When it was announced that Martin Scorsese was directing a 3D movie I sort of groaned. The post-Avatar glut of poorly made, largely post-converted 3D films had truly beaten me down, giving me a Pavlovian response to any 3D announcement. 3D simply meant bad to me.
But then I saw Hugo and it was a film whose 3D was so glorious, so necessary and so magical that I suddenly remembered why once upon a time seeing 3D movies was exciting. A time before The Last Airbender and Clash of the Titans and Thor, when 3D wasn't just a cynical cash-grab plot by studios desperate to battle the phantom menace of piracy but an actual gimmick of delight.
And Hugo isn't the only great 3D movie of 2011. The Adventures of Tintin uses 3D marvelously. Werner Herzog blew audiences' minds with the 3D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I haven't seen Wim Wender's upcoming Pina, but the 3D in that is supposed to be spectacular. You look at the list of filmmakers here, and suddenly something becomes obvious:
These are all great directors. Or as my friend Mr. Beaks said after Hugo, talking about the beauty of the 3D, 'It helps that Scorsese knows where to put the camera.'
The truth is two-fold. All of these films are native 3D, and native 3D films are ALWAYS better than post-converted 3D for the simple fact that the movie is being composed in the third dimension. It isn't an afterthought mostly left in the hands of a bunch of codemonkeys at the post-production house. But even that only goes so far - I was on the set of Tron: Legacy, and I watched immediate playback in 3D, which was amazing, but which didn't make Joseph Kosinski any better at shooting that movie.
See, it's the second factor: native 3D is great, but you really need a director who knows how to direct a movie. Who understands the visual space of the frame, who understands narrative storytelling, who already approaches his or her films with concepts of depth of plane and texture. 3D is a great tool, but only when in the best of hands. And so you have James Cameron and Steven Spielberg and Scorsese and Herzog and Wenders, all acknowledged masters of the cinema, stepping up to the 3D plate for the first time and slamming it into the stands. Meanwhile you have a whole bunch of modestly talented filmmakers - lots of guys who give good meetings or who have impressive portfolios of 'vision' - absolutely boning it in 3D.
There are some exceptions; I would say that Michael Bay - hated as he may be - knows how to compose a shot, but that did him no good in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. But that movie's a disaster from top to bottom. Meanwhile Francis Ford Coppola, who made some of the greatest motion pictures of all time, seems to have let off a turd with his semi-3D Twixt, a movie that may never be seen by large audiences. I will say this for Coppola, though - even if the movie sucks and the 3D is bad, it's all in service of something experimental, which I'd rather see than a cheap, crummy post job on The Avengers, a movie directed by a guy whose greatest strength is definitely not his visuals.
What this really highlights is how few GREAT filmmakers we have working today. All of these guys, you'll notice, are pretty old. I suspect there are some younger filmmakers who could fucking kill it in 3D; I'd love to see Wes Anderson come at the format, or let Sean Durkin, who proved complete control of the frame in Marthy Marcy May Marlene, have a crack at it. But the rest of the guys who do get to make 3D movies - middleweight journeyman like Jonathan Liebesman and Martin Campbell - simply don't have the higher functioning genius to make it work. Ever. And it doesn't help that most of those guys get stuck with post-conversions, which never, ever, ever look good.
So let's just make a deal, Hollywood - save the 3D for the guys who have already proven they know where to put the camera, not for the guys who can simply get footage. I know you have way more Joseph Kosinskis (ie guys with good sketchbooks and a couple of commercials under their belts) than David Finchers (ie guys who had a couple of good commercials under their belts and ended up being actual geniuses), but that's really your own fault. You love going for the middle-ground underacheiving directors because they're cheap and they're replaceable, but maybe when you're making 'premium' content, you should go for premium directors.
3D is like uranium - I want it only in the best hands.