Yet another round of discussion about 3D films in the machinima circle of Facebook reminded me to finally write up what I thought of writing many months ago when I saw Roger Ebert’s blogpost presenting Walter Murch’s point of view on 3D films. (Link)
Murch, one of the most famed and respected film editors and sound designers of modern cinema (Apocalypse Now, Amadeus, The English Patient, etc.), lists a number of problems inherent to the current 3D technology (“dark, small, stroby” in his summary). He goes further in arguing that 3D cinema cannot succeed because it forces human visual system to operate in an unnatural way*, and thereby strains our vision and requires slower pacing of film editing as well.
But in any case, Murch’s most interesting remark by far is on the notion of immersion and perspective:
“3D films remind the audience that they are in a certain "perspective" relationship to the image. It is almost a Brechtian trick. Whereas if the film story has really gripped an audience they are "in" the picture in a kind of dreamlike "spaceless" space. So a good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with” (emphasis added by myself).
For a the last couple of years, I have been interested in how we -- as the reader or viewer -- participate in the world of fiction, and have been reading psychological literature on this topic whenever I get a chance**. I have reached a tentative yet convincing conclusion that the maintenance of double-perspectives and/or aesthetic distance is an essential element of our appreciation of (extended) narrative arts. In reading a novel or viewing a film, we take neither the complete first person perspective of our protagonist nor the complete third person observer’s perspective. We are simultaneously “her” and “I” (and even “me”). Like Murch, I believe that the very process and experience of composing an ambiguous perspective -- that combines and layers various point of views -- is a crucial part of satisfying experience of cinema and literature.
I am skeptical about the potential of 3D as an artistic medium of narratives because 3D forces the viewer into a particular visual perspective in a very directly imitative way and allows the viewer less room for constructing his/her own experience. Written language and two-dimensional images may be particularly good mediums to induce multiple perspectives and aesthetic distance*** because they do not perfectly replicate, but approximate, a personal experience embedded in a particular viewpoint****.
3D may open up a brand new area of art. It may continue to deliver competitive entertainment by spectacle. But will 3D develop into a fully actualized narrative art form? My short answer (in the form of a question) is this: with all due respect to, and admiration for, the craft and creativity involved in the culinary art, isn't culinary art considered art only in a limited sense?
*Murch says that, in watching 3D movies, our eyes have to focus on the screen (say, 60 feet away) while converging on the object at various distances (say, at the face only 5 feet away), which is quite different from what we do in our natural state. We are built to focus and converge to the same distance. While I’m not sure whether processing 3D video involves actual physical ocular convergence, Murch’s general point still stands as our brain, in perceiving 3D images, does have to process two different images that would have been captured by the two converging eyes.
** I come from psychology (and have credentials that can look good on paper), and was a strong believer that the "scientific" approach of psychology was the most productive way to study any topic related to the human mind. Recently though, after doing my share of readings on psychology of literature and film, I grew rather skeptical about the possibility for this discipline offering a productive approach to this particular subject.
*** "Aesthetic distance" is an compound concept. In this particular context, I mean by this the distance between the character and self, and between the material and self.
**** Added on 12/4: What about stage play then? It suddenly occurred to me that I completely missed stage play in thinking about this matter. However, it is still true that stage plays are not 3D the way 3D films are. You are not placed in the middle of the action and the characters don't jump at you. (A stage play can possibly incorporate such elements, but I suspect doing so may not really add much to the play.) I'm tempted to see the stage play as a form of narrative art that combines language and quasi-2D (or call it 2.5D) presentation bound by the physical stage.