As three dimensional film becomes increasingly common in cinemas, and as it becomes increasingly viable in home entertainment, I have been wondering how directors might employ this technology to expand the vocabulary of film language and how viewers and critics might understand what it is that this expanded vocabulary actually allows film to say. It seems to me that the three dimensional film has been used so far mainly as a technical gimmick and as a way to enhance a sense of size and scale. I have seen very few examples where it has been used to say or show something unique about plot or character or mood, and I want to discuss the possibility that it can in fact be used in this way.
First, however, I need to make clear that three dimensional images are not technically speaking three dimensional at all and therefore not actually very different from two dimensional images in most respects. Both two and three dimensional images are projected in two dimensions, and both merely produce the illusion of three dimensions. The difference between the two is only that supposedly three dimensional images produce the illusion of three dimensions much more convincingly than standard two dimensional images do. Their difference is not so much in what they do as it is in how well they do it. In terms of developing a language of three dimensional film, therefore, it is important to recognize that we are not describing the illusion of three dimensions as something essentially new or unique to three dimensional film. Rather, we are describing the illusion of three dimensions as a preexisting space that a technological advance has merely enlarged to a degree that might allow films to produce meaning in new ways.
This recognition should only reinforce the more obvious ways in which the language of two and three dimensional films must be understood as deeply related. After all, two dimensional films already use the illusion of depth as part of their film language, and three dimensional films cannot help but draw from the existing conventions of two dimensional film language for the two dimensions that still dominate three dimensional images. This is why three dimensional film language is not now and can never be something distinct from two dimensional film language, but must always remain an extension of preexisting film language. When we talk about three dimensional film language, therefore, we must always talk about it in this way, in relation to two dimensional film language.
With this understanding in mind, I would suggest that three dimensional film does in fact allow film to create meanings in new ways, that it does in fact expand the language of film, at least in potential. Let me take up an example, not because it is the best of its kind, and not because it is necessarily very significant, but precisely because it is neither of these things and is the simple kind of moment for which three dimensional film will regularly need to account. The scene occurs in Michael Apted’s The Voyage of the Dawntreader, which is not a great movie for several reasons that I will not take up here, and it involves one of the main characters, Lucy, and a young girl whose mother has been captured by the evil mist that serves as the film’s antagonist. Lucy and the young girl are going to sleep on the beach with the rest of the landing party, but the girl is lonely and worried about her mother, so Lucy tries to comfort her. Though the two are lying several feet apart, they reach out to each other and hold hands through much of the scene, a gesture that in traditional film language would represent something like the bridging of the distance between them and of the loneliness that the two of them are feeling.
The scene is comprised of alternating shots from behind the heads of the two reclining characters, all standard over the shoulder conversation shots except that the actors are lying and except that the camera is tighter than normal behind the actors, to that the sense of perspective and foreshortening is accentuated. This effect, which could certainly be accomplished in two dimensional film as well, is dramatically heightened in the three dimensional version, where the speaking actor’s head not only dominates much of the screen, and not only occludes in part the listening actor, but occupies a visibly dominant place with respect to the sense of depth that the illusion of three dimensions is creating. The three dimensional film does not create an effect here that is impossible in two dimensions, but it makes this effect dominate the screen, makes it overshadow other elements of the film in ways that the two dimensional version would not. The sense of a relationship reaching across a distance of loneliness can be read into the two dimensional version of this scene as well, but it comes to dominate the three dimensional version of the film because the sense of depth and distance is emphasized so much by the enhanced illusion of three dimensions.
In other words, three dimensional film is able to foreground the meanings created by the illusion of depth to a degree that would be more difficult if not impossible in two dimensional film. The meanings that are associated with depth and foreshortening and distance are now able to dominate other elements of the film’s language in ways that were not possible before. The meanings themselves are not new, because two dimensional film already references a set of meanings associated with the illusion of depth. However, these meaning that are produced through manipulating depth and distance are now much more powerful, and this shift, at least potentially, should change the way that directors weigh these kinds of shots in their films, but I do not think that many directors have yet come to account for these kinds of effects.
The scene from The Voyage of the Dawntreader is perhaps instructive here again. Here is a case where the effect of the scene’s use of three dimensional film to enhance a sense of depth and distance seems out of proportion with the scene’s actual significance. Though the three dimensional film language seems to draw attention very strongly to the relationship between Lucy and the young girl, this relationship does not actually play a very central role in the story, and the scene is not otherwise very significant except perhaps to show something of Lucy’s character. Why, then, should the enhanced illusion of three dimensions be allowed to make the scene appear more significant than it is? Perhaps the technique is merely being used to add interest to an otherwise static scene. Perhaps it is simply being employed without much thought to how it might appear and how it might be read. Whatever the reason, it is an example of a director failing to understand the full implications of the increased illusion of three dimensions that his medium now allows him.
This is why I think it is very important for directors and viewers and critics alike to take some time to think through the implications of three dimensional film on the use and interpretation of film language. The technology is widely used, but it is not yet widely understood in an artistic sense, I think, and this work needs to be done before really great films can be made in three dimensions.