Saturday, October 12, 2013

Seeing The Wizard of Oz in IMAX 3D

Ah... The Wizard of Oz.

It's about as close to cinematic perfection as it gets: luminous production design, clever special effects, a bevy of lovable characters, and plenty of good ole emotion. It's the kind of classic even a cold-hearted cynic like me counts as a favorite, despite my irrational hatred for musicals. Admittedly, certain elements do subjectively grate on me at times (the Munchkin Land sequence will never be a pleasant viewing experience for me), but the movie is so great I can't help but forgive those annoying 10 minutes in a millisecond.

So, when I heard about a re-release of the film in 3D and IMAX, I was naturally very dubious. Tampering with an old classic always raises some red flags in my mind, especially when the original filmmakers and stars are long gone and can't defend their work. And, to make matters worse, I cannot, in any way, shape, or form, be called a fan of the 3D format. More on that later.

Because of this, you might be surprised to hear that I actually thought the 3D version of The Wizard of Oz was pretty good. In fact, I thought it was borderline excellent.

The depth of image was rich and pleasing. At no point did the effect get old or tarnish my enjoyment of the film. At worst, it wasn't distracting, and, at best, it was really a visual treat. In the spirit of the time when The Wizard of Oz was made, color was seen as something of a gimmick anyway, one to be used in combination with spectacle or fantasy. With this in mind, the use of 3D isn't much of a stretch from that perspective. It felt in keeping with the fantastical tone.

The moments that looked the best to me were the special effects shots. The tornado scene at the beginning is jaw-dropping, with great use of atmospheric 3D to depict debris flying passed the camera at different planes of depth. Interestingly, depth was also applied to rear projection shots, matte paintings, and painted backdrops, adding a really neat effect to the scenes that feature them. The wide shots of the Wicked Witch of the West's castle (particularly the angle looking down on the ramparts), the flying monkey attack, and the aforementioned twister sequence were especially stand-out moments in the 3D presentation. The rest of the film has a very 80s View-Master look to it. I dug the heck out of that, thanks in no small part to my nostalgic memories of looking at View-Master reels of Bambi as a child and being amazed at the stereoscopic images. One quieter moment that made good use of the depth of field was the "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" sequence. As Dorothy leans against the haystack, it seemed like every individual hay stalk was rendered at a different depth. It was pretty neat!

It wasn't necessarily a flawless presentation though. Honestly a good chunk of the film consists of characters walking, talking, and singing together, and these segments don't really benefit much at all from the 3D effect. The presentation is really more about showcase sequences than a total experience, and it's a good thing that the showcase delivers. Additionally, I was somewhat disappointed with the 3D following the transition from sepia to color. While the sepia scenes featured pleasing brightness and a really interesting use of the added dimension, color scenes took on a darkness that I'd attribute to the 3D glasses. I'm not 100% sure whether this was because of the brightness of the sepia scenes themselves or a distinct dimness in the color ones, but it was noticeable nonetheless.

Overall, however, it was a really enjoyable experience in the theater, and I'd recommend seeing it if you have the chance.

But all this talk of 3D makes me think... In a time when its popularity is at the lowest since the revival of the format, is there really a future for 3D in cinematic storytelling? It's definitely something that's been debated since Avatar came out and before, and maybe bringing it up this late in the game seems a little naive, but I still have to ask. It's a neat gimmick and a pretty cool option for big spectacle movies, but I really wonder about its applications outside of that realm.

James Cameron tells us that making a TV drama could be improved with 3D. Martin Scorsese laments not shooting Taxi Driver in the format (what?!). It's like these people think 3D has the potential to be as much of a game-changer as the transition to color, but I sincerely doubt that. It might be as much of a hassle and undertaking to make the transition, but, unlike color, I frankly think it's ultimately too trivial of a change to really positively affect storytelling beyond its gimmickry. Audiences got used to color because it was important in telling many different types of stories, but I don't think 3D is very applicable to that end. In other words, it's just not worth the effort for us to get used to in my opinion.

That's not saying there aren't good uses for 3D, and, over the past few years, we've seen quite a few of them. But, when people talk about 3D, they always seem to bring up the "3D experience." Honestly, I don't believe the art of film is about experiences...  not completely. It's more about emotions, stories, themes, and abstractions that touch us and engage with us. The strongest connections we make within films are often based on memories. It might sound obvious to say this, but it's important to understand with regards to how we interact with film and what we take from it. It brings me back to something Andrei Tarkovsky said about shooting in color vs. black-and-white:

"In everyday life we seldom pay any special attention to color. When we watch something going on we don't notice color. A black-and-white film immediately creates the impression that your attention is concentrated on what is most important. On the screen color imposes itself on you, whereas in real life that only happens at odd moments, so it's not right for the audience to be constantly aware of color."

Agree or disagree, I think it's safe to say the truth in that statement can be exponentially applied to 2D vs. 3D. If humans don't explicitly remember color, then they remember depth of field even less.

So I leave you with those thoughts. Seeing The Wizard of Oz in 3D was a blast, and I highly recommend it in the theater. However, even though (perhaps because) it was some of the best 3D I've ever seen, it reminded me again about the limitations of the format.

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