Roger Ebert is not a fan of 3D movies and we assume by extension, 3D TVs. That’s OK; he’s welcome to his opinion, but in a recent blog he claims the 3D debate is over, case closed, because an award winning and very accomplished sound engineer claims 3D doesn’t work with our brains.
Does everyone experience 3D in the same way? No. Do some people experience headaches or nausea from watching 3D? Some people say yes, so I’m not going to argue with them. But to claim that our brains can’t handle it? That’s where I start to question his logic and his source.
His authority in this case is Walter Murch, the film editor on “Apocalypse Now” and the sound engineer on several other movies—clearly a guy skilled at what he does. Ebert cites a Wikipedia entry that puts Murch as the man who developed the 5.1 surround sound system. Hats off for that. (no sarcasm, really, I love 5.1)
Ebert received (and reproduced) a letter from Murch that begins with an assessment of the theatrical experience of 3D in “The Green Hornet”—a movie that was not shot in 3D. The Green Hornet was converted to 3D in post production, a trick at best that’s less effective that the virtual surround sound modes most soundbars try to pull off.
The problem with 3D, explains Murch, is that it requires our eyes to focus on one spot while converging (aiming) at another. Essentially, when we look at an object, our eyes converge on it (aim, tilt) and focus (sharpen) on the object at one distance, the distance the object is from our eyes. 3D, on the other hand, because it creates an illusion in space, asks us to converge on the screen, but focus on the 3D vision that may be anywhere. OK, I’m with him there, but so what? My eyes apparently can do it. I can walk and chew gum at the same time. This is essentially the same thing those optical illusion books (and maybe Where’s Waldo?) ask us to do, but in a 3D theater, because our eyes are being forced into action by the act of the glasses (active or passive) the processes is a lot easier.
Murch is suggesting that this task, if not impossible, is at least really hard and will cause an instant aneurism. He also suggests that the process of making our eyes do things that weren’t in our original owner’s manual requires that 3D films not use fast editing techniques because our eyes can’t keep up.
Did he not see “Avatar?”
I’m not nearly the expert he is at film production, but I can’t discount the experience of my own eyes. While 3D may not be the perfect expression for every movie, when done well, I really like watching it.
Film and video, in theaters or in homes, requires our brains to make a million mental leaps already. Let’s talk blacks—the science of making black by shining light on a screen still astounds me (and yes, I know how it works, but I’m still impressed). Our eyes see depth and texture on a flat surface where there is none. Our ears here sounds in space where those sounds shouldn’t be. But our brains are serious pieces of equipment. I’m guessing we can handle more. I’m guessing we can walk, chew gum and talk on the phone at the same time (I have a teenage daughter, so I’ve seen it first hand).
For his final point, Murch takes off his neurologist hat and instead touches on a much more solid argument—the problem of storytelling in 3D. The suggestion that 3D does not create the same immersive experience as a flat film actually makes sense to me. When watching 3D you’re forcibly made aware of the gimmick. It’s touching you on the nose, flying over your head. Yes, you’re placed in the event, but that also renders a degree of involvement in the event. As you become part of the story, you’re less of an observer, and the director or storyteller actually has less control over your emotional experience. Sounds backwards doesn’t it? It does to me too, but I’m sold on that theory, to a degree.
It all comes back to storytelling. 3D is still too new for there to be many people skilled in the art of using it, and using it like art. When “The Wizard of Oz” shocked audiences with color, it was a gimmick. When 5.1 mixes first started showing up on DVDs, they were gimmicks, but skilled storytellers learned how to use their new tools to create experiences their audiences would appreciate and come back for.
I expect the same of 3D. Please no more “Green Hornet,” but I have high expectations for whatever is coming next. The greater adoption of 3D TV has other problems: format incompatibility, ugly glasses, cost, movie selection and more. But the problem isn’t in our brains.
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.