I'd had it up to here with 3D. I thought Avatar was pretty cool in 3D, I didn't mind it in Up, and I liked Step Up 3D and Tron: Legacy more than I thought I would. But now it seems as if everything except romantic comedies has mediocre 3D effects grafted on, just to (weakly) justify a more expensive movie ticket. It's enough to make a moviegoer wish Hollywood had sat on this 3D tech for a few more years--or at least rationed out its usage--until the studios had figured out how to do it right.
Then I saw Glee: The 3D Concert Movie, and thought, "Hey, maybe there's something to this 3D thing after all."
Don't get me wrong. Glee: The 3D Concert Movie isn't a cinematic masterpiece by any stretch. You probably won't enjoy it unless you're a fan of the TV show (and judging from the abysmal opening weekend draw, even those fans weren't watching it, either). If you do go to watch it, though, you'll no doubt find it an enlightening exercise in how 3D video technology should be used--which is to say, subtly and sparingly.
3D Isn't Just Stuff Flying Out of the Screen
Wasn't the promise of 3D video to deliver a more immersive, engaging movie experience? For my part, I wanted 3D tech to make stuff just dive out of the screen at us--frisbees, bullets, giant alien birds, whatever. Maybe it's a holdover from the virtual reality goggle days, but if I have to wear a pair of silly glasses, I demand immersion, and nothing says "immersion" to me more than thinking that an onscreen bullet is actually headed my way.
When you think about it, though, it's shortsighted to expect things popping "out" of the screen to hold much appeal. It’s been just about two years since Avatar came out, and all the 3D displays I've seen since have one thing in common: They're good at making the screen appear deeper. Whether we're testing 3D TVs, 3D cameras, 3D smartphones, or 3D games on the PC and the Nintendo 3DS, we're always describing how "deep" the screen appears. For example, the glasses-free displays on the Nintendo 3DS and the HTC Evo 3D look about as deep as a deck of cards to me. A basic 40-inch 3D TV screen usually looks about as deep as a shoebox. The theater screen on which I watched Glee: The 3D Concert Movie looked about as deep as a walk-in closet.
While a shoebox is a 3D object, it's not deep enough to feel immersive while you’re watching most things on a 3D TV. I've had to watch various selections of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs fairly often while putting 3D TVs through their paces, and I haven't yet seen a TV that made me feel as if I was about to get hit by some raining spaghetti. It just looks as if I'm watching the video take place in a diorama that's about six inches deep, instead of on a flat screen.
This works fine for Glee: The 3D Concert Movie, which is mostly performed on an I-shaped stage that extends out into the audience. The 3D doesn't make much of a difference in the close-up shots of one or two performers, but the ensemble and full-stage shots look great--kind of like we're watching a concert in a diorama from a top-down or 3/4ths angle rather than on a flat movie screen.
Oddly enough, since the Glee movie's 3D image emphasizes the difference between the foreground and the background planes, I found I was able to take in both the foreground and the background better than I could in a 2D image, where I naturally focus on the foreground. So what's going on in the background that would make me want to ignore the foreground? Well, Harry Shum Jr. ("Mike Chang") is my favorite of the cast, and he's dancing in the background for most of the concert. I spent more time watching him than I did paying attention to whoever was in the foreground--just as I would have if I were actually at the show.
Give 3D Cameras a Chance
Right now, there are two ways to create a 3D movie--you can either add the 3D effects in post-production, or you can shoot your footage with a 3D camera. Generally speaking, the difference between the two is clear. Movies that add the 3D in post-production seem to slap over-the-top, somewhat pointless 3D effects into a few parts of the film, leading to movies like Clash of the Titans 3D or Captain America: The First Avenger 3D. In both of those films, 3D is used mostly for a gimmicky action shot here and there. Glee: The 3D Concert Movie was shot with the same Fusion (3D) Camera System used in Avatar, Tron: Legacy, and Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, so they actually put some thought into how the effects would look as they were filming them. Rather than gimmicks, the 3D effects look more like a new spin on telling a visual story, and they’re grounded in the context of a live performance.
And I've found that 3D movies shot well with an actual 3D camera are far more subtle with the 3D effect, which is a good thing. It seems like with the right 3D-shooting gear (and, no doubt, excellent camera people and directors), a 3D movie can feel more natural, with the various "layers" of the shot less jarring to the eye. Done right, you're not constantly squinting around the screen wondering "Hey, is this in 3D? Is that in 3D?" Instead, you just feel you're watching a normal movie, except it looks a bit more deep and real than movies normally do.
It's like the difference between lightly seasoning a steak to bring out a beefy flavor, and taking a tough cut and covering it in A-1 sauce. Concert movies don't need heavy computer-generated 3D effects, and the few stage effects used during the concert (pyrotechnics during Lea Michelle's rendition of "Firework" by Katy Perry, for example) look great shot naturally with the 3D cameras.
I must admit that I haven't seen any of the other 3D concert movies that have been coming out (guess I'm obligated to watch Justin Bieber's Never Say Never next), but after being impressed by Glee: The 3D Concert Movie's relatively modest treatment of 3D, I'm looking forward to seeing 3D continue into high-profile sports events and documentaries. That kind of subject matter benefits from the same you-wish-you-were-there dynamic as a concert flick, and it brings a sense of realism into the fold.
All in all, I'm willing to give 3D another chance--even if it means watching a Justin Bieber concert.