'In-your-face' shots make depth a storytelling tool

From the early 1950s to the dawn of digital cinema, stereoscopic 3D (S3D) earned a reputation as a gimmick for tacky genre pictures.

Schlockmeister William Castle and his ilk used it to send warrior arrows and fiery torches flying into the aud’s faces at every turn.

But today’s S3D filmmakers see stereo as an important creative tool that adds to the emotional impact of their pictures.

“There’s an emotional component of 3D,” says helmer Henry Selick, whose “Coraline” impressed mavens with its creative use of stereo. “There’s that ability to give comfort, and, like many other tools in filmmaking — lighting, performance, everything — 3D is now a powerful tool to influence emotions.”

Selick did just that with “Coraline,” flattening out the “real world” to make the title character’s life feel constricted, then expanding the space when she goes into the “other world” version of her house.

Similarly, in Pixar’s “Up,” the stereo-space changes with the emotional arc of the widower at the center of the story, Carl. When he’s isolated, both Carl and the space are flattened. When he’s having an adventure, he and his world have more depth. In the climactic fight aboard a zeppelin over the Amazon jungle, the 3D actually has more depth than real life.

Creative S3D wasn’t unknown even in the bad old days. On “Dial M for Murder,” Alfred Hitchcock — unenthusiastic about the format — used low-angle shots with lamps and furniture in the foreground and the actors placed behind the screen plane. It gave the picture a voyeuristic feel, as if the audience members were prowlers.

Today’s filmmakers, though, are more aggressive about turning stereo up or down, just as they might change color saturation or sound volume.

Making creative use of 3D, however, requires a change in mindset from traditional filmmaking techniques, says Phil McNally, DreamWorks’ global stereoscopic supervisor. He points out that much of the art of cinematography involves trying to create the illusion of depth in a flat image — in effect, a 3D-to-2D conversion.

“People have become experts at this translation from 3D to 2D to the point where we sometimes lose track that that’s what we’re doing,” McNally says. “People who love film enjoy that process of 3D-to-2D conversion so much that sometimes it’s hard to actually look at something in 3D and not feel just uncomfortable. It’s not what they’re used to.”

For example, S3D seems to require wider-angle lenses than 2D. McNally explains that the long lenses often used for 2D shooting capture a long, thin cone of space, but a viewer in a theater is looking at a much wider cone. “We found in our world that’s about a 24mm lens or 50-55 degrees field of view. Lenses that are wide angle create very natural-looking 3D.”

Pixar’s stereoscopic supervisor, Bob Whitehill, found something similar. “Since our eyes are roughly about a 45mm lens,” he says, “we’re used to that spatial sensation. And so, when we’re watching something in 3D, we expect that dimensionality to be reflected on the screen.”

Filmmakers who’ve worked in digital S3D like the format and expect it to stay, though its future probably depends on whether it makes its way into homes.

Selick, in fact, wishes “Coraline” could have been released only in S3D, not in both flat and stereo.

“From my side, all the effort went into making a great 3D film. I wasn’t really trying to split it down the middle.

“For me it was the perfect marriage of medium and technology.”

TIP SHEET

What: 3D Entertainment Summit

When: Wednesday and Thursday

Where: Universal Hilton, Los Angeles

Web: 3d-summit.com

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