In the 1980s, computer generated characters were the rage so people were always looking for a way to use them in films, regardless of whether or not it helped or hurt the story. So it goes with 3-D in movies today.
For those who don't wear glasses, it is an annoyance and for people who do wear glasses, it is twice the annoyance, but everyone is making 3-D movies because...everyone else is making 3-D movies.
What 3-D technology should do, yet cannot, is make the experience more immersive. Traditional movies, given the nature of the medium (and the expectations of the audience) don't allow that -movies must have a setup and cutaways and shots from different angles and close-ups with soft filters for aging actresses. And that keeps 3-D from being relevant and gimmicky.
If you ask someone with knowledge of movies but not a true movie historian what the first color motion picture was, they will overwhelmingly say 1939's "The Wizard of Oz". But that wasn't even the only color movie that year(1) and the first color movie was in 1908. Technicolor had even existed since 1917. Color was simply expensive for theaters and studios and didn't add much.
But 'Oz' is considered the first color movie by casual fans because they used color to startling effect. Dorothy's time in Kansas is a sepia-toned black and white but when she appears in Oz the color is brilliant - and memorable. It put color movies on the map, though black and white would still be in common use until the 1960s (2) and what 3-D needs now is a Wizard of its own.
"Beyond The Mind's Eye" from 1992, seeking to capture computer generated technology with limited success. However, it was amazing at the time and I picked this clip because Jan Hammer's song is cool.
It may have found one in Ang Lee. The director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (good story, but the "Wire-Fu" was annoying to those of us who watched a lot of old martial arts movies and it was an intentional choice by Lee as an homage to those pictures) and "Hulk" (neat concept with the comic book thing but terrible special effects and a bad lead actor for the role) is no stranger to taking chances, those two movies being examples of when he hits and when he misses.
For "The Life of Pi" he is taking a chance on 3-D, and risking a lot of studio money to do it. if you aren't familiar with the story, it is about an Indian fellow trapped on a boat with a tiger. That's really all you need to know. But it could be perfect for a 3-D movie because the setting is contained. Nothing will convey the loneliness and close quarters of being on a small boat with a tiger like a movie in 3-D because that will be immersive for the audience. Staring at the water and the horizon and the tiger in 3-D would be as close as an audience can get to feeling like they are there.
Can he pull it off? We'll have to see. Ang Lee is a critical darling but the majority of his actual movies are hit and miss. He has to be commended to taking a chance, even if he is risking someone else's money.
(1) Nor was it necessarily the best. Also in that year were "Gone With The Wind", "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington", "Stagecoach", "Wuthering Heights", "Babes In Arms" and other terrific films. "Gone With The Wind" won the Academy Award for best picture but it was arguably the greatest year in movie history. I say 'arguably' because on the Internet, someone will tell me I am wrong.
(2) Today, like 3-D, black and white is only used for gimmicky effect.
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