Adding Another Dimension

May 12, 2010

After reading both Roger Ebert’s and A. O. Scott’s recent pronouncements on 3-D in film, I realized it was finally time for me to make a statement to settle the issue (“Why I Hate 3-D (and You Should Too)” & “Adding a Dimension to the Frenzy“). A caveat on my bona fides here — excluding Jaws 3-D on VHS (with someone sitting next to me who had seen it in the theatre pointing out all of the awesome points that were in 3-D), the only 3-D viewing experiences I have had have been Captain EO and Beowulf. The former I don’t really remember because I was an annoying rebellious teen on a long family vacation at the time, which meant I was too busy with teenaged self-focus to pay all that much attention. All I really remember is Disneyland being closed due to rain (only the second or third time ever), getting ohsoclose to the Psycho house, and practicing my tuba in the back of the family Suburban parked on a San Francisco side street. Like I said.

The latter I try not to remember because it was not my viewing choice, but also because the poem Beowulf is a personal favorite. I’m not a stickler for strictness in adaptations, but for some reason I take a principled stance that something like Beowulf or other medieval texts gain very little (and lose much) from the insertion of more modern concepts of character, plot, and motivation. Never mind the image — the stories themselves work much better as 2-D, flat narrative.

But that’s enough dimensions laid out to show my obvious expertise on the subject; back to critics who think decades of training and practice actually mean something. When I read Ebert’s essay in Newsweek when it came out, I found much to agree with. Like my assessment of Beowulf several of his arguments point to the feeling that 3-D does not add anything to character or storytelling that is not already in the script, that 2-D artistry does not cover, or that our imagination does not already account for. Scott concedes these points to a degree, but offers the counterpoints that we may all be surprised by the ultimate artistry of 3-D once/if it reaches a mature state, and that what it currently has the potential to add is the magic of the cinema viewing experience. When done well, it is able to compliment our imagination and take us out of our seat and into the world of the film. This is, of course, something traditional film can do, but 3-D is able to do it in a new way, which makes it all terribly exciting and profit generating in the here and now.

All of this fretting over the significance, quality, and fortitude of 3-D is, as Scott suggests, just a lot of noise that won’t be sorted out until further down the road. The format may be a blip on the screen, or it may be the next revolution in moving images, but there is no way to know right now and no commentator has the correct answer. New will become old and will become fodder for reassessment.

However, from a different angle, “a new way” is of great concern here. Standards and best practices for preserving (especially video and digital) moving image materials are still being hashed out for the old way. How, then, should we (or do we really need to) account for 3-D? Is it an outlier or do we need to scrap everything and establish systems and workflows that mainly accommodate 3-D? Many organizations are discussing their system and infrastructure needs for storing and managing their digital video assets. They are well aware of the jump in hardware and software requirements from SD to HD, but now lately it has become apparent that they will have to start considering the requirements for handling HD 3-D because there could likely be someone in the organization that would want to use the format. This is why, in the archivist’s case, the persistence of 3-D’s application matters. Would an organization’s management of assets have to center around tools that are powerful enough to handle HD 3-D (tools that may not yet exist in reliable forms), or would they be able to plan for a less intensive system with some work-arounds for the dribs and drabs of 3-D? The more cost effect solution for today may be the right choice, or it may end up being much more costly in the future when the system has to be rebuilt.

As in the consideration of the cultural impact of 3-D, there is no easy answer immediately at hand. The difference is, cultural relevance can be left up to history to interpret; the preservation of these materials should not and cannot be left to some undetermined point in the future to handle. There are a number of difficult (and at times expensive) technical and ethical decisions that need to be made when preserving our audiovisual heritage, but decisions delayed will create more difficult (and certainly more expensive) circumstances to overcome.

The decisions are difficult because they are important because the materials matter. But I feel we archivists will have no trouble overcoming them. You see, we actually view the world in 4-D (usually taught in the 2nd semester of most archiving programs). We have to look ahead in time to envision the future access and use (or potential decay) of audiovisual materials, and, really, 3-D is a childish medium compared to that.

— Joshua Ranger