Has AVATAR Changed the 3-D Game?

February 28, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

Not that long ago, my position on 3-D was that of a Doubting Thomas. Then along came Avatar, which has been called everything from a "game-changer" to the "latest great cinematic breakthrough." It has been compared to The Jazz Singer in its potential to revolutionize. But I'm still a Doubting Thomas. Not about Avatar but about 3-D in general. Avatar has shown what 3-D can accomplish when used properly, when it is incorporated into the DNA of a motion picture. Hollywood, I fear, isn't getting the message, however. All the executives see are the dollar signs. And that means we're about to be inundated by an avalanche of 3-D movies that were never intended to be 3-D movies, a development that will highlight the limitations and inadequacies of the format.

To me, 3-D should be to today's movies what Technicolor was to movies during the '30s, '40s, and '50s - something reserved only for big screen events - productions designed from ground zero to be in 3-D. Trying to force every big-budget film into the 3-D mold is potentially damaging. Sure, maybe we'll be there in another 20, 30 years, but that's not where we are now. Yet greed is trumping the creative process.

There are two things about 3-D that the Hollywood studios like. (1) 3-D movies are not pirate-able, at least not currently in their 3-D format. This gives theaters a big leg up, at least until home video and illegal copying technologies catch up. That will happen, but potentially not for a few years. (2) All 3-D movies incur a surcharge. In some places, it's $3 and in others, it's $4. This essentially allows theaters to increase prices without seeming to increase prices. And it's tough to sneak into a 3-D movie (unless you own your own pair of 3-D glasses and bring them with you). The real reason theaters don't want you keeping the glasses has nothing to do with a desire to recycle them (although they do that - hopefully after sterilizing them) but because they want to restrict entry to those who have purchased a surcharged ticket. They don't want viewers buying a regular ticket to another movie and seeing a 3-D title.

It's understandable that Hollywood wants to move to 3-D. What's unacceptable is the unseemly rush with which the transition is being force-fed. It took James Cameron a decade to assemble Avatar; with various technological improvements in hand, he thinks he can make the sequel in three years. Other directors may be able to work a little faster, but it's hard to imagine a true 3-D movie being ready any earlier than late 2011 or 2012. (This does not apply to animated films, which are created on computers and therefore easily manipulated to be 2-D or 3-D.) When I write "true 3-D," I refer to a movie that starts out life as a 3-D motion picture, not one that is "converted" at some time during the process. Cameron's feelings about the 2-D version of Avatar have been well-documented. He views it as a product of necessity, because there are not enough digital theaters available. To him, it's a bastard stepchild and, given the opportunity, he would do away with it. There are rumors he will not allow the Avatar sequel to have a 2-D counterpart, either in theaters or on home video. Three years from now, there will probably be enough digital projectors to make this feasible, and if anyone has the clout to make it happen, it's Cameron. It's hard to imagine him being second guessed again.

In the immediate future, we will be subjected to 2-D movies that are being converted to the 3-D format. One can argue that it's a benign trend. After all, the 2-D versions of the films will still be available, although perhaps not as readily available as one might hope. Multiplexes with multiple digital projectors are often rejecting the 2-D option; they want to force their patrons to pay the surcharge. If, for example, I want to see Clash of the Titans in 2-D, I won't be able to do so at my local AMC 24-plex. According to the manager, current plans are to make it available only in 3-D. So I'll have to go to another theater - one that doesn't have a digital projector. (Actually, I'll most likely see it at a press screening - which is in 3-D.)

The conversion process requires a completely digital copy of the movie to be made, even if the production was filmed entirely in 35mm (an increasingly rare occurrence). It is then manipulated on a computer, with the 3-D designers deciding where texture and depth should be applied and how color and brightness should be corrected. The director is often excluded from this process, either as a matter of choice or expediency. If this process sounds disturbingly familiar, that's because it's pretty much the same one employed for colorization: a black-and-white movie is altered in post-production by a group of technicians. And what's the argument made by colorization advocates? The black-and-white version is still available for anyone who wants to watch it that way; we're just providing an alternative. To my way of thinking, there's not much difference between colorization and post-production 3-D conversion. They both fundamentally alter the way a movie looks and each is accomplished without the direct input of the filmmaker. The analogy is imperfect, but not a stretch by any means.

During the summer of 2010, we'll probably see more 3-D than we saw in the summer of 2009, and all of the non-animated titles will be post-production conversions. The next two "big" 3-D movies, Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans, are members of this school (although rumor has it that at least Tim Burton was consulted regarding how the 3-D version of his film was assembled). In fact, there wasn't even a 3-D Clash in preparation until Avatar struck box office gold. Then one was rushed into production Such quickie jobs are more the rule than the exception. Little thought - too little thought perhaps - is given to the 3-D. It's the anti-Cameron approach.

By the summer of 2011, nearly every blockbuster will be in 3-D. In fact, anything in 2-D may be at a disadvantage. However, since most of the projected 2011 biggies are in the early stages of production, nearly all will undergo some degree of conversion. Not until the summer of 2012 will we start to experience the first generation of true 3-D movies. Yes, the next Spider-Man will be conceived, filmed, and shepherded through post-production as a true 3-D film. Ditto for the Star Trek sequel. There probably won't be any $70-plus million productions released in 2012 that don't come signed, sealed, and delivered in 3-D.

Currently, there exist more analog projectors than digital ones, meaning that the best 3-D:2-D ratio a film can have is 1:1. (IMAX aside, Avatar opened with 2000 35mm prints and 2000 digital "prints.") By the summer of 2010, it's estimated the ratio will be up to 3:2, followed by 2:1 in 2011, and perhaps as much as 4:1 or 5:1 in 2012. By that time, it will be possible for nearly all of the prints to be 3-D digital. Only a few token 2-D copies will be available for theaters with limited digital capabilities and for viewers who do not benefit from 3-D (such as those with only one eye).

The ultimate question is whether this is a "good" thing. For the near-term bottom line, the answer is a resounding "yes." There's no question that a flood of 3-D movies means more money coming in at the box office. Even if ticket sales were to remain flat, revenue would increase because of the surcharge. From a creative perspective, however, it's a mixed bag. While I would welcome a group of 3-D movies assembled with the care Cameron invested in Avatar, that's probably always going to be more the exception than the norm. As a tool, 3-D is easily abused, and the result can be a gimmicky production with muddy colors and muted brightness.

I'm a skeptic by nature and choice. I have to see the evidence before I believe it. Avatar showed me what 3-D can do. Now it's up to less visionary directors to prove that not only James Cameron and his like are capable of fulfilling this promise. Until that happens, I will continue to regard 3-D with little enthusiasm.