After the deluge: 3D arrived in '09, but its best use may not be in fictions like the high-profile Avatar.

3D Reloaded: Where Does 3D Go From Here?

Sean Uyehara December 27, 2009

The release of Avatar this month put a fitting capstone on a frenzied campaign by studios to reintroduce stereoscopic 3D to audiences in 2009. No less than 10 feature-length films were released in 3D versions this year, almost all of those animated films. In terms of animation, what began as a minor novelty has become the norm. There’s no doubt that some of the work is satisfying. (As Dennis Harvey noted recently here in, animated features were some of the best releases of the past year.) And Monsters vs. Aliens, Up and even Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, were better in 3D than 2D. (Of course, I mean stereoscopic 3D, since these were all animated in the 3D CGI style, as opposed to 2D hand-drawn….) The technology itself is impressive. This is not, as Jeffrey Katzenberg was so fond of saying during the run-up to the Monsters vs. Aliens release, the red-and-blue-glasses 3D of the 1950s. The technicians have found a way to smoothly present depth and action, and are not intent on simply having hands reach out or explosions engulf viewers purely as spectacle.

Still, for all its wow-ness, there remains something unsatisfying about 3D, notably its most high-profile recent application in Avatar. Forget the plot—humans displacing an indigenous race of gigantic blue cat people on another planet because they live over a treasure trove of that most precious commodity, "unobtanium" —it’s the film’s release in 3D that offers a clue to just how behind the technological times this flagship film that uses a VR term as its title really is. Go back a decade and you find a film that managed to lead the curve: 1999’s The Matrix, a film about technology, pushed the envelope with its use of technology, and represented some of the best mind candy of the past decade. Its story needs no retelling (but might be summarized by the image of Keanu Reeves getting a metal spike shoved into the base of his neck, causing him REM-like convulsions for about ten seconds, whereby he suddenly opens his eyes and declares in so-cal surfer-ese, “I know Kung Fu?” ), but its innovations are worth revisiting, especially that virtual-swinging-camera move (that they regrettably named “bullet-time-photography”), which put viewers “into” movies in a much more coherent and cohesive way that does the watchable, but ultimately forgettable Avatar.

An irony of the year’s media blitz on animated 3D is that the best feature-length film released in the new style of 3D so far was a work of nonfiction, and it was released last year. U2 3D, an ’08 concert film, was a great foray into how powerful a 3D viewing experience might be. (In the interest of disclosure, U2 was one of the first concerts I ever attended. Actually, it was an Oingo Boingo show, for whom U2 opened….) The key to the film’s success is that, like The Matrix, U2 3D points toward the great potential of cinematic effects. In the case of The Matrix, I argue that what was on offer was a cultural conversance with the concerns of virtuality. In the case of U2 3D, we are presented a view of the entertainment value and usefulness augmented reality may eventually provide.

Because what does 3D really promise? It simultaneously extends a film from the screen while beckoning viewers to imagine themselves within the action.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, U2 3D is simply an entertaining spectacle. The focus of the elbow-to-elbow crowd jumping in unison during “Where the Streets Have No Name” is exhilarating in 3D due to a heightened sense of the visceral, but it remains just that, exhilaration. Where the film truly triumphs is during the finale of the song “The Fly.” During that sequence the film features 3D overlays of the song’s lyrics, which devolve into tangential thoughts about the song, and finally explode into an abstract mess of letters and graphics first cascading down around the band, and then turning into the visual equivalent of cacophony. For those who haven’t seen the film, one might wonder what’s the big deal. Subtitles, cascading letters, abstract imagery? In themselves these effects are not so novel, of course. But, their presentation in the 3D makes the graphic overlays tangible in a way that opens the film up to a different cognitive register than does its “2D” presentation. What we are presented with is the visualization of information. And, that’s what is really at stake with augmented reality: changes in the acquisition and impact of knowledge.

That’s why the most impressive 3D displays over the past two years, like U2 3D, involve live broadcasts—of sporting events, medical operations, concerts. If the film were released today, with the many theaters now equipped with 3D technology and the marketing dollars Dreamworks poured into the experience, I doubt it would fly under the radar as much as it did. What examples like sports and concerts also share is a consistent use of rehearsed spontaneity to structure content. And, in keeping with that spirit, U2 3D mobilizes a kind of subjectivity that one might associate with gaming or, ironically, the embodiment of an avatar, where one often performs an identity. The performative subjective space of augmented and mixed-reality environments is mirrored in U2’s posturing. Part of the film’s success in the presentation of 3D data—words or graphics—is that they ask viewers not only to imagine themselves in the audience, but much more importantly to use the information presented to connect the concert to ideas, tropes and places outside of the theater, to use the extension of 3D both literally and figuratively.

As we move forward, 3D programs will continue to be produced, and the most intriguing works will continue in the most urgent (many would say, ideological) project of media today—to dismantle the already blurred boundaries between representation and reality.

It’s not that Avatar doesn’t investigate the cultural effects of technology, capitalism and ecology. It’s that, as a fiction of the fantastical type, it insists on closing off from our world the concepts of virtual, immaterial labor, exodus, terrorism and the networked society (to name a few ideas). You could say that this is the primary issue for the genre of science fiction in general at this time. How can it envisage a future that is constantly here and now? Which is another way of saying, where do you go with sci-fi after Blade Runner? Where Avatar looks at a future about a hundred years from now, cyberpunk films made the future feel like it was just a few seconds away, thus, of urgent concern. We don’t need or want to stay with William Gibson’s ideas forever, but Avatar feels backward in its approach, a little like a sci-fi film of the 1950s. What’s the difference between the fetishistically named "unobtanium" and “Monsters of the Id” of Forbidden Planet? Likewise, its 3D feels gimmicky, like an ad-on, offering nothing essential or expansive to the experience of watching the film, and as such, it feels behind the times.

If the evangelism of 3D has so far failed, it’s due partly to its use in primarily fictional work. In fictional contexts, the extension 3D is supposed to provide, the way it promises to surround you by a place and a story, is already redundant. Everybody knows and understands that we are, everyday, immersed in media. We don’t need to turn to science fiction to grapple with this model. This is the currency of our times.

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look skeptically on it: U2 3D’s use of effects and staging reminds me of the righteous anxiety one experiences watching depictions of other mixed-reality environments, such as those in the documentary Full Battle Rattle. In the doc, American soldiers bound for Iraq train in a California Mojave desert outpost that has been built to resemble an Iraqi town. The town is stocked with actors, and the soldiers engage in a narrative-based war game scenario over a period of weeks where character is not broken. The “set” itself would appear to train soldiers for reality, while also instilling a gaming mentality into them as they pursue the activity of war. The worry is that mixed reality tends to blur boundaries so heavily that the concept of corporeality tends to lose primacy.

Does a massive concert film in 3D prepare us for this? What are its underlying assumptions and ethos? In any case, sadly, the questions 3D and nonfiction uses of it bring up are much more urgent than anything that Avatar has on offer. In its case, and the case of many other films who used it this year, 3D is merely an afterthought.

Sean Uyehara is a programmer at the San Francisco Film Society. He inaugurated KinoTek, a programming thread dedicated to exhibiting cross-platform technologies and emergent media. Uyehara is also the establishing programmer of the San Francisco International Animation Festival and lead programmer of film and music, live events and multimedia performance at the San Francisco International Film Festival and SF360 Film + Club.

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