Finding Nemo 3-D, and Why 3-D Filmmaking Is Not the Future

Coming to your local megaplex this weekend is the Pixar masterpiece Finding Nemo, the delightful story of a father and son clownfish who become separated in the Great Barrier Reef. The movie, originally released in 2003, was a gigantic hit, and remains the best selling DVD of all time.

So why a recent film like this find its way back into wide release at the movie theater? The answer, of course, is 3-D.

Like every other astute Hollywood giant, Disney has paid close attention to the 3-D trend and realized there is additional revenue to be made from its existing properites, simply by re-relasing them in 3D in movie theaters. In the last year alone, we've seen Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King both re-released in 3-D. The cost of these conversions generally is in the $15 million dollar range -- a hefty sum for sure, but one that brings a sizable return.  For example, Beauty and the Beast made $45 million from its recent upgrade; The Lion King in 3-D earned $94 million. And that's just in the box office, without taking into account spikes in DVD, Blu-ray, and merchandise sales -- a big spike, considering these are already hugely successful franchises with existing merchandising in the high millions annually.

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While that all does add up to serious money. But 3-D sales have dropped considerably in recent years. The average audience member will choose to see a traditional projection of a film over the 3-D projection the majority of the time, to avoid the premium ticket cost of 3-D. Most audience members know that not all films benefit from the technology. There are even 3-D haters across the board. The market is shrinking, and Hollywood knows it. Someday in the not too distant future, 3-D will once again return to the recesses of the movie makers' trick bag.

In the meantime, the moguls are squeezing everything they can out of it -- and many of us are gladly forking over fistfuls of dollars to see a virtual sneeze look remarkably real and close.

As an oft described "indie film guy," I find I'm often expected to find 3-D films utterly abhorrent, or at least to shrug them off as a gimmick. But this indie film guy (who doesn't completely hate Hollywood, by the way) doesn't necessarily hate all 3D films either. They just have to be done right.

The problem is that 3-D is rarely used effectively, employed rather as a cheap gimmick to sell more tickets. The greatest use of 3-D in mainstream filmmaking is something I begrudgingly credit to James Cameron, whose use of it in Avatar to give a gorgeous and layered depth to his fantasy world was simply stunning. In this film, Cameron ensured that the technology enhanced the experience while not being overbearing to the rest of the film. It truly added to the viewing.

One of the other exceptional qualities of Avatar (a film that I don't necessarily love, but from which I can't hold back due credit) is its breathtaking color palette. But that mixture of bright and subtle hues was completely lost in the 3-D experience, due to the form's overall dim look. Cameron himself has stated that a lack of brightness is the biggest challenge 3-D filmmaking faces. I'd rather see a vivid, flat image than a multi-dimensional one that's rather dark and dull.

But Cameron, a big proponent of 3-D, has also jumped on the re-release bandwagon. This year, he brought out his insufferable love story-turned-disaster flick, Titanic, for the 3-D treatment. And he's not alone -- George Lucas is dragging out the Star Wars franchise, one by one, with made-in-post 3-D effects.

Of course, indie film hasn't completely stayed away from 3-D, either. Two of the most successful indie releases in the last year and a half have been Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Wim Wenders Pina. Both have been heralded as some of the best use of 3-D ever -- adding information and definition to their works without distracting from the narrative journey of the films. Both are undoubtedly stunning works. Still, Wenders and Herzog are giant figures of independent film; the thought that many other 3-D films in the vein of their work might be forthcoming is hopeful at best.

We've lived this story before. 3-D arrives and makes a big splash. Audiences are delighted by the look of giant ants marching in front of their faces or explosions that seem to happen right inside the theater. But soon, the allure and novelty of the form passes, and the cost versus profit no longer warrants the effort. All those funny glasses get put back on the shelf, waiting for their next day in the sun.  This year will see nearly 40 releases in 3-D, with both the number of films in the format and the overall revenue from it down considerably from previous years. I'm looking forward to a select few 3-D films (The Hobbit for one), but most of the time I choose to skip it and save the extra dollars for the overpriced popcorn at the Regal instead.

The plain truth about 3-D is this: It is mostly used to make up where a film's story falls short. Perhaps you won't notice that the dialogue and plot points are crummy if it looks like things are flying at your face for two hours. If that's the case, why not just use it for porn? I'm talking BangBus 3-D, people. I guarantee there's a huge audience who won't mind dishing out the $16 for that kind of, ahem, experience. But you might need to give them raincoats to go with the glasses, and you definitely won't want cute clownfish or Ellen Degeneres' voice anywhere within ear shot.

Kareem Tabsch is the co-founder and co-director of O Cinema.

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