2 Is Company, 3’s A Crowd?

     |    Saturday December 22nd, 2012

by Andrew Horn

Once upon a time, the word was that 3D was going to be the wave of the future. James Cameron’s “Avatar” was going to start a revolution in filmmaking and within a couple of years all films were going to be in 3D. The evidence for this was that even before the film was finished, theaters were already beginning to install the digital 3D projectors that would be necessary to exhibit it.

Clearly no other film could have had this impact, certainly not before the fact. But Cameron’s “Titanic” had been a monster hit to the tune of over 2 billion dollars worldwide and exhibitors were not going to take a chance on being left out in the cold on his next potential blockbuster. Despite the high cost of the new equipment, the consensus was that it would be worth it once the tidal wave hit. And they were right. “Avatar” beat out it’s predecessor in shear earnings by a cool half billion.

But now three years later, we’re still waiting for the revolution to come. After the flurry in 2010 of a few big 3D winners, we have seen that a lot of the box office success came not so much from the movies themselves but from the 3D surcharge. For example “The Avengers”, which became the 3rd biggest earner of all time this year, sold less tickets here in Germany and Austria than the latest American Pie film. “The Three Musketeers” in 2011 also held 1st  place for two weeks in its German release, despite selling less tickets than the German romantic comedy, “What A Man”.

We have also seen major earnings from many non-3D films such as “The Dark Knight Rises”, the new James Bond and the final Twilight film. And face it, Batman would have been way less trounced by his rival, “The Avengers”, if not for the fact of the surcharge.

Personally I can’t say that any film I saw in post-Avatar 3D – and I’ve seen a few – made an impression on me in its 3D-ness. Even Wim Wenders’ “Pina” – which I thought certainly benefitted from the visual aesthetic that came from him working with the 3D process – when I closed one eye to see what it looked like flat, didn’t seem to me to make all that much difference without this added element of quote-unqote “depth”. Wenders said that 3D was the conceptual element that made the film possible, and if that was the case, well, “by any means necessary” I say. But still…

I for one, basically accept any film I see as “dimensional”. And a 3D film doesn’t really look to me like the way I perceive depth in my day-to-day life. In fact the most “realistic” 3D I have ever seen in a movie was in the image quality of a beautifully restored technicolor print of John Stahl’s “Leave Her To Heaven”. For me, the sight of those autumn leaves on the far side of the lake seemed way more dimensional than Wenders’ girl with the leaf-blower, blowing autumn leaves in my face.

At the time I saw the Wenders film, I also saw Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Dreams” and while I would have to say that I thought Wenders had a much more successful use of the technology, both films made an interesting point as being the only examples of the new 3D that I know of that were not action films, superhero films or some kind of children’s fantasy films.

One way to spice up 3D. Still from "Measuring the World".


That being the case, I was very interested in another German film, this one made from the popular Daniel Kehlmann novel “Measuring The World” directed by Detlef Buck. Here was an actual narrative film being made in 3D that was more of a character piece, with an intimacy that didn’t seem to call out for the big three dimensions. So last year at around this time, I took an assignment for Variety to go visit the set and do some interviews and write it up.

First of all, let me say that everyone I talked to was very interesting and there was plenty of stuff to write about. And it made me interested to see the finished film, if nothing else to see how – or more specifically, if –  it was all going to work. That being said, nothing I saw or heard made me any the less skeptical of the whole 3D bit. And maybe that’s an understatement.

For instance I was told that the 3D was something that was going to enhance the way the actors’ come across on screen, making us more aware of the subtlety and acuteness of the performance. I was told that it would make one aware the “physicality” of the story, as well as the physicality of the locations. I was told that it would pull us into the narrative and at the same time make us aware of the distance of seeing into another time. I was even told that it would work as a sort of conceptual metaphor for the parallel stories of the two main characters.

Trying to get my head around it all, I could only repeat that for me movie 3D is not really the same as the way I experience depth in real life, that it didn’t look “real” to me. To his credit, the producer of “Measuring The World” replied, “That’s what’s interesting. Because that’s why you go to the movies, because you want to experience something with an intensity that you don’t get in real life.”

After writing the article, every time I saw a 3D movie I kept trying to overlay these ideas onto whatever film I was watching. But I just wasn’t getting it. 3D was great for seeing Captain America throw his shield, for experiencing the inter-dimensional aspect of Thor’s Asgard and for seeing Judge Dredd’s villains throw people out the window in slow motion. But in spite of it all I can’t say the 3D made all that much difference for me. The best I could say is that the filmmakers were getting better at making the 3D seem less brutally obtrusive, or “in your face” if you pardon the pun.

Then, several weeks ago, I went to the press screening of “Measuring The World”. As the movie played out, my first impression was that this was very much “in my face”. I felt like they were trying to impress upon me, THIS IS 3D!! After all the various degrees of refining that I had seen in the past year I suddenly felt like I was back watching the paddle-ball scene in “House Of Wax”. Things were thrusting out of the screen in the extreme foreground and at times the extremes of depth were making my eyes ache.

(Albert Brooks scathingly satirized the ping pong effect in the trailer for “Real Life”. Sorry, no glasses available in this part of the country.)

House of Wax in 2D...

...and 3D

But as time went on, I found myself – well no, not getting used to it – but rather becoming sort of fascinated by the brazenness of it all. It’s as if they were going to not only ram it down your throat, they were going to make you like it. And if anything I began to experience a certain sense of playfulness, which sort of matched the wit of the novel as well as playing to Detlef Buck’s signature sense of humor. And what I really liked was the fact that it didn’t look like how I perceive dimension in real life but rather had the depth that was more reminiscent of one of those pop-up paper theaters that you cut out and put together with all their various layers of scenery, that has depth but not dimension. Call me perverse but I thought it was kind of cool, and even if it was constantly calling attention to itself, it did give the movie an interesting sense of style. The effect was kind of like an old fashioned picture book. Under the circumstances, not the worst thing at all.

While I very much doubt that 3D is, or is going to be, “the future”, with last week’s German box office showing 8 3D films in the top 20, it doesn’t look like it’s going away. On the other hand, the reported techno-visual overkill of newly opened “The Hobbit” doesn’t bode well. But will a development of 3D without the bombast, have any future?  I found “Measuring The World” a worthy, if odd, attempt but considering it’s tepid reception by its German public doesn’t look likely to make a significant dent. At least not for the time being. But it is a bit of hope. So while I’m not going to lose my scepticism any time soon, all I can say is, surprise me.