The Future of 3D

Screenshot from OK Go's video, 'White Knuckles'
Screenshot from OK Go's video, 'White Knuckles'

"It's a really exciting time for 3D!" enthused artist and USC professor Perry Hoberman opening "The Future of 3D Filmmaking" panel discussion at the Downtown Independent on Sunday. The panelists included Shannon Benna, Ray Zone, Andrew Parke, Roham Rahmania, Ian Spohr and Eric Kurland, and was presented with support of the Levis Film Workshop.

Hoberman is my colleague at USC, where he teaches in the Interactive Media Division of the School of Cinematic Arts and is involved with USC's stereoscopic research unit, S3D@USC. He is also an eloquent proponent of an expanded vision for 3D, and insists that we should move beyond the attempts to enhance realism characteristic of Hollywood's use of 3D and instead experiment with an entirely new visual language that uses space in interesting ways. Talking about 3D a couple of months ago just prior to the opening of Marco Brambilla's 3D artworks at the Santa Monica Museum, Hoberman said, "I suppose when you discover it, on the one hand, you think it's something incredibly realistic. But then you realize it's not about realism at all; it's more that it's just kind of magical. You can do something so simple, and it jumps off the screen."

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Hoberman's combined passion and knowledge of 3D made him a terrific moderator for the panel discussion, which focused on independent filmmaking and DIY techniques, with equal attention to aesthetic and technical issues, and featured some provocative predictions about the future of cinematic storytelling.

L to R: panelists Hoberman, Zone and Benna
L to R: panelists Hoberman, Zone and Benna

Ray Zone, an LA-based historian, author and 3D expert, who also brought tremendous expertise to the discussion, spoke about the need to use 3D with care. "Flatness is a parameter of stereoscopic moviemaking that needs to be considered, just as silence is a parameter of music," he noted. Zone cited the finale of Beowulf, when 3D was used selectively, and dialed up when it was needed for the dramatic conclusion.

Shannon Benna, an independent producer whose interest in emerging technologies and work with 3D has led to her being dubbed "first female feature film stereographer," chronicled her experiences advising on how best to use 3D in the indie horror feature A Haunting in Salem. The role of stereographer is a relatively new one, and involves helping writers, directors, cinematographers, editors, producers and even actors understand the affordances and limits of 3D in all phases of production. An audience member noted that this role may disappear as cinematographers learn to how to shoot in a three-dimensional space, but Hoberman wasn't convinced. "You really have to learn how to see in 3D," he said. "You need to be more conscious of how your eyes work."

Eric Kurland, the president and projectionist of the Southern California 3D Club, agreed with Hoberman. "I tend to lean toward the idea of the stereographer as broader than the camera crew," he said. "I think the stereographer should work in the pre-production phase to help with planning, for example. That person should advise all departments and help in post-production. Finishing a 3D movie without a stereographer is crazy."

In talking about using 3D in A Haunting in Salem, Benna said, "It's not about pushing more stuff into people's faces. It's about trying to use the language, the symbolism, the possibilities of the Z space." Rekindling many of the enthusiastic explorations of independent digital filmmaking of the late 1990s, Benna extolled the merits of independent filmmaking for pushing the boundaries of what's possible with 3D. While studio films are locked into budgets and schedules that prevent experimentation, indie filmmakers can try things and begin to develop more compelling uses of 3D. She also predicts an opening for short form 3D projects as 3D grows in prevalence, but for now, lacks advertisers willing to explore the format.

One of the highlights of the afternoon discussion was the screening of the 3D version of the White Knuckles video for the band OK Go, for which Kurland served as 3D director. The video features the white-clad band and a ragtag pack of dogs who together move through a single-shot, well-choreographed dance sequence that is great in 2D but spectacular - and hilarious - in 3D. Kurland cheerfully showed the pair of tiny Canon PowerShot cameras he used, along with the control switch cobbled together with an Altoids tin. Kurland insisted that 3D is finally ready for DIY filmmakers, if they're willing to figure things out.

But how can filmmakers figure all of this stuff out? Kurland noted that, in his experience, there are two kinds of stereographers: those who think of 3D as a secret not to be shared, and those who are 3D evangelists and want to share what they know with anyone who will listen. The LA 3-D Club is the place for the evangelists.

The recent spate of 3D Hollywood films has had many - critics, filmmakers and audiences alike - saying that 3D adds little but expense and headaches to the filmgoing experience. Jeffrey Katzenberg recently remarked in The Hollywood Reporter that 3D "is smack in the middle of its terrible twos," by which he means that the initial excitement for 3D has waned as many awful uses of 3D have left viewers less than happy. However, others, including Martin Scorsese, whose work on the 3D film Hugo (formerly Hugo Cabret) has caused him to say that shooting in 3D has required "rethinking narrative - how to tell a story with a picture," share the enthusiasm of the Future of 3D panelists. Hugo is slated for a November release, and will certainly add another example to the ongoing 3D discussion. But can DIY methods and independent filmmakers join Scorsese in reimagining cinematic storytelling? Will they take the challenge for developing new uses of 3D? We can only hope so.

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