ReelThoughts: September 29, 2013

"The Vandalism of 3-D"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


[To start, a follow-up note to answer some of the e-mail questions I received about The Last Whisper of the Gods. First, this is a completely new series and is unrelated to any previously posted fiction. Second, it is my intention to post samples (either complete chapters or portions thereof), but I can't do that until I have decided upon a publisher and discussed marketing strategies with them. There is also the possibility that I might write a related short story that would be made available at Reelviews. Finally, I will provide updates when there's something to update. My expectation is that the first book will see the light of day some time in 2014. Depending on the release strategy, all three volumes could come out next year or, more likely, books #2 and #3 would be made available in 2015. There will not be a long interval between book publications.]

Now, on to the topic of the day...

First, a brief primer about commercial movie colorization for those too young to remember what Ted Turner did back in the early days of home video. Sometime around 1980, Turner, an avowed movie-lover, decided that not enough "young people" were watching classic movies. He reasoned, perhaps correctly, that part of the reason was that kids didn't like black-and-white. His half-baked solution was to implement the much-derided process of colorizing a small number of movies. He chose films whose rights he owned through Turner Entertainment and those available in public domain (because their copyrights had expired).

Turner's efforts were derided, and not just because the colorization was washed-out and crappy. An anti-colorization coalition arose, spearheaded by Siskel & Ebert (who referred to it as "vandalism"), Frank Capra (whose public domain picture, It's a Wonderful Life, became a poster child for how colorization can ruin a film), and Orson Welles (who, according to Harlan Lebo, begged friend Henry Jaglom, "Don't let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons"). In the end, Turner relented. Colorization was abandoned and the colorized versions became cultural artifacts of a well-intentioned but creatively dubious project.

Which brings us to 3-D.

One could make a strong case that the biggest problem with 3-D isn't that there's something inherently wrong with it but that Hollywood has misused and abused it to the point where audiences no longer regard 3-D as a benefit but a regrettable necessity for "big" movies. I'm convinced that if the studios had reserved 3-D for a small number of event films, it would remain a selling point. To date, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of (non-animated) productions that have significantly benefitted from 3-D: Avatar, Hugo, Prometheus, Gravity, and (perhaps) Life of Pi.

Lately, however, in a new campaign to oversaturate the market, Hollywood has begun the process of converting various older films into 3-D. I have no problem with James Cameron or George Lucas going back and tinkering with their own properties. If Cameron wants to make a 3-D Titanic, more power to him. With Jurassic Park, Spielberg was consulted and enthusiastically supported the conversion. And now we come to The Wizard of Oz. Released in IMAX format for its 75th anniversary, this seemed to be a perfect opportunity for parents to take children to see a beloved classic in a theater with a big screen and excellent sound, except it's not the same movie they fell in love with. The powers that be at Warner Brothers elected to convert it to 3-D.

Restoring a film - cleaning up the original elements, regenerating the color, and generally making the images "pop" - is a laudable thing. Converting it to 3-D is tantamount to colorization. It's a sin against the original. I can't understand why the outcry isn't louder because this really is an outrage. Maybe it's because all the original anti-colorization advocates have died. Or maybe it's just because people don't give a crap.

To be fair, the conversion of The Wizard of Oz is unobjectionable from a technical standpoint. It's not a careless piece of work, slapped together to meet a deadline. But the quality of the 3-D isn't the point any more than the quality of colorization was. Without the collaboration of the original filmmakers (who are all dead), someone else has gone in and tinkered with a movie. The Wizard of Oz was never designed to be shown in 3-D and, as such, converting it to 3-D requires decisions to be made that alter the delicate fabric of what was originally presented. To apply Siskel's colorization description, it's a form of vandalism. High tech vandalism, to be sure, but vandalism nonetheless.

The reasoning behind the 3-D conversion of The Wizard of Oz remains murky. It can probably best be summed up by the phrase "because we can." The 3-D theatrical version showed for only one week in digital IMAX - not a big money-making proposition. It will be available on Blu-ray, but 3-D TV sales have been sluggish so many, many more copies of the 75th anniversary edition will be sold in 2-D. Having seen the IMAX 3-D print, I can say there's nothing in it that made the experience transformative. On more than one occasion, I wished the 3-D distraction would go away so I could sit back and enjoy the real film.

I wonder what Ebert would say about this. Or Siskel. Or Capra. Or Welles. Or Oz's credited director, Victor Fleming. To my way of thinking, this is a dangerous precedent. One of the biggest arguments against colorization, that it ruins the original black-and-white composition of the shots, applies here. 3-D can alter the original 2-D intention. That sounds like an esoteric argument until you sit down and watch a 3-D version of a film you know well in 2-D. There's something about it that seems "wrong" and artificial, even if it's difficult to articulate exactly what the problem is.

Motivation doesn't matter. Turner claimed colorization was designed to bring old movies to a wider audience, to use the latest technology to "update" the films in ways that made them relevant. Siskel argued it was all about money. Others have pointed out that this was a classic case of modifying art to make it more commercially palatable. The same arguments for and against apply to 3-D conversions of classic films. Even if the studio's intentions are benevolent, the results are unconscionable. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But if people don't care, this will go on. Maybe at some point, there will be an outcry (but probably not). Or maybe 3-D is slowly dying and future similar endeavors will be seen as unprofitable. 3-D doesn't need to go away but Hollywood needs to use it more judiciously. And tinkering with established masterpieces isn't a shining example of intelligence and restraint.


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