The Column – Deception of the Eye: On 3D Cinema

Miguel Penabella | 24 June 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.


If you ever visit the Church of Sant’Ignazio of Loyola at Campus Martius in Rome, Italy, and stare up into the ceiling, you can observe a very similar effect to what the stereoscopic RealD Cinema of your local multiplex hopes to accomplish with their brand of 3D cinema. Like Renaissance artist Michelangelo, Andrea Pozzo painted ceilings, though he did so a few decades later during the Baroque period of art history. Unlike the Renaissance artist, Pozzo’s great works at the church – the false dome and the grand Apotheosis of S. Ignatius – employ formal devices that create illusion rather than realism. French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously claimed that “Film is truth 24 times a second,” emphasizing the power of the moving image taking precedent over theories of montage, or continuity editing. Yet the way modern audiences are viewing more and more films at the cinema contradicts Godard’s original claim, instead moving more towards Pozzo’s illusory work at Sant’Ignazio back in the late 1600s. Cinema is deeply enmeshed in art history, as both mediums involve similar techniques in creating a sense of space: linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, curvilinear perspective, and so on. Andrea Pozzo’s attention to illusionary space and the wonder it can conjure certainly resonates in today’s fascination of 3D blockbuster filmmaking. While many critics find 3D as gimmicky and burdensome to film, I find myself siding with Pozzo and the other Baroque painters of their day and age. 3D filmmaking is gradually returning to basic art values, namely an emphasis on convincing audiences in the reality of a nonexistent space on a flat surface, linking cave to canvas to camera in ways never quite seen before.

The ceiling frescoes of Pozzo fall under various artistic techniques including quadratura (di sotto in sù), trompe-l’œil, and perspectival anamorphosis. I won’t go into detail behind these concepts, but the effect of these three ultimately results in one singular thing: an opening up of nonexistent space that distorts a viewer’s sense of reality. In cinema, there exists two major, widely diverging forms of 3D filmmaking. The first represents the more commonly ridiculed, gimmicky nature of 3D that most audiences have grown up with prior to the explosion of more complex technologies of today’s market, and that form of 3D concerns elements of positive space jumping out into the audience (like that old paddleball gag from 1953’s House of Wax). More recent films of this design like Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over or My Bloody Valentine 3D feel more like gimmicky attractions like those dark rides in amusement parks rather than actual films. Indeed, these earlier forms of 3D use the in-your-face visuals to mask the rather flat storylines, revealing that the technology is more style than substance (with a few noteworthy exceptions like the surreal playfulness of Coraline, a psychedelic trip of well-executed practical effects). It’s really not until 2009 that 3D technology really breaks into newer, more reputable ground.

One can’t discuss the merits of 3D without venturing into 2009’s monolithic Avatar, a film that’s already faded from the public consciousness but still warrants credit as the modern film that really proved 3D technology as bankable. Eschewing the flimsy, outdated blue-and-red lensed Anaglyph 3D of days past, director James Cameron tread new ground with Avatar’s visuals, opening up spatial possibilities not in terms of positive space but negative space. Rather than focusing on a main protagonist onscreen as the focal point of the 3D effects, Avatar lends much of the technology to the surrounding empty space, thus giving off the effect of three-dimensionality that recedes inward rather than outward. Recent films have experimented with Cameron’s technology, vastly improving the spatial dynamics established to the point where the cinematography of some films feel as though an audience member can simply walk into the frame like something out of the Dutch Golden Age of painting. Films like Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo phenomenally employ 3D as a means for glorious long shots in wide angle that picks apart every single little object in a spatial plane. Tintin’s intricately constructed chase sequence in Morocco is a prime example of the merits of modern day 3D filmmaking, the technology allowing audiences to accurately pinpoint the characters from the chaotic destruction snowballing throughout the scene as characters race down from rushing floodwater. And in Hugo, the technology brilliantly accentuates the labyrinthine spaces of the meandering hallways and the tiny details that comprise the turn-of-the-century Parisian train station setting as the camera glides seamlessly through empty space.

Of course, the shiny promises of 3D technology only heighten the depth of space, not the depth of story, a thought that James Cameron apparently overlooked when filming Avatar. 3D technology does hold great promise in the hands of the great auteurs of cinema and not just the multiplex heavyweights. People like Michael Bay, James Cameron, or even Peter Jackson may use 3D as a means for visual flair, but those who understand the power of the technology for both opening up space and even as a way to add emotional depth to the narrative transform the gimmick into a worthwhile cinematic element. Werner Herzog’s overlooked Cave of Forgotten Dreams back in 2011 used 3D to portray ancient cave paintings, melding modern technology with the earliest records of image. The effect profoundly adds to the viewing of the film, reminding audiences of our continued fascination with vision and our perception of imagery. In the aforementioned Hugo, Scorsese executes a similar effect with his revamping of Georges Méliès’ impeccable A Trip to the Moon, linking the modern with the classic. But to end this column, I’d like to revisit Jean-Luc Godard, that enfant terrible of cinema. Always challenging our notions concerning the rules of editing, image, and language (see: the brilliant but near incomprehensible Film Socialisme on Joycean and Proustian terms), Godard is shooting his next project, Adieu au Langage, in 3D. While many mainstream, Western 3D films are in paralysis because filmmakers can only focus on special effects and technical gimmickry, Godard has interests vital for the continuation and progression of this cinematic technique that really uncovers the potentials for 3D filmmaking: “I always like it when new techniques are introduced. Because it doesn’t have any rules yet. And one can do everything.”

Notes 4