Why 3D and modern filmmaking techniques don't mix

David Bayon
11 Aug 2010

This is the fourth in a series of blogs based on a seminar by Buzz Hays, chief instructor for the Sony 3D Technology Center in Culver City, California.

To be done well, a 3D film really needs to be 3D from the outset, as the tools and techniques that work in three dimensions are very different to those most cinematographers have grown used to. In fact, some even require a step back in time to a more artistic age of cinema, as Buzz Hays explained.

Depth of field

Take depth of field, for example. It’s a staple of modern films, commonly used to direct the viewer’s eyes to the key point of the screen, guiding us through the scene as the director intended. Yet it’s an effect that simply doesn’t work in 3D.

To demonstrate, Buzz showed us a 3D still from the movie Monster House, in which a character stands with his arm outstretched towards the camera. Only his face is in focus.

“Note where your eyes take you when this shot hits the screen,” began Buzz. “Cinematographers are trained in the art of this particular technique, so they know exactly where to look, but I’m going to hazard a guess that you looked at his hand first?” He was right. Despite the lack of focus on anything but the face, the hand drew the attention.

“Typically, when you look at 3D, whether it’s the real world or a movie, you tend to look at whatever’s closest to you. In 2D depth of field works well to direct your eye to the main character’s face, but in 3D it creates a disconnect, because there’s no logical reason why the world is out of focus. It creates visual confusion, and this could be one of those moments where the viewer is pulled out of the story because he’s not quite sure where to look.”

He then replaced the image with the same shot, all in focus. “Now your eyes will still go to his hand first, but as you wander the frame [and it’s in focus] it takes the curse off.” And it did.

Lighting

With depth of field less effective, cinematographers need to use other methods of directing the viewer’s eye. For inspiration they should look back through the decades, to a time when lighting was more prominent tool in a cinematographer's box.

“When you think about some of the world’s greatest cinematographers of yore, like Greg Toland who shot Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, they used very deep-focus photography. Every aspect of the image was in focus, so instead they used lighting to direct the eye, and shadow to sculpt objects. [There's a fascinating piece by Toland here.] We’re starting to find with filmmakers working in 3D, that it is like theatre. In theatre we can’t simulate out of focus, so we use lighting to direct the eye – and we’re starting to lean back towards that method.”

Games designers have long used lighting to guide the player through increasingly complex levels, partly because depth of field effects have only recently become feasible using consumer graphics cards. Filmmakers will also have to relearn these more traditional techniques, which is something Buzz is all for. The problem is that many in the industry today have become tied to depth of field as a tool to the point where they don't even consider other methods.

“A lot of the younger filmmakers I've talked to say, ‘I can’t lose my use of depth of field because that’s how I direct the eye in the frame’. It’s because it’s the only way they know how to direct the eye. A lot of them have never tried anything else because it [depth of field] has been around since they started in cinema.”


Dial M For Murder

As an interesting aside, Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to 3D, having filmed the 1954 classic Dial M For Murder using a stereoscopic camera rig. For one scene he wanted a close-up of a finger dialling the titular M on a rotary dial telephone, but the gigantic rig just couldn't get close enough to capture the effect at such a small scale. Hitchcock's solution? To build a huge wooden telephone (right) and a wooden finger to dial it with. By the time the film was released it played mostly in 2D, as the short 1950s 3D craze had already fizzled out.

Editing

A move towards the methods of theatre should have another side benefit for viewers tiring of the ever-faster editing that seems to be plaguing modern cinema.

“You tend to involve an audience in a much deeper way if the performance just unfolds. If you have a really powerful, great actor giving a performance, when you watch that in 3D, especially from a given camera position, you feel that performance coming through as if you’re sitting right there in a theatre. As we start to edit around that, we start to lose the sense of the power of the performance.”

These days many directors seem to assume the viewer has a short attention span and requires fast editing to retain the sense of involvement in a scene, but that shouldn’t be the case with 3D.

“A number of visual scientists that have looked at 3D over the past ten to fifteen years have commented on this idea that when you look at a still 3D image, your brain tends to do the editing for you.”

“Working in filmmaking we use editing as a principal technique for driving the story forward, to ellipse time and all sorts of things. But presented with a 3D image your eye tends to wander. A lot of filmmakers will find that as they introduce new environments and characters, they might actually open up the pacing of the edit just a little bit to let the eye wander before they cut to the action. Just like in comedy you don’t want to step on the laugh, here you want to give the viewer the chance to acclimatise to the environment before you jump in with the action.”

As an example of filmmakers experimenting with this idea, we can look back to two 3D movies which used different approaches.

G-Force was about 84 minutes, I believe, and we had 1,800 shots in the movie. Yet Beowulf, which was over two hours long, had only 840 shots. [Director] Bob Zemeckis realised that using camera motion helped tell the story rather than lots of cutting. It was more conducive to telling the story in 3D, and letting the action play out on camera versus creating a performance in edit.”

3D to enhance story

Zemeckis also used other ways to experiment with 3D, not all of which you may have noticed while watching the film.

“We had a situation in Beowulf, where we had a discussion with Bob about using 3D from a storytelling perspective. Because the film involves characters in constant shifting power, Bob made it so as people were losing their power, they’d actually start to lose some of their dimension. Conversely those who were gaining power started to become more realistic in dimension. It was a very subtle use of 3D in terms of telling the story.”

Too subtle for most to notice, but an interesting approach nonetheless, and similar to one which Hitchcock has been known to use. Of Dial M For Murder, the director once told an interviewer, "We did an interesting colour experiment with Grace Kelly's clothing. I dressed her in very gay and bright colors at the beginning of the picture, and as the plot thickened, her clothes became gradually more somber."

The old classics had directors looking for ways to add to the story of a film, and hopefully 3D will have them experimenting all over again.

“To us 3D technology should support the storytelling, it shouldn’t be the story,” said Buzz. As another studio slaps a headline-grabbing 3D conversion on another perfectly good 2D film, few could argue with those words.

Read more:
Why we can't ditch 3D glasses just yet.
Why bad 3D, not 3D glasses, is what gives you a headache.
From the Pole to Pandora: the shaky progress of modern 3D.
3D TV: in the home, on a budget and… on the news?

Storm Trooper image courtesy of pasukaru76.

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