The Cabin in the Woods is a horror film, so it’s in 3-D, right? Wrong, this time. The clever, meta-horror movie, co-written by favourite fanboy director Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer television fame) and Drew Goddard ( Cloverfield), was intended as “classic” John Carpenter-like horror with a voyeuristic camera and well-defined sense of space. Against the filmmaker’s wishes, the parent studio, MGM, wanted to put it through the then de rigueur 3-D conversion, to resemble every other pop-up horror film.
Then, in 2010, MGM went into a financial tailspin and the upconversion never took place. While the film was in limbo, Whedon told a Comic-Con audience: “We’re hoping to be the only horror film to come out in two dimensions.... Now in 2-D!”
He got his wish. The Cabin in the Woods, which was released by Lionsgate last week, remained as intended, in two scary dimensions.
“I didn’t shoot the movie for 3-D,I didn’t plan it for 3-D,” said director Goddard in a recent interview. “There’s this period in Hollywood where everyone wanted 3-D. I don’t think anyone in Hollywood understood what 3-D was. They just saw that Avatar made a lot of money and so they clearly correctly assumed that it was because it was in 3-D. So everyone had to go through this process. It happened on a lot of films where they said, ‘Well, can you make this 3-D, let’s just make this 3-D.’ Luckily, we were able to weather that storm and cooler heads prevailed.” Three-D filmmaking isn’t going anywhere – there will be at least 30 3-D films released this year, including The Amazing Spider-Man and The Hobbit.
But since the delirium of Avatar’s billion-dollar box office, 3-D’s reputation has slipped. “If you can’t make it good, make it 3-D” ran the Internet joke. At the same time, predictions or wishes that 3-D is another passing fad aren’t credible: 3-D films are difficult to copy illegally; the box-office premium has held up Hollywood’s revenues in the face of declining attendance; and successful relaunches of old hits – from The Lion King to Titanic – have brought some films back to life.
Yet producers counting on a franchise’s blue-chip reputation are more cautious about employing a third dimension. The biggest film derailed by MGM’s financial problems in 2010 was the 23rd James Bond outing, Skyfall, which will finally be released this fall. Initially, Skyfall was hailed as the first 007 film in 50 years that would be shot in 3-D, but quietly, that hype died. For a movie whose audience skews older than average, it was decided that the darker screens and inconvenient glasses could have hurt more than helped.
Sam Mendes, who directs both theatre and film, made no official statement about the decision to shoot Skyfall in conventional format. But he has said, “I already do 3-D. It’s called theatre.”
The most high-profile 3-D refusenik has been Christopher Nolan, whose new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises (July 20), is likely to be the highest-grossing movie of 2012. According to Nolan, his studio, Warner Bros., “would have been very happy” had he agreed to shoot in 3-D. But he thought it was the wrong approach. In a recent interview with the Directors Guild of America magazine, he differentiated between the collective larger-than-life experience of Imax, and the individual, immersive perspective of 3-D imagery (a.k.a stereoscope). “I find the stereoscope imaging too small-scale and intimate in its effect.… It’s well-suited to video games and other immersive technologies but if you’re looking for an audience experience, stereoscopic is hard to embrace. I prefer the big canvas.... When you treat that stereoscopically – and we’ve tried a lot of tests – you shrink the size so that the image becomes a much smaller window in front of you. So the effect of it, and the relationship of the image to the audience, has to be very carefully considered. And I feel that in the initial wave to embrace it, that wasn’t considered in the slightest.”
The Hunger Games’s director Gary Ross argues that 3-D is the wrong format for the film series based on the Suzanne Collins books about teen combatants fighting to the death for mass entertainment, in a tournament staged by a tyrannical oligarchy known as the Capitol. “I think that if we shoot this movie [ Catching Fire]in 3-D, we become the Capitol,” said Ross, referring to The Hunger Games’s sequel. “We start making spectacle out of something that I don’t really think is appropriate here. There needs to be an aesthetic distance because of the nature of the material.”
Other directors also emphasize the importance of appropriateness. Though Whedon opposed 3-D for The Cabin in the Woods, he’ll be using it for his upcoming blockbuster, The Avengers. (He describes himself as a director who is fascinated with the space around characters, so “3-D kinda fits my aesthetic anyway.”) For young audiences, the 3-D experience – and giant screens – are well-known to create “vection” or the sense of self-motion. That makes the experience of a superhero comic or an animated tale literally like a thrill ride.
Yet the most promising development in 3-D may be the one that seems to make the least sense: The Great Gatsby, by Australian director Baz Luhrmann. The film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel, due out this Christmas, stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire. If it works – and none of the two-dimensional adaptations of the film have – it will turn our ideas about 3-D upside down. Luhrmann ( Moulin Rouge!) told The New York Times that he was inspired by Avatar, and that he wants to use 3-D to allow the audience members to feel like they’re in the room with the characters.
In the end, the format used for escapist, explosive fantasies might be better suited to helping us experience the lives of others. Does stereoscopic filmmaking have more in common with the fading bespectacled eyes of The Great Gatsby’s Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, an advertising billboard over the valley of ashes? Or is it the green light at the end of the dock that represents the promise of the future?
3-D by the numbers in 2012:
Fairy tale/Animation: (10): Beauty and the Beast 3-D (re-release); Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax; Mirror Mirror (live-action); Brave; Madagascar: Europe’s Most Wanted; Ice Age: Continental Drift; Hotel Transylvania; Finding Nemo (re-release); Wreck-It Ralph; Rise of the Guardians.
Comic Book (4): Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance; The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man; Dredd.
Drama/Literary: (3): Titanic (re-release); The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; The Great Gatsby.
Documentary/Performance (4): To the Arctic; Katy Perry: Part of Me; Step Up Revolution (drama/performance); Cirque du Soleil:World’s Away
Horror (7): Underworld: Awakening; The Woman in Black. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; Prometheus (scifi-horror); Pirhanna 3DD; Silent Hill: Revelations; Gingerclown 3D (horror/comedy).
Legend/Myth (2): Wrath of the Titans; 47 Ronin.
Sci-Fi/Fantasy (4): Star Wars; Episode I: The Phantom Menace (re-release); Journey 2: The Mysterious Island; Men in Black 3; Gravity.