Cinema always needs to be one gimmick ahead. You can watch stuff at home… ah, but if you want to see color, you have to go to a cinema. You can watch color at home… ah, but if you want amazing sound you have to go to a cinema. You can watch movies at home… ah, but if you want to see them earlier you have to go to a cinema. Every generation has its cinema-TV tensions, and two decades of consumer electronics have given many modern fans the chance to replicate much of the cinema-going experience in their own homes. The risk remains that audiences simply won’t leave their houses to go to see a film. With movie-going manners at an all-time low, are we really surprised?
The reintroduction of 3-D, stereoscopic movies, usually for big event blockbusters at IMAX theaters, seems at first like a rather desperate, 1950s-style solution to a twenty-first century problem. But it’s not just about stereoscope, it’s about delivering an experience that people can’t replicate at home. It’s about keeping cinema special, not just with 3-D pictures, but also with mind-blowing sound and giant screens.
I hear rumblings from inside the studios. I’ve overheard creatives at Pixar and DreamWorks, commiserating with each other that they are being asked to twist plots to incorporate 3-D “moments” like the super-long tracking shots in Beowulf. Budgets at Warners have been allocated to take certain old movies and give them a new lease of life with a 3-D effect. And everybody saw Disney release Meet the Robinsons in 2007, not in a few gimmicky showings, but all over the United States in a “Real D” format. Steven Spielberg is reputedly tinkering with a 3-D projection process that doesn’t require those silly eyeglasses — but what it does require is a special plasma screen that people will not have in their home systems.
If you’re wondering what this has to do with Japanese animation, the answer is apparently nothing. And that’s your problem, right there. I don’t hear similar stories coming out of the Japanese business. If the Japanese are conducting similar experiments in 3-D, I’m not hearing about them.
Behind the scenes in the American industry, creatives are already debating how to use 3-D properly. They are determining how the technology will serve the art, and not vice versa. People in the industry are already plotting the films you will see in 2011 and 2012. Some of the plans revolve around the implementation of technology that doesn’t really exist yet. Maybe stereoscopic movies will be a flash in the pan like they were in the 1950s, but if their time has truly come, it’s going to change the nature of film in the next few years. The credibility gap in styles and execution between 2000 and 2010 might loom as wide as that between Steamboat Willy and Fantasia.
Are the Japanese ready for this? Are they going to be left behind? Are they confident that 3-D will be another passing fad they don’t need to worry about? Or do they already have something even better up their sleeves?
(This article first appeared in the last ever issue of Newtype USA in February 2008. It was reprinted in the book Schoolgirl Milky Crisis a year later. I choose to reprint it today because the BBC have just jumped on the bandwagon here in an article that adds an extra, tantalising soundbite. The cunning Jeffery Katzenberg notes: “You can’t camcorder 3D”. In other words, it also functions as a kind of anti-piracy measure… clever clever)