Recently I went to see Pina, Wim Wenders’ 3D documentary about the choreographer Pina Bausch. It was full of very skilful dancing, but was essentially a long drawn-out version of its (comparatively striking) trailer, without any discernible structure or narrative arc. I was mainly bored. My mind began to wander, ruminating on the subject of the 3D effect and what it means for cinema. This was my fifth such experience, after Up, Toy Story 3, Gnomeo and Juliet (don’t ask) and the wonderful Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Here are my conclusions.
To get the obvious out of the way first: part of the issue is that at the moment the technology doesn’t work very well. For a start you have to wear annoying glasses which reduce colour by 30% and are a particular problem if, like me, you’ve already got your own specs on. Then, the ‘3D’ effect seems rather partial – I tend to see a number of planes (usually two or three) with flat figures on them rather than get any proper sense of depth.
The edge of the screen seems to present a particular problem, especially when things on the outside are ‘closer’ (say you’re looking down a tunnel) and are then cut off. It causes a strange kind of eye-ache, and the same sensation occurs whenever there’s a complex scene with various movements (say a long shot of a busy street corner) or anything particularly fast.
Granted, it’s possible to imagine a scenario in the future when the technology was honed and these issues were all vastly improved. But it strikes me that 3D has a more fundamental problem: during any decent film, you’re completely unaware of the flat screen in front of you. Figures’ different sizes on screen are sufficient to portray perspective – and almost immediately things appear to be happening in a three dimensional world anyway.
In other words, if a fiction film is successful, it brings you under its spell to the point where you’re no longer thinking about the filmmaking – or even the fact that you’re in a cinema – but lost in the story. However, in order to justify itself (and the extra cost of the ticket) 3D has to poke things out of the screen and remind you that you’re watching 3D… which is bad for the film, since it constantly breaks that spell.
Or sometimes it doesn’t. Watching Toy Story 3, whose creators were sensible enough not to include such gimmicky moments, I forgot I was watching 3D from about the five-minute point onwards. Was the famously moving incinerator scene given even more pathos because it was in 3D, without us realising it? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so – cinema has always been able to create great drama, even before digital projection, and even before colour. Ultimately the glasses were redundant.
So what of Herzog? He has stated that the moment he stepped into the Chauvet caves, he realised his film would have to be in 3D. I can understand that: it may have looked slightly artificial, but the 3D illusion also demonstrated the shape of the walls in a way which conventional filming really would have missed. When I took my glasses off momentarily, the comparative flatness was clear.
Of course Herzog was skilled (in the film’s serious moments at least), sensibly utilising extreme close-ups and ultra-slow pans to negate the weaknesses of the technology. But the real reason it worked was because of the genre. Crucially, a Werner Herzog documentary is already about Werner Herzog making a documentary. The film is already saying ‘look at these images I filmed’ – so the fact that the 3D is doing the same thing isn’t distracting, as it would be in a fiction. It fits.
Perhaps these specific type of documentaries – natural history, wildlife – are where 3D has a future. Whilst Brief Encounter may be as moving as any modern romance, it would be difficult to argue that David Attenborough’s nature programmes of the same era haven’t been significantly improved on by, say, Planet Earth, thanks to wonders of modern digital photography. These are films in which an awareness of the filmmaking process is fundamental, rather than problematic – for Attenborough’s detail of a lizard’s scales, see Herzog’s contours of a rock. When simply showing a thing is the raison d’être, 3D might well have its uses.