At the bow wave of digital 3D cinema: A frame from the documentary feature, Ghosts of the Abyss (Cameron, 2003), showing a submersible beginning the dive to the sea-floor to shoot the wreck of the Titanic.

In an archetypal shot demonstrating the eye-jabbing illusion of negative parallax, the submersible’s mechanical arm reaches out towards the viewer.

The cinema of three-dimensional attractions: Two frames from the 20-minute film sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991) that is at the centre of the Universal Studios Theme Park Attraction, T2-3D: Battle Beyond Time (1996). In these shots, demonstrating the eye-jabbing aesthetic of  3D cinema, the T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a Skynet robot direct their weapons towards the audience.

"The goal is to poke them in the eye one time after another": James Cameron demonstrates the eye-jabbing aesthetic principle underlying 3D film narration.

The audience is subjected to repeated shocks. These frames from Journey to the Center of the Earth (Brevig, 2008) in which a ravenous dinosaur’s drool appears to drip into the eyes of the spectator, and Piranha (2010, Aja) in which a drunk woman vomits onto the camera, demonstrate the aggressive dynamics underlying spectatorial relations in 3D cinema.

Compositional conventions: These two frames from Drive Angry (Lussier, 2011) demonstrate the tendency in many 3D films towards "staging-in-depth" in order to emphasize the illusion of dramatically receding space.


The normativity of 3D:  cinematic journeys,
“imperial visuality” and unchained cameras

by Bruce Bennett

The last decade has seen a spectacular resurgence of 3D cinema, beginning with the release of Ghosts of the Abyss in 2003, James Cameron’s IMAX HD video documentary of an expedition to investigate the wreck of the Titanic.[1][open endnotes in new window] Although Cameron had previously produced Terminator 2-3D: The Battle Beyond Time (Cameron, Bruno, 1996), a 20-minute 70mm short that is the centrepiece of a Universal Studios theme park attraction,[2] Ghosts of the Abyss marked the onset of the film-maker’s total commitment to the direction, production and marketing of 3D films.[3] This culminated with the release of the science-fiction epic, Avatar, which was the first film ever to gross over $2bn, demonstrating the lucrative commercial potential of digital 3D cinema, as well as its technical sophistication and its capacity to visualize fantastic narrative worlds. Academic writing on the current wave of 3D cinema has tended to concentrate fetishistically upon the technological novelty of the format (see Sandifer, 2011). As a result, the dominant themes and the relationships between form and content within the films have typically been overlooked. In this article I examine one of the most notable aspects of the emerging aesthetic and narrative conventions of 3D cinema, the ways in which worlds are constructed by—and for—the stereoscopic cinematic gaze.

An eye-jabbing aesthetic: the
emergent conventions of 3D cinema

In a 1996 promotional interview discussing Terminator 2-3D: The Battle Beyond Time, Cameron observed that the creative challenge of 3D cinema is the normative organic integration of narrative and stylistic effects. He explains,

“For me, the trick to doing 3D is not to have one kind of a gag where something’s coming straight at you after another. You have to tell a story, you have to have a narrative, and you have to stick to the normal cinematic style and then, once in a while if something should happen to come off the screen and into the audience, you try to integrate that in an organic way so [...] that the audience doesn’t feel like they’re just getting poked in the eye one time after another, even though the goal is to poke them in the eye one time after another” (The Making of T2-2D: Breaking the Screen Barrier).

The principle he outlines here is that of classical narrative, wherein stylistically excessive textual elements are subordinated to the film’s narrative mechanism so that they function primarily as integral components of the story-telling system, rather than registering as autonomous attractions. As Cameron implies, however, the application of “normal style” or stylistic coherence both masks and facilitates an assaultive, eye-jabbing aesthetics in which the unwitting spectator is subjected to repeated shocks. The spectatorial relations of 3D cinema are structured by an aggressive dynamic.

In terms of staging and composition, the current wave of digital 3D films is notably conventional, whether composed wholly or partly of CGI animation, stop-motion animation, or wholly or primarily live action, and they appear largely to follow Cameron’s normative prescription. There is a periodic tendency in these films to use “staging-in-depth” to emphasize the illusion of receding space, and a convention of using sequence shots and fewer cuts than might be expected in a contemporary action film, rather than fragmenting spaces through a combination of shots from different angles, camera distances, and with varying framings. To some extent a slower cutting rate may be an effect of the restrictions of current 3D technology, or perhaps of the physical limitations of the brain and eye[4] that putatively makes continual refocusing an eye-wateringly uncomfortable experience so that we feel as if we are repeatedly “taking it in the eye” (Clover, 1992, p. 202). Philip Sandifer, situating digital 3D films within an evolutionary historical trajectory, argues that a lower frequency of cuts constitutes a “regression” since a consequence of the supposed difficulties of rapid shot/reverse shot editing is that “a major source of semiotic codes for cinema is simply inaccessible to 3-D film”(Sandifer, 2011, p. 74).

However, a slower rate of cutting is entirely consistent with the imperative of spatial coherence that underpins the editing conventions of classical cinema and, of course, doesn’t preclude the employment of non-classical semiotic regimes that are not dependent upon continuity editing and the assiduous employment of the “180-degree system.” In fact, almost all of the films discussed here do use shot/reverse-shot cutting patterns and observe continuity editing and staging conventions. But in any case, as André Bazin argued half a century ago in response to similar concerns that the editing patterns in Cinemascope films were destroying an essential element of cinema, the contention that editing is an intrinsic syntactical element of cinematic meaning rests on a restricted understanding of what constitutes film form:

“It is not true that cutting into shots and augmenting those shots with a whole range of optical effects are the necessary and fundamental elements of filmic expression [...] On the contrary, one can see that the evolution of film in the last fifteen years has tended towards the elimination of editing” (Bazin, Will Cinemascope Save the Film Industry?, 2002 (1953)).      

Furthermore, international cinema offers countless examples of textually and semantically rich non-classical style.

Paradoxical realism of 3D cinema

Ang Lee, who won the 2013 Best Director Academy Award for the magical realist 3D fantasy, Life of Pi (2012), suggests that the attraction of digital 3D rests in its capacity for the realistic depiction of space:

“We associate 3D with action and spectacular scenes or movement, but I think 3D should be used in drama because it gives volume, it gives you so much realism. I think that’s the advantage” (Mitchell, 2013). 

However, the “realism” offered by 3D cinema is of the same order as the realism of a 2D film in so far as the technically novel stylistic features of digital 3D connote reality as much as they capture it. Indeed, Lee’s film makes a virtue of the capacity of this new technology to render an exquisitely detailed, narratively plausible representation of an imagined, metaphorical reality since one of the film’s central themes is the disavowal of a traumatic personal history through story-telling.

As Bazin, one of the most influential theorists of cinematic realism, observed in an essay on the structuring fantasy of cinema, from the nineteenth century onwards the medium’s development was driven by an ideal of

“the cinema as a total and complete representation of reality [..,] the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, color, and relief” (Bazin, 2005 (1967), 20).

This “myth of total cinema” derives partly from the mechanical-photographic basis of cinema, which appears to promise objective documentation, but as Bazin asserts in his most well-known essay on Italian neo-realist film, the fantasy of pure objectivity is paradoxically self-defeating. A hypothetically perfect reproduction of reality would render itself immediately redundant as it would be indistinguishable from its referent:

“supposing total cinema was here and now technically possible, we would go back purely to reality” (Bazin, 2005 (1971), 26).”

In some respects, then, the pleasure of viewing an illusionistic work depends precisely upon the failure of the illusionistic mechanism, the visibility of the illusion and the perceptibility of a gap between representation and reality. For Bazin, since the medium’s historical development has been driven by the fantasy of an atomically perfect representation of reality,

“the ‘art’ of cinema lives off this contradiction” (Ibid.).

Thus, while he argues that, as with any other medium, cinematic realism is a product of aesthetic choices and formal conventions such that “realism can only be achieved in one way—through artifice,” at the same time the vain attempt to “capture” reality is crucial in order that cinema does not become pure artifice, disengaged from—and displacing—the real world (Ibid.). Consequently, technical innovations like digital 3D cinema that appear to offer greater realism function to maintain the contradiction at the core of cinema’s aesthetic organization. As Bazin suggests in a retort to those critics and film-makers who saw the films of the late silent cinema as the acme of the art-form,

“it would be absurd to resist every new technical development aiming to add to the realism of cinema, namely sound, color, and stereoscopy” (26).

Published in 1948, this essay makes reference to a history of stereoscopic cinema that extends from mid-nineteenth-century experiments with photography but predates the brief vogue for 3D films in the early 1950s. For historian Ray Zone, who proposes that “stereoscopic cinema can be divided into four general periods through which the “grammar” of stereographic narrative has evolved within the overall arena of cinema itself,” this describes the first phase of 3D cinema that runs from 1838 to 1952 (within which the inception of cinema circa December 28th 1895 is merely a novel development) (Zone, 2007, 1). Situating digital 3D cinema within this historical frame reminds us that, for all the progressive claims that might be made with regard to the transformative potential of new platforms and technological leaps, these claims articulate a well-established fantasy of total cinema that is neither new nor dependent upon a particular technical innovation. Thinking about digital 3D cinema is a means of thinking about the character of the medium and the attraction it holds for film-makers and viewers.

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