by Vanessa Tottle & Gabriel Valdez
Making movies in 3-D is still more of a science than an art. Most films get the basics done and nothing more: create a few planes of depth for characters to exist on; poke the audience in the eye with something during an action scene; and if you’re post-converting, blur the detail out of anything in the background in a horrific attempt to emulate depth-of-field.
The best 3-D is native, meaning it’s filmed as 3-D instead of being filmed in 2-D and converted later. Native 3-D retains detail and movement qualities that post-converted 3-D does not. When offered a post-converted 3-D film, the 2-D version may actually be more visually impressive.
When we talk about the best 3-D of 2014, we are talking about the visual fidelity – how realistic it looks – but we’re also talking about its artistic use. How much does it contribute to the story and the visuals. 3-D is still new enough that no one’s yet to establish its visual language. There are very few “new shots” that only 3-D can accomplish, and there’s no one pushing 3-D visual language the way Orson Welles once pushed deep focus cinematography.
Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity did this in 2013 by fusing its 3-D, visual effects, and POV sequences together, but this had more to do with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s already established language of the edited long take than with anything extraordinarily new.
Martin Scorsese is the director who’s come closest to writing new cinematographic language using 3-D. In 2011’s Hugo, he treats his scenes as if they’re taking place in dioramas. He resurrects long-forgotten silent film techniques and develops 3-D analogues, most notably replacing the vignette (when characters’ faces are overlit and the corners of the frame darkened) with a 3-D protrusion (when characters’ faces lean unnaturally close to the viewer and the corners of the frame are softened).
Unfortunately, there’s nothing in 2014 that comes close to these two examples. The best 3-D belongs to one film alone, but there are three that stand out:
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2
Animation can take advantage of 3-D in two ways. Firstly, it’s easier to convert and play around with on a computer, since the animation isn’t live action. Adjustments can be made to the actors themselves in order to take advantage of 3-D, before a scene is even finalized. Secondly, the audience is already practicing a visual suspension of disbelief because they’re watching a stylized cartoon. Animations need to do more than just use 3-D to add depth then, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 creates some iconic and mythological moments. That half the film takes place flying through the sky certainly doesn’t hurt 3-D’s ability to play off of our depth perception and kneejerk panic reaction when we’re suddenly dropping through clouds.
EDGE OF TOMORROW
Edge of Tomorrow, also known as Live. Die. Repeat., makes excellent use of 3-D, especially in its action scenes. It uses all the gimmicky tricks – throwing dirt in your face during a battle scene, having objects speed toward you – but this all plays into the movie’s throwback sense of what action should be. The techniques aren’t abused and there’s enough creative use of 3-D, especially in terms of background and edge-of-frame action, to not have to rely on gimmicks.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS
Here’s your winner. There’s only one film that really did something brand new with 3-D this year, and that’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. The movie itself is taxing, overlong, and ultimately pointless, but the 3-D is sumptuous. As Moses treads through the desert, sand kicks up and – rather than flying in your face – it shimmers in the evening sun as it drifts back down to the ground. The waters of the Red Sea glitter along the horizon. As the shadow of death falls across Egypt, it travels at unavoidable speed, yet the vastness of the landscape means it still takes its time. This creates a truly visual sense of creeping, impending doom while still giving it the feeling of weight and force.
Whatever other mistakes Ridley Scott made in directing Exodus – and there are many – the 3-D is a resounding success. He uses it to create gorgeous details, especially in the foreground, where filmmakers are often too nervous to place much 3-D.
There are more traditional uses of 3-D in the film, too: crocodiles eating people, teeming hordes of insects and frogs, rock slides, the kind of pomp we’d expect. This is all done well, but it’s really how the 3-D is used in the film’s most quiet and transitional moments that evokes a sense of place and makes us wish the whole film had been about the people and the setting instead of the mythology and the melodrama.
It’s admittedly thin pickings for truly exceptional 3-D this year. The technique isn’t always as solid a selling point at the box office as producers anticipate. As we’ve seen with Interstellar, some major directors just don’t want to accommodate it. Until a pioneering director really starts to create a visual language unique to 3-D, the popularity of the technique will continue to ebb and flow without really taking hold.
Enough viewers also become uncomfortable, nauseous, or develop headaches because of 3-D, that it will take a major technological leap before it threatens to become our primary way of watching movies. If you do experience a negative physical reaction to 3-D, listen to your body. 3-D tricks your brain into interpreting depth on what is still a 2-D surface. People are built differently, and not everyone’s brain is built to cope with 3-D. In very rare cases, it can have adverse effects. If you don’t like 3-D, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s still a rudimentary technique at this stage, and rudimentary techniques are rarely suited to all.
In the lead-up to the Oscars, we’ve named several other Best of 2014 Awards. These include: