The Great 3-D Debate

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Aug. 27 2010 6:27 PM

The Great 3-D Debate


I like your short list of virtuoso directors who should be forced to work in three dimensions whether they want to or not. (I believe that's what happened to Hitchcock, by the way.) If the choice were mine, I'd give the contract to Darren Aronofsky. I'm one of those people who loved The Fountain—a movie that could easily have been decked out in gonzo 3-D.

But let's go back to your favorite scene from Inferno, which you've mentioned twice. Robert Ryan's figure, you wrote, "stands out like a tiny wax doll against the infinitely receding Mojave Desert." (That sounds beautiful.) Then you imagined Wes Anderson in 3-D with his "cutout paper dolls" in "perfectly arranged dollhouses." (I like the sound of that, too.) It's worth pointing out that both of these examples make a feature out of one of 3-D's most notable bugs.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

The "dollhouse effect"—also known as the "puppet theater effect"—is well-known among stereographers, especially those who make live-action (as opposed to animated) 3-D. It describes the uncanny distortion that sometimes turns up in 3-D medium or long shots. The objects in a scene suddenly become a bit too real for their own good; you see an entire house in perfect depth, floating in the air in front of you, and your brain rebels—a real house would be much bigger than that! So you reach some kind of neural compromise: It's not a real house but a scale model, sitting on a tiny street decorated with matchstick trees and little action figures walking to and fro.

I've long wondered whether nonanimated 3-D—in movies or sports broadcasts—could ever survive this living-diorama weirdness. Avatar is considered "live-action" and was hugely successful. Same goes for Alice in Wonderland. But both those films blended real people with animated co-stars and a CGI background. At times, even James Cameron's vaunted 3-D rig falls victim to the puppet theater: When Col. Quaritch gives the "You're not in Kansas anymore" speech to his Marines near the beginning of the film, it looked to me like something out of Small Soldiers.


There's a reason House of Wax is one of the most successful live-action 3-D movies of all time. Its one-eyed director, Andre de Toth, didn't merely work around the dollhouse effect—he used it to his advantage. The film's museum owner, played by Vincent Price, goes about his work by murdering people and then coating their bodies with wax. Much of the story revolves around the ambiguity of these macabre figures: Is that just a wax version of Joan of Arc, or is it my pal Cathy? Since everyone in a 3-D film looks a bit waxy, the stereo glitch worked to increase the suspense. (Early Pixar films did something similar by making a virtue of poorly rendered human faces. The heroes of Toy Story were made of plastic; the toddler in Monsters, Inc. was supposed to be scary.)

But in the last few months I've begun to notice something I never would have expected. For me, at least, the dollhouse effect is wearing off. I watched Step Up 3-D a few weeks ago and Piranha 3D the other night; both are mostly live-action, but I don't remember thinking that anyone looked like a figurine. Have I seen so many 3-D movies at this point that these peculiarities just pass me by? Could it be that we'll all get used to 3-D at some point? If that happens soon enough, will it save the medium?

For all my charts and graphs, I do think there's cause to be optimistic. It may not be just the dollhouse effect that can be learned away. In April 2009, I argued that the fundamental technology behind the 3-D revival hasn't changed one bit since the early 1950s. We're still using polarized light to send offset images to each eye, and that means we're still subjecting filmgoers to a stimulus that has been shown in the laboratory to cause eyestrain, vertigo, headache, and nausea.

That article made me Public Enemy No. 1 among the nation's amateur stereographers and 3-D enthusiasts. I still remember being told, with a mixture of pity and derision, that I should stop speaking for everyone else, since it's clear I have an unusually delicate constitution.

At the time, I figured it was their problem, not mine. Maybe these guys had damaged themselves by watching too much 3-D, I thought, their eye muscles gone slack from overexposure. Now I wonder whether I've grown a bit like them. A year and a half ago, My Bloody Valentine 3-D nearly made me barf. These days, I hardly rub my eyes at all.

If it's true that you can "train up" on watching 3-D, then I'm only just now hitting my stride. Dana, you asked me what I think about the upcoming 3-D moviesTron Legacy, Steven Spielberg's Adventures of Tintin, and so on. I say bring 'em on, every last one.

With much disparity,

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