Noisemaker: The Amazing Life and Premature Death of 3D

“No sooner did sound film appear than bluff triumphed over quality.” — Rudolf Arnheim

Late to the Party? Francis Coppola directs Elle Fanning in his 3D production "Twixt"

At last month’s Comic-Con, Francis Coppola debuted some scenes from Twixt, his latest adventure in radically personal filmmaking (it’s based on an early short story of his). For many journalists present, Twixt immediately became the most anticipated film event of the year; a few claimed it was the best presentation ever given in Hall H, a vast 6500-seat venue reserved for spectacles. Spectacles indeed: those entering the theater found their seats occupied by Edgar Allen Poe masks with 3D lenses for eyes. The masks were the first course in a buffet of show-stopping gimmicks that made for some electrifying Twitter reportage. For a half-hour that Saturday, many who are allergic to Comic-Con experienced an involuntary cessation of eye-rolling. (I should know.)

Despite the seemingly definitive statement made by the masks, Coppola expressed reservations about 3D: “I’m in the camp that thinks the whole movie shouldn’t be in 3D, so you don’t have to wear the glasses and have a headache for the whole experience.” In Twixt, his way of providing an intermittent 3D experience will be shamelessly direct: an image of the iconic glasses will hover on screen to cue each moment you need to put them on.

Coppola’s right-brain, hype-mongering hijinks are the stuff of legend. But what interests me is that headache he’s getting.

In early 2010 I assumed management of an independently owned cinema in Northern California. Of seven screens, four are 3D capable. Though we struggle to book smaller films (Alamar and Certified Copy were my personal selections), we are directly and sometimes viciously targeted by studios for every 3D release due to our exceptional grosses. And while I may cringe at being forced to open something like Clash of the Titans, I nonetheless take a great deal of pride in our 3D presentations. But I’m willing to admit my investment in this technology is largely sentimental.

A few months after starting the job, I took my kids to see How To Train Your Dragon in 3D about ten times. After our first experience with the glasses and the stereoscopic effect, we were hooked. Over the following year we had six encounters with Megamind in 3D and even more with Tangled in 3D. Four rounds of Gnomeo and Juliet in 3D, two of Mars needs Moms in 3D, one barely endurable press screening of Yogi Bear in 3D. A handful of encounters with Rio in 3D, Kung Fu Panda 2 in 3D, Cars 2 in 3D… You may have identified a fairly obvious pattern that I didn’t see. It turns out that over the past year my son did not walk into a single screening without dark glasses in his hand. Then two weeks ago when I took him to see Zookeeper he shouted “It’s too bright—we forgot our glasses!” as the Columbia logo came up (he was used to sitting through trailers without glasses, so this was the point at which he’d been conditioned to put them on). As I explained to him why we didn’t need glasses this time, an indistinct sadness came over me, an instant nostalgia for a year-long streak shared between me and my son, now broken.

But the following day my sadness gave way to bitterness.

We’d just opened Captain America “over/under,” meaning that we were offering two 2D shows and three 3D shows in a single auditorium. This was the first time any studio had allowed us to restrict the number of 3D shows. When I checked the grosses after opening day, I was alarmed. We sold twice as many tickets for 2D as 3D. As we’d never booked a 2D engagement of any film available in 3D, I’d never seen this disparity up close. The fact that we were permitted to over/under Captain America in 3D and 2D is itself a distressing development—are the studios suddenly willing to admit they didn’t hit the jackpot with the 3D craze? Are they going to start phasing out 3D so soon after we went to the trouble and expense of making our projectors and screens compliant with their demands? And, more importantly, before my kids have exhausted its potential for movie-going magic? The time I’ll spend watching my kids reach out to grab Rapunzel’s ascending lantern and other flying objects may be as sharply curtailed as the time they’ll spend in kindergarten.

If you didn’t notice any complaints about the headaches and eye strain I’ve put up with as a result of my profligate 3D lifestyle, it’s because I didn’t experience any of those side effects. All these articles about eye strain associated with stereoscopic images don’t make any sense to me. Whose eye strain are they talking about? Coppola talks about his headache as if everyone shares his symptoms. Roger Ebert famously declared that 3D is too dim and used numbers to back it up, yet a standard non-stereoscopic image without glasses is too bright for my son. My son has acclimated to a different theatrical experience than Ebert is used to; he prefers an experience Ebert condemns.

Serge Bromberg, Connoisseur of 3D

When I asked my boss why we never field customer complaints about headaches or eye strain during or after our 3D presentations, he suggested that it has to do with our Sony 4K projection system, which projects both images simultaneously, instead of alternating the images as other 3D systems do. Dolby and 2K RealD systems create a high-frequency flicker that can induce headaches just as fluorescent bulbs do (my boss said a lot of other stuff about “triple flash” and “Z Screen” but I’ll stop while I’m ahead). So not all 3D technology is created equal. One of the most illuminating elements of Serge Bromberg’s lively 3D demo at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year was the object lesson provided by the three sets of glasses each member of the audience juggled as Bromberg shifted from one film clip to another. Even an ill-informed technophobe could have recognized that we were asked to change glasses due to “different kinds of 3D” that had been incorporated into the show.

I saw the latest Jackass installment not only in 3D but sitting in DBOX motion seats turned up to full intensity. I didn’t get a headache despite motion effects approximating ram-kicks, jet exhaust and punches to the face and scrotum. I found the use of 3D in the opening and closing set pieces almost ineffably elegant. Jackass 3D/DBOX was ranked third on my 2010 top ten list.

Last week I took my kids to an outdoor screening of How To Train Your Dragon in a city park. I probably don’t need to clarify that it wasn’t presented in 3D under those circumstances. Like hundreds of other people, my kids and I sprawled on a picnic blanket and ate junk while a DVD image rippled across an inflated portable screen. Though my kids now own that very DVD, it was the first time I’d seen the film since its lengthy engagement at my place of work came to an end. As I watched the wind-heckled screen, the nostalgia for those first few visits to “Daddy’s work” was insurmountable. I was relieved by the cover of darkness as I found myself shivering and tearful at regular intervals. As the screening came to an end, I resisted the urge to tell all the apparently satisfied families that the movie was so much better in 3D. But it was. It really was.

Alejandro Adams is the director of three feature films (Around the Bay, Canary, Babnik). He is currently de(con)structing the TV talk show format as creator/producer of Sara Vizcarrondo’s Look of the Week.

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