Film Language in Three Dimensions

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.

  1. john Jantunen said:


    I am pasting a review of Werner Herzog’s new 3D documentary. Thought you’d be interested. I think the most salient point Mr. O’Herir makes is: “Watching “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is an interactive experience, and not in the bogus computer-game sense.” This I think strikes at the heart of the new aesthetic created by digital 3D. By providing a more convincing illusion the filmamker has an oppurtunity to immediately engage the viewer in a way that 2D can not. The problem, of course, is that since the viewer is engaged on this level, the filmaker doesn’t need to be as concerned with the other elements that draw him/her in (ie story and characterization). I would suggest then that the new aesthetic is, by necessity, going to come from outside narrative filmmaking. The most likely medium for it to draw its inspiration from is the documentary. Perhaps, all it will take is a few more pioneers like Herzog to figure the new technology out before a visionary narrative film director (imagine Haneke with a new tool in his bag) will see the benefits of using 3D for something beyond eye candy.

    Andrew O’Hehir
    Tuesday, Sep 14, 2010 21:30 ET
    Toronto: Werner Herzog’s 3-D cave movie
    The German madman’s new film is a spectacular tour of a 33,000-year-old art gallery. Mind blown!
    By Andrew O’Hehir


    Toronto: Werner Herzog’s 3-D cave movie
    A still from “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

    TORONTO — Something like 20,000 years ago, a rock slide sealed up the entrance to a large cave set into a limestone cliff above the Ardèche River in southern France. No human being entered it again until 1994, when a trio of explorers wedged themselves through a tiny aperture and made one of the most extraordinary discoveries of cultural history: Chambers upon chambers of spectacular prehistoric art, both figurative and abstract, including images of many extinct species of Ice Age animals. You and I will never see any of this, except with the help of Werner Herzog’s strange, flawed and mesmerizing 3-D film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday night.

    Let me go over that again briefly: Yes, Werner Herzog has made a movie in 3-D that’s largely set inside a cave full of Stone Age art. His producer, Erik Nelson — who is a friend and an occasional Salon contributor — says that Herzog is the first director of the new 3-D wave to use the technology for good, not for evil. Secondly, yes, the art is beautiful, even stunningly accomplished, and these images are breathtaking — unlike anything you’ve seen before or will see again. And thirdly, yes, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” will become a classic drug movie almost immediately, although the experience is mind-altering enough without any augmentation.

    What’s now known as the Chauvet Cave (after Jean-Marie Chauvet, leader of the exploring party) was promptly seized and sealed by the French government; more people have visited the summit of Everest since 1994 than have seen the interior of the cave. Much of the struggle for Herzog and Nelson was getting in there in the first place. Beyond the 400 or so Paleolithic cave paintings in pristine condition, and the important artifacts and fossils (cave-bear skulls! cave-bear scratches!), Chauvet has far-reaching implications for the study of cultural prehistory and the birth of human consciousness. These paintings are roughly twice as old as any other known examples of pictorial art. (The earliest of them may go back 33,000 years.) They’re as close as we can come, at least for now, to the dawn of art.

    If you had to nominate one filmmaker to explore this astonishing underground world for posterity, then the legendary cinematic madman and visionary who once ordered a passenger ship pulled over a mountain might well be your choice. Herzog has never been daunted by logistical challenges, and from his early career in Germany through documentaries like “Encounters at the End of the World” and “Grizzly Man,” his work has been infused with what you might call an atheistic spirituality. He’s always fascinated by the kinds of unanswerable questions about human nature and the human soul that Chauvet seems to pose.

    Getting into Chauvet and out again with these amazing pictures is really quite enough: The overlaid quartet of horses! The pair of battling woolly rhinos! The running bison, flowing with the contours of the cave wall! It’s a gift to humanity, one that all on its own places this among Herzog’s most important films. Watching “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is an interactive experience, and not in the bogus computer-game sense. I guarantee you will exclaim out loud, ooh and ahh, feel shivers of recognition go down your spine.

    I’ll leave a fuller consideration of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” for another time, since it has no distributor or release date. For now, I’ll merely add that I wish our willfully eccentric German cave guide indulged in a little more of his customary philosophical speculation, and wasn’t so easily distracted by former circus performers, fur-clad scientists who can play the “Star-Spangled Banner” on a vulture bone, and albino crocodiles. (You think I’m kidding about the crocodiles.)

    Scientists are supposed to avoid guesswork and supposition, but filmmakers aren’t. To me Herzog’s claim that the world of Chauvet is lost and unknowable simply isn’t true. (In other words, his title is wrong.) OK, we’ll never know what language they spoke in 31,000 B.C., or hear the stories they told around the fire. But what makes Chauvet so striking, I think, is that on a species-instinct level, we recognize it immediately. It’s the place where those stories got shaped and told, the place where one generation passed along its symbolic understanding of the universe to the next. My first thought was: It’s the first cathedral ever built, and the ones in Chartres and Salisbury are just later versions of the same thing. You might prefer to call it a theater or an art gallery or a dance hall instead; I suspect it comes to the same thing in the end.

  2. John,

    Thanks for the essay, but next time just link to it, yeah?

  3. john Jantunen said:

    Link to it? What do you take me for? A rocket scientist. I copy, I paste. These things I do. Link to it? A snowball’s chance in Hell, that’ll happen. Just a warning.

  4. Lauren said:

    As far as I’m concerned, the only real value of 3D in movies is that the glasses somehow manage to cause a slight decrease in obnoxious talking amongst moviegoers. There, I said it. You kids get off my lawn, etc.

    I was considering breaking my own rule on doing whatever I can to avoid seeing movies anywhere other than our basement in order to see Voyage of the Dawn Treader in theatre (Mike is REALLY excited about it) so I’m interested to hear why you didn’t like it. I know you said you didn’t want to get into that here, so feel free to email me if that’s a better forum.

  5. Lauren,

    The Voyage of the Dawntreader is a very difficult novel to turn into a film. It has no real antagonist. Its hero has his personal crisis resolved in the first half of the book and never really does much of anything after that. There is no good explanation of why the children are even there. There is no useful through story, just a series of more or less isolated episodes. There is an absolute lack of anything approximating a three act story structure. Though none of this impairs the book, because the book’s charm comes from its mood and its pace and its peculiarly Lewisian sensibility, it all would have made for a really bad film, and so the film tries to fix these things, and it is not always very successful.

  6. Speaking of film, isn’t the 8th restart for DnD?

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