Special Feature: 3D evolution – from cash cow to high brow

After the overwhelming success of Avatar (2009) and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), 3D cinema appears to be defying mixed critical reception with cold, hard profits. But is 2011 the year that this new technological revolution balances economic success with artistic credibility?

For all of its many faults, James Cameron’s self proclaimed “game-changer” Avatar was an unbridled success upon its cinematic release in late 2009. Featuring a lush extraterrestrial planet, an army of square-jawed space marines and Sigourney Weaver as a giant “blue monkey”, the record-breaking blockbuster continued its success into 2010, coming out on top as the leading title in 3D revenue in the US* (closely followed by Pixar’s Toy Story 3).

Here in the UK, 3 of the top 5 best performing films at the box office had 3D releases – Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland and Shrek Forever After. Had the decision not been made to scrap the 3D “retro-fit” (where footage is automatically separated into three dimensions after it being shot in the standard 2D) of the second highest grossing film of the year, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller Inception would have stood alone as the only film in the top five not to receive a 3D release.

The figures are clearly adding up for Hollywood’s advocates of 3D, yet strong box office performance does not always necessarily go hand in hand with universal critical acclaim. Tim Burton’s reinterpretation of Lewis Carroll’s classic fantasy Alice in Wonderland received extremely mixed reviews at the time of its releases, with many critics heralding the 2D version superior in terms of spectacle. Despite such reservations, young audiences (perhaps attracted by the Disney branding and PG certificate) flocked to their local multiplexes in huge numbers, in turn making the film one of the early ‘critic-proof’ hits of 2010.

To a large extent, the 2011 3D release schedule appears to be pursuing this same youthful demographic, with Disney animation Tangled finally toppling The King’s Speech from its lofty throne back at the end of January. However, Tom Hooper’s multiple Oscar winner had already succeeded in luring back older film enthusiasts back to the cinema through its engaging screenplay, regal subject matter and acclaimed performances. Not to be outdone, 3D technology is now being used to attack that same market with the aid of a very unlikely partner in crime – live opera.

On 23rd February, in coordination with London’s ENO (English National Opera), Sky Arts broadcasted the world’s very first live 3D opera, selecting a new production of the classic Lucrezia Borgia as its proverbial ‘guinea pig’. Directed by British filmmaker Mike Figgis, the event was hyperbolised as the first ever ‘quadcast’, consisting of the following four elements: a live performance of ENO’s Lucrezia Borgia at the London Coliseum; a live broadcast of the event into living rooms around the UK via Sky Arts 2 (HD) and Sky 3D; a simultaneous behind the scenes feature of the live production through Sky Arts 1; and finally, a live 3D stream to selected cinemas around the UK.

Whilst it was refreshing to see such an innovative approach to 3D cinema (especially in a time where retro-fit 3D is all too common), the end results were hugely disappointing and gave the distinct feeling that you were losing more than you’d gained. For a start, the resolution of the 3D broadcast was extremely poor, with the production’s subtle use of lighting and chiaroscuro blurred and indistinguishable. You also lost the ability to select your own point of focus, with the camera frequently cutting to a close up of the central performer whilst at same time cropping any additional onstage action.

Despite its well-intentioned efforts, Sky’s 3D opera experiment ultimately failed in recreating the experience of a live performance. Following hot in its heels came the release of Carmen 3D, a cinema-only opportunity to see the Royal Opera House’s latest production of “the world’s most popular opera”. Once again, the inability of 3D (and film as a whole) to mimic the live operatic experience was all too obvious. Despite the allure of lower priced tickets (£11.50 for a cinema ticket, as opposed to £25 plus for the cheapest opera seat), it is extremely hard to see why audiences would bother with such a restricted imitation of the real thing.

However, opera is just one form of ‘high art’ that 3D cinema will hope to augment this year. Last month’s Berlin International Film Festival helped to highlight two of the most exciting, innovative approaches to the new technology to date, with a second outing (after its Toronto Film Festival unveiling) for Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and the premiere of Pina, the 3D debut from fellow German filmmaker Wim Wenders.

Herzog’s latest effort takes the form of an anthropological/existential exploration of France’s Chauvet cave, home to some of the oldest recorded examples of prehistoric painting and art. 3D cinema’s ability (when used with a certain degree of artistic skill) to highlight and extenuate textures and relief seems to suggest that Herzog has thankfully taken the ‘content dictates form’ approach, rather than putting together a dumb screenplay, a set of one dimensional, clichéd characters and an endless barrage of CGI creations simply to demonstrate 3D’s technical capabilities.

Similarly, with dance film Pina, Wenders will hope to emulate the beauty and artfulness with which he depicted his trapeze-riding heroine in the sublime Wings of Desire (1987). Utilizing to full effect the fantastically choreographed dance routines of the late Pina Bausch – who tragically died two days before the start of principal photography – has already garnered some extremely favourable reviews after its outing in Berlin and may serve as further proof of the usefulness of 3D cinematography to the dance film genre.

With 3D debuts still to come later in the year courtesy of some of Hollywood’s true heavyweights (with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Steven Spielberg’s first entry in the director’s Adventures of Tintin series the undoubted highlights), 2011 looks like a pivotal year in the new technology’s evolution. The outlook for independent filmmakers and productions, however, may not be so rosy, as smaller films find themselves both financially and technologically muscled out of the market.

*Revenue data courtesy of IHS Screen Digest

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Daniel Green