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John Scalzi – Two Basic Rules for Headache-Free SciFi in 3D

Over the weekend I took my daughter and a friend of hers to go see Coraline (more accurately, I wanted to go see it and used the two of them as a convenient excuse), and like many of the folks who saw it, we went to a 3D presentation. Watching the movie, I realized two things: First, Coraline is probably the best example of 3D I’ve seen so far, with the effect generally used subtly rather than to, say, stick a spear right between my eyes. Second, even as good as Coraline‘s 3D is, it still gave me a headache and reminded that 3D movies are not something I’m all that enthused about.

Why does this matter? Because movies — particularly science fiction and fantasy movies — are going increasingly 3D. Later this year the animated scifi spoof Monsters Vs Aliens will be screening across the U.S. in three-dimensional glory, and then at the end of the year James Cameron has promised to wow us with his mad 3D skillz when he debuts the hotly-anticipated Avatar. And those are just the ones I’m looking forward to.

Movie companies like 3D because it’s something that doesn’t work well at home (yet), so it keeps people coming to theaters, and also because they can charge more for the experience. I’m not going to argue against either, especially in a recession, but if we are going to have a largely 3D future in the cinema, allow me to make the following suggestions.

First and most importantly, filmmakers should learn how not to make 3D hurt their audiences. I get headaches at 3D movies for two reasons: Misaligned glasses, which are my fault, and quick cuts in the movie, which are the filmmakers’. The problem with quick cuts in 3D flicks is that they require your eyes to do a quick, hard refocus — and since the focal point in each scene is likely to be at a different depth, that means your eyes are working overtime.

The amount your eyes refocus in day to day life is relatively low, since most of us are usually looking at one thing for an extended period of time (for example, hi, you’ve been looking at your computer screen for a couple minutes now). A typical movie, however, has lots of cuts, and sometimes those cuts jerk around between closeups and far shots. In a traditional 2D movie this is no big deal, since you see it all on a single plane. In 3D, your corneas start to scream trying to keep up. Filmmakers need to stop using a two dimensional vocabulary on a three dimensional space.

Secondly, if filmmakers are seriously going to pursue 3D then they need to make it more than a gimmick — it needs to be something without which the story would suffer. Let’s go back 70 years to The Wizard of Oz , which used a process that was still something of a novelty back in 1939: Color. The movie didn’t treat color as a gimmick — it was essential to the plot in that it delineated the difference between hardscrabble, depression-era Kansas (shot in black and white) and the fantastical Oz. You could have made the movie entirely in black and white, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. The process was essential to the story.

I’m not at all convinced there’s been a flick in which the same is true for 3D. To go back to Coraline, the effect was excellent and interesting, but strip out the third dimension and the movie fundamentally works as well as it did before. So I have to ask, as a moviegoer prone to 3D headaches, why I need to see the movie that way and incidentally pay extra for my trouble.

Will there be a movie that needs 3D any time soon? On this score, I have to admit I have some high expectations for Cameron’s Avatar. The director has a history of pushing filmmaking technology, simply because the technology he needs to do what he wants usually doesn’t exist before he invents it. I have some faith based on experience that if Cameron says he needs 3D for his movie, he actually needs it. That’s why I’ll actually be willing to risk a potential headache for this one — something I’m not necessarily willing to do for all the other 3D offerings this year.

What do you think? Is 3D still a gimmick? Did I miss an essential 3D flick?

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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