How 3D is spoiling 2D

This weekend I saw the last Harry Potter twice: first in 2D and the next day in 3D. I am a fan but not that big of a fan but it was just a accident of circumstance that led me to see it twice in quick succession but it did allow me to compare the 3D and 2D prints while each was still fresh in my mind.

Quite a few critics are citing HP as an example of 3D done right. I'm not so sure. I know you're rolling your eyes and dismissing me as yet another 3D hater but hear me out as I think I've finally put my finger on what it is about the current 3D movies that doesn't work for me.

Harry Potter demonstrates the problems that still remain in state of the art 3D technology. I am not an expert in this technology so I can only report what I perceived through my own eyes. As I understand it, there are two ways of making a 3D movie: during production (with 3D cameras) or in post (on 2D source material). HP is the latter (except for one scene). Converting 2D source material to 3D is a big, labor-intensive industry. Artists go through by hand rotoscoping the elements in the frame which can then be set on different 3D planes. So, if you have a character in the foreground, another in the mid-distance and then the setting as the background you would separate the three elements so you can put one in front of the other, in front of the other. It does give an illusion of depth but, as far as I can see, it doesn't convey the subtitles of real world 3D.

In the real world there aren't just three 3D planes in the scene described above. The character in the foreground is 3D in his own right - his nose is closer to than his ear and the perspective between the two points is gradual. As a child did you ever make a 3D diorama peep box, or shadow box, or cardboard puppet theater? It seems to be the same principle. One thing is in front of another giving the illusion of 3D but each of those things is flat which ruins the illusion in a paper model and a multi-million dollar movie.

To my eye these flat 3D movie planes layered over each other actually look flatter than and normal 2D movie. When you're watching a normal movie you quickly forget that you're watching something flat and 2D. 3D is represented by depth of field, lighting changes and camera movements and by the viewers own, intrinsic, visual intelligence. In someways that is taken away from you in a 3D movie. The flat areas layered over each other look flatter because you're fighting to interpret the flat areas within a layered 3D environment. It's also hard to become unaware of this visual trick and once you see flaws you constantly get pulled out of the illusion as a result.

'So, why not just go and see it in 2D you Luddite?' I hear you ask. Well, because the emphasis is on 3D the 2D print suffers. What do I mean specifically? You seem to see some artifacts in 2D as a result of the 3D process. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 there was a specific scene that made this obvious to me. After Harry, Hermione and Ron have dropped into the lake off the dragon's back they are walking around a hilly area, getting warm and talking about what they are going to do next. When I saw the scene first in 2D something didn't feel right. It almost felt like they had been filmed separately from the background and green-screened in - like they were stuck on to the background rather than really being in it. If it was a still photo I was examining I would have said it was clumsy use of in PhotoShop - the kind of thing you see when someone hasn't used shallow depth of field when they took the shot but they have faked it after the fact by masking the subject and then blurring the background. You can always tell - there's something about the edge of the subject, a slight halo or something, and the background is too uniformly blurred. It's not how natural bokeh looks. Whatever the equivalent is in filmic terms, that's what I'm seeing and that's what I object to.

This all said, I loved the final movie and am very sad that the decade long journey is now over. I still give it two thumbs up in 3D or 2D but a lesser movie I might not feel so magnanimous towards. 3D is not an evolution from traditional 2D movies but an alternative to them. For the moment it is still a matter of personal preference but I'm still far too aware of the technology and process to get sucked into a 3D movie as easily as I can slip into the world of a traditional 'flat' movie.

You pays your money and makes your choice....


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