3D Film

The 3D screen is on probation, has been for a long time, not just in the movie theatres, but now even in people’s living rooms. From blockbusters like Cameron’s “Avatar” to art house films like Wenders’ “Pina,” the new technology is still being tested. Is it just superfluous gimmickry? Where will this lead?

For many years I had completely misunderstood. For many years I had believed the conventional wisdom that the camera could penetrate into dark places and reveal the intimate secrets of the actor; that it exposed the truth, and this made it wonderfully dangerous. Surely, I thought, the actor is far more vulnerable in front of the close-up lens than on the stage. But then I saw, for the first time, actors in a 3D film, a short Sony IMAX piece about Saint-Exupéry flying over the Andes. I was astonished. Not by the extraordinarily vivid snow-capped landscapes, but by the actors. They seemed so exposed and raw. Just like on the stage. Personal “flaws,” like the freckles on an actor’s breast, suddenly drew focus. Just like on the stage. One didn’t only look at their skins, though. One felt their muscles and their bones at work. The actors no longer moved like celluloid gods on celestial rails. Their body language was “in your face.” Their tics and techniques were no longer hidden. It was easy to see through the surface to the actor underneath, that they were indeed actors distinguishable from the roles they played. This was more than just an exposé of very human imperfections: Mortality itself had been re-established as a fundamental property of the actor!

I realised that until then, I had allowed myself to be conned. What I had always thought was the actor-revealed, was in fact the actor-concealed. For the first time I understood that the two dimensional screen provides the actor with an extraordinarily effective shield: aesthetic distance. Built in. For free. But where those two dimensions could easily elevate the banalities of life to the realm of the holy, the three dimensional screen could not. Naturalistic acting would seem at best stodgy and commonplace, at worst sloppy and embarrassing. Attempts to compensate by enthusiastic manipulation of camera angles would quickly become cheap and physically tiring to watch.

But what was gained in three dimensions was fantastic. For me in the audience, a long neglected set of "mirror neurons" was brought into play. The actors became important in a whole new way. They were the ones who carried the medium, no longer the camera. It became all about their physical presence. They spoke with their bodies. I realised that if actors were to succeed in taking this new technology anywhere beyond gimmickry, they would have to shed their silver screen skins and begin acting with their muscles. They would have to exploit the strengths and weaknesses of the flesh. They would have to lift and expand in style. They would have to transform. They would have to wear masks. They would have to be dancers. Just like they always have on the stage. And just as Messrs. Cameron and Wenders already realise.

It is a common truism that the limitations of an artistic medium are what make it interesting to work with, even when those limitations are self-imposed as in the Danish dogma films, and in Oscar winner "The Artist." That's where the fun begins. Yes, it is a valid argument for maintaining 2D film. Even 1D film (Radio Drama!) has its fans. My point is that when film discovers its limitations in the abilities and human imperfections of the actor, it will become a more complex, less comfortable and more beautiful medium.

As I left the Sony IMAX theatre I couldn’t help wondering if it won’t be a very long time before politicians allow themselves to be filmed in 3D!

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Jonathan Paul Cook © 2022