3-D movies are fast becoming a huge part of the theater going experience. Many recent films have undergone conversion to 3-D in an attempt to cash on the trend. However the quality of these post conversions has been anything but great. There have been some movies that have used 3-D remarkably well and effective, and they’ve all been animated. Despite the fact that live action films continue to be released in 3-D all across the country it’s becoming rapidly apparent that this is a film technique that should be limited to animation and left out of live action.
The fundamental problem with live action being presented in 3-D is that it’s trying to mimic reality. In an animated film such as Toy Story 3, Despicable Me or How to Train Your Dragon the animators have created a world from the ground up. It’s a world with it’s own visual rules and those rules are created by the director and animators. With live action it’s taking place in the real world, the world we know and so it becomes very evident very quickly when the 3-D effects don’t look right. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a problem if a studio could figure out a way to make post conversion work effectively but so far it’s been one of two equally bad extremes. First there was Clash of the Titans which had rushed 3-D effects which were jarring, ugly and just looked wrong. Then came The Last Airbender. Seemingly to try to avoid the hideous effects of Clash of the Titans the 3-D effects in this film were so low key as to be barely even noticeable. So far post conversions have proven to either be too ugly or too subtle to be worth the extra cost and bulky glasses.
There’s also the issue that most of the animated 3-D films that have been released were designed to be 3-D movies. The camera angles, the way scenes were constructed and how characters move were all done with 3-D in mind. This has created some very thrilling moments such as roller coaster rides in Despicable Me and flying through the air in How to Train Your Dragon. However when a film is shot like any normal film would be and then converted in post there aren’t those moments that were specially designed to take proper advantage of 3-D. And it’s not just an issue of camera work, there’s also light. 3-D glasses are basically like sunglasses and make everything slightly darker. For a film such as The Last Airbender which was frankly somewhat dark visually. Many key scenes took place at night or in low light. The result is that the added darkness of the 3-D glasses made these sequences almost unwatchable.
Of course some readers out there are saying “What about Avatar? That was live action and it was awesome!” Well it was awesome but was it really live action? Think about it for a minute, the vast majority of the run-time for that movie was spent with the Navi which were completely computer generated characters running through a computer generated world. Yes the goal was to create something photo-realistic but really the film was more animation than it was live action. Just because the animated characters were performed by live actors in motion capture suits doesn’t make it any less a piece of animation. Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol were all made the same way and nobody is arguing those were live action movies. Granted there were portions of Avatar which were live action (at least partially) however if looked at objectively they were also the least visually effective or convincing parts of the film.
There may be some hope for the future but that light of hope is somewhat dim right now. The hope lies in the idea that future live action films that will be released in 3-D will actually be filmed with 3-D camera rather than shot on standard film and then converted. There are some films in the works like this, the most notable being the fourth entry in the Resident Evil film franchise. The problem is that since these cameras are larger, bulkier and unfamiliar to most filmmakers they don’t really want to use them. Even those who are using the cameras it severely limits what can be done in some ways. The word is that Resident Evil: Afterlife will have to be shot almost entirely on sound stages with next to no location shooting. Obviously Avatar was also shot in an extremely controlled and closed off environment. Until 3-D cameras are made to the size and usage that directors and cinematographers are comfortable with then there will only be a limited number of films that can use the cameras. That means that the majority will still be post converted as we’ve been getting so far. Until the cameras are ready to be used on location and are as easy to work with as a normal camera 3-D should be limited to the world of animation where it works and can truly be made to soar.