3D Undermines the Filmgoing Experience

Since AVATAR, studios, production companies, and directors have embraced 3D. When considering the additional box office revenue, it is easy to see why the studios and production companies like 3D. Since the director is charged with creating an emotional and entertaining experience ostensibly putting the creative before the commercial, it becomes more difficult to understand why they would embrace this technology. Ultimately, 3D is the antithesis of the desired audience experience and destroys that which makes attending a film rewarding.

Film is a voyeuristic experience. We watch the film to experience the events that are happening to the characters on screen. Usually, the audience identifies with and feels empathy for the protagonist.  When a story is well constructed with vibrant characters, interesting plot and a richly developed world, the audience forgets all about their problems, their world, even themselves. For two hours we are seeing the world of the protagonist through his/her eyes. Psychologically, we have turned off our ego.

At its worst, 3D reminds us we are physically separate from the protagonist. For example, in AVATAR, Jake mounts an alien horse and rides away from the camera. When he does this, he is already appearing to leave us behind as gets smaller in the frame. When the accompanying 3D effect is bits of dirt and mulch being kicked up and sprayed in our face, we become aware of ourselves and literally try to dodge the debris. This is a classic example of the concept of breaking the 4th wall. Any effect, whether it is 3D, a camera move, or a sound that draws attention to itself, takes the audience out of the context of the story. It makes them aware that they are watching a creative work. They are no longer experiencing what the character experiences.

At its best, 3D puts spatial distance between us and the main character. Again in AVATAR, when Jake is standing under the tree of life, the little jellyfish-like creatures float around him and us. While this is better than the previous example because we are experiencing the same event that the protagonist is, it reinforces the spatial distance between us. Being trained to perceive depth with our binocular vision, we subconsciously estimate the distance between obstacles and ourselves. Psychologically, we have now severed the connection between the protagonist and our mind.  In fact, some part of our psyche may even be trying to “get back” to the protagonist, making us uncomfortable even if we are unaware of the cause. If the story is working, we don’t want to be apart from the protagonist.

For 3D to effectively communicate emotion and experience, there needs to be an organic reason in the logic of the story for the audience to be separate from the characters. Until screenwriters figure out how to include a “me” character in the plot, it seems unlikely that the psychology could ever work.

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