In my opinion, to call the three-year track record of recent 3D films "mixed" would be extremely generous. With the exception of James Cameron's Avatar, I'd go so far as to say that the added dimension has made practically every 3D movie I've seen worse or, at best, was largely ignorable. In addition to Avatar, I've seen exactly three films that I thought were possibly better in 3D. Toy Story 3 had a pleasing sense of continuous depth, but that film is so excellent on so many levels that it could be a book and I'd probably still be weeping at the end. Resident Evil: Afterlife is one of the few films actually filmed in 3D, and it made a mediocre/poor movie slightly better, or at least a little more interesting. Then, to my surprise, there's Piranha 3D, which was shot in 2D with the knowledge that it would be converted to 3D. So the producers decided to mock the medium in a cheeky way, figuratively and literally, since Piranha 3D is the only 3D film I know of with porn stars and gratuitous nudity.
Even the best 3D film cannot avoid what I feel is the original and unforgivable sin of 3D: the dimming and deadening of color due to 3D glasses, which makes it seem like you're watching a movie in a cloud of smog. And we all know what 3D is like at its worst -- sometimes dizzying, often ugly, and almost always annoying, most 3D films are so cynically money grubbing that they make you despise the entire film industry, and that's coming from someone fortunate enough to get to see the movies for free. They're a way for studios to try to increase profits by making movies worse. It's no wonder why audiences are choosing 2D versions of films over 3D ones, or simply staying home.
But all that said, I have some extremely good news about the future of 3D movies. I've seen the first spectacular 3D film that absolutely must be seen in 3D. And most amazingly, this film is a documentary about a German choreographer whom I'd never heard of.
That film is Pina. Directed by Wim Wenders, Pina is a tribute to Pina Bausch, the German choreographer who died in 2009 after pioneering what has become known as dance theater, where emotion and story are conveyed in ways that go beyond the dancers' movements, though some of those movements arguably don't fit the standard definition of "dance." That may not be the most accurate description, but like Pina, it's something you need to see -- and feel -- to understand. Watch the trailer for Pina below.
So why do I consider Pina to be the standard-bearer for 3D and an exemplar of its future? Because Pina utilizes and basks in all of 3D filmmaking's strengths while avoiding its weaknesses (with the exception of dimmed color). Dance is all about movement through space, which is exactly what 3D filmmaking is uniquely suited to capture. In some of the dance performances, you feel as if you are standing right next to the dancers, allowing you to experience their distance and closeness to each other, every emotion that passes across their faces, and all the power that entails. A surprising and welcome benefit is that this closeness also allows you to hear the sound of the dancers' breathing, along with every footfall, the rustle of clothing, and the sound of skin contacting skin, sensations usually reserved for those onstage or with expensive seats.
Pina is not merely a filmed live stage performance. Sometimes the camera is on a stage with the dancers, but most other times the dances take place in environments like a park, a street corner with cars whizzing past, a barren quarry, or outside a factory. This made me realize that the best realm for 3D isn't in computer-generated environments, but in the actual world with all its splendor and depth. One of the most impressive 3D shots I've ever seen is in Pina, as the camera looks out the back of an elevated subway car as it leaves a station.
By using wide lenses and a meticulous shooting plan, Wenders was able to capture the movement of the dancers in Pina in a way that is beautifully smooth and sharp without the blurring that sometimes appears during fast, digitally-shot action. The performances are also shot in long takes, allowing you to fully take in the environment as you marvel at the skill, beauty, athleticism, and grace of the dancers bodies, which come in a range of shapes, ages, sizes, and nationalities. Fast, choppy editing can be useful in 2D films, but it can be problematic in 3D films when the shots pass by too quickly and the eye and brain struggle to process an added dimension of information. The long shots in Pina give you the chance to take everything in, while the camera's smooth movements accentuate the dimensionality of real life.
Pina is interspersed with interviews from the various dancers as they talk glowingly about what Bausch meant to them and the emotions she brought out of them, which the dancers and Bausch collaborated on to translate into movement. But as you listen to their testimonials, what you see is the dancer sitting in front of a backdrop, but not talking. This causes you to focus on the dancers' faces, body language and the emotions they wordlessly convey as they think about their beloved mentor and leader. After all, movies are a visual medium, and 3D even more so.
I had a chance to interview Wenders (post coming soon), and I asked him if he thought that eventually all movies would be shot in 3D, and if that would be a good thing. Despite being a champion of the medium, Wenders surprised me by saying that most movies shouldn't be in 3D. He surprised me again by saying that where 3D truly shines is in documentaries, and that he felt 3D would revolutionize the genre. This seems fairly counterintuitive -- one tends to think that 3D is best suited for action and constructed fantasy worlds. But when you see Pina, which is a totally different (and lesser) experience when viewed in 2D, it's clear that Wenders may be right.
("Pina" opens in Los Angeles Janu. 13 and is already playing in New York.)