Another Country

Any linguistics teacher will tell you that learning a language as a child, before the brain has formed years of habitual references, is an easier task than starting from scratch as an adult. And honestly, how many of us as adults have even attempted to learn a new language? By language, of course, I mean the world of 3D. And I believe, quite literally, it requires a new way of seeing and working for our industry.

Often we approach new technologies as incremental progressions; small baby steps that improve a camera’s performance or allow us to shoot with less light. But this giant called 3D is no mere steppingstone. In fact, it has been mostly sleeping for the last half-century and is now waking up speaking its foreign language. Probably the only thing it has in common with the current vernacular is, much like 2D moviemaking where we create the illusion of depth, 3D is also an illusion. It tricks the brain to believe that objects, people and places are all coming off the screen. And as others have noted, until we get to true holographic cinematography, 3D remains an invention to make the audience feel they’re watching a third dimension.

So here we are trying to resurrect an old format with smaller and more precise technology, but we can’t really begin to tell 3D stories until we understand the parameters. I’ve been talking for months now about the wonderfully thorough training program the Guild has developed in partnership with Sony’s 3D Technology Center. The processes taught there are not just about learning how to work with another piece of equipment. The program is also about how the rules of 2D filmmaking no longer apply. Gone are those soft-focus foreground beauty shots we may linger on, because the first thing the eye goes to in a 3D image is the foreground. Another example: I recently worked on a carefully plotted and intricately photographed movie about animals. Towards the end of production the studio decided they wanted to release the film in 3D. That could be done, of course, but designing a movie in 2D without any forethought of 3D meant a host of compromises to properly sell the 3D illusion to the audience. So even in a 2D-3D conversion scenario, you have to plot the film out as though you were shooting in this brand new language.

There are many other similar visual examples throughout the 3D format that need to be learned. And I cannot emphasize enough how being prepared for 3D through training, education and hands-on experience ensures the best chance for success, even on a 2D project that’s destined for a post-conversion. And while you won’t walk out of a 3D training class fluent in this new tongue, you will leave with a foundation and basis for beginning to understand the language of 3D.

So where does 3D go from here? Like any new technology, its future remains unknown. That doesn’t mean it will disappear, like some pundits have predicted, but the format will change radically in the next few years. We’re going to see single-camera 3D technology that goes far beyond just two lenses in the same box. These new rigs will have computer technology that can account for how that image will be dimensionalized. Auto-stereoscopic (a/k/a glasses-free) display technology will soon be showing up on mobile devices, in the home and perhaps on major production sets. Does that mean at some point we’ll be off the educational hook with 3D? Quite the contrary, it will become more important than ever to learn this new language. Consider 3D another country that very few have visited, let alone mastered. Without a good roadmap and dictionary, it’s easy to get lost along the way.

Fraternally,

Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600