3D and deep focus

I generally shy away from 3D movies. I find a lot of things about them problematic. One is that polarized glasses, as with all polarized filters, cut at least 2/3 a stop of light. Most theaters don't project the movie bright enough to compensate, so the entire movie looks dark, murky.

Another problem is that a lot of 3D projection, for whatever reason, leaves a lot of the image blurred or ghosted. Perhaps it's shoddy 3D conversion of material not shot in 3D, or perhaps it's poor projection. Maybe you have to sit perfectly in the center of the theater for optimal clarity. Some of the glasses are not comfortable, and often parts of the plastic frame obstruct my angle of view.

Last week Marie invited me to a friends and family screening of Monsters Inc 3D at Pixar. I hadn't seen the movie in years, and it's one of the underrated gems of the Pixar canon, but what surprised me was how much I enjoyed the Dolby Digital 3D. It was quite stunning.

Now, Pixar's main screening theater, in the newly dubbed Steve Jobs building, is calibrated perfectly, as you'd expect, so that's part of it. But as this was an early Pixar movie, digitally animated, I hypothesize that a unique quality of the movie contributed to a superior 3D experience, and perhaps live action films can learn from it: deep focus.

I believe in some later Pixar movies they tried to simulate the shallower focus more common in live action films shot with actual glass lenses. But in Monsters Inc, everything is sharp, all the way back to the furthest horizon in the background. In live action 3D movies, especially those converted from 2D, shallow focus shots are frustrating because they try to convey a 3D space, but as your eye wanders the screen to out of focus areas, they remain out of focus. In real life, though, as your eye moves, the center of your field of view constantly moves into focus. Since Monsters Inc. in 3D respected that convention, it felt very comfortable to let my eye wander around the frame, picking up humorous details of the imaginary world and virtual production design. 

I suspect that one reason I enjoyed seeing Life of Pi in 3D was that much of the movie was set on the ocean, with a very simple background of just ocean and sky. Because the background was so simple, my eye wandered less, and the fixed aspect of the shallow focus didn't distract me as much.

This is problematic, of course, for live action movies since very few of them are shot to only screen in 3D. So most cinematographers are going to shoot with shallow focus to optimized for 2D projection, and from that you can't bring out of focus areas back into focus. And so for the vast majority of those movies, I'll continue to prefer the 2D versions.

I'll be curious to see if I continue to prefer deep focus shots for 3D movies. I suspect that as filmmakers continue to experiment with 3D shooting and projection (for example Peter Jackson with high frame rate 3D for The Hobbit) we'll see cinematographers learn how to optimize the lighting and production design and depth of field to maximize the technique. For now it's largely a gimmick, one often used to try to drive up the average ticket price, and most viewers would do better by steering clear.