A New Medium

After coming back from the Egyptian Theatre where we saw some stereoscopic movies at the 3D Expo, my 10-1/2-year-old son Jonah had this to say about the film we’d just seen:  “There weren’t enough off-screen effects.”  He was disappointed and as we continued the conversation he also had this to say about stereoscopic movies:  “The off-screen effects frequently called attention to themselves and distracted from the storytelling.”  He’s put his finger on the paradox of stereoscopic filmmaking. On one hand, people want these off-screen effects; and on the other hand, they frequently are used in a creative way that pulls away from the story.

This conflict or tension that exists now in the stereoscopic cinema is one that will resolve itself. It’s a question of experience and education for both the filmmakers and for the audience. One of the difficulties with the stereoscopic cinema is that it has not been an ongoing medium–it’s been sporadically practiced. There have been brief moments in which there was stereoscopic cinema activity, but these come and go. The last movement of even minor significance was in the early ‘80s, when just a handful of truly bad stereoscopic movies like COMIN’ AT YA! and JAWS 3-D were released. Prior to that, in the early ‘50s there were many stereoscopic films shot, which I have been looking at the 3D Expo at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Many of these films weren’t released in stereo because there were severe technical problems, I believe both in photography and especially in projection. After a run of just a few months films that had been shot in stereo were released as normal 2-D releases.

Stereoscopic movies (but not features) have had activity on an ongoing basis for the past 20 years or so in theme parks and World’s Fairs. People have been treated to, say, 20-minute shows that exploited the medium as a gimmick in terms of off-screen effects. In the context of a theme park, it’s completely understandable. Why not?  One of the things that the theme park has had to offer that the mall doesn’t has been stereoscopic movies, and people are in a mood to be wowed, so hurling things at the audience is the order of the day.

But for the stereoscopic medium to flourish in the theatrical arena, something different has to be offered to the audience. There is this tension between off-screen effects, and effects that make sense and that are balanced in the context of the film. I can think of some historical antecedents that might help us reason by analogy to try to figure out what’s going on. I can say that filmmaking itself has gone through some mighty changes. With the introduction of the cinema over 100 years ago, the world began to look at itself in a different way. Our perception of reality is informed by media. Filmmaking has changed the way we see the world.

The filmmaking process is not isomorphic with perception in the visual field; there is not a one-to-one correspondence. This is, to my mind, most evident in the pan. When a movie camera movies, when we have a traveling shot in which there is a rejuxtaposition of foreground and background, we have a situation that is isomorphic with the visual field and resembles the way we see in the visual world. When the camera pans or tilts, swings side to side or up and down, there is a total breakdown between the way the camera sees and the way a human being sees. When you look around the room and your eyes move around, you do not see for that moment. Your eyes stop seeing until they’re at rest. But when a motion picture camera pans and the image is projected, we see something never seen in the visual field:  We see the pan and that is outside of our daily visual experience.

The eye and the brain form an image of our environment that is built up over time. It’s a complicated process. By “time,” it may be a fraction of a second, but when we walk into a room there is a tremendous amount of information about that environment that our mind is able to process, and it forms some kind of effigy of the room and some kind of constant image remains in the mind. That image of the room, let’s say, is formed out of a series of, I’ll call them “photographs” that the eye takes of the room as it looks from point to point in the room and as one moves into different locations. So vision is constant because of memory and because of the image processing of the eye-brain. The camera and projection don’t do anything like that: They just record instantaneously, and then in projection the mind forms an image of what the filmmaker’s intention.

When motion pictures were introduced, the rule of the day was to ape the theatrical proscenium arch. The cinema was informed and influenced by theater, and it took years before filmmakers began to create what might be called a “grammar” of film that was at least to some significant extent independent of theater. Initially filmmakers showed the actors as if one were looking at a stage. Filmmakers were afraid to cut off people’s feet or heads, because audiences objected to it. But after years–and I really don’t know the detailed history of this, but after some time–filmmakers began to experiment with close-ups, with moving cameras, and daringly showing only parts of people’s bodies. Gradually a concept of montage, or an edited film, was created, providing an experience approaching the way wed look at the world in my room example above. A raw medium, shooting motion pictures and projecting them, evolved into what is predominantly a storytelling medium. The motion picture medium could have gone in different directions, but because of commercial interests and because people were used to theater–and because movies were projected in theaters, theaters in which plays and vaudeville had been shown–the motion picture became an entertainment and a storytelling experience; and it’s that way to this day.

But the tools and techniques people have used for telling a story have changed. One might say they’ve become more sophisticated; but “sophisticated” in the sense that both the filmmakers and the audience have to cooperate. As the filmmaker learns new ways of expression the audience has to go along with it. In a sense the medium evolves over time through a handshake, or cooperation, between the creators and the audience.

Another example of a more recent change–one that’s only about 50 years old–has to do with the introduction of CinemaScope. In the early ‘50s television was vying for the attention of the film-going public, and after the Second World War theater attendance was dramatically down. The Hollywood studios were looking for a way to get people to come back into the theater. In the early ‘50s when this crisis was occurring, there were two competing technologies:  3-D or stereoscopic projection using two projectors, and CinemaScope, using a single projector but with a wide-aspect-ratio image. We all know what happened. CinemaScope prevailed. CinemaScope, with an aspect ratio of something like 2.4:1 compared to the 1.3:1 of the Edison aspect ratio, was about twice as wide and panoramic. Its panoramic potential was what principally engaged the filmmakers of the time.

CinemaScope was in a sense a response to Cinerama. Cinerama used three cameras and three projectors to project onto a very large, 150-degree-arc, cylindrically curved screen. Cinerama was all about spectacle, and early CinemaScope movies were also about spectacle. CinemaScope was billed as “3-D without glasses”–that’s what early posters proclaimed. The first CinemaScope movies were harking back to the earliest silent cinema. Shots were long, compositions approximated the proscenium arch, filmmakers were afraid that rapid cutting wouldn’t work, and CinemaScope–for its inception–was stage bound. How it was sued was a giant step backwards esthetically. Today movies shot and projected in the ‘Scope aspect ratio are fluid. There’s no difference, essentially, in the techniques that are used for ‘Scope and those used for so-called “widescreen,” which is 1.85:1 in the United States as opposed to 2.4:1 for ‘Scope.

When CinemaScope was introduced, there was a widening of the field of view in the theater. The screen opened horizontally and was appreciably wider than the old Edison aspect ratio; so there was a sense of letting more in, a sense of immersion. Today a different situation exists. Rather than expanding horizontally, when ‘Scope movies are shown the screen is contracted in the vertical; a mask descends and crops the 1.85:1 aspect ratio turning it into the 2.4:1 ‘Scope aspect ratio. This is bizarre, because it’s totally contrary to the original attraction of the medium. This is how the medium has evolved over time:  CinemaScope is no longer about a super-panoramic view. It’s about something else. In fact, when you go to the movies and you see a ‘Scope movie, the chances are very good that the screen’s going to be smaller than the screen for projecting wide screen. So in some way the economics of exhibition have conspired to change the original intention of CinemaScope. But the most important point in all of this is that after awhile filmmakers and audiences cooperated, and CinemaScope became a much more fluid medium–one that was capable of fluid filmic expression–and stopped being stage bound.

My point in all of this is that people have gotten to learn how to use a new film medium as film has progressed, if we can call the addition of sound, color, and wide aspect ratio progress. Progress in what sense? one might ask. Sometimes people offer the opinion that these additions make filmmaking more realistic. Certainly that’s an argument that’s advanced whenever people discuss stereoscopic capability. But I wonder if that’s really true, and it would require us to define what we mean by “realism,” which I’m not going to do right now because I don’t really know the answer. I don’t have a good definition. I do know that the addition provided by the stereoscopic cinema is one of immersion and palpability. Clearly, we see the world stereoscopically, but the motion picture medium, for the most part, doesn’t. So we’re at the point now when certain important filmmakers are seriously considering using the stereoscopic medium.

Interestingly enough, this reintroduction or renaissance of the stereoscopic cinema is coupled with computer generated imagery. When creating a stereoscopic movie on a computer, the filmmaker has total control; and the experts at Sony Imageworks and Disney have demonstrated mastery of the medium so that, for example, when my son Jonah saw MONSTER HOUSE, he didn’t have the same kinds of questions that he had about the tension between off-screen effects and effects that are appropriate to telling the story. That’s because somehow or other the modern filmmakers have started to learn from the mistakes of the past and have integrated into the filmmaking medium a balanced perception of how stereoscopic imaging should be conducted–not only in terms of viewer comfort, but in terms of telling the story. My take on it is this:  With the passage of time, filmmakers will learn how to master the stereoscopic medium and use it as part of the story, and use it as part of the motion picture process. But right now there’s been little continuity of learning and the material that’s shot for theme parks is a world unto itself. Although it can inform and help filmmakers understand what to do, it can also help them by showing them what not to do, which is just as important.

Today we’re at the beginning of what I’ve called the renaissance in stereoscopic filmmaking, with an important and interesting difference. In the early ‘50s, every theater could relatively inexpensively be turned into a stereoscopic theater because two projectors were in the booth and required for changeover; so the studios were able to shoot product knowing that if it failed in stereo it could be released in planar, but knowing that in stereo they had the capability of projecting in many theaters. Today we have a different situation in which REAL D, as of this writing, has thousands of theaters in over 20 countries, and is expanding its global reach daily. Obviously more theaters are required for the studios to see the true economic potential of the medium. The system that my colleagues and I at REAL D have developed I think will allow filmmakers to tell stories stereoscopically without the concerns that were so distracting in the ‘50s with regard to projection, because we now have what I call a “neutral transmission system.”  If you produce a good stereoscopic movie, we can project it.

The only way to tell how all of this is going to shake out is with the passage of time. As more and more stereoscopic movies are made, filmmakers will learn how to absorb and integrate the medium into the storytelling. It’s something I look forward to seeing unfold.

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