Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Why 3D doesn't work and never will. Case closed."

According to Roger Ebert (who should know), Walter Murch is "the most respected film editor and sound designer in the modern cinema" and, according to Murch, 3-D movies are still a bad technology.

Here's his main objection (from an open letter to Ebert):

The biggest problem with 3D, though, is the "convergence/focus" issue. A couple of the other issues -- darkness and "smallness" -- are at least theoretically solvable. But the deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen -- say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what.

But 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. And 600 million years of evolution* has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focused and converged at the same point.

If we look at the salt shaker on the table, close to us, we focus at six feet and our eyeballs converge (tilt in) at six feet. Imagine the base of a triangle between your eyes and the apex of the triangle resting on the thing you are looking at. But then look out the window and you focus at sixty feet and converge also at sixty feet. That imaginary triangle has now "opened up" so that your lines of sight are almost -- almost -- parallel to each other.

We can do this. 3D films would not work if we couldn't. But it is like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, difficult. So the "CPU" of our perceptual brain has to work extra hard, which is why after 20 minutes or so many people get headaches. They are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared them for. This is a deep problem, which no amount of technical tweaking can fix. Nothing will fix it short of producing true "holographic" images.

Murch also makes important points about the editing and aesthetics of 3-D cinema, none of which are likely to make you rush out and invest your money in the technology, but that's just what the film industry has been doing.

As far as I can tell, it's been over seventy years since a customer-facing innovation (Technicolor) has revolutionized the cinema industry (distinguished here from home entertainment where the story has been entirely different). There have been customer-facing innovations but they've failed to catch on (Cinerama, color-based 3-D, Sensurround -- Imax has managed to stick around, but with less than 500 theaters after about four decades, it hasn't really been a game changer).

The innovations that actually had a major impact on the industry have been primarily focused on making films faster and quicker to make and easier to market (multiplexes, 'opening big,' digital production, post-production and projection, even CGI).

And yet studio executives continue to dream of the next Vitaphone.

*I'm not sure about the 600 million years -- how far back does stereoscopic vision go?

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