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3-D week on Channel 4

In September I wrote a piece on why I did not think that the future of home entertainment lay in 3-D television. This week, Channel 4 have been showing various programmes in 3-D, and so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to test the potential of the technology.

The results were more underwhelming than I had anticipated. No, really – I didn’t think it would be this bad.

The first programme of the week was ‘The Queen in 3-D,’ shown in two parts on Monday and Tuesday.It featured too affable gentlemen, Bob Angell and Arthur Wooster, who shot colour 3-D footage of the coronation in 1953. The programme was made of non-3-D sections where we got the history of the coronation, some talking-head segments, which were in 3-D, and the 3-D footage of the coronation. The pair of filmmakers appeared from time to time to ask us to put on or take-off our 3-D viewing spectacles. This take-them-off and put-them-back-on-again soon became irritating.

The stongest 3-D effect was in the talking-head segments, but it did not add anything to the social history of the coronation and the effect itself was disappointing. Things do not look any more real – if anything the 3-D effect was quite surreal as the image looked like a series of very flat layers stacked up one on top of the other. It did not have any depth or shape to it. The effect of spatial separation between these flat layers was evident (although, as I have said, not consistently), but it made me think of Ivor the Engine more than anything else. (For my non-UK readers under the age of 25, Ivor the Engine was an animated series created by Oliver Postgate in the 1950s and used stop-motion animation of cardboard cut-outs).

This image of Ivor the Engine was taken from the Walesonline page, where you can find an obituary of Oliver Postgate, who died in December 2008. Imagine this in 3-D, and you sort of get the idea.

The flatness of the image was all the more disappointing, as I have recently been re-watching the 3.5 hour long documentary on the making of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) that is part of the Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blade Runner box set. This excellent documenatry has a great section with Douglas Trumbull and his fellow model makers, designers, matte painters, special effects cameraman, supervisors, etc. There is a great bit where they explain how they created the image of Los Angeles disappearing into the distance by using flat pieces of brass, so that the city is built up of layer upon layer of this model pieces to create a convincing experience of the immensity of the city. This old fashioned method creating in camera effects through multiple passes over a model landscape, gives a much better effect than 3-D. Obviously it is unfair to compare Channel 4 to the production of Blade Runner, but if we are going to hail 3-D as the future, then it should at least be an improvement on the technology of the past. When I get to see a 3-D landscape as good as that made in 1981, then we can talk about being impressed. Maybe James Cameron’s Avatar will be the film to take us there. But if the ‘last analogue film,’ as Blade Runner was referred to, can achieve such wonderful effects of depth and shape by using flat pieces of brass, 3-D faces a stiff challenge.

Matthew Yuricich’s matte paintings for Blade Runner are amazing, and better than 3-D. This image is taken from an interview with Douglas Trumbull over at Kipplezone, which is definitely worth checking out.

The 3-D effect in ‘The Queen in 3-D’ and the magic programme presented by Derren Brown that followed it was evident in some shots more than others, and this has been a problem through out the week – the inconsistency of the 3-D effect just doesn’t make it seem worth the while.Just as 3-D adds nothing to social history, I found that the magic tricks were harder to follow wearing the 3-D glasses. Also because 3-D television is so rare, I kept looking out for the 3-D effect and missed what was going on with the tricks themselves. I can see the appeal for magic shows to use 3-D – the lack of reality that was alienating in the documentary footage is ideal for illusions. It may that the future of 3-D in the home is limited to some genres of programming – but if this is the case, then selling the audience a new 3-D television is going to be that much harder.

I watched the first part of Flesh for Frankenstein (Paul Morrissey, 1973), which is every bit as bad as I remember, and found that even wearing the glasses I could see the amber and blue shapes on the image instead of the 3-D effect. The 3-D effect itself was very intermittent in this film, being quite strong in some shots but barely noticeable in others.

As my eyesight is pretty much perfect I don’t wear glasses or contact lenses, and I did not like the fact that I have to wear the 3-D spectacles. They very quickly became uncomfortable, and after a while I started to get a headache.

I also burnt my toast. The problem with 3-D in the home is that you do not just watch TV and do nothing else. Rather, the TV is on and has your attention some of the time, while various other things make competing demands on your attention. 3-D seems to depend on the viewer attending to the television screen and nothing else – which is fine in a cinema, where I have made the effort to go out and paid my money with the specific intention of watching the film. But at home I may be talking to another person who is either with me or on the phone, I may be attempting a crossword. My toast was burnt because my attention could not be divided so easily between the screen and the toast, and because I was wearing the 3-D glasses and couldn’t see what was happening. 3-D is all very well as a novelty for films, but once you actually try living a life it falls apart almost instantly.

In order to get the best effect, Channel 4 advised you to dim the lights. Well, I don’t have a light-dimmer switch – I have a light on-and-off switch. So now I am sitting the dark, on my own, watching a programme of which only a small part is actually 3-D (and even then the effect is inconsistent), wearing uncomfortable glasses that are giving me a headache, unable to see anything properly, and eating burnt toast.

Do you want to come from work and sit in the dark wearing 3-D glasses, ignoring your nearest and dearest while watching underwhelming television programmes? Of course not.

The future of home entertainment?