The film industry has been trying to push 3D on its customers for a while now, but it has just in the past year or so shifted that campaign into high gear. 2009 had a number of notable titles to be released in movie theaters in 3D (most of them CGI-animated productions that easily lend themselves to the 3D process because they are completely digitally created).
Now comes the 3D “game changer” behemoth: Avatar. This is going to be the movie that changes everything, right?
Well, not so fast.
Avatar is the first modern 3D feature film that I’ve seen. By “modern,” I mean the sort of 3D by way of modern techniques like circular polarization, as opposed to those 1950s-style red/blue glasses.
Avatar is a wonderfully entertaining and unsubtle message movie and a visual achievement (and no, I will not be reviewing it), but I am not convinced that it needs to be seen in 3D. Granted, the 3D was pretty damn cool. There were scenes where you could literally focus on foreground objects on the screen as if they were really there, and then switch your focus to objects behind them, and the foreground object would go double, just like in real life. There are some breathtaking shots in 3D, where the experience becomes immersive. And impressive.
But overall, I found the 3D experience to be a bit of a wash. As good as it was, it did not always work in a convincing manner. Often I was too aware of the effect, or perhaps my brain’s attempt to defeat it, or that certain shots simply weren’t in 3D at all. As much as it was obvious that James Cameron was trying to treat 3D as simply a tool in the toolbox — instead of a gimmick for the sake of itself — the format itself unavoidably drew attention to itself. Perhaps part of it was me and the fact that this was the first 3D film I’d seen. But I was not so blown away that I think 3D is where movies need to go.
There’s also the problem that the glasses, with their darkened tint, wash out some of the color and put up a barrier between you and the movie. It’s not a serious problem, but it’s definitely noticeable. I couldn’t help but shake the feeling through much of the movie that a traditional 2D experience would’ve been brighter, more colorful, less distracting, and equally immersive, if not more so. I would be concentrating on the movie rather than the 3D experience.
Avatar, created at huge expense, is supposed to be the gold standard of 3D. And so it is; I believe that. But I’d hate to see the average 3D feature’s attempt. Actually, I think I did, during the pre-Avatar trailers for, among others, Piranha 3D, which had characters zooming at you in an awful 3D effect that I liken to cardboard cutouts being hurled at a camera.
I hate to be the old fogey here, but I’ve got to side with Roger Ebert on this one. 3D is at best Avatar (where, to me anyway, it’s something of a mixed bag — sometimes awesome, sometimes distracting — despite being the best of the best), or at worst it’s a painfully obvious and obnoxious gimmick used to fleece you for an additional premium charge. It’s obviously a viable platform the studios are going to use, but I have serious doubts that it’s for me or even most people.
Now on to television.
I saw this piece, and when I read the quotes of the 3D TV advocates (i.e., people who stand to make money in an emerging venture), you see that this is a case of technology pushers being optimistic to the point of being delusional. These companies develop these things, it seems, as if they have no regard for an average customer’s utility, or the existence of content to support their platforms. All they can seem to see is the next moneymaker by way of rushed technological innovation. (They aren’t the only ones; apparently ESPN is committed to the concept of a 3D channel. Don’t ask me how that could possibly work when many of ESPNHD’s games are still clearly not even broadcast at full 1920×1080 resolution.)
These advocates are already predicting a future where all TVs will be 3D-capable. Says Rick Dean, director of the 3D@Home Consortium: “I think we’ve come to the end of the HD conversion. I’d say that technology is fairly well baked, the next big thing is about an enhanced experience into the home.”
Excuse me? In what world do you live in? Because the world I live in is one where HDTV is still barely in mass adoption. Sure, everyone’s getting HDTVs (now that they can’t buy anything else) and most of the big-name networks have HD channels. But many consumers are still piping regular 480i analog cable into their HDTVs; many cable providers still only offer maybe 25 percent of their actual lineup in HD; you still go to bars and see football games broadcast in crappy-looking SD via HD flat-screen TVs; secondary TV markets still broadcast their local news and programming in 480i; and Blu-ray has just barely, finally become acceptably affordable (which is not at all the same as being “worth buying”) to the average paying consumer. The “end of HD conversion”? Maybe in about 10 years.
I think HDTV is great and would never want to go back. But my problem with HDTV right now is that (1) not enough content is offered in HD by the cable distributors, and (2) the Blu-ray peddlers have the audacity to charge me a premium for HD content even now that HDTVs are all that you can buy (though that admittedly may be coming to an end soon, judging by how Blu-ray has been slashed in price over the past year).
And now these people want to ram 3D down our collective throats? I don’t think so. Just because the technology exists doesn’t mean people want it. (I sure don’t, and I don’t think I’m alone.) Advocates of 3D make the same mistake that many companies who push technology make: They think the technology drives the market, when in fact it’s the consumer who drives the market. And then, after that, it’s up to the content producers to supply enough software to make the hardware worth having.