I thought I’d share something I came up with quite some time ago. I had shared it with film companies, but they probably deleted as is common practice with unsolicited submissions.
Internal vs. External
Theories of 3D Composition for Theatrical Application
3D is a divisive subject amongst viewers of motion pictures. There are those who love it, embrace it, and would see every movie in it if they could. Then there are those who hate it, find it to be nothing more than a gimmick, and go so far to avoid it that they will use 2D glasses (originally created as a gag gift item) if invited to a 3D showing by their friends. 3D isn’t going anywhere. It has been around since Victorian stereo-viewers. The debates rage on between active and passive, old vs. new, 2D vs 3D, so on and so forth. All of these debates are secondary to the debate of 3D use and composition.
Given the popularity given the 20th century pop culture take on the stereo-viewer, the View-Master, one must concede that it is not the notion of 3D itself that is debated. It is something in the way in which it is presented that is the real subject of argument. While the technology used to execute the illusion has some weight in the desirability of 3D, modern methods of polarized passive lenses and active-shutter glasses render this point moot. The real source of division comes in the perception of the composition, whether real or assumed. As not much can be done to win over those who assume, let us now examine the real elements of 3D composition and the two theories inherent to it.
The screen separates the audience from the perceived world of the film like a window. Hence the concept of a “Fourth Wall” in 2D films and stage. Why this concept is quickly forgotten when 3D is introduced to a director is unknown.
Much of the objection to 3D movies comes from External Theory of composition. External Theory has been overused since the days of red and blue anaglyph. External Theory simply put, is the idea of making the movie come out at the audience. This is often marked by a character reaching out at the audience, the shooting of arrows and throwing of spears at the audience, pointing a gun straight out of the screen, swinging and jabbing long items at the audience, etc. The thing that all of those elements have in common is that they are merely used for shock value to make the moviegoer duck and jump. This becomes tiresome quickly and should be used sparingly, if at all.
Think about the use of guns in a 2D film. It is considered bad composition to fire the gun directly at the camera so that the audience is looking down the barrel. Once or twice out of a couple hundred movies a director could get away with this as a creative choice, but no director in a million years would do this for every gunshot on screen. In a 2D movie the angle is either a diagonal up and to the left or right of the audience, or from overhead and behind the shooter. Yet, some of the same directors, when told they are shooting in 3D feel the compulsive need to shove the barrel up the collective noses of the audience.
Try the following experiment. Put the names of a bunch of directors and their best camera operators in a hat. Randomly draw names and alternate between 2D and 3D piles as the names are drawn. Give each director the same time with the same actors, props and script for a shoot out scene. One group of directors is given 2D cameras. The other will be given 3D cameras. Then take the left eye image of all the 3D takes and compare to the 2D. How many 3D directors had the camera stare down the gun compared to the 2D? The hypothesis is that a significant number of directors, when given 3D equipment, will act on the impulse to thrust the gun straight into the face of the camera. Likewise, almost no directors, when given 2D equipment, will commit this rookie error.
External Theory is dependent on shoving everything out of the screen and onto the lap of the viewer. This doesn’t work for many reasons, the two primary being that A.) the shock value wears off, and B.) it shatters the Suspension of Disbelief upon which storytelling through the motion picture medium relies. The darkening of the theater and the dimming of lights at home to recreate the same effect serves the purpose of minimizing the real world for the duration of the movie. Of course, the audience is aware that they are watching a movie, but they don’t necessarily want to be brought face to face with that fact. This is the reason that breaking the fourth wall is discouraged on both the stage and screen. If only a few minor things (such as dirt kicked up or flying insects buzzing past) are thrown at the audience (and then only occasionally), the viewer is less likely to be confronted with the fact that they are watching a film. On the other hand, if the audience is constantly bombarded with large objects sticking out at them, they will be forced to panic to a point where they hate 3D, or more likely they will be forced to confront the boundaries of the fiction before them which in turn destroys the escapist pleasure of the movie experience.
In External Theory, audience attention is drawn out of the perceived environment of the film and is directed back at the audience.
Internal Theory is by far the better idea upon which to rely. In a nutshell, Internal Theory of 3D Composition is the idea of inviting the audience visually into the world portrayed on screen. In this mindset, the 3D becomes one of many tools to enrich the visual experience (i.e. color) as opposed to a mere gimmick.
Place the camera to peer over the shoulder of a king on a balcony as he surveys his domain. Walk the audience to the edge of a cliff and look down. Contrast the openness of the outdoors with the claustrophobic confines of a car trunk when portraying the kidnapping of a character. Show the irony of a large, spacious room crammed with tight, cramped cubicles as far as the eye can see. Want to make the audience jump? Follow the POV of an ancient soldier running across the field of battle to aid a wounded comrade-in-arms and then let an arrow fly past perpendicular to the soldier’s path as though it whizzed in a near miss right past the bridge of his nose. Don’t launch it straight at the audience.
The crying shame is that many of the directors who eschew 3D, such as Christopher Nolan, would do great composing in 3D. Take The Dark Knight Rises for example. If it were possible to trick Mr. Nolan into thinking that the 3D cameras were 2D cameras (after all, there are 3D IMAX cameras out there) and he was only given the left eye image by which to compose his shots, the result would be a far better use of 3D than James Cameron’s Avatar. Watch The Dark Knight Rises and imagine all of the scenes as is, with the exception that they are to be imagined in 3D. The openness of the overhead cityscapes, the cramped confines of the vehicle cockpits and the prisons, the overwhelming crowd scenes, and the desolation of the lonely figures desperately crossing the ice. The whole movie would be as improved by the 3D as color made a difference to the film industry.
Under Internal Theory, 3D has the potential to make the same impact upon the viewing experience as did color or sound. Under Internal Theory, the screen becomes but a door into the world of the film and The Suspension of Disbelief becomes the method by which the audience steps through that door. 3D becomes a way to describe and enhance the environment and tension. From emphasizing the openness and closeness of an area to dramatizing the suspense of a character about to fall by highlighting the distance to fall, 3D adds to these scenes without detraction. A silhouette moving through the fog is more interesting in the third dimension. Bring the audience into the screen, don’t pop things out of the screen at the audience.
In Internal Theory, audience attention is drawn away from the audience and into the perceived world of the film.
Internal Theory welcomes the audience into the movie. External Theory drives them away. It is as simple as that.