November 25th, 2013

3D and The Day of the Doctor

3D is one of those areas where my creative interests and my day job (a software engineer in the visual effects industry) collide. I have been excited by the technical challenges involved in stereo, but underlying this has been questions of its limitations. Is it just a gimmick, or a fad? Will all films be made like this? Does it contribute usefully to storytelling? Is it worth the extra couple of quid? What about those who are excluded?

As a consumer, I had become a bit cynical toward it. I don't think Avengers or Thor: The Dark World were improved by being in 3D; and specifically sought a 2D showing of Iron Man Three. With "The Day of the Doctor", the Doctor Who 50th anniversary, I had little choice. I could either see it in a hotel room on my own, or see it live in the cinema, in 3D (well, I could also have gone over to my brother's to watch it but then I'd have been even later at the Thought Bubble party, which would be the highlight of any other weekend). And what's the point of 3D in a television drama - something that is not only designed to be releasable on home video, but actively intended for display on little screens in people's living rooms?

I was wrong. It turns out to be the most successful use of 3D to tell a story that I have seen. And more importantly, it provides a way forward for 3D films to be worthwhile. What do I mean by this? Well...

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And that's why, I think, it really works. We are well into the 3D backlash. It's often done as an afterthought to films that were storyboarded without 3D in mind, and that of course still need to work in 2D; or it's done with bulky cameras that it's hard to do interesting stuff with. I suspect this is what leads to them cranking up the disparity to uncomfortable levels, or getting actors to poke things in our eyes.

"The Day of the Doctor" shows that it doesn't have to be like that, that if you plan things correctly then the 3D doesn't have to be a gimmick. Sure, not every film is going to be prominently feature dimensionally transcendent rooms, but that doesn't mean you don't want to create a sense of scale, a sense of space. But this may mean changing how you edit films. Fast-cutting fight scenes simply don't work in this world: you need to go the Sucker Punch and Beowulf route by replacing cuts with pans and zooms.

I think the make-or-break film for 3D will be Edgar Wright's Ant-Man. This will be released in 2015, which is going to be a big year for big films (the Avengers sequel, Star Wars Episode VII, the Batman/Superman film, and that's just getting started), so it's an odd one to focus on, but I think it has potential. Ant-Man is a size-changer. Imagine what that would mean with well-done 3D. You could have first person shots of the lab he is in widening out to become an impossibly large space, as he shrinks. You could cut between parallel action at a macro scale and a micro scale, hinting which is which not by different lighting but using a different interocular distance.

It will need to be very clever to work (this is fine, as Wright is very clever). It will need a good stereographer. It will need pre-visualisation and storyboarding. But Wright will also be expected to deliver a version of the film in 2D. Traditionally, these have been the same edit - often just the left or right view from the 3D edit. It is that very thing that is holding 3D back. What is the point of showing size-changing or portals with 3D if you then have to have expository dialogue clarifying what is going on?

Perhaps, in order to be worthwhile, 3D film needs to abandon the idea of being downconvertable to 2D. Sure, make a 2D edit, but let's have that be something different to merely picking one of the eyes from the 3D. 2D films and 3D films are different arts and need different approaches. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.