Ebert shortsighted re: 3D

Roger Ebert has once again gone on the attack against the concept of 3D, this time presenting a letter from esteemed film editor and sound designer Walter Murch suggesting that there are inherent physical limitations to human vision that will forever prevent comfortable viewing of cinematic 3D. He suggests with his “Case Closed” headline that this Murch letter means there should be no more discussion on the topic.

Scott Hettrick

Scott Hettrick

Roger, first of all, congratulations on the revival of your “At The Movies” program last weekend. But even though I religiously watched your original PBS “Sneak Previews” out of Chicago from the earliest days in the 1970s and continued to tune in faithfully as you and Gene took it to syndication under the “At the Movies” moniker, I fear that like your laudable passion leading to your refusal to recognize that the time for that kind of program has long since passed is also the same mind block that is preventing you from acknowledging the potential value and inevitability of 3D in the cinema.
Last May I challenged most of the nine reasons why Roger Ebert hates 3D, to which you offered a respectful response to me.
I’m afraid I have to take issue with you once again, along with Mr. Murch, this time about this slightly different angle you have taken, but for basically the same underlying reason.

One of your primary points last May was that filmmakers should leave the third dimension to the viewer’s imagination. I was curious why you didn’t express such sentiment about leaving moving images to the imagination of a book reader instead of making a movie in the first place, or leaving color to our imagination instead of continuing to show movies in black-and-white.

With your latest posting, Mr. Murch raises an interesting and perhaps valid point that 3D requires our eyes to make adjustments they were probably not designed to do by focusing on both the actual screen where the image resides as well as the artificial convergence point behind or in front of the screen. I’m not even sure if this is, in fact, as big of a challenge for our eyes as Murch suggests — certainly many of the people who commented on your posting disagree. But the bigger point to me relative to your ongoing protesting of 3D is why neither of you makes the same point about human eyes not being designed to watch hours of images on a flat two-dimensional cinema screen or TV sets or in printed books and magazines. That’s probably not what our eyes were designed to do either.
In fact, our eyes were designed to view the world in true three-dimension.
Mr. Murch raises an interesting argument for medical and science experts to consider, but in the meantime it seems you are not applying the logic of your anti-3D arguments to any other technology. If you want to leave entertainment to the mind’s eye of the audience, if you want to ensure that people view only those things for which the human eye was designed, you should be arguing for the elimination of cinema altogether.

I know you like to proclaim things are closed but while the balcony may once have figuratively been closed between episodes of your TV show, this case is not even close to being closed and will likely never close.

Here’s looking forward to your next anti-3D salvo!

– By Scott Hettrick

Comments

  1. With regard to the comments about Mr. Murch suggesting there are medical reasons against 3D, take a look at what the American Osteopathic Association have recently said about 3D.

  2. Excellent rebuttal, Mr. Hettrick.

    It is really amazing the comments that some people make when they do not know or understand the facts.

    The eye/brain relationship controls the eye muscles, and these operate the same as most other muscles in the human body. If a muscle is extended beyond its normal range there will be strain, and in the case of the eye muscles, eyestrain. This is true in real life situations, such as attempting to read a fine-print book while holding it too close. Eyestrain is not necessarily a result of viewing stereoscopic images; only if they are incorrectly created or displayed. Even then, while incorrect 3-D images may result in temporary discomfort, the added exercise will eventually strengthen the eye muscles. The focus and vergence functions are mechanically independent, although they may be, but do not have to be, operationally concurrent. Correctly imaged and displayed stereoscopic 3-D images normally operate well within the normal range of human visual accommodation. In fact, many ophthalmologists use stereoscopic images, such as the Keystone eye-skill training series, as a diagnostic tool as well as therapy for orthoptics (the strengthening of weak eye muscles).

  3. Though I have had friends complain of both headaches and motion sickness from watching 3D movies, I don’t see that as a reason not to produce films in 3D. What I DO see as a reason is that it adds nothing to the movie except an extra $5 for the ticket. 3D is a gimmick, just like it was in the 50’s when theatrical movies were looking to compete with the threat of competition from televisions in the home. This time it’s HD video and streaming over the internet. Just today I chose not to see the Green Hornet because I didn’t want to pay the extra money to see it in 3D. I’ll find a 2D theater or wait for video.

    The Hollywood Reporter did a story in January about how once the novelty of 3D wears off, people aren’t going to be willing to pay premium prices for it. The Financial Times article on 3D in the same month titled,”3D fails to lift Hollywood box office take”, said “The great 3D film revolution is failing to live up to its initial promise with US cinema attendance falling close to 10 per cent in 2010 and end-of-year movies failing to lift the gloom.” There is really no reason to argue over whether movies should or should not be made in 3D. The audience will decide if it keeps buying tickets for them, which I don’t think they will. I know I won’t.

  4. Shawm Kreitzman says:

    Other writers have used the “convergence/focus” argument against 3D before, but, while it sounds impressive and scientific, it’s just wrong. I’m actually surprised to see someone like Walter Murch making this argument; I am amazed he can even look at himself in the mirror every morning. I am not speaking metaphorically here. Think about it: when you stand in front of a mirror (say three feet away) your eyes will be focussing on the surface of the mirror, three feet in front of you, but they will converge on your reflection, which appears to be six feet away.

    Whenever you look at a reflective surface, the reflected image will always converge at a point that is double the distance between you and the mirror. In other words, the convergence will be twice the focussing distance. And if you look at the reflection of an object that is somewhere behind you, you will be converging on a point that is even further away (the convergence factor will be greater than 2). This is a common and comfortable optical condition. We do it every day of our lives. Humans have been doing it for millennia. Many, many living creatures have looked at many reflective surfaces in the last 600 million years.
    The principle of stereoscopic photography is essentially the same: our eyes converge on a three-dimensional point in space, regardless of the fact that the image is actually contained on a flat surface. This technique has been understood ever since the first stereo viewer was designed by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838. Generations of Victorians enjoyed collections of 3D photographs (StereoViews) with no ill effects; stereoscopes were the 19th Century versions of television sets. Seventy-two years of happy owners of View-Master viewers have never had cause for complaint. To claim that three-dimensional photography is somehow “unnatural” because of the focus/convergence issue is rather odd.

    Bad, or incorrectly filmed 3D is uncomfortable to watch, of course, but then a 2D film can be just as uncomfortable when done badly. Try sitting in front a film when it’s out of focus. It seems a bit extreme to dismiss the entire technique for that reason. Fake 3D (like the Green Hornet, or Clash of the Titans for example) is an experiment best forgotten: if a scene was filmed in two dimensions, there is still no convincing way to add in the extra information required to make it three-dimensional. The effect is rather like adding colour to a black-and-white film, and about as worthwhile.

    In the final analysis, 3D is simply a cinematic technique, to be used for good or ill, rather like sound, colour, or widescreen. These techniques all added to the vocabulary available to film-makers, and they all had the potential to be used effectively, or badly, depending on the skill of the film-maker. It may be that Walter Murch simply doesn’t like watching films in 3D, which is perfectly fair enough. Roger Ebert obviously doesn’t. The argument that 3D is somehow a violation of evolution, however, is simply untrue.

    For what it’s worth, Fritz Lang absolutely hated CinemaScope.

  5. its not actual 3d though is it, it’s the paralax illusion.

    I despise watching 3d, it looks terrible; small, dark, blurry and messy (and that’s the best of them).

    Also it destroys any actual immersion in cinema, you are constantly reminded by films tuning on the 3d switch, things flying out at you (in such a dull contrived way) and so on that you are watching a film and it takes you right back out of the film.

    when people fix the problems with it, fine i’ll give it a go again. but it is at least in its current encarnation not only fawed a relic from the past as well.

    although to quote mark kermode ‘ the one thing 3d can do well is small floaty objects near to you’

  6. 3d destroys the illusion of the cinema??? What the heck are you talking about Greg?? That made no sense what so ever… All these people that love to complain are like some old hags that go to 3d forums to whine. Damn if you don’t like it go watch it in 2d, there is always that option. For me if a great movie is coming out that can take advantage of the 3d visuals then I will pay the extra couple of bucks for the premium viewing experience. Because 3d movies done right bring you closer to being in the movie itself than ever before.
    Great rebuttal Scott. Two thumbs up, lol.

  7. Don Munsil says:

    @Shawm: Your mirror example isn’t correct; when you look at something in a mirror you are converging and focusing on the image on the “other side”. You are not focusing on the mirror surface. If the mirror was a flat-screen display, or a projection surface, you would be focusing at the surface, but a mirror creates a virtual 3D space on the “other side” of the mirror. This is why a stereo picture of a mirror shows the mirror image in 3D while a stereo picture of a display screen would show the display image in 2D. You can also check this by using an SLR to auto-focus on images in a mirror versus focusing on the edge of the mirror, or the wall near the mirror. Or with your eyes, look at something fairly far away in a mirror, then at the edge of the mirror or at a post-it placed on the mirror, The post-it is a different focal distance than the objects “in” the mirror.

    I agree with you and others here that 3D is not inherently problematic, and I think the headaches are more likely because of improperly produced or projected 3D, or from discomfort from wearing glasses. But there may be people more sensitive to convergence/accommodation mismatch than you or I.

    It does seem to me that Murch’s argument has been decisively refuted by the continuing ability to get people to pay extra for 3D movies. If people didn’t really like them, they wouldn’t go to them. But they do, and this has lasted long enough that it’s clear that at least some people really do prefer 3D movies over 2D.

  8. 3D is just another gimmick for manufacturers to sell more black boxes. What nobody seems to comment on is that this is the kind of stuff the manufacturers are doing to sell more black boxes, not necessarily make a better product or experience. When DVD player sales were flat because the market was saturated the manufacturers came up with a new format(s) Blu-Ray/HD, as well as a format war. Genius……..what a way to sell more boxes! Along with making it a higher resolution (1080p) so the manufacturers can also now sell new TV’s to all the poor people that had recently bought 1080i because they were told that was the currently highest resolution for the best picture. This is all quite frustrating to me (I am in the A/V industry) because they really knew that streaming movies would be the way of the future. Also there will be 1440i and 1440p for the next wave of TV’s to make what you own outdated. And who knows how many higher numbers of resolution are in store or where it will end. This stuff plays on keeping up with the Joneses.

  9. @ Waddy

    It’s called advancement in technology. Mankind has been striving to make things better throughout history and I dont think it will stop as long as people have an open mind. Its actually to your advantage because all the old outdate tech (that you like) gets clearance out and cheaper for the smart shopper as yourself. I even saw a black&white TV on Ebay for $9.99. Now thats a great price, enjoy!!

  10. John Bishop says:

    Mr. Munsil is right on in my opinion. I’m a home cinema designer and looking for answers to help make good design decisions. It seems 3D is no longer a debate, the market, at least for now has voted, and they go into those big screen venues and they put on the glasses. So I need to offer the feature in my private cinema designs. I think the middle ground my be the best ground. I can’t see Michael Clayton benefiting from 3D gimmickery, by I loved Avatar in Digital IMAX3D, the best system I’ve seen so far. But watching for 3 hours is work. To deny the Cue Confict of Vergence and Accomodation is to deny that patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time isn’t work. Less for some, & more for others perhaps, but work it is just the same. Content creation will improve and the comfort zones will be refined, but nature didn’t intend our eyes to cross for something close, while focussing on something distant, and there is good data, new and old, the informs that notion. So I think it’s going to be a factor, at least on big screens, in theaters and homes, I wonder about the small screen though. I’m not impressed with 3D on a 50″ anything. I appreciate finding good discussion on the matter and I was pleased to find your forum. Keep up the good work.
    John Bishop – Personal Cinema Architect

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