The Bag Means Your Mind

A delightful mix of insightful comments and ignorant assumptions about screenwriting... and such.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Emergence of 3-D and the Irony of Hugo

We're all conservative in some way. Some are socially conservative. Some don't want the natural environment to be changed by humans in any way. Others cling to words and grammar as if they have no right to change. Every single one of us has something or some things that we cling to and will fight to preserve (or wish the clocks could turn back). In the case of Hugo I'm reminded of conservatism as it comes to art, specifically movies. It's a kind of nostalgia that people take very seriously. And when nostalgia is married, even indirectly, to technology drama is sure to follow.

Imagine what happened back in the days when color was replacing black and white film. I don't have any old editorials to cite, but I don't think it's a stretch to assume that there were film enthusiasts who saw color as a gimmick, as a debasement of cinema. The same may have even happened when the silent film gave way to the talkies. We could go back even further and laugh at how the artistic community scoffed at movies and their churlish ways.

After color and sound were introduced, the fundamental way movies were projected didn't change for nearly 70 years. That's a long time for people to become attached to a medium. First sound systems changed in the 80s. Very few complained about that (who doesn't want that monster bass?) Then in the late 90s, 00s digital began its glacial movement to replace film that is still happening to this day. There was and continues to be, albeit muted, gnashing of teeth over this. Spielberg talked about how the grains in film were special, blah blah blah. I worked as a projectionist for several years and I knew firsthand how quickly film prints were dirtied, scratched, and faded. The process of making thousands of prints inherently lowers in quality from the original. I knew that on average probably less than 1% of theater goers got a top notch presentation. Digital, even if slightly flawed delivered exactly the same experience every single time. It was never scratched, never out of focus, and had a consistent brightness from corner to corner. It was a no-brainer in my eyes. But then again, I traveled more than an hour on more than one occasion just to see a digitally projected film.

I'm the least nostalgic person I know. I've always been about the future, looking forward to every new technology. I'm excited to witness the evolution of video games into a medium that's poised to really turn into something important (that's a whole other post) and I've always been interested in  the prospect of 3-D movies. I traveled to New York City in 1995 to see one of the first serious 3-D movies, a short called Wings of Courage, and came away impressed. I was giddy at the prospect of becoming even more immersed in my movie world.

The introduction of 3-D is much like the change from black and white to color. At first color films didn't look all that great and were garishly over-saturated. Eventually they became refined and respectable. 3-D is in that over-saturated period now. The need for glasses turns people off and the effect is still not 100% there. And we have to endure a host of 2-D movies converted and others that use it only as a gimmick. But, at some point glasses will be a thing of the past, serious filmmakers will be on board, and the conversion will be complete. It's not a matter of if but when. And since movie distributors are falling over each other to find ways to distinguish themselves from powerful home theaters change is coming sooner rather than later.

Today we have some prominent filmmakers willing to give 3-D a shot. James Cameron is probably the most outspoken. Avatar may not have been the best movie, but I loved his use of 3-D and there were certain shots within that film that made me know that 3-D is the future. Cameron is known for blockbusters and the opinion of his work does run the gamut. I suppose it might be a difficult task to hold up a movie about blue aliens and talk up the arrival of 3-D as a legitimate artistic choice. Kenneth Branagh had some very creative and interesting 3-D shot compositions with Thor, but Thor? Really? It's more than easy to write off as nonsense, but what do you do when Martin Scorsese does it and on a film that centers on the love and preservation of movies?

Hugo blew me away. It has been years since I felt emotion that powerfully. A day later I can feel my voice tense up and start to quiver when I try to talk about certain scenes. The story ended up captivating me, but it was Scorsese's deft use of 3-D that took my breath away. The opening shot which flies over Paris, through a narrow train platform, and ending the face of the main character through the numbers on a huge clock sets the stage for what is to come. It's not only 3-D, but an unabashed celebration of 3-D. Countless shots use depth of field in interesting ways. You are forever looking through the scene and not at it.

It's a movie that spends a lot of its time focused on a man who saw the possibilities in a new technology (movies) and is itself shot in a movie technology that is struggling to find support from the artistic community. 3-D is not new, but this serious push as a viable medium is.

The profound irony is that Hugo plays to the preservationist crowd, the people who adore and love the medium of movies. Yet I'd wager that the majority of these people scoff at 3-D as a medium. It's the nature of the beast. I'm sure you will find people who criticize his use of the technology or better yet, create a special dispensation for this movie. "It worked here, but 99% of the time it's going to be crap." Maybe this movie will change some minds. I'm not holding my breath.

A year ago I was on a nature walk taking pictures when I walked across a footbridge and looked down. I saw a spectacular ravine and noticed how the rocks parted as the water flowed down and down. I took a picture trying to capture the moment. In the end I selected the right framing, exposure, and all the right parts were in focus, but it was drab and boring. I realized that it was the depth that made it stand out, and by smashing it flat I destroyed any possibility of recreating that moment.

I recount this experience to show that 2-D can't do it all. If given the choice and the technology I'd shoot in 3-D, and I think that would hold true for the large majority, just like if early filmmakers had the choice to make movies with sound and color, we wouldn't see many silent/black and white films at all. In general (exceptions given to works that use it as a choice), if given a choice and assuming the technology works as your mind can imagine I'd always choose sound over silence, color over black and white, 3-D over 2-D, holograms over 3-D, and dream state over holograms. 

Hugo shows what's possible. If I had a wish it would be that people would embrace the new and be excited for what's to come rather than clinging to what we've only been using because it was the best we had.

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