Daggers in my eyes: 3D spectacle and human evolution

William B. Demeritt III
August 27th, 2012

Yesterday, I attended the SOC General Meeting at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where we had 2 guest speakers: a doctor at CHLA discussing stereopsis from a medical/human standpoint, and a rep from 3ality discussing 3D camera rigs. I found the doctor’s presentation much more fascinating, but I also appreciated what the 3ality rep had to say regarding “tools of cinema”.

Simply put: the doctor explains how our eyes work to detect 3 dimensions through stereopsis in the real world (both eyes converging on an object point in 3D space to detect depth), and the 3ality rep explained how we fool the eyes (2D focal plane, the screen, and fooling the mind into thinking it’s 3D).

When they were discussing the reasons why much of the 3D audiences develop headaches, which afflicts my fiancé, I found it fascinating that we’re still continuing to push 3D, namely the spectacle of 3D, as a reason to shoot 3D. I concede that perhaps someone has ideas for how to use 3D for storytelling, but I guess I’ve never seen it when that tool always boils down to a shark jumping out of the screen.

As a camera operator, I often ponder the subtle differences between the camera frame as the audience’s eye, or as the omniscient “eye of God”: uninhibited by gravity or spatial limitations. I know when I watch a movie, I’m encouraged to disregard the dark theater, the seats, the arm rests, the people around me, and to focus solely on the screen (which reminds me of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave).

Step away for a moment and re-read (or read for the first time) Walter Murch’s letter railing against 3D. A snippet: ”their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another.”

The rep from 3ality seemed to think that a cause of headaches for audiences is this contradiction to our evolution: not only do humans rarely need to focus and converge so rapidly, we never need to do both so divergently. In nature, we’re not required to focus and converge on two different planes, let alone simultaneously, randomly, repeatedly and rapidly.

As an operator helping to author the director’s images on Plato’s cave wall, directing the audience’s eyes through my framing, I’m left to wonder if the spectacle of 3D actually diminishes the storytelling by distracting audience from their experience when a shark jumps out at them. A function of 3D filmmaking, in the interocular control, could make apparent size increase or decrease, which certainly translates to a tool of the form, but is it a tool we don’t already have through lighting, art direction and lens choice?

Furthermore, if the screen is our eyes interacting in that world, then how often does a shark jump behind our eyes? I would say never does the dagger get in our eyes, or behind them (looming over the audience in dark space), and the novelty is like a prank, upsetting the audience and returning them to the real world only for a moment. What a waste of the empathy built up to that point! What a betrayal of the performances and summation of effort made by all those individuals, to let all the tension and believability of that world ease for a moment because someone thought a buzzer under the audience’s proverbial seats would be fun. For “Piranha 3D”, that’s probably right on target. For a hefty drama or Oscar contender, is it right?

Personally, I would think that 3D offers an aesthetic opportunity that keeps the audience invested in the story, but also marveling at the majest of fooled depth: convergence at the screen plane, depth in positive space (behind the convergence/focal point). What if that theater screen truly were a window into another world? What if the images made you wonder if you weren’t looking at photographs suspended in “persistence of image“?

I went to a presentation by Sony in Culver City for their F65, and we saw some amazing footage shot on the F65 but also projected on their 4K projector. Some of the shots genuinely looked as clear, gorgeous and bright as looking through a window. How interesting would it be if our theater experience were the same? How would we experience stories we remember and love? How much more entrenched would we be in the emotions and zeitgeist of those characters, devoted to their causes, hopeful of their success, crestfallen by their loss?

How much more like the human experience could 3D bring us in cinema, in storytelling, in growing as people? Until then, I imagine audiences will stay disenfranchised by hefty premiums paid for inferior quality. A dagger in their mind.

William B. Demeritt III