The danger of movie gimmicks

Yesterday I wrote a post about how making your movie 3D affects the post-production process. Although 3D has been around for decades, the technology might soon be available to many more people.

We expect that one day all media will have some sort of 3D element. This technology seems to follow on in the chain of movie realism. We started with hand-cranked cameras: action on screen was hardly ever shown at a natural speed; clockwork motors were added for consistency. Then sound and colour were introduced. 100 years ago people knew that movies weren’t reality – they suspended their disbelief. For those that thought there was a future in cinema, they expected sound and colour to be added some time in the future.

A poster promoting one of William Castle\'s movie gimmicks

In the 1950s the movie industry started feeling the competition from television. Enterprising producers started adding gimmicks that were hard to implement at home on TV. Widescreen formats became very popular in the 1950s, as did 3D.

It seems that the internet is the new competition to cinema. Film studios are starting to engage in an arms race of movie experience. If home viewers have access to screens showing movies at a resolution of 1920 by 1080 (2K) , cinemas will have screens with a resolutions between 4096×3112 (4K) and 10000×7000 (IMAX). If we have six speakers at home, cinemas will have speakers all along the walls.

The difference in the battle this time is that when people hear about great picture and sound and gimmicks such as 3D, they want to hear how it would work for them at home on their computer and TV. They aren’t so much into experiences that they can’t replicate where and when they want. We now expect technology to take the idea of the special occasion of going to the movies and make it everyday by giving us control. I imagine that if we could fit a collapsable rollercoaster into a backpack for easy erection anywhere we happen to be, we would forego the special occasion of going to a heavily branded theme park. We want special things in our lives, but can they be special if we have too much control over them?

That means we want 3D for our TVs, computers, phones, in-car instrumentation and product packaging. “It makes things more realistic” is the argument. It seems to make sense that one day, we won’t have 2D screens, just 3D projection everywhere: such as that employed by R2D2 in Star Wars.

Unfortunately, there comes a point when the benefit of the gimmick gets in the way of telling the story. If the way you tell the story becomes more important than the story told, then people might care a lot less about what you’re trying to say. If people are waiting for the next amazing special effect, huge sound, vibration in their seat or large 3D object seeming to poke them in the eye, they’ll be paying a lot less attention to the characters and the message. Some films are about the spectacle – the amazing effects, the original way of butchering a young woman, a breathtaking car chase. Better films may have spectacle, but they also have some thematic element that makes them last in the mind and heart. The Matrix may have introduced rarely-seen special effects, but people returned to the film because of the central concept and of the theme: ‘Is freedom possible?’ In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon there are some exciting fights and stunts, but they are more exciting because sometimes you don’t know who you want to win the fight – you are on both sides at the same time.

Successful gimmicks are the ones that might get an audience to go and see a film – movie stars can be included in this category, but they don’t usually get in the way of the story. Some people may have gone to see Braveheart if Mel Gibson hadn’t starred in it, but he ‘opened’ the film. After that, it was the story and the theme that kept people coming back.

That means there are two possibilities for the future of stereoscopic 3D images on 2D screens: it is a fad that will fade away as battles between cinemas and the home move on to new fronts, or it will become so normal in film-making that people will hardly notice it any more.

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2 comments
  1. Alex said:

    James Cameron talks about the issue of 3D gimmickry at http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117983864.html?categoryid=2868&cs=1 :

    I think it is a mistake under any circumstances to make a film which is dependent on 3-D for its success, either aesthetically or commercially. The film should not be marketed first and foremost as a 3-D experience. The film should be sold on its merits (cast, story, imagery, etc.) and the consumer should be informed that they can purchase the experience in 2-D or, for a couple extra bucks, in 3-D

  2. Why should it cost more as the film is already done that way? Why not just do your Film and show it in 3d. Make the Film you would make in 2D and show it in 3D. Just don’t add that nasty 3D-Things-fly-to-the-camera if you wouldn’t normally add it. Don’t use it as a Gimmic, just as the Technique you’re using.

    You wouldn’t start coloring everything in super bright lsd-trip like Colors, just because you film in Color eather…

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