Ebert versus the third dimension

Posted by · 8:26 am · May 4th, 2010

By now, you may have read Roger Ebert’s lengthy nine-point diatribe against 3D in Newsweek — it has certainly generated a substantial amount of online conversation in the last few days.

On the face of it, as a declared 3D agnostic myself, I should be pleased with the article: when a “Clash of the Titans” proves the technology a potential artistic liability as emphatically as “Avatar” suggests the opposite, 3D needs to be both argued for and argued with.

I fear Ebert, however, has slightly let the opposing side down: his piece is impassioned and sincere, but for every viable point he makes — and there are several — there’s another that is short-sighted, obstinate or just tautological: however much you may agree, it’s difficult to accept “it adds nothing to the experience” and “it’s a waste of a dimension” as separate claims in a serious argument, as opposed to simple whining.

Twice, he essentially repeats the point that he finds the idea of a “serious” (read: character-oriented) drama in 3D inconceivable, citing the recent 2D likes of “The Hurt Locker” and “Precious” as great cinematic experiences that would gain nothing from the technology. (I must disagree in the latter case: that TV set hurtling down the stairs in 3D would have added an appropriately lurid Grand Guignol note to “Precious.”) That is as may be, but we also have yet to see a film of this nature attempt to engage with 3D, successfully or otherwise: silent film audiences may have found talkies “hard to imagine,” but that was no excuse not to experiment with the possibility.

It’s in broaching that parallel, meanwhile, that Ebert curiously undermines his own argument — his caps in the quote:


I think even Ebert would agree that sound and color were pretty beneficial additions to the cinematic landscape; widescreen and stereo sound have their uses, too. If those innovations were the result of industry panic, then people should threaten Hollywood more often. I’m not suggesting that 3D ranks with these one-time gimmicks (which, let’s be honest, is probably how audiences viewed them on first acquaintance) turned mainstays of the craft, but by listing them together, Ebert is oddly making that implication himself.

Perhaps aware of such holes in his argument, Ebert buckles slightly in his resistance towards the end of the piece, allowing that he “loved” the application of the technology in “Avatar,” and expressing his faith in the abilities of Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog to use it wisely in their upcoming 3D projects. (He substantiates his conviction by stating that “Scorsese and Herzog make films for grown-ups [while] Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market,” slightly ironic considering that “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” will be Scorsese’s first foray into children’s cinema.)

If there’s an element of old-fashioned auteur snobbery there, most of us are guilty of the same to some extent — though Tim Burton recently proved that even brand-name auteurs can stumble when 3D is thrust upon them by studios, rather than the other way round. Though I’d venture that half-baked 3D is hardly the most crucial of “Alice in Wonderland”‘s shortcomings, Ebert’s strongest point is one many have made before him: the technology can only be an asset to a film conceived around it. (Like Ebert, I have no interest in seeing “Titanic” rejigged for 3D either.)

But the same is true of the superfluous digital effects, explosions or instances of stunt casting used to trick out many a second-rate blockbuster: like any filmmaking tool, 3D will only be effectively employed by the talented minority.   That doesn’t make me any more enthusiastic about the spate of production-line 3D titles lying ahead of us, but at the risk of sounding overly resigned, what was to look forward to in the first place?

→ 13 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

13 responses so far

  • 1 5-04-2010 at 10:29 am

    Jim T said...

    Well, Ebert is usually a little emotional but his thoughts are always interesting and not without logic. They’re just not to be taken seriously word by word.

    And he didn’t mean he was against sound, color etc, only that Hollywood uses technology when panicked, whether it is for better or for worse.

    You’re right that we can’t know before we see something but satisfaction from dramas doesn’t come from thrilling visuals but from (Put here your definition. I’m sure I’ll agree). Otherwise, books wouldn’t be able to move us (though, it’s probably not the best example since books don’t use images at all and movies often rely on faces etc).

    I do think 3D could make dramas more moving (in cases when a sunset or any big thing like that is supposed to be the peak of the emotional impact of the movie) but in way that might harm the artistic nature of films. I mean, many filmmakers might rely on cheap techniques like that and not care about well made, original scripts. We can’t know for sure, of course, but I think that’s very likely to happen.

    In any case, why do some people believe that being at a distance from the action is a bad thing? I have (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) felt closer to many 2D films than to any 3D film I’ve watched.

    Just to clarify, I’m stating my thoughts more than I comment on yours. I don’t really think we (or you and Ebert) disagree on the main idea.

  • 2 5-04-2010 at 10:43 am

    red_wine said...

    The ones that I have seen in 3D are Avatar, Christmas Carol, How To Train Your Dragon(IMAX 3D) and the two Toy Story movies, Up (normal 3D). Yeah, all are animated(Avatar 80% so).

    Of these the most memorable experience was the Toy Story double bill. I saw them for the first time and absolutely loved Toy Story, Pixar’s greatest film as now I’ve come to believe. The best 3D was Christmas Carol, though the film was very boring. The worst experience was Up. I love the film but I actually think it looses something in 3D than the other way round. Watching an emotionally grounded film like Up, 3D can be most distracting.

    There is just something about the smooth controlled environment of animation better suited to 3D than live-action. So I have the intention of only ever watching animated films in 3D. Dragon was indeed a pleasant surprise. 3D helped in this case that but for IMAX 3D, I would never have seen the film as its not the kind of film I would willfully go to the cinema for.

  • 3 5-04-2010 at 10:46 am

    the world said...

    I’m on the 3d bandwagon on the pure hopes of what this technology can do for porn once it goes mainstream.

  • 4 5-04-2010 at 11:09 am

    red_wine said...

    One also oft ignored fact regarding 3D is that the set-up should be excellent if you are to experience 3D to its fullest advantage. That usually means having a pretty big screen(because 3D reduces your field of view) so Imax is usually the best option.

    The screen should be very bright because 3d reduces brightness, therefore you will see some blurriness and loss of detail. And the most important thing which is not even in control of the projectionist, the 3D should be done well in the movie itself.

    Honestly speaking, most normal theaters which have installed 3D projection in a hurry to cash in on the 3D phase have not done it properly and hence 3D in most normal theaters is not properly calibrated and looks awful. Go to Imax to see what 3D can actually look like.

    But this railing against 3D is useless now. The scales have tipped in its favor. Almost all respectable theaters now have 3d systems. Henceforth almost all summer blockbusters and all CGI animated movies are gonna be in 3D. 3D TV’s are coming out soon. The 3D Blu-Ray specification has been approved and even the first 3D Blu-Ray (Monsters vs Aliens) has been reviewed by industry insiders. The World Cup this year is gonna be shot and broadcast in 3D by Sony.

    Once it starts penetrating the home market, it will be omnipresent. And ‘the world’, 3D porn would then explode and the industry will see a renaissance, the only detriment being it will become much more expensive to make porn because of the high cost of shooting with 3D cameras and properly doing Post on it.

    But I will maintain that 3D is a technology that has been thrust down out throats. Nobody asked for it, the need for 3D did not originate organically in the audience in that they were missing something. Simulation of depth is over-rated. With good cinematography, good lighting and good contrast, the image will have depth anyway. Recently I saw Ryan’s Daughter on a normal TV and could perceive real depth. So there goes all this big hullabaloo over 3D.

  • 5 5-04-2010 at 12:21 pm

    Chris138 said...

    I’m a very big skeptic of 3D as the ‘future of movies’. The only time I saw Avatar in theaters was in the 3D format, and I honestly wasn’t that blown away by it. I thought The Dark Knight on IMAX was a lot more fun to watch. 3D is just getting out of hand with all the new televisions they are making and whatnot. The last thing I want to do is wear glasses in order to watch my television. Just my opinion.

  • 6 5-04-2010 at 1:17 pm

    James D. said...

    Everyone keeps saying Avatar is the exception, which confuses me because I saw it in 2D. Does Jake Sully become a more engaging hero in 3D? Does Giovanni Ribisi escape cheesy stereotypes in the third dimension? Is the environmental message any less forceful with the extra effect?

    I have to agree with Ebert entirely. Using his example for The Hurt Locker, I don’t think the added effect of Sgt. James lunging at the camera in 3D would make the film any better. It is already a powerful moment, just like many others. Would we have to watch the bullets from the snipers come at us before they hit their victims?

    I swore off 3D after Beowulf, and with the exception of the Disney Epcot, I have stuck to it.

  • 7 5-04-2010 at 2:22 pm

    Al said...

    The reason I hate it is because it spells out “YOU’RE WATCHING A MOVIE.” Sure, this is obvious, but as a viewer I should be able to connect to the story, characters, etc without being thrown out by loopy tricks.

    Its really a matter of fourth wall to me, which by the way there is a huge difference between Ferris Buller breaking the fourth wall (acceptable) and 3D breaking it (not acceptable). In Buller’s case, he’s still Ferris Buller when he talks to the camera (he isn’t Matthew Broderick). With 3D, its just breaking the fourth wall, suddenly the images on screen aren’t plausible and they cease their continuity (unlike Buller)

    I love Ebert by the way. I hope he lives long enough to see 3D die.

  • 8 5-04-2010 at 2:28 pm

    Al said...

    “silent film audiences may have found talkies “hard to imagine,” but that was no excuse not to experiment with the possibility.”

    the difference is plausibility. sound creates a more plausible reality, where 3D has yet to.

  • 9 5-04-2010 at 2:32 pm

    TJK said...

    Aww, you guys are just trying to spoil the fun.

    3D has huge potential. I just don`t think we have seen the best possible use of yet.

  • 10 5-04-2010 at 4:39 pm

    DRM said...

    I’m not really against the look of 3D, but I have a big problem with the glasses. Maybe I just have OCD peripheral vision, but when I saw Avatar I was always aware of the glasses sitting on my nose. It was a huge distraction from what was going on in the movie itself.

    I will more fully embrace 3D if they ever develop a technology that doesn’t require us to put glasses on. This is the huge difference between 3D and the likes of sound or color. The latter two technological advances did not require audiences to do anything other than sit there and use their natural senses.

  • 11 5-04-2010 at 5:34 pm

    Fitz said...

    The primary problem with this argument is that Ebert’s 3D rant should not be solely judged on Alice & Clash (both were converted pre-production).

    The 3D was used incredibly efficiently in Avatar & Christmas Carol (both films managed to draw me in when I wouldn’t have watching in 2D). I also expect Tron Legacy to not abuse the 3D technology its used.

  • 12 5-04-2010 at 11:06 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    DRM: You think that’s hard? Try wearing them on top of regular glasses, that’s hard.

  • 13 5-06-2010 at 9:54 pm

    Glenn said...

    Why theory with 3D in many cases is that the movies it is being put into would almost inevitably be just as bad in 2D as people say they are in 3D. So, really, what’s the harm in turning the “Piranha” remake into a 3D effects show? This is a business after all, and if Disney saw they could make more money out of Burton’s awful “Alice in Wonderland” by having it in 3D then so be it. That movie was always going to be as bad as it turned out to be whether it was in 2D or 3D. In the process they made a swag of cash (over $300 mil). If audiences hated the 3D so much then they are more than welcome to NOT see a movie in 3D. See it 2D or don’t see it at all if – as Ebert suggests – most movies in 3D are bad and that no “serious” film would utilise it.

    I like Ebert, but his constant anti-3D tweets are nigh on insufferable. I would say that movies such as “Piranha 3D” will be definitely improved by the 3D upgrade and “Avatar”s use of it was astonishingly good (I’m sure it was fantastic in 2D as well, but I didn’t see it in 2D so I can only discuss it as a 3D movie). I am quite positive that I never want to see “Beowulf” in 2D since the only stuff I truly liked in that were the 3D effects. That dragon sequence was incredible in 3D!

    I don’t think anybody is truly claiming that eventually every movie will be in 3D and that, like silent movies, nobody will go see movies that aren’t in 3D. And if Ebert and anybody thinks that then they’re gullible fools. Yes, it’s a trick by studios to make more money. If they don’t make money then they can’t make movies. It’s just the way it is.