In 3D, only deeper

Last night I saw (for the second time), Martin Scorcese’s wonderful new film “Hugo”, based on Brian Selznick’s book “Hugo Cabret”.

Like all 3D films in commercial distribution, to see it properly you needed to wear special glasses. But I noticed an interesting thing that I had never before noticed in a 3D movie. There are a number of moments when the film becomes 2D.

I only noticed this because it was my second time watching the film, so rather than focusing entirely on the story, I felt comfortable exploring the frame and thinking about how everything was done. At some point I took off my 3D glasses, on a hunch, and found myself staring at a 2D scene.

After a while I discovered that Scorcese followed some definite rules when he dropped back to 2D: (1) He always chose a moment when the psychological focus was on a single person, and that person was going through an important emotional transition. (2) There was always something else in frame, either in the foreground or the background, which would be deeply out of focus (the way a traditional film creates depth) (3) During such scenes, he would always intercut several times with a shot of that person’s point of view. (4) The intercut shots were always 3D, with a clear foreground and background — with everything more or less in focus.

My guess is that Scorsese used 3D to lead the audience’s gaze from one plane of depth to another, or to create a space for free exploration. But when he really wanted us to concentrate on a character’s inner state, he would drop back to 2D, and kick everything else in the frame out of focus. In those cases, the audience’s gaze, and attention, would stay right where he wanted it.

To me this represents an evolution toward maturity in the use of 3D in movies. Rather than replacing the traditional tools of filmmaking, Scorcese is trying to integrate the two approaches into a seamless set of tools for visual storytelling.

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