Driven forward by technological innovation and spectacle, the next revolution in modern cinema is heralded by the progress of digitalisation and a renewed interest in 3D motion pictures.

After several promising attempts by a string of Hollywood studios, the release dates of a spate of films utilising enhanced 3D technology have appeared on the horizon. While Pixar’s latest animated feature Up was able to add a compelling plot to computer-generated 3D animation, the true landmark production is about to be released, ushering in a new age of 3D.

Enormous hype surrounds the release of James Cameron’s 3D sci-fi epic Avatar, the titanic film that is rumoured to both redefine digital cinema and become the most expensive film production ever. So encouraging is the work of Cameron that virtually every major film studio now boasts a number of forthcoming 3D projects.

Avatar has been a work in progress for over a decade now; with Cameron waiting to further develop the required technology until he was confident his ambitions could be transferred onto the screen. For many, the lengthy development process also spells the promise of a quality narrative. Some cinéphiles, however, remain more cautious.

A blast from the past

Despite the recent fuss, 3D cinema is by no means as novel a format as it is currently touted to be. The film industry has toyed with 3D since the early 20th century, with the 1950s and 1980s in particular producing long lists of 3D titles.

“The 3D films of the 80s can be seen as a series of experiments,” states Lasse Kilpiä from the post-production company Generator Post, noting this previous dalliance to be a very hit and miss affair.

More recently, technological advances have redefined the process of filmmaking. Digitalisation has made project management, and consequently the addition of 3D elements, much easier. The increase in the number of digitalised cinemas worldwide is reflected in the recent healthy box office earnings made by 3D productions.

Previous attempts at 3D suffered not only from the audience having to wear hideous goggles, but also from inept techniques. With two separate projectors producing the image on screen, often they would fall out of sync with one another, resulting in side effects for viewers, such as headache, eye strain and nausea. Recently similar health concerns have been voiced, especially after the introduction of 3D home cinemas at the IFA exhibition in Berlin earlier this year. Kilpiä believes that, just like the goggles, the adverse health effects are a thing of the past.

“The higher frame frequency guarantees improved picture quality. Moreover, in 2D, eyes will focus on a single area on the screen, whereas in 3D eyes can observe in a manner closer to the natural world.”

Digital dreams

Digitalisation has also brought about the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI). After Jurassic Park (1993) first featured organic CGI on screen and Toy Story (1995) updated the animated feature to the digital age, CGI has been embraced by the industry with open arms. But the excessive use of digital imagery has its opposition.

“In a way, it is absurd that a brilliant director like Robert Zemeckis opts to have his cast fully devote themselves to the making of the film and then cover a majority of their nuances with layers and layers of pixels,” voices Jussi U. Pellonpää, a cinematographer and editor with 20 years of experience writing film reviews.

Remembered for helming such Hollywood hits as Back to the Future (1985) and Forrest Gump (1994), Robert Zemeckis has recently become a zealous proponent of “performance capture,” a technology where the scenes are first shot with live actors and are then coated with digital images. Zemeckis has utilised performance capture in his last three films, starting from Polar Express (2004).

“Even if they animate every single pore, it seems that the human eye is impossible to capture naturally. Until the geeks succeed in doing it, the characters are bound to lack ‘soul’, if you will. Therefore, monsters, animals and mythological creatures look much better as no efforts to humanise them are needed,” Pellonpää concludes.

The return of the Jedi and the King

• Despite experiments dating back to the early 1900s, the first golden era of 3D films occurred during the 1950s, boasting such classics as The House of Wax (the first major studio film in 3D), Creature from the Black Lagoon and Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

• The second wave of 3D filmmaking took place in the early 1980s and produced such horror fare as Jaws 3-D and Amityville 3-D.

• The current revival of the format began in 2003 with James Cameron’s documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, the first full-length 3D IMAX feature.

• An unprecedented triumph for the proponents of modern 3D technology was the choice of Pixar’s 3D-animated feature Up as the opening film of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

Many filmmakers certainly seem confident that such technological shortcomings will be overcome. DreamWorks has announced that all future projects will be in 3D and it is rumoured that George Lucas plans to utilise the format for yet another release of his Star Wars films. Meanwhile, Peter Jackson is determined to give his lucrative Tolkien trilogy a 3D update as well. Others, such as Darren Aronofsky, are reportedly less eager to experiment with the new format just yet. However, neither the greater cinema-going audience nor film-enthusiasts are likely to welcome a string of 3D remakes spiced with gimmicks that distract from the original films’ actual substance – or lack thereof.

“Currently, 3D does not offer anything to dialogue scenes, so the filmmakers must add these silly whizzes to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats,” Pellonpää states. “Visually, the format clearly has potential, as long as we do not disregard the narrative.”

Once the initial excitement of showcasing the format’s attractive features has abated, many see that 3D can be employed in more dramatic genres. In addition to its current use and future potential in animation and horror, Kilpiä believes 3D has a lot to offer to other genres as well. “3D enables, for instance, the use of longer scenes in which the audience will be present in a truly novel way.”

On the other hand, in order to guarantee a more traditional cinematic experience which is essential for some genres, the two-dimensional format is a necessity. “In some instances, the viewer must be allowed to be an outside observer – the experience should not be too realistic,” explains Nicolas Fleury, chair of the Turku-based film club Kinokopla.

Whatever its usage, 3D will certainly be an important asset for cinemas prior to the looming prevalence of 3D home cinemas, maybe even stemming the tide of illegal downloading for the immediate future.

Avatar opens in theatres 
18 Dec

Aleksi Teivainen