Hollywood has a new perfect formula for low-cost, high-revenue films: rerelease old blockbusters retrofitted with 3D. Disney has already given two of its most successful films, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, the 3D treatment. James Cameron’s Titanic, which still holds handfuls of box office records, is slated to add another dimension in April. Oh, and 20th Century Fox plans to rerelease all six Star Wars films, starting with The Phantom Menace on Feb. 10.
Retrofitting traditional films for 3D carries a host of problems. For one, 3D glasses tend to make films seem dimmer. The effect is even greater in films that have not compensated for it. Post-production teams can brighten the copies, but the exact colors are difficult to replicate. Additionally, if the practice continues to draw viewers, it is not unreasonable to assume that studios may lose the incentive to finance potentially great new films that could otherwise fill screens. Most troubling, however, is that it undermines the original artistry. The value of film derives partially from a director and cinematographer’s ability to give the illusion of three dimensions using a two-dimensional medium. The way a shot is framed can turn the flat screen into a multilayered world. Converting a film into 3D distracts from this process. In many ways, this is akin to dubbing a silent film: It is unnecessary to add a dimension that has already been explicitly compensated for.
Still, many of the films that are currently being converted did not garner popularity as a result of their cinematography. James Cameron is remarkable for his ability to further technology and spectacle. Yet, he is rarely lauded for great filmmaking in the way that we revere others like Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard. George Lucas and his Star Wars empire are not too different. Thus, although the practice of retrofitting films for 3D is problematic, it raises the question: Had the filmmakers possessed the technology, might these films have been better originally shot in 3D?
Movies like the Oscar-nominated Hugo have proven that filmmakers may artfully employ 3D to enhance viewing experience. We can’t help but wonder how past films might have benefited from the same technology. Consider the possibilities of spectacle-driven films like Aliens or Jurassic Park drawing viewers further into their world. Another dimension would certainly make Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner a dystopia in which to get even more immersed. The Matrix’s special effects might have been even more resonant in stunning 3D. But why stop at blockbusters? How might Stanley Kubrick have applied the technology? The visionary director who made the endlessly ambitious 2001: A Space Odyssey in two dimensions likely could have done wonders in three. The two-act structure of Full Metal Jacket could be even more articulated through the contrast of a claustrophobic first half and an uncomfortably spacious Vietnam in the 3D second half. Perhaps even Hitchcock would have explored space and perspective with a 3D realization of Rear Window. We can only wonder what great cinematographers and directors might have been able to achieve with the new possibilities 3D provides.
Ultimately, this is just speculation. Even if studios began applying 3D to every classic they owned, it would be in vain. A two-dimensional film can never be more than simply that: two-dimensional. Film is a complex art form, and filmmakers seek to have hundreds of elements operate with perfect synergy. Using 3D cinematography may be part of this equation, but it takes more than a few months of editing at a computer for this to work. Instead, it has to be as much a part of production as casting actors and selecting locations. For now, 3D is bound to grow in popularity. If we are lucky, it will grow artistically as well. We can only hope great directors will continue to experiment while the rest of us ponder, "What if?" Anything more is just another shameless ploy for cash, and 3D deserves better than that.