Neuroscientists look at effects of the format

Directors with 3D experience, including James Cameron and Eric Brevig, have said for years they believe that stereoscopic 3D content affects the brain differently than 2D content.

It turns out, there’s significant scholarly research to back up that idea, some of it coming from neuroscientists within the biz.

Two bizzers with a neuroscience background are now working for the Legend3D shingle, which does 2D to 3D conversion: founder/prexy Barry Sandrew and new hire Toni Pace Carstensen. Both say research on 3D and the emerging field of “neurocinematics” show 3D affects viewers differently than traditional cinema.

Because binocular vision is natural, explained Sandrew, the brain expects to see a different view with each eye of objects nearby. When it doesn’t, it gives what it’s looking at less importance.

On the other hand, when the brain sees something with that “binocular disparity,” it reacts very differently, especially if there’s something flying off the screen.

Sandrew notes viewers don’t react much in a 2D film if something flies toward camera, but viewers duck when the same thing happens in 3D. The difference arises because the stereo view activates a very fast pathway in the brain that stimulates the amygdala, a primary center for emotions, and triggers the fight-or-flight response.

“(This pathway) can be activated in 2D but not nearly as strongly as in 3D,” he said. “We are hard-wired to respond to stereo images.”

This jibes with what “Journey to the Center of the Earth” producer Charlotte Huggins has long argued: that audiences don’t “watch” 3D movies, they “experience” them.

Sandrew said the 3D image is more “significant” to the brain. “The immersive quality stimulates the sense of self in each person in the audience,” said Sandrew. “Each person is experiencing a very personal experience, where in a 2D movie it’s more of a group dynamic.”

Sandrew is a Ph.D in neuroscience from SUNY Stonybrook who spent seven years doing brain research at Harvard. He was lured away to work on colorization by entrepreneurs “who offered me a package I couldn’t refuse” and has moved on to 3D conversion.

Carstensen has an experimental psychology degree and was headed for a doctorate from the U. of Virginia before realizing “I had this goal of making the world a better place and the path I have chosen was not taking me there.” But she’s never stopped studying the field, even while working as a vfx producer on such pics as “Avatar.”

Sandrew and Carstensen both warn of another effect of 3D: Viewers look around the frame more and look away from the actors more quickly. “Depth is a major distraction if you’re trying to draw the audiences attention,” said Sandrew.

On “Avatar,” said Carstensen, Cameron had spent much time and effort creating the world of Pandora, so it helped the movie when auds’ eyes wandered. But Sandrew recently showed a 3D test to a major director of a summer tentpole whose movie ended up not getting a 3D release. When he got to a two-shot, the helmer said “The depth takes away the intent of my direction.”

It seems 3D shots need to be framed differently, with fewer objects in frame, to keep the aud’s attention on actors. At the same time, though, Sandrew and Carstensen agree that actors can actually have more impact in 3D.

“Disparity is something the brain is expecting,” says Sandrew. “It’s closer to reality, so it has a deeper meaning, a more significant meaning to the observer.”

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