Hollywood’s fake 3-D rip-off

The success of movies like ‘Avatar’ has producers rushing out bad conversions
Jaime J. Weinman
Photo Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt

Critics hated everything about M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, but especially the fake 3-D. Like several other recent movies, Airbender was not filmed with 3-D cameras, but was altered to seem like it was. Film buffs paid high ticket prices and walked out appalled at how bad it looked. Roger Ebert wrote that Airbender “puts a nail in the coffin of low-rent 3-D,” while the Boston Globe called it “a ghoulish simulation” of the real thing. It’s Hollywood’s new craze: charging more for a worse viewing experience.

Unlike a real 3-D movie, like Avatar or the upcoming Resident Evil, films like Airbender depend on an elaborate conversion process. 3-D filmmaker James Stewart (founder of Geneva Film Co.) told Maclean’s that “conversion is like colourization,” because converters take the images apart and rebuild them to look like they have three dimensions. “You have to fill in the gaps manually, by painting,” he explains, “and you have to shape each object to give it actual depth within the layer.” A converted 3-D film is almost a computer-animated remake of the original.

Why would that make a movie look worse? For one thing, 3-D makes movies look darker— not just because of dark glasses, but because the film is projected through a filter. Stewart says filmmakers and projectionists can solve this by “compensating for the light level.” But when the movie wasn’t made with the process in mind, an already dark film can wind up looking like Airbender, whose 3-D version Ebert called “the drabbest, darkest, dingiest movie of any sort I’ve seen in years.”

Sometimes 3-D animators, working under deadlines, achieve inconsistent results. Matt DeJohn, visual effects producer for In-Three (which converted last year’s Alice in Wonderland and G-Force to 3-D), told Maclean’s that “often conversion houses unnaturally tweak depth in order to avoid doing detailed hair, transparency, and paint work,” making films look—ironically—flatter than in 2-D. It can happen even in well-converted films; Alice in Wonderland got better-than-usual reviews for its 3-D, but Stewart claims that “the shape of Alice’s head changes” in some scenes.

This can be avoided, but only with a good budget and schedule. “It just takes the proper amount of time to produce a realistic effect,” DeJohn says, pointing out that G-Force was “entirely converted” but most critics didn’t notice.

Because of Avatar and similar hits, studios wanted to send 3-D product to theatres, fast. Warner Brothers put Clash of the Titans through the conversion process in only 10 weeks, producing a result that the director, Louis Leterrier, compared to “a ViewFinder.” The most Leterrier could say in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter was that it was all they could get on short notice: “The technology was not ready, so it’s Warner Brothers saying we are giving you the best of what we can do.”

It’s not the first time studios have mutilated their films to cash in on a popular technology. In the ’60s, when theatres charged extra for movies on 70-mm film (instead of the usual, lower-resolution 35 mm), several movies were blown up to 70 mm, causing blurry images and, in Francis Ford Coppola’s musical Finian’s Rainbow, numbers where you couldn’t see the dancers’ feet. This kind of thing helped kill off premium-priced screenings of 70-mm movies. What scares executives now is that bad 3-D might kill another golden goose: Stewart says “everyone is worried that if people think 3-D is a bad experience, studios will no longer be able to charge a premium for 3-D.”

On the other hand, for that to happen, fake 3-D would have to become unpopular. And, although DeJohn thinks “there is a very limited time that audiences will accept being fooled into seeing a bad conversion,” bad conversions are very profitable at the moment. Clash of the Titans was successful in 3-D showings despite reviews claiming the characters looked like “cardboard cut-outs,” and Airbender performed above expectations, thanks in part to 3-D money. As long as that continues, Stewart isn’t sure 3-D purists can win. “People were saying, ‘You can’t just do a quick conversion,’ but then it made lots of money. So what do I know?”