The “debate” over 3D has become a polarized polemic, a one-dimensional (sorry) and mind numbingly boring exchange of “3D sucks” “no you suck” back and forths. It gives “film vs. digital” a good run for the title of “discussion I’d most rather chew my own foot off than get sucked into on twitter.” So why am I writing about it? Because even as the debate has (sorry again) flattened, my feelings about stereoscopic photography have grown more complex and nuanced. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, technically or otherwise, but I’m setting down my current thoughts just to get them in order, and posting them for anyone who’s interested. If even one foot chewing incident is prevented or delayed, I’ll be happy.
I highly recommend reading Rian Johnson’s thoughts on 3D. As someone who often instigates debates with Rian on Twitter about “2D vs. 3D” and “film vs. digital” I took special delight in reading a longform exploration of his views.
A few years ago, I think that Rian and I had diametrically opposed opinions with regards to stereoscopic 3D. I was a strong believer in the format, and I pushed for BATTLE FOR TERRA to be rendered and released in stereoscopic 3D.
So here’s the funny thing… Even though Rian and I each started with directly opposed opinions on stereoscopic 3D, we have ended up in almost exactly the same place. As Rian has been seduced by the potential of a future real 3D cinema, I have been let down by the fundamental problems in the current incarnation of 3D filmmaking.
At first I thought the problems of stereoscopic 3D were minor technical hurdles that could easily been polished away. I now realize that these hurdles are actually insurmountable roadblocks.
The simplest reason is that stereoscopic 3D asks our eyes to do something they have never been intended to do. We are asked to focus our individual eyes at one distance while our binocular vision is asked to converge on a different distance. To put this simply, if we are sitting 20 feet from the screen then our eyes will focus at 20 feet to keep the picture in focus. If something appears to come 5 feet out of the screen, then our binocular vision converges as if we’re looking at something 15 feet from us but our individual eyes still need to focus on the plane 20 feet away from us. This is something that we literally never ask our eyes to do at any other point of our lives.
So now, like Rian, I go out of my way to find 2D showings are for big 3D tentpole hits. I check out the occasional stereoscopic 3D film, but mostly out of technical curiosity. At this point, I know I’m much more likely to be absorbed by a movie if it’s on a big bright screen with loud sound, and the only glasses on my face are the ones with my prescription.
I believe in the potential of 3D filmmaking. I just think the optical illusion of stereoscopic 3D isn’t the way to get there. There is more to dimensionality than presenting each eye with a flat rendered image designed to fake stereopsis. There are just too many aspects of how we perceive and interact with dimension that can’t be fooled by the process we call stereoscopic 3D.
[Edited to add: @prairie_oysters let me know that Walter Murch made the same observation a few months ago in a letter to Roger Ebert. Of course, he words it better than I do.]