Movies are evolving ever more into 3-D, a shake-up of the medium that has been compared to the advent of sound or color in motion pictures.
But if digital 3-D is so revolutionary, it will need to go beyond fantasy and animated blockbusters to drama and live action comedy. Explorations of Pandora may seem like the stuff of three-dimension wizardry, but what of a domestic drama such as "Precious" or a character-driven movie such as "An Education"?
When color was widely introduced to Hollywood moviemaking in the 1930s, was first used predominantly in musicals and other films thought to be perfect platforms for rainbow hues. Many filmmakers are predicting a similar genre expansion for 3-D.
"We see in depth, for the most part. We go to the theater — it's in depth. Why couldn't a film like 'Precious' be in 3-D? It should be," says Martin Scorsese.
Like many seasoned moviegoers, Scorsese has lived through earlier fads of 3-D.
‘Dial M for Murder’ could be template
3-D actually predates cinema — stereoscopic photography was developed in the mid 19th century — but it fused only occasionally with motion pictures before the 1950s. There was explosion of 3-D films between 1952-1955, an era kicked off by 1952's "Bwana Devil," a drama set in British East Africa about big-game hunters pursuing lions on the loose.
Many of the 3-D movies of the '50s and those that followed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are defined by their shlock — from "Taza, Son of Cochise" in 1954 to "Amityville 3-D" in 1983.
But there have been dramatic films made in 3-D, too, perhaps most notably Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" (1954). Most saw it in 2-D, but it included one memorable effect of Grace Kelly's hand coming out from the screen in a pivotal moment. Based on a stage play with one interior setting, "Dial M for Murder" could be a blueprint for contemporary filmmakers adapting 3-D to non-action movies.
In the 1990s, IMAX expanded 3-D, both throughout the country and literally across giant screens. The process was awkward — cameras weighed over 250 pounds — but created life-size images that made the viewer a part of the scene.
1995's "Wings of Courage," a 40-minute movie about a downed pilot that starred Craig Sheffer and Val Kilmer, was the first IMAX 3-D fictional film. Reviewing it, The New York Times wrote that "of course" 3-D was not the future of movies, "at least until those headsets turn into something more comfortable."
‘Just another element to draw you in’
Digital filmmaking ushered in the latest in 3-D, and James Cameron's "Avatar" (nominated for nine Oscars at Sunday's Academy Awards) has been its "Jazz Singer." 3-D's increasing expansion in moviemaking is ubiquitous. Some 20 films will be released in 3-D this year, with more in 2011. Studios are looking into their vaults to reissue classics in 3-D. Theaters are making more screens 3-D capable.
"It's just another tool. In fact, I'm very interested in kind of exploring it on some other levels, because it's like sound," says Tim Burton, whose "Alice in Wonderland" was made in 2-D but converted to 3-D for theatrical release. "3-D is just another element to draw you in a little bit more, that's all."
Cameron, himself, has been adamant that the technology can apply to all kinds of films — that it's an effect less driven by expanding depth of field and more tied to deepening focus. To expand on this, he's producing a film titled "Sanctum" about a father and son diving team. Though it will include numerous underwater scenes, Cameron calls it "a drama, a love story."
‘A waste of a perfectly good dimension’
Not everyone is sold on 3-D. Critic Roger Ebert has called it "a waste of a perfectly good dimension." Though he gave "Avatar" a good review and mostly applauded its use of 3-D, he has questioned the technology's benefits.
"There seems to be a belief that 3-D films are not getting their money's worth unless they hurtle objects or body parts at the audience," Ebert wrote in a 2008 review. "Every time that happens, it creates a fatal break in the illusion of the film. The idea of a movie, even an animated one, is to convince us, halfway at least, that what we're seeing on the screen is sort of really happening. Images leaping off the screen destroy that illusion."
Critic David Thomson postulated that "Avatar" stands directly opposite the family dramas of a filmmaker such as Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu.
"More and more of our movies ... bear very little reference to life as lived," wrote Thomson. "'Avatar,' for instance, does touch on fear, revenge, paranoia and altruism, but it is a film in which nature and action have been superseded by things that cannot be found in life: the forest, the machines, the Na'vi and so on."
Nevertheless, many filmmakers sense a challenge in melding 3-D with drama.
"It's right out there, somebody just needs to do it," says Chris Columbus, who directed the 2005 concert film "3-D Rocks."
"If 'Coraline' was and 'Up' was a subtle version of what you'd expect for 3-D, why couldn't a traditional drama work just as well?"
Could 3-D become the norm?
Celine Rattray, president of newly formed Mandalay Vision, a division of Mandalay Entertainment that focuses on independent film production, says she's begun looking at how 3-D can be worth the cost for the kind of independent picture that usually plays at the Sundance Film Festival.
Yes, even the traditionally gritty, character-driven films of indie cinema could begin tackling 3-D in the coming years, especially when the costs diminish even more.
"I believe that one day in the not too distant future that every movie will be made in 3-D," she says. "3-D will become the norm in the same way that color became the norm and movies with sound became the norm."
This historic shift in moviemaking and moviegoing has nevertheless seemed ephemeral, not unlike its airy, glimmering effect.
Aside from knee-jerk descriptions of a new "immersive" cinema bent on the wonder of spectacle, what exactly 3-D is doing to the movies isn't clear. But as the films become easier to study in 3-D on newly purchased 3-D TV sets, the change to film will be more tangible. Wider discussion of its implication will take place among filmmakers, critics and moviegoers.
Even Scorsese says "I'd love to do one" — so long as he can still move the camera the way he'd like to.
"It just seems natural that we'd be going in that direction," Scorsese says. "It's going to be something to look forward to, but to be used interestingly."