality-based elements to create compelling, believable worlds from which meaning can be extracted. We might not go to Madagascar looking for a message but sometimes, as Marshal McLuhan once wrote, “the medium IS the message”.
As 3D progresses from the novelty status it once held into a more and more mainstream medium there will likely be some who find better uses for it than its WOW factor. The gaming environment would be an ideal place for further experiments with 3D given the necessity of immersion into created worlds, especially in such first-person-shooter games as Doom, Half-Life, and Halo. There may be worlds yet discovered whose creation will require 3D’s special brand of film experience. After all the next generation of tools are just a few issues of Digital Video away. All that’s needed is the vision.
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