Saturday, March 27, 2010

3D cinema goes from must-see to rip-off

For a time there, it looked like 3D cinema was going to be the saviour of cinema. With the explosion of DVDs and downloading, it seemed like contemporary audiences weren't into going out to the movies anymore. Then came a new generation of 3D films that were vastly superior to the old-school 3D of the mid-20th century. Suddenly there was a compelling reason for everyone to go to the theatres again. Many animated films such as Coraline and Up used 3D to very good effect. Then along came Avatar and set the bar at a ridiculously high level.

But Avatar got everything right. It was an extremely expensive movie to make, with many new technologies invented for the process. Say what you will about James Cameron, but he knows what he's doing and was able to advance the field of filmmaking. And the 3D wasn't just a gimmick for Avatar, but an integral part of the story's content.

One of the film's major themes is seeing. The film opens and ends with Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) opening his eyes, but there is a huge difference between the two moments. The expression "I see you" was mocked by some, but is a good way to express love without saying it outright - rather like Casablanca's "here's looking at you, kid." The film is about Sully learning to empathize and "see" from the perspective of another species. And Cameron has made no bones about wanting the viewers to see our own planet differently and to raise environmental awareness.

But the studios didn't focus on that. All they saw was the two-and-a-half billion dollars it made. So they've leapt on the 3D bandwagon and converted a bunch of new releases into 3D to capitalize on the excitement that Avatar created. The results have been crappy 3D versions of 2D movies such as Alice in Wonderland, which was hardly 3D at all. Even when you did notice it, it wasn't enjoyable.

One CG supervisor has criticized the 3D conversion as an annoying distraction. Watching a converted 3D film is to real 3D what a colourized black-and-white film is to watching a film shot in colour. It's actually crappier than the original version. And you're supposed to pay more for that? Even James Cameron has come out against 3D conversion, saying, "we do a film that is natively authored in 3D, shot in 3D, and so they assume from the success of that they can just turn movies into 3D in 8 weeks... throw a switch and that's gonna work somehow ... but it's just not the way to do it. If you want to make a movie in 3D, make the movie in 3D."

But no matter. Alice in Wonderland broke box office records in the last few weeks, meaning people got suckered in to paying the higher prices, sometimes for both 3D and IMAX. It has made around $600 million internationally. About a quarter to a third of that is from the extra charge for 3D.

Now the Wall Street Journal has released a report saying that theatres are bumping up their prices for 3D cinemas as much as 26%. This weekend sees the opening of the children's film How to Train Your Dragon. While this film has the advantage of being a true 3D film, the price jump is just a cash grab. Now a family of four will have to spend $70 or more for an outing.

While it may be true 3D, I don't think it is an "event" the way Avatar was. But at least it is was made properly. Don't expect the prices to drop once movies like Clash of the Titans come along, with their fake 3D conversion. The studios and theatres have seen that people haven't caught on and are willing to pay more, so why not charge them?

I say don't bother paying. Until the films start being made properly, it's simply a waste of money to see a fake 3D film at a premium price. Save your money, and stick to plain old 2D until the studios get it right.

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