3d or not 3d

Back in 2008 I was in Mumbai, and one afternoon I went to the PVR multiplex in Juhu to see the Hindi film Jodhaa Akbar.

Not unimportantly, and only the day before, I had seen a stimulating demonstration of 3d, organized by technology manufacturer Quantel at the Taj Hotel at Land’s End in Mumbai.

I was fascinated by the various examples we were shown in the demo, and especially intrigued by the effect that this format has on human bodies in movement. Black & white stereo 3d imagery showed, for example, an interesting “Dynamic Sculptural” look. Indeed, I found this to be one of the most potentially stimulating aspects 3d has to offer. I also observed that atmospheric particles - dust, snow, vapor and rain etc. can contribute to making us feel much more immersed in what’s going on, especially if underlined with three dimensional sound. When shown also in slow motion, the atmospheric effects become even more fascinating.

However, and also apart from the fairly well known, and often heavily abused effects of objects and people flying out of the screen towards us to create justly-called "cheap thrills", and which very rarely do actually have a validity in the film’s story line, 3d in itself can be used to create a hyper-stereo effect on scenarios or wide shots, to the extent of being able to re-create the emotions one can experience such as fear of heights or vertigo, while giving a new and more stimulating aspect to the Cinematography of location shots – that of depth.

I’m not joking, as I was once standing on the backlot of Cinecittà in Rome in the small and shaky confines of a two person so-called "cherry picker", some 40 meters above ground with director Giuseppe Tornatore - he wanted to evaluate what a shot from a mini helicopter would look like on an extravagantly high set that had been built there for a commercial and an event. I told him that I suffered from heights, and he turned to me and said “Just think that you’re watching a film, and then you won’t suffer”. His advice worked then (well, to an extent!), but I laughed to myself when I saw Avatar in Italy’s best Cinema (the Arcadia in Melzo, near Milan, with it’s 30 meter wide screen and bright 3d projection) I suffered that same sensation of the tingling in my feet that I normally suffer from fear of heights, yet, there I was in a Cinema watching a film!

In a stimulating test I made some time ago with another Italian director, he mentioned that the film he was about to shoot would be shot in very few locations - basically, almost all in a single room. He asked me if we could make the public feel as if they were in the same room as the actors with 3d. I suggested putting the cameras fairly low and tilted slightly up iwith wide lensing n such a way as to show us the floor with the same perspective as that of the Cinema itself, and keeping the sides fairly empty and dark so as to make the projection “window” all but disappear. He was pleasantly surprised by the results after some tests that we shot to prove the point.

OK, you might be asking yourselves by now What on Earth has 3d got to do with Jodhaa Akbar, especially since, those of you that may have seen it, know that it was a 2d film.

Well, the point about Jodhaa Akbar is that I was watching the film in a Multiplex in Juhu the day after the afore-mentioned 3d demonstration at Land’s End in Mumbai, and precisely at more or less the center point of the Film, where, as often happens in mainstream Hindi films, there was a marvelous song and dance scene with thousands of extras dancing to a lively soundtrack, in this case all dressed with beautiful costumes and shot with exceptional Cinematography - I remember visually the large drums close to camera and the multitudes of brilliantly choreographed and very colorful dancers - all of a sudden I felt goose pimples and a tremble ran down my spine, as I realized that I was looking at the scene and imagining how it would appear if I could have seen it in 3d instead of 2d in that specific moment. In 3d, I could almost have been in the middle of it, I mused.

I guess we tend to forget that in the real world we only perceive 3d in distances not beyond about 50 metres except in particular circumstances; however, I am conscious that reality is one thing, while film entertainment and story-telling is certainly another, and one uses set design, colors, lighting, cinematography and editing orchestrally in one’s palette to create entertaining stories that are perceived by the public in their complexities as an emotional "Theatrical Experience". In my opinion 3d offers a new added palette of opportunities above and together with all of the previously known and used ones, thereby allowing us to innovate the language of cinema for the ever-evolving, and, we should not be surprised, ever more demanding public.

Jodhaa Akbar's musical break was a very emotional scene and I could see that the public in the cinema were completely involved, enraptured and concentrated on it, as I looked from time to time to judge their reactions too, but the emotions ran wilder still in me as I imagined each one of those thousands of extras and dancers and drummers more as moving sculptures than as flat images; indeed moving sculptures of which I could almost feel the vibes physically (yes, matching surround sound amplifies the effect too); in essence, something I could almost touch rather than just watch, and something that, not surprisingly, also made me feel much more drawn into the story.

Similar thoughts and sensations ran through my head when I saw, round about the same time, some excerpts from Mystic India, another beautifully photographed film that I could imagine to have been absolutely exceptional had it been shot in 3d, and a film where the cinematography in 65mm must have been conceived to give the sensation of more depth or three dimensionality in the first place – one of the many examples where we can see how cinematographers strive to make films look as three dimensional as they can on a flat screen, and something which is now, with the advent of 3d, ever closer to their grasp in a novel way, and which will also implies a new language to be developed for using it all efficiently for story-telling.

The sensation of a third dimension is something that I feel in the highly immersive experience of seeing a giant screen format film, even in 2d, and, I believe, this points to the fact that 3d really needs big screens to make an emotional impact.

I guess it’s true to say that the increased perception of being an integral part of the show rather than being simply a spectator of it - especially when we’re looking at music concerts, sports and the like - will help kindle the fire of 3d in a big way in the coming years, despite a certain strain of pessimism currently wafting around, mainly due to dark and inefficient projection, some less-than-effective 2d to 3d conversion, 3d films shot as if they were 2d, bad glasses, and overpriced tickets, amongst other issues. When done well 3d can increase the emotional involvement and enhance the entertaining experience, and we certainly get to see more details in the acting when it is used natively.

Indeed, in 3d acting assumes far more importance as in theatrical performances, because now we can see powerful new aesthetics and perceive much more of the real performance with the addition of the third dimension, and not just because we can see the volume of the veins pulsing on the actors necks and faces.

3d pioneer James Cameron spoke at the 2011 IBC convention in Amsterdam about the use of 3d for Films. In his view, 3d lends itself to all film projects. He mentioned that there is not a single genre that is more or less suited to 3d, although many are convinced otherwise. His contention is that 3d has more to offer in terms of added value to low budget films than it does to the kind of huge budget spectacular visual effects films like his Avatar franchise.

.My recent experiences in shooting and post producing 3d allow me to state that, when well prepared, it doesn’t necessarily take any longer to shoot than 2d, and that, with today’s constantly evolving technologies, it can be done for a fairly insignificant increase in costs over traditional 2d shooting and post production.

Unfortunately, and as, quite literally, the dark side of the moon, 3d has also suffered from dark and ineffective projections in many Cinemas around the world, understandably leading to a dip in interest from the public, with the notable exception of China where most cinemas are new and better equipped technically. Indeed, the public justly wonders why they are not seeing the added value that they are paying for in the western world, and some cinemas are very guilty of having created the exact opposite of added value. I could only call this subtracted value, and it is generally caused by combinations of small screens, bad glasses, dim and misaligned projection etc.

.However, all is not lost, as new and much brighter laser light source projection technologies and bright new tecnologies are being developed for Cinemas, and will no doubt turn this sad state of affairs upside down within the next couple of years, or Cinemas will ever more lose their public to brighter, larger and more pristine television sets and displays in the home.

So, the future actually will look brighter for 3d Projection in Cinemas, and that’s not just intended as a pun, and I can’t wait for it to happen! I love the added palette that it offers!! I’d like to do more of it!