Every once in a while, cinema evolves as an art form as a direct result of technological innovations which advance what it is possible to achieve in the medium. Whether it is sound, colour or CGI, improvements in the technology of film always increase the scope of the form: directors’ and writers’ and producers’ imaginations are opened to previously unfilmable works. “The Wizard of Oz” couldn’t exist without colour in the same way that had sound cinema never happened the film musical would never have existed.
Yet if directors and studios aren’t careful, the embracing of new technologies could jeopardise cinema, and risk the loss of what we love about film. It seems to be a historically pertinent issue that whenever the technology of film leaps forward, it takes a great filmmaker or two to show everyone else how to effectively incorporate the revolution into cinematic art. How differently and recklessly would early sound cinema have progressed if it weren’t for directors such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock using it intelligently to create atmosphere and suspense? How gaudy and revolting might colour have been were it not for the artistry of early Technicolor masters such as Powell and Pressburger and their cameraman Jack Cardiff, or David O Selznick’s “Gone With the Wind?”
This is a potential problem the film world now, considering that for the major films which will be the first to pioneer this kind of technological innovation in the future finance is a much greater drive than creativity. I’m not saying that mainstream cinema is devoid of artistry, but in the case of CGI over the last ten years there is the problem that the commercial nature of the films empowered to use this technology means that CGI isn’t being used correctly. It is instead being used to entice audiences into theatres, to put their bums on seats and grab their money from them, without sparing much thought to their reactions once they’re safely inside the cinema watching the film. CGI is too often used to sell tickets, to entice audiences with state of the art effects which are only superficially interesting. In the context of the films, such effects are distracting, indulgent and worse still unconvincing. The point of a special effect is to keep the audience engaged in the fantasy of the film, to make us believe something apparently impossible: CGI only makes us aware that we’re watching a computer graphic. Our attention is removed from the film, therefore, and we both don’t believe in and don’t care about what we’re seeing.
CGI has been used well, don’t get me wrong. The dinosaurs in the original “Jurassic Park” hold up astonishingly well today, and look and act incredibly realistically, or at least appear to be doing so. When Peter Jackson uses CGI in “The Lord of the Rings” it’s to realise fantasy elements which simply aren’t possible to create by any other means, such as the creature Gollum or an army of ten thousand goblins. To achieve this Weta Workshop had to massively improve upon pre-existing visual effects technology. The result is what all great special effects should do: our involvement of the fantasy of the film is reinforced. Gollum in particular becomes part of a greater suspension of disbelief: we subconsciously know it isn’t real in the same way that we know wizards and hobbits don’t exist. Crucially, we don’t disbelieve Gollum because he is unconvincing and clearly computer generated, but simply because the whole film is an imaginative fantasy. The best example of CGI I’ve ever seen in a film is still the Two-Face effects in “The Dark Knight,” because I spent that whole part of the film wondering how they did it with make-up. It never occurred to me that they used CGI. The effect, like all true special effects, was invisible.
It is a great concern to me, and should be a great concern to all film fans, that whilst cinema still struggles to incorporate CGI into the art form instead of utilising it as a sales device, another technological leap is also in full swing. This innovation, however, is different. It isn’t a new idea, just an enhancement of an old technique initially rejected many years ago and demoted to the status of theme park attraction. It is also being used by mainstream cinema to draw audiences with the superficial promise of visually arresting films, which only prove to be both dramatically engaging and hindered by the very technology which makes them stand out from the market. Most troublingly of all, CGI has on occasions been used by filmmakers to advance their craft and the medium, convincingly creating images impossible to replicate by any other means. So far, this new technology has improved nothing, and no director has justified its usage. I’m talking, of course, about 3D.
Like I say, 3D is quite a remarkable craze cinema is going through because it is actually really old. Real D 3D is new, but 3D isn’t. We’ve all been to theme parks where a standard simulator is rendered more exciting by images appearing to pop out at you from the screen, and Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” was a famous original 3D film. But it’s decades old, and it staggers me that cinema wants to resurrect the technique just because it doesn’t give people head-aches any more. One of the all-time great directors tried it once, and never again, with his peers confining it to its natural home: the fairground. Put simply, the fun fair is the only place 3D currently has a worthy existence: as part of a cheap thrill ride, offering two minutes of adrenaline and nothing more. It certainly doesn’t belong in narrative cinema.
Here’s the thing: 3D is only good when things pop out of the screen at you, and you can’t do this over a two hour film because it would be truly infuriating. Film is therefore using 3D purely to add a supposed extra level to the viewing experience. This notion is bullshit. Look at any decent cinema image in 2D, and there is a foreground, a middle ground and a background. The image has perspective in its composition which, despite being flat, creates the illusion of multiple dimensions because that’s how our eyes scan the image. We create the dimensions through the way our eye interprets the image’s composition, and 3D is therefore taking away from our eyes something they were doing naturally. We do the same thing to a film image that we do to a work of art, and I don’t recall anyone ever saying that the Mona Lisa or Guernica would be massively improved by 3D glasses. Also, wearing the bloody glasses limits how much light gets into your eyes, so we see the images with far less clarity and richness. Not only does 3D stimulate a lazy viewing experience, it actually detracts from the visual impact of the film by limiting the light that our eyes receive.
Aside from the technology having these serious limits and irrelevancies, my major problem with 3D is that no-one has used to effectively. This is because I don’t believe the technology can possibly be used effectively in cinema, but I put it to you that films designed for and made in 3D gain nothing by being conceived and executed in this fashion. “Avatar” is Pocahontas with Smurfs in space, and is a thoroughly unoriginal, clichéd, un-engaging film lacking any sense of suspense or excitement, a bloated and borderline racist piece of garbage which then dares to be quasi-intelligent about environmentalism and American imperialism. And 3D does nothing to improve it. “Toy Story 3” is an inventive, rich, hilarious and exciting adventure escapade, wonderfully scripted and animated, which rounds off the trilogy superbly with a profoundly emotional finale almost reminiscent of the thematic denouement of Ozu’s “Tokyo Story.” And 3D does nothing to improve it. Pretty much every other 3D film released thus far has been retro-fitted with the technology to sell it to audiences by cashing in on the craze, and so again not only adds nothing to the proceedings but completely destroys any original visual pattern the film may have had. In these cases, 3D is mutilating cinema.
This week, however, something potentially ground-breaking has surfaced: Werner Herzog’s 3D “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Applying the technology to documentary as opposed to fiction, Herzog gives the audience an unprecedented glimpse of the oldest cave illustrations in the world, sealed for all but a fortnight of the year and even then only accessible to experts in science and art. Herzog creates a kaleidoscope of information surrounding the caves and the paintings’ existence in numerous subjects, from speculative religious ceremonies, to the geological history of the caves’ rock, to the use of scent to discover more underground caverns. Herzog doesn’t rest in showing us the work and explaining something in the myriad of mysteries which surround the remarkable, awe-inspiring illustrations: he ponders their existence as a profound moment of the development of humanity’s soul. In this cave and these pictures, he argues, is the abyss our ancestors dived into: in creating art we finally intellectually advanced beyond the Neanderthal. The film is a stunning documentary and a challenging intellectual experience, the idiotic post-script about albino crocodiles notwithstanding, which Herzog has filmed in 3D to give us as immersive a feeling of being in the caves as possible, of seeing these pictures as an eyewitness standing in the caves with him. Does he succeed?
No, actually, he doesn’t. It’s the same old problem. The 3D is striking for five minutes, but then it just does what our eyes can do by themselves with a 2D image. We don’t feel any more in the caves as we would without the 3D. Herzog, a director of considerable intelligence and artistic merit, has failed to justify the existence of 3D in cinema. And if Martin Scorsese, the world’s greatest living filmmaker, also fails to achieve this in his upcoming “Hugo Cabret,” then I firmly believe that no-one can.