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Will the Real 3D Experience Please Stand Up


By Dylan Matthew - Posted on 21 December 2010

A few nights ago I went with a couple of friends to see the new Narnia film in 3D. I found the film a bit disappointing, but overall it’s a pleasant enough way to pass a couple of hours. It’s better than the last effort, but is essentially undemanding entertainment with the dots joined up in predictable fashion and it has a couple of decent scenes.

But it wasn’t the below-par production that riled me. It was the 3D experience itself (which costs more) that was the problem. It was also the quality of the print and just to top it all off there was the man in front of me noisily eating popcorn from a gigantic bucket that was actually, upon closer inspection, a bottomless pit that went down through the floor and deep into the centre of the planet.

Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t finish eating it all but he was able to reach ever deeper to scrunch, scrape, shake and rummage in it for two hours. He might as well have climbed into it and had an epileptic fit for all the noise he was making. He sent me into a real tizz and I regret not grabbing the bucket from his hands and throwing it across the cinema whilst repeatedly tasering him until he was an unconscious dribbling wreck.

That might sound like an extreme reaction, but my friends will verify it made them feel the same way. Instead of politely asking him to stop we followed him home afterwards. Now that we know where he lives we’re going to set up a PA in his garden at 4am and blast AC/DC’s Back in Black at rock concert volume as we leap around in the bushes wearing balaclavas.

3D Maze

But let's get back to the 3D issue.

Before Avatar, the only 3D films I’d seen were animations Bolt and Toy Story 3, both immense fun and clearly when it comes to making something digitally the 3D works well and has real depth and clarity.

Between the release of those films I also saw Avatar, both in Imax 3D and in regular 3D and I was blown away by the visuals and the immersive reality of the experience.

So I was gobsmacked when, hungry for a bit more of the eye-popping stuff I went to see the recent remake of Clash of the Titans that had not been made in 3D but had it ‘added on’ in post production.

Perhaps the success of Avatar and the coincidence of Sam Worthington being the lead in both films made studio execs demand a late change to the film’s presentation. But what a terrible decision that was. Not only was the film crap, but the 3D was unwatchable.

It looked like someone had taken colour photocopies of the actors faces and planted them directly in front of their 2D image to make them look like they were hovering in front of themselves. It gave me a headache and I eventually walked out.

The same has been done to the latest Narnia film, admittedly with better results this time but overall it just isn’t that convincing. In fact it often distracted from the dialogue and action. Instead of being a seamless experience like Avatar, it appeared more like a pop-up book with layers of images at different distances from each other and the in-between areas looking hazy.

Additionally, the film appeared drained of colour and washed out. I noticed that removing the glasses occasionally, revealed that despite the image being blurry without their polarising effect, the colour and clarity was considerably enhanced. I wished then that I’d chosen to see it in 2D.

Perhaps the washout sensation was just a projection issue when I saw Narnia. Maybe they had an emergency and stuck in a 60 watt pearl bayonet instead of the regulation nuclear powered laser but I suspect the real problem is something that has taken over multiplexes in recent years like a plague: the evil of dupe prints.

Feeling duped

I may be (and often am) wrong but a dupe print as I understand it is not made directly from a high quality ‘inter-negative’ but is a copy of a print made from another print. It’s cheaper and quicker to do and they’re reeled off in the hundreds. Basically, they look awful.

Only key cinema screens will get good quality prints if the budget allows which is why when you go and see the new Bond film or Inception on its opening weekend on the biggest screen you can find it usually looks pretty good. Otherwise all the careful grading and clarity of the image originated on 35mm is wasted.

It’s often a shock to see the same film again a couple of weeks later in a different cinema looking washed out and lifeless. You’re better off watching a good DVD copy instead. Films shot on digital and projected digitally however do not seem to suffer from this problem.

Having said that, arthouse and independent cinemas still tend to get good prints and those cinemas tend to also have better projection and lighting conditions, unlike many multiplexes which seem to have their airport runway style lighting still half way up on the dimmer switch during the film, not to mention fire exit signs jammed next to the screen so the green light from them bleeds into the image.

When I’ve occasionally mentioned problems like that to multiplex staff they just look blank and scuttle off mumbling. We just work here, mate.

The case for the cinema

So here’s the rub. Punters en-masse are now cottoning onto the fact that unless a film is shot in 3D originally and has a decent print made of it (and is projected properly) then it's really not worth paying ten quid to see it. Whilst certain franchises like Bond, Potter and Jack Sparrow can still clean up and keep a bit of the cash flowing regardless of the print and projection quality, the new era of downloading, pay per view channels, state of the art video games, cheap DVD rentals and home projection kits is winning.

So the advent of spectacular 3D ushered in by Avatar and the increasing opportunity to see films in the Imax format is a welcome turnaround. But it’s not going to survive if studios keep making films in 2D and tacking on the 3D afterwards. It has to stop. It’s a total rip off. I want my money back and I‘ve decided after tonight’s experience to find out beforehand if the film I’m about to see was made in 3D originally. If it wasn’t, I’ll see it in 2D. And hey, it’s cheaper anyway. There’s a recession on, you can’t fool us anymore chaps we’d like the real deal if we’re shelling out a tenner.

And just to add weight to my argument, I’ve seen the trailer a few times on TV recently for Gulliver’s Travels. It's not going to be a masterpiece, but it looks like reasonable fun and I like Jack Black. But last night I saw the trailer in 3D before the film as it's also being released in both formats. It looked the same as Titans and Narnia. I couldn’t even focus on it properly, it just looked plain wrong so I will see it in 2D and save myself some pennies.

So can we abolish dupe prints (yeah I know it would be expensive to make lots of real ones) and sort out multiplex projection standards and their interior over-lighting to boot?

If cinemas were legally obliged to hand back money for poor presentation they’d sort it all out pretty sharpish, I reckon. Oh, and by the way, multiplexes, your luxury VIP seats are strangely less comfortable than the stalls and like tacking on 3D with pritt-stick it's a total rip off.

No popcorn, please

And finally, ban popcorn. Yeah I know that’s where your profit comes from, but I don’t care anymore, just get rid of it. Or at least, as with the option to choose adult only or baby scream sessions, give us the offer of noise-free screenings where the consumption of sweets, particularly popcorn is forbidden and where it’s a moral and legal obligation to bury an axe in the head of anyone who violates this rule.

I’ll grant you however that if I’m taking the kids to see Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeak-uel then I couldn’t care less if forty riot police entered the cinema to fight off tuition fees protestors never mind a bit of popcorn crunching but other than these rare exceptions I think some quality control of how we see a film, not just the film itself is in order now.

Finally, and most importantly, if its going to be released in 3D then make it in 3D to start with, don’t add it on afterwards and then rip us off for the extra cost. If this carries on distributors might notice that the 2D screenings of 3D add-ons gradually get increasing attendance over the coming months and years as people realise they’ve been had by an unwelcome addition to the cinema-going experience – the fake 3D movie.

Hollywood, you have been warned.

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