The third dimension

The 3rd DimensionFrom Avatar to Gatsby and the ads in between, in a feature that first appeared in Encore, Lee Zachariah looks at the state of the 3D market.

When sound came in,they said it was a gimmick,” says director Baz Luhrmann. “It’s early days, and the [3D] tool is still being explored. But look at what Ang [Lee] did with the beautiful Life of Pi. And Dial M For Murder is just drama in a room.”

When Alfred Hitchcock’s 3D Dial M For Murder was released in 1954, it marked the crest of Hollywood’s first attempt to make 3D a permanent cinematic fixture but by the end of the year, exhibitors had begun turning their backs on the format.

It’s hard to imagine now with 3D’s strong foothold in mainstream cinema. Since cinema’s inception, 3D has been Hollywood’s white whale. As sound, colour, and visual effects were all gradually honed and perfected, 3D spent most of that time tantalisingly out of reach, only flaring up for brief periods of faddishness.

“Don’t be surprised if tomorrow’s film comedian steps out of the silver screen to remove the bonnet of the gal in the 13th row – the one who shuts off your 3D view of Marilyn Monroe,” boasted the US magazine Popular Science in April 1953. The magazine quoted 20th Century Fox’s claims that all of its feature films would be made in the format from that point on. Similar claims would be made 30 years later. In the first  edition of this very magazine in 1983, Stereovision president Chris Condon was quoted as saying: “3D is going to explode”. It never happened. Despite repeated attempts at revivals, 3D was relegated to the status of niche gimmick, along with Smell-o-Vision and Sensurround. Now, 30 years after Condon’s proclamation, 3D has proven itself the comeback kid. The format has become a hitchhiker on the digital revolution that has seen nearly all cinemas undergo a speedy conversion from film to files.

3D’s success – and we’re far enough into its current infiltration to reasonably call this phase a success – was a mixture of advanced technology and canny filmmaking.


Key to the new 3D technology being embraced was the spectacle with which it was presented. James Cameron’s Avatar grossed more than US$2.7 billion worldwide – a figure no doubt spurred on by the increased ticket prices for 3D movies – and immediately cemented 3D in the mainstream. 3D was here to stay, and it was very much the domain of the blockbuster. In the four years since Avatar, 150 films have been released in 3D. This was the same number of 3D films that hit cinemas in all of the years prior to Avatar. Although the numbers suggest that audiences have embraced 3D, many in the business are resistant.

The late American film critic Roger Ebert, a fierce critic of 3D, once claimed that he would reconsider his opposition only if Martin Scorsese made a film using the format. Ebert obviously thought he was on safe ground invoking the director of Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, but his implication was clear: 3D was the domain of the quick buck, and could not be taken seriously until cinema’s titans embraced it. In 2011, Martin Scorsese released Hugo, his first 3D film, and Ebert partially recanted.

“Scorsese uses 3D here as it should be used,” he said in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, “not as a gimmick, but as an enhancement of the total effect.” It seemed appropriate that Hugo, a film about cinematic pioneer Georges Melies, in which key scenes from the birth of film were recreated in astonishing detail, should be the film that finally defeated 3D’s staunchest detractor.

The regard in which 3D cinema is now held has improved dramatically. Storm Surfers 3D, an Australian documentary that follows surfing legends Ross Clarke-Jones and Tom Carroll as they attempt to surf some of the most dangerous waves in the world, picked up this year’s AACTA award for Best Feature Length Documentary, following its success at the Toronto International Film Festival. In February, it also took out the award for Most Outstanding Achievement in a 3D Documentary at the International 3D Society Annual Awards in Hollywood.


Baz Luhrmann’s decision to film one of the most beloved pieces of 20th century literature – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – in 3D was greeted with a mixture of fascination and derision by critics and industry insiders. But it has nonetheless marked a significant turning point in modern 3D. It was such an unlikely candidate for the format, it could only have been the choice of an auteur who acknowledged its legitimacy as a dramatic tool.

“It’s something I really thought about,” Luhrmann says. “If Fitzgerald was making a film… he was obsessed with cinema and modern techniques. When I saw Dial M For Murder, that was just a lot of actors in a room, but I was really struck by how immersive drama can be in 3D, and I thought Fitzgerald might apply that technique.”

“The decision to go 3D on Gatsby was purely a decision by Baz, and the studio backed him, which was wonderful,” says editor Matt Villa. “Baz came from a theatre background, and he was intrigued by taking the audience up on the stage, as it were. He wanted to take you into the drama and have you standing in the room with those people.”

Villa says the offline edit, the initial process of constructing the film pre-visual effects and music, was not as hindered by the extra dimension as one may assume.

The editing team for Gatsby comprised Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa.

The editing platform Avid had, in fact, developed software to streamline 3D offline editing, although it didn’t quite arrive in time. Villa says: “The new software only came out as Gatsby was starting, so as a result of that, the studio didn’t allow us to use it as it was still in its beta stage.”

Instead the editing team developed workarounds to suit the 3D. “As far as sitting there and cutting, there’s really no huge difference,” says Villa.

“The difference comes during the grading of the film. It tends to take a lot of time. It can be done as a separate thing to grading, but in Gatsby, it was done by the colourist. And that’s a really important part of the process, because bad colour won’t hurt your eyes, but bad 3D will, and you really need to take the time to get that right.”


Adrian Hauser was the lead colourist on Gatsby. “Managing the stereo finishing – post convergence, stereo handoffs, floating windows, light levels, et cetera – for The Great Gatsby was always going to be quite an involved process,” says Hauser. The perceived risks included Luhrmann’s famed fast-paced editing style, and elaborate visual effects.

“I was worried that you might have to cut things slower, to give the eyes time to adjust [to the 3D],” says Villa. “I actually didn’t find that, to be honest. I just cut as I normally would, and that is the gift of the stereoscopic guides and the colourists. They can adjust quick cuts so it’s easier on the eyes. From a cutting point of view, you can cut as normal, but it can now be manipulated after the fact to make it work on the big screen.”

Jump back 30 years. Among the concerns raised in that 1983 edition of Encore (then known as the Australian Film Review) was that those quick to embrace 3D “will make their films inexpertly”. Few would argue that the technicians working to create 3D cinema are not experts, but the sentiment still remains.

Studios wishing to boost the box office of their summer hits will often put them through a post-conversion process, so that images shot in 2D will be digitally altered to 3D. Although this approach has improved steeply in a short amount of time, initial forays into the post-conversion process, such as Clash of the Titans, Thor and Green Lantern, were considered awkward and clunky.

Post-conversion is now much smoother and is considered a significant cost-saving measure. Filming in 3D increases the time spent on set, and that production time – which includes the wages of large casts and crew – can add up. It is far cheaper to do it all on a computer after the fact.


As cinema struggles to compete for the consumer’s entertainment dollar, 3D is seen as a way of bringing the spectacle back to the movie houses.

It has proven popular enough for 3D conversion of old films such as Jurassic Park, Titanic and Finding Nemo. Although these are old favourites, it is the 3D, not the film, that is being sold. “The new version is so good,” says Matt Villa of Jurassic Park in 3D, “as good as films that were shot in 3D.”

Yet 3D’s popularity at the box office does not seem to be reflected in television sales. At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Association conference in Las Vegas in January, the major electronics manufacturers, in stark contrast to previous years, refused to even mention 3D. As many commentators noted, it was not lagging sales nor a widespread dislike of the format, but rather the manufacturer’s indifference that speaks volumes about the future of 3D TV. “There aren’t a lot of 3D TVs,” says Sydney ad agency BWM’s Rob Belgiovane. “When a 3D ad pops up during something else you’re watching, you’re not generally ready to put your 3D glasses on in the 30 or 60 seconds that it runs.”

With this in mind, BWM produced a 3D spot for Birds Eye Fish Fingers that was designed specifically for cinemas. The ads began screening during cinema pre-shows in early 2011. When asked why there are not more 3D ads, Belgiovane points out that not all marketers use cinema advertising, and for those whose focus is television, the return on investment is not high enough to justify the expense. The recent surge of 3D films, however, makes 3D cinema advertising a new and exciting prospect.

“I think the notion of 3D is much more popular for advertisers,” says Belgiovane, “because they’re looking for ways to engage the audience more and make the audience feel a part of the ad, which the 3D effect – when done well – does.”

Anyone who’s been to a 3D film will understand the divide initiated by the ‘Put your 3D glasses on now’ graphic.

The moment the glasses go on, the only thing bright enough to make an impact is the screen. Anything that screens after the graphic, be it an ad or movie trailer, is almost guaranteed to hold the audience’s attention.

Consequently, major brands such as Nikon, LG and KFC have recently produced 3D ads. Although television may not be the method of delivery, it’s possible these ads will penetrate the home market. In 2011, YouTube began rolling out features that allowed users to view videos in 3D. In April 2012, the platform introduced an automatic post-conversion for short-form videos uploaded in standard high definition meaning just about anyone can create 3D videos although These options still require the user to have 3D glasses at the ready.

Budget-wise, it’s impossible to put an exact figure on how much more expensive it is to film in 3D. “It depends completely on what you’re doing,” says Belgiovane. “It’s like, how long’s a piece of string? If you’ve got something really simple to shoot and you want to do it in 3D, obviously it becomes more affordable. If you’ve got a complex thing to shoot that’s already very expensive with lots of talent and lots of special effects, and then you want to do it in 3D, obviously it does add a degree of expense. But if you’re clever, it doesn’t need to push up the cost.”

3D may have started out the domain of CGI animation and action films, but its longevity will depend on a multi-pronged approach that will involve everything from commercials to online video. With the likes of Hugo and The Great Gatsby, it’s beginning to establish itself as a tool of more prestigious fare.

“A lot of the negative criticisms of 3D incorrectly associate it with ‘in ya face’ tricks and gimmicks,” says Gatsby colourist Hauser. “As we have seen with Gatsby, drama can work equally well, and in my opinion, better than action films.”

“When 3D came back again, I admit I thought it might have just been seen as a gimmick that would die away,” admits editor Villa. “But I do I do think they’re perfecting it now. There’s a lot of wonderful directors out there known purely for their drama, and 3D can be a tool to aid the narrative.”

“I suspect 3D is here to stay in one form or another,” he adds, “and I think that film-makers will embrace its narrative storytelling tools a lot more as we go on.”

Encore Issue 16This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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