A rebuttal of Roger Ebert's diatribe against 3D cinema

Roger Ebert. I love the guy, but love can be complicated. I respect and admire so much about him, from his honest take on movies to his courageous embrace of technology to replace his voice, that I feel obligated to give anything he says a fair shake. But his recent dismissal of games as art, and this attack on 3D cinema, demonstrate a curmudgeonly side of him that I wasn’t aware of (I’m well aware of my own). Nicholas already addressed the former position with aplomb, and I’m about to address the latter, not as a mere fan of 3D cinema (far from it) but as an evangelist for technology in general.

It pains me to differ with someone so distinguished, but I feel that I have an obligation to as someone with a megaphone and the ability to craft what I hope is a cogent rebuttal. His complaints are variously earnest, short-sighted, and inexplicable, but because he is a serious voice in cinema, they deserve a full response. I’ll be grouping his issues into a few categories; quoting them in full here would be a waste of space, so please refer to the Newsweek article for his verbatim complaints. One thing: he cuts the effectiveness of his tirade by adding at the end:

I’m not opposed to 3-D as an option. I’m opposed to it as a way of life for Hollywood, where it seems to be skewing major studio output away from the kinds of films we think of as Oscar-worthy. Scorsese and Herzog make films for grown-ups. Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market.

So with that softening agent duly applied, let’s take a look at his specific issues.

1. It’s a waste of a dimension
2. It adds nothing to the experience
8. I cannot imagine a serious drama, such as Up In The Air or The Hurt Locker, in 3-D

Ebert’s complaint, perfectly admissible in one sense but ludicrous in another, is that because there are no masterpieces of 3D yet, that there will be none, and that even as a tool (he asserts that directors are unable to imagine a serious 3D movie either) 3D is useless for creating “real” movies. It seems to me a bit early to make that determination.

He mentions the launch of other major features in movies we now take for granted: surround sound, widescreen, color — all of which are essential components of the movies he cites, as early as Lawrence of Arabia, for their traditional brilliance. It doesn’t bother him that Lawrence of Arabia was shot in an absurdly wide aspect ratio because that was a “premium feature” to be sold at the time, apparently. 50 years later it’s still a brilliant film, apparently in spite of its use of widescreen.

What about 3D, though? One might argue that 3D’s debut wasn’t really any of the amateurish CG efforts like Beowulf, the same way as Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t really the debut of “talkies.” With a toolset in its infancy, the first fruits thereof are bound to be babyish. It’s as silly to suggest today that 3D will amount to nothing as it would have been in the 20s to say that talkies were a fad and masterpieces like Way Down East and Sunrise were indicative of the fact that dialogue was not necessary in a film. After all, if you really needed to say something, you could put up a text card!

Perhaps if we had a few solid years of 3D films under our collective belts and none was worthwhile, this complaint might be worth taking seriously. Thankfully, the imaginations of the critics and directors of the previous generation of filmmaking are not the ones conceiving the masterpieces of the next. Herzog and Scorsese are of the old school — formerly known as the new school — of filmmakers, and to expect them to appropriate 3D as anything but a gimmick is to forget their entire history and style of art. Hitchcock and others went on with black and white long after color was available, but that doesn’t mean that the new filmmakers working in color in the ’40s and ’50s were no good.

At any rate, Ebert torpedoes his own argument later on, when he says “Avatar used 3-D very effectively. I loved it. Cameron is a technical genius who planned his film for 3-D from the ground up and spent $250 million getting it right. He is a master of cinematography and editing.” So his issue seems to be more with filmmakers not embracing 3D enough.

3. It can be a distraction
4. It can cause nausea and headaches
5. Have you noticed that 3-D seems a little dim?

You know, I’ve always thought that the color in The Wizard of Oz was a bit… oversaturated. You know, when Dorothy comes out of the house (and the first ch-ching from “Money” sounds)? And there’s that incredible set and the munchkins and all? Too colorful! Doesn’t reflect the natural tones of real life at all! Distracts from the movie-watching experience, in my opinion. And watch out for that train it’s coming right at us oh my god

Of course, that’s ridiculous. 3D technology is still taking baby steps, and as always with stuff like this, it’s two forward, one back. Or some other ratio, but the point is that in the end you’re moving forward; as the saying goes, you never step into the same river twice, and to complain about current technology (other than to direct its improvement) is like complaining a stick hit your leg. There will always be sticks in the river.

His objection in #3 is to the current 2D-to-3D technologies, which I have to heartily agree are total garbage, and create a 3D effect in a way that is even more foreign to our eyes and brains. That’s going the way of the dodo, take my word for it: it’s horribly labor-intensive and the results are crude at best, but you can still expect conversions of classics for the next couple years. My recommendation is to call your local Senator and suggest that this technique be outlawed as cruelty to art school students, who are employed en masse to rotoscope every scene, object by object. Won’t somebody please think of the art students?

As for the nausea and headaches, unfortunately that’s something that requires working out as well. The flickering LCD shutters can send some people into seizures, and people with vision defects (even mild ones) are finding they are incompatible with certain types of 3D stereoscopic splitting. Furthermore, he mentions a very important point, and one I’ll be writing about soon, having to do with the way depth of field, convergence, and other factors can create a jarring effect. Point for Ebert, but remember the river.

The technology that seems to be faultless except for one thing is the circular-polarized glasses — though the fault is admittedly Ebert’s #5.

He quotes an expert as saying 3D projection is “intrinsically inefficient. Half the light goes to one eye and half to the other, which immediately results in a 50 percent reduction in illumination.” There isn’t, really, or if there is, Ebert needs to re-evaluate his love for 48Hz projection, which he is bullish about later. One way or another, the fact is that “inefficient” is the wrong word here, and the quote likely has a context that makes this clear. If half the light goes to one eye and half to the other, well, that’s all the light total, isn’t it? Doesn’t sound inefficient to me. But that’s a pretty pedantic point. The fact is that yes, things are a bit dim now, but consider that the projector desyncs that ruined early Cinerama showings didn’t sink the whole ship; they simply figured out how to do it better.

It’s worth saying that not all the technologies used to display 3D even cause a reduction in brightness. The prism glasses used for Beowulf, for instance, result in a lower effective resolution, not lower brightness (if I’m not mistaken). Futhermore, projectors are only getting better, and there’s no longer a risk of melting the film.

The issues Ebert has are either on their way out or far from universal. There’s much to improve, to be sure, but to dismiss the technology because none of the first films get it exactly right technically is a complaint writ on water, as it were.

6. There’s money to be made in selling new digital projectors
7. Theaters slap on a surcharge of $5 to $7.50 for 3-D.

[image: Slashfilm]

I was tempted to lapse into sarcasm here, what with the revelation that movie theaters are chiseling us, when they are perhaps the best example in the world of mercilessly exploiting a captive audience. But I’ve overcome that urge. Ebert’s complaint is actually a little more nuanced. Is this an extra cost that will go away? It’s hard to say, but I’m going to guess no, since the price of movies has been steadily increasing for so long that I can no longer afford to go without checking my bank account. The surcharge sucks, and it may or may not normalize a bit, but 3D is not to blame for the business decisions of evil theater chain conglomerates. And of course theaters have been charging for premium showings for decades. Consider the “matinee” price. Is it really a discount, or is it the normal price and watching a movie in the evening costs an extra few bucks?

At any rate, to blame the increased price on buying new projectors is silly. There’s money to be made selling the projectors, sure, the way there’s money to be made on every aspect of movie-going. The truth is that those projectors are saving cinema’s ass, or at least its bottom line. The cost of film storage, transport, and operation is enormous, and when someone comes to Regal or Cineplex Odeon or whatever, and explains how using a high-Hz 4K projector will enable all-digital distribution and so on, all they hear is cash register noises. There was trepidation, I’m sure, but those projectors probably paid for themselves with the first hour’s receipts from Avatar.

With all due respect to the past (I’m saying this as a film fan), digital distribution and projection is the future, and it wouldn’t pay to be the last theater in a city begging for the film version of a movie that was shot, edited, and distributed digitally.

9. Whenever Hollywood has felt threatened, it has turned to technology: sound, color, widescreen, Cinerama, 3-D, stereophonic sound, and now 3-D again.

The only argument necessary here is to point out that nearly all of these “premium” features are now part of the standard movie-going experience. I would guess that many of Ebert’s favorite films incorporate most of them. No, 3D is here to stay. To abandon it would be a boondoggle of proportions Hollywood is unwilling to make. And ten years from now, we’ll be looking back on a library not of a dozen, but of hundreds of 3D films, some of which (we may hope) will rise to the level of quality set by the classics of the past. Let’s not judge a book by the author’s childhood scribblings.

Could anyone really argue that the only “true” films are those which do not include such gimmicks (as they surely were called at the time) as stereo sound and color?

More interesting is Ebert’s plug of a 48FPS film standard. I have to quote him here:

Modern film is projected at 24 frames per second (fps) because that is the lowest speed that would carry analog sound in the first days of the talkies. Analog sound has largely been replaced by digital sound. MaxiVision48 projects at 48fps, which doubles image quality. The result is dramatically better than existing 2-D. In terms of standard measurements used in the industry, it’s 400 percent better. That is not a misprint.

It may not be a misprint, but it is misleading. 24FPS has remained a standard through the last 80 years not because of some outdated analog sound format, but because 24 (25 in PAL countries) is a frame format that looks good. There is a wealth of literature having to do with the eye’s native “refresh rate” and a number of other psychovisual factors that contributes to the excellence of a sub-30 frame format — for certain applications. I don’t want to make the same mistake Ebert makes in the rest of his article and say that high-framerate video is no good, it just has its applications, and I think that cinema is not one of those applications. Nature documentaries in 48Hz or 60Hz 3D would be so immediate and lifelike (Cameron actually wanted to shoot Avatar at 48) that I truly believe people would flinch in the theater. Perhaps even without the 3D. Earlier, while watching a documentary about nature photographers in Africa filmed digitally at 60FPS, I found myself constantly “disbelieving” what was on-screen: the lack of internal interpolation (which is what happens with 24 FPS material) made my mind reject the image rather than accept it. What are those tiny lions doing in my monitor? Can’t be real.

That’s a debate to be settled over the next few years, though, and I’m glad Ebert is not simply neophobic, however his recent writings have suggested that. If I may be allowed to interpret his complaints into a single meta-complaint, it’s that 3D is being shoved down everyone’s throats by the industry, and I absolutely an with him on that. But don’t let an avaricious, insolvent, and generally hasty industry color your perceptions of a genuinely useful tool. I take it personally because people I know and respect in the industry are working to make 3D cinema more than a new way of making exploding debris fly into the eyes of viewers. I hope that Ebert agrees that that sort of filmmaking, 3D or not, is a greater threat to movie lovers than the growing pains of a new cinematic technology filled with, but not yet reaching, its potential.

But all these words (2017 at this moment, Jesus) won’t be effective as a single good film. I know I’m right, but I can’t force him to see the way I see. Filmmakers, you have a job cut out for you: disprove everything Ebert has said in a way I’m not capable of. I’m sure he’d like nothing better.

[comments disabled themselves; they’re back on now.]