Remember the emergence of CGI? There had been a few of films to employ the technique in the 80s. Tron, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Abyss. But really, CGI came to the fore with two landmark films in the early 90s. The first was James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and the second was Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Both films used CGI in very specific ways, and both sparingly. They look like CGI, but their very deliberate usage means they don’t feel too dated, even compared to a lot of modern CGI. But after those films came all the bad CGI. The Mummy is probably the most notable. That thing was a total CGI fest. Of course, at the time CGI was still something of a novelty, bringing images to the screen that were previously impossible. Sure, it looked like CGI, but it was also cool. Now it just looks like dated crap.
These days CGI has become the norm. Some CGI is better than others, but for the most part it all looks pretty good, and we’re starting to see directors like Christopher Nolan and Brad Bird scale back on the CGI in favour of melding the computer animation where necessary with practical effects taking the spotlight. But otherwise, I feel like we can say CGI has essentially matured into something that will generally look great and become more photorealistic and refined over time. So what’s the next “new” technology? I’m starting to feel like 3D is the answer.
Now, I don’t think 3D is going to completely take over for every film—at least not any time soon. It’s too expensive to do well, and like colour was for its first 20 years or so, it’ll be used mostly in films that beg that extra bit of spectacle. CGI was the same way, by the way. Now it’s totally normal for a drama like The Social Network to employ heavy use of CGI, but even into the early 00s, the idea of using such a complex, expensive technique for anything other than crazy shots and big spectacle was out of the question.
Modern 3D also has other similarities to CGI in terms of adoption. There were a number of early digital 3D films, mostly computer animated films, and they helped break ground for the format. And then came two major uses of 3D. Films that made it clear that 3D had serious potential. The first was Coraline, an animated film, but it was stop-motion and shot with real cameras. The animation looked particularly great in 3D, but director Henry Selick also used the 3D to artistic effect. In the “real world” sections of the film, the colours were muted and so was the 3D effect. When the film enters the fantasy world, the 3D pops more. It becomes deeper. Characters and objects interact all over the depth of the frame. It was truly spectacular.
Then, of course, came James Cameron’s Avatar. The rest is history.
But what we saw in the wake of Avatar was essentially a lot of The Mummy. Big movies shot and/or converted to 3D without any care or thought. Just throwing it at the audience. The major difference, of course, is that while the bad CGI of The Mummy was pretty cool back when it came out, bad 3D is not so forgiving. First of all, theatres charge more for it, so it feels like a slap in the face when it actually detracts from the experience of watching a film. But even without that, the technological and biological limitations of current 3D make it so that bad 3D—and sometimes even good 3D—can be an uncomfortable experience.
This is a major hurdle, but I think it will get better over time. Better screens. Laser projection. Higher frames rates. These upcoming advances in digital and 3D technology are likely to take away most of that physical annoyance, if not completely negate it. And so we will be left purely with the artistic implementation of 3D, and after seeing films like Hugo and Pina in 3D, I can now see the potential for the technology beyond mere spectacle. It may take another 10 years or more, but I think 3D will probably follow that CGI path. It started interesting and with a couple great examples, followed by a mix of mostly crap and a few positive exceptions, and might now on its way to becoming simply a natural part of the filmmaking process.
What do you think? Is 3D the new CGI? Do you want it to just go away? What kind of artistic potential do you see in the use of 3D? Let me know in the comments.