Digital 3D and Medium Specificity: The Art of Distinction
In my article in the recent edition of Cinema Journal, “Variation within Stability: Digital 3D and Film Style”, I explore how the style of contemporary mainstream cinema might change when films are composed for 3D exhibition. The article is part of a larger project examining how 3D cinema differs from its planar equivalent, and what is stake in this difference. Digital 3D holds a privileged if problematic place in twenty-first century visual culture, a place cemented by the blockbuster film releases which predominantly use the format but far from exhausted in them, and as an aesthetic technology it prompts polarized responses from critics, audiences and scholars. Zealous descriptions of 3D’s transformative effect on cinema and offhand condemnations of its “cinema of attractions” mode are both relatively easy to come by (albeit the latter somewhat more than the former), but the truth of the matter is far more complex than such dichotomous positions imply. In a cinematic context, 3D has usually been positioned by film studios and received by audiences as one possible way of seeing a given media product. This “optional extra” quality persists into the digital era, despite the fact that since their inception in the mid-nineteenth century stereoscopic media have always posed a significant challenge to the dominance and presumptions of 2D representational media. Ignoring this challenge damages our understanding of 3D, and by extension contemporary cinema and visual culture.
My article in Cinema Journal aims to unpack the problematic commercial terrain in which 3D is both a unique optical system and a tool digitally applied to content that is overwhelmingly thought of as essentially 2D (or planar). Films like Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), Dredd (2012), and countless others seek to be distinctive 3D spectacles at the same time that they are narrative entertainments that can function successfully without being seen in 3D. With this duality in mind, I explore the way in which 3D’s unique qualities are dealt with by an industry that requires 3D productions to be released alongside identical (but not really identical) 2D alternatives. I thus treat 3D not as an aberration which violates traditional screen space and accepted models of spectatorship, but as an integrated aspect of film style demanding careful negotiation with other simultaneously employed stylistic systems. For all that 3D cinema is historically, industrially, and even academically linked with attractional, vaudevillian modes of cinema, perceiving such an equation is not the end of the scholar’s task. Excessive use of both negative parallax (parts of the scene popping-out) and positive parallax (receding depth) need not be thought of as “anomalous”, especially since they fit within the “horizons of expectations” that moviegoers bring with them to a 3D screening. Moreover, if we think of 3D and narrative cinema as incompatible, we marginalize the latter’s continued and productive use of the former. Moments of emergence (or pop-outs) and even excessive, noticeable depth effects may function as spectacular attractions in and of themselves, but that does not mean such moments rupture, or even overtly unsettle continuity systems of narrative representation.
Any analysis of 3D that presumes these effects are antithetical to planar film style flirts with the “medium-specificity” thesis as it is described by Noel Carroll: namely, an essentialist presumption that any given art form should pursue only those ends it can achieve more effectively than an alternative medium. Such an approach implies “sharply variegated functions” between art forms and ignores how art forms evolve historically and how they overlap with one another. Accusing 3D of being un- or anti-cinematic is to make a medium-specific presumption about what narrative film is and can be. This medium-specific position also frames discussions of what “works” in 3D and constructs associated criterions of value. Praising Gravity (2013) as a singular achievement in 3D filmmaking thanks to its pseudo-long takes, wide framings, and floating visuals is all very well – the film’s aesthetic approach is certainly an achievement that demands attention. But to privilege literally outstanding texts in this way risks effacing the many 3D films that don’t employ these same strategies – or at least not to an equal extent – but which nonetheless continue to be released year after year. These other productions still employ 3D in ways that should be taken note of; indeed, the prevalence of 3D films using relatively “traditional” film grammar should encourage us to question any assertions that 3D cannot successfully function in such a stylistic context.
Somewhere between a sustained and specific “3D aesthetic” and the seemingly unthinking, digitally-enabled application of stereoscopy to the latest blockbuster lie films like Resident Evil: Afterlife and Dredd. These films use 3D as a meaningful component of cinematic expression, and this use seems to subtly alter their strategies of editing and composition. However, these alterations are not so excessive as to make 2D screenings overtly problematic, as the films still communicate adequate information around space and character movement through planar means.
This kind of analysis – the exploration of what Rod Bantjes calls “dual compositional logics” – could be considered limiting: after all, what can it teach us about digital 3D cinema beyond its hierarchical functioning within contemporary film exhibition, and the economic imperative for costly media products to seek out as many viable modes of dissemination as possible (from 2D to 3D, DVD to Blu-ray, tie-in videogame to soundtrack album)? Any examination that directly contrasts 2D and 3D content (my own work included) is also in danger of unwittingly cementing the idea that 3D is a bolted-on augmentation that can be applied and removed without the film text being changed in any significant way. Such a position is implied by industrial discourse, concurrent variable format releasing, and the need for a film to productively circulate through overwhelmingly non-stereoscopic channels (such as TV broadcast and digital streaming) after it has finished its theatrical run. All of this is highly problematic since stereoscopy is radically distinctive from planar cinema. This distinction operates in ways that go beyond – or rather, are inherently different from – augmentation or embellishment, a fact I have explored elsewhere, and which has been remarked on by scholars such as André Bazin and Miriam Ross. As Jonathan Crary sums up, stereoscopic 3D’s aesthetic diverges from planar modes of viewing to such an extent that the very phrase “stereoscopic image” is oxymoronic: 3D is a contingent, subjectively-produced conjuration, and is thus fundamentally unlike planar representational forms.
As a result, while it is necessary to examine the manner in which 3D functions in relation to broader systems of cinematic representation, such work must be undertaken with the vital caveat that 3D itself should not and cannot be unconditionally subsumed under this umbrella and its existing frameworks of analysis. If the discipline of Film Studies is built around the analysis of images, and 3D creates content that is not imagistic, then new or adapted tools must be developed. “Variation within Stability” seeks to be just a small piece of this puzzle, as it keeps one eye on planar systems of representation while peering out with the other across the frontiers of digital 3D aesthetics. In this it aims to be much like the films it analyzes. Stereoscopy may be used to make Milla Jovovich’s battles with zombies more exciting, or to endow Judge Dredd’s dispatching of an enemy with more kaleidoscopic beauty, but this is only the technology’s most visible dimension. Rather than close down further, deeper explorations, such spectacular negotiations must actively encourage them.
 As emphasized by Thomas Elsaesser in “The ‘Return’ of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century,” Critical Inquiry 39 no. 2 (2013).
 Barbara Klinger, “Beyond Cheap Thrills: 3D Cinema Today, the Parallax Debates, and the ‘Pop-Out’,” in 3D Cinema and Beyond, ed. Dan Adler, Janine Marchessault and Sanja Obradovic (Toronto: Public Books, 2013), 189.
 Noël Carroll, “The Specificity of Media in the Arts,” in Film and Theory: An Anthology, ed. Robert Stam and Toby Miller (Malden/Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 50.
 Rod Bantjes, “Reading Stereoviews: The Aesthetics of Monstrous Space,” History of Photography 39 no. 1 (2015), 47.
 Nick Jones, “‘There Never Really is a Stereoscopic Image’: A Closer Look at 3-D Media,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 13 no. 2 (2015); André Bazin, “Will Cinema Scope Save the Film Industry?” in Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties, trans. Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo and ed. Bert Cardullo (New York: Routledge,  1997), 88; Miriam Ross, 3D Cinema: Optical Illusions and Tactile Experiences (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
 Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 122.