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The movie industry was on the cusp of a technological revolution when paying cinema-goers first donned 3D glasses, in the 1920s. But back then it wasn’t innovation in vision that was to transform the cinema experience forever, but sound. Eighty years on, and following further false dawns in the 1950s and 1960s, 3D is once again film-makers’ gimmick du jour. Are its prospects any better this time around?

First off, Buzz Hays, Sony’s executive stereoscopic 3D producer, is keen to shatter some of the myths that have built up about filming in 3D – myths he thinks have held the medium back.

One of the big myths, says Hays, is that the technology can be as stifling as it is liberating for film-makers. For instance, convention has it that the audience works so hard to focus on the action taking place at a certain depth in a 3D image that average shot length will rise to give them time to adjust, marking the end of the quick cuts between cameras that characterise most modern movies.

Eye strain

It doesn’t have to be that way, he says. The problem emerges when one 3D camera rig uses so-called negative parallax to make the principle characters appear to jump out of the screen, while another rig uses positive parallax to shift the action behind the screen (see diagram, above right).

Hays demonstrated the effect, showing several clips where the focal depth-point shifted starkly between shots – after which the sensation of eye strain was readily apparent. As Hays points out, if the important action is placed at the same apparent depth in both camera feeds, the audience can concentrate on that depth with minimal effort.

Any budding 3D directors should obey what Hays calls the “rule of three” – the depth map of any given shot must be viewed in the context of the depth maps of the shots immediately preceding and following it.

Fortunately for cinematographers, who commonly shoot scenes out of their final order, scene depth can be adjusted to some degree in post-production.

As audiences become more accustomed to the conventions of 3D, forcing them to refocus on characters at different depths may give the action additional atmosphere, says Hays. Just as shaky camera work in a 2D film like Cloverfield can provide an instant sense of unease in an audience, so placing a character in a 3D film uncomfortably close to the audience may hint at an unsavoury nature.

New noir

This subtle use of 3D as a tool to guide the story puts paid to the notion that the technology is a mere gimmick, says Hays. He points to the 2007 film Beowulf as a good example: as characters gain or lose power during the course of the film, they become respectively more or less prominent in the 3D effects.

Some conventions are unlikely to survive a transition from 2D to 3D filming. One is a tendency for cinematographers to use a shallow depth of field to ensure that only characters and objects at a certain depth in the scene are in focus, so guiding the audience’s attention.

Objects at all depths, within reason, should be in focus in 3D films, as is the case in the real world – so movie-makers need to use different techniques to guide the audience’s attention in three dimensions.

Stage plays already provide a solution through the careful use of lighting – an effect likely to be adopted in 3D film-making. So just as the talkies gave way to a period of film noir, perhaps this latest cinematographic innovation will give rise to a whole new wave of moodily lit movies.


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