Exploring New Dimensions at the Movies

3D movies have finally become art.

by Thomas Anderson

It is Christmas day, and we have just returned from The Last Jedi, the new Star Wars movie; it is our usual practice to take in a movie on this day each year.

We walked into the theater expecting another gimmick, unaware of the revolution in store for us. Revolution is a stronger word than this occurrence probably requires, but an evolution indicates a much more gradual process than what we’re seeing in movies.

We are speaking of “3D”: after decades of puffery, it has finally matured.

Today’s feature portrayed scenes of lovingly crafted drama that were augmented and enhanced by the presence of a new realism. 3D has long been a gimmick, but it has blossomed into a tool that the new crop of great directors can use to good effect (pun intended). Nowhere did the “gee-whiz” factor become the centerpiece of the scene, or even of the shot.

The three dimensional effect was handled in every case with a matter-of-fact familiarity that allowed the director’s attention to focus on the storytelling, letting the technology fade into the background. This was done as it should be done. Three dimensional storytelling is becoming real, a matured technique that talented directors can use for their individual art’s sake.

The "Coming Attractions" portion of the program was all also in 3D, and the previews were all crafted in much the same way, with the new effect handled matter-of-factly. This gave us a nudge of interest in the coming shows which we would not normally have felt. We may actually go see one of the movies that was advertised – in a theater, in 3D.

We remember the first 3D movies of the 1950s and 60s, with the cardboard-framed red-and-blue lenses in the throwaway glasses of the day, and the ridiculous effect of which we spoke glowingly, talking about realism and other characteristics of the movie that our early teen vision had been proud to note.

We recall feeling the need to duck as knives were thrown in our direction, and the terror we felt as the roller coaster began its slamming downhill run. It impressed our friends, and our conversation centered upon a feeling of impending doom when that axe came hurtling toward our eyeballs. What fun!

And that was it. The ax went through us, the roller coaster slowed from its impending crash, the knives stuck up in the target. We were unscathed. The contrived events affected us not at all, and the story proceeded. But without those moments, the movie would have been eminently forgettable.

Never was any thought given to story continuity, or some enhancement that this 3D technique might bring to the movie. A gimmick it was, and a gimmick it remained.

At approximately the same time as the cardboard glasses appeared at movie theaters, record stores began showcasing a new recording gimmick: stereo. One of the first Beatles albums (Meet the Beatles?) was initially issued featuring the vocals on one of the two channels with the instruments all on the other.

Turning the fader knob from side to side produced John, Paul, George, and Ringo vocalizing a cappella at one extreme, with the drums and guitars playing pointlessly when the knob was rotated in the other. What a weird effect!

The album producers simply did not know what to do with this new capability; their craft had changed in a way that none of them were prepared to exploit. It was many years, a decade or more, until stereo sound began to be natural in its feeling.

As soon as record buyers became comfortable with purchasing stereo editions, came quadrophonic and then surround-sound, each wave of ‘progress’ requiring new records, new equipment, and new recording techniques. That was the scam, to heighten the sale of the records by making ‘stereo enthusiasts’ who would spend kaboodles on records and new equipment. Your writer is guilty as charged.

None of this actually made the music any better, but the illusion and the "transparency" allowed us to indulge in conversations about channel separation, speaker placement, and dynamic range. Most importantly, it made us spend tons of money on hideously expensive items for the home, concealing the sales receipts from spouses for our own protection. It became a matter of manhood to have a mighty stereo/quad/home theater to rival his best friend’s.

Then, a few years after the turn-of-the-century, it became moot. The equipment got uniformly good, the prices began to come down, and music began to be regarded as a commodity. While there are still high-end stereo (surround) systems being sold, the bloom is off the rose.

Most people think that inexpensive systems have gotten good enough, and that the high quality earphones available at low prices are the standard and perfectly-adequate listening environment. There are many like this writer whose expensive surround-sound system is beginning to show its age, and he is having a hard time justifying the high-dollar expenditures to replace it.

Which brings us back to movies. Home theater systems have eroded away many of the people who are movie aficionados; TV screen sizes have become very large, and the quality of the picture on the big-screen at home is superb, especially if a few extra bucks are wisely (?) spent. Thus, the 2017 Home Theater system could, realistically, approach theater-quality sound and visuals.

Theaters still have one card to play: big screen. The immersive experience of an IMAX theater is astounding. The resolution of IMAX (from research on Google) is digital movies converted to film for projection at your local movie house. They utilize two digital projectors, 2K each, which is then exposed to film for projection. The results are photographically gorgeous – craftily underexposed to enhance color and render ultimate realism’s.

The screen width at an IMAX theater makes for visual high fidelity from wall-to-wall. This, coupled with the carefully crafted sound system, becomes an incredible experience.

And then there are the movies themselves: this author’s impression is that really good things are in the offing. Yesterday, the pleasure started when the theater’s glasses were slipped over the author's own pair, and the director’s magic was revealed. There was no disappointment in any of the preview scenes, all for 3D productions. Even the interspersed CYA announcements of no smoking and other government interference were in 3D.

Star Wars began with the familiar printed history and introduction receding into the vast distance and the action beginning accompanied by a rising acoustic level.  The movie proceeded apace, moving logically and skillfully from ultimately realistic scene to scene, with the story holding pace throughout. The elapsed time was 2 ½ hours, which seemed like a scant hour or so.

It was masterful.

George Lucas headed a team of six directors: JJ Abrams, Rian Johnson, Dave Filoni, Richard Marquand, and Irvin Kershner. That half-dozen of artists should be proud.

This writer is qualified to be a critic in some areas: architecture, photography, visual arts, and some areas of technology, but movie criticism mocks his amateur status. Suffice it to say that the movie was excellent, well worth seeing, and very enjoyable on numerous levels.

But that begs the question of the state of the technology now available to the makers of these magnificent movies. The answer to that is a resounding statement that the corner has been turned. The future is ready to unfold for a new generation of artists.

Left in dim memory are the gimmicky exploiters of fledgling technology as it unfolded. The preachy Avatar can join Jackass 3D in the dustbin of technological history as the new generation of artistic 3D movies begins to emerge and take over the minds of the talent pool that is waiting.

And now, dernit, this writer’s home theater needs…

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