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...
The first thing to note is that "The Day of the Doctor" was shot with 3D cameras. That might seem very obvious - it's in stereo of course they used the right cameras - except that 3D cameras are traditionally bulky and clumsy (they're getting better) and restrict what you can do. Instead, you can shoot normally, and convert in post-production. This can have varying results, but even at the higher end of competency, I think I prefer material acquired in 3D.
I daresay Doctor Who's decision to use 3D cameras wasn't an artistic decision so much as a budget one! Doctor Who simply doesn't have the post budget to do a conversion; instead they'll have to struggle on. Hollywood film productions are, by the standards of Doctor Who, enormous, and shooting for extra days is so much more expensive, so fixing things in post is more of a viable option for them.
"The Day of the Doctor" certainly had its share of the usual sort of things that were put in to show off the 3D. The opening sequence, with the TARDIS being taken by helicopter to Trafalgar Square, was a better spectacle than anything Thor: The Dark World had to offer. Then there was also the Fall of Arcadia, a complex battle scene with multilayered elements.
These can look pretty but I don't think they're a good reason to make a film like that. Humans are actually pretty good at filling in depth. Stereopsis and convergance - the two that 3D films can provide, are not the only tools that people use in the type of vision that is involved in actually wandering around the world. There's your focal length, and there's head motion-induced parallax. Stereo films can't provide either of these (although some domestic 3D systems are making steps toward the latter). The result is that the depth is a semi-convincing spectacle, but the 3D field is basically what your head would have filled in anyway - it is devoid of any real information.
But Doctor Who has a possibility that does not exist in your standard action movie.
Space and time do not quite work the same in Doctor Who as they do in the rest of fiction.
It is bigger on the inside.
And it's not just that it doesn't work on a diagram (it's not like the exteriors and interiors of the Starship Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon match up, either), but it is dimensionally incongruent. You can see space from the outside that ought to be other space. The coordinate system has broken down.
It's an awesome idea, but the show has had difficulty demonstrating this visually, especially in its original run. The TARDIS prop has police box doors; when the doors open on the TARDIS console room set we might see the exterior as a projected backdrop, but the outside of the doors themselves were just white with round things - a mismatch that has resulted in people imagining an unseen vestibule between the two. Instead, it had to resort to dialogue - telling, not showing. Ian, in "An Unearthly Child", complains that he had walked all around the police box.
Since its return, Doctor Who has made more attempt to let the audience experience the weirdness directly. From "Rose" it allowed the spaces to intrude on each other, by having the police box doors be visible from the inside, and the console room be seen from the outside. This helped, but they couldn't easily do camera moves, and so it always looked like a matte painting, because, well, it was one. It sold it, though: one of the most powerful moments of that 2005 series was the bit in "Father's Day" where the Doctor runs into the TARDIS and ends up in a small box.
Over the last year, there has been a series of increasingly more technically audacious feats when characters enter the TARDIS. "The Snowmen" started it, by tracking with Clara into the console room. They'd never quite managed this before, always requiring a cut. That this beautiful shot was also Clara's first entrance to the TARDIS helped get across her wonder at what was inside.
The opening episode of 2013's run, "The Bells of St John", has an even more amazing sequence, where not only does the camera follow the Doctor and clara into the TARDIS from a street scene (again, this is Clara's first time in the TARDIS - don't worry, it's timey-wimey), but it then materialises inside an aeroplane, which they enter, without a single cut. Finally, we are shown what it feels like to travel on the TARDIS. You enter, the door closes, you press some buttons, there are noises while you wait, and then it goes ping and the door opens somewhere onto somewhere else and you leave. It is, in other words, the world's weirdest lift.
"The Day of the Doctor" repeats the trick from "The Snowmen", with Clara riding a motorcycle into the console room. In 2D this is quite a neat stunt. But in 3D I thought it was, well, transcendent. We saw the space inside the TARDIS recede away from where it could possibly have been. We had a smooth transition from a tiny box in a deserted space, to an impossibly large console room. That was it.
And then, the paintings.
In the first shot of the paintings it is not immediately obvious that there is anything odd going on. In 2D, anyway. In 3D, you can see that the paintings have depth, although it is kept subtle. The lines about the paintings being very strange are followed by camera moves that make it clear that not only are the paintings 3D, but they are way more advanced than our 3D, it's just just that they are stereo, but they are portals into a static, frozen, dimension. Here, again, although it works in 2D, the use of stereo combined with camera moves really sells it.
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.
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