Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Creating the illusion of depth

In his classic expose of Hollywood process, legendary screenwriter William Goldman famously declared that, when it comes to the movie industry, "Nobody knows anything." Although he's probably right about most film-makers, he should probably add a caveat that says "with the exception of James Cameron."

He may not be the easiest guy to work for - Pol Pot might have been more likely to send his assistant a Hallmark card on Secretary's Day - but time and time again, he's proved that he knows better than everyone else.

People scoffed when he decided to sink over $200 million into a three-hour period film about a stricken ship, especially since everybody already knew the ending. But in the end, he was crowned 'King of the World' on his way to a record Oscar haul, not to mention breaking box office records en route.

Still, those kinds of fortuitous accidents only happen once in a lifetime. Or so we thought. Thirteen years later, he emerged from the technological wilderness with a new film. This one was about giant blue cat people. And it was in 3D, a format which hadn't really seen the light of day since Jason Voorhees first fished a hockey mask out of someone's sports kit.

How we laughed, until he went and beat his own box office record, pulling in just short of $3 billion worldwide. In the process, he gave 3D a much-needed shot of credibility. No longer the exclusive reserve of films that show cats leaping out of cupboards, 3D was suddenly an immersive way of enhancing the movie-going experience - adding richness and depth to the narrative, rather than just dangling an eyeball in the viewer's lap.

Take a look at your local multiplex and see how many films are following in Big Jim's considerable wake - it wasn't hyperbole when Cameron claimed to have seen the future of movies through his polarised lenses.

Having single-handedly transformed our movie-going experience, Cameron rightly considers himself the authority on what 3D should and shouldn't be used for. So when Vanity Fair asked him for his opinion on the state of post-Avatar 3D movies, he spoke in characteristically blunt terms.

He told the glossy magazine "I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but Piranha 3D is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3D horror films from the '70s and '80s, like Friday The 13th 3D. When movies got to the bottom of the barrel of their creativity... they did a 3-D version to get the last few drops of blood out of the turnip."

Of course, the true irony here is that Cameron's own career began with the Piranha franchise, having directed the god-awful sequel 'The Spawning'. At the time, producers didn't recognise his under-budgeted genius, and fired him from the low-rent cash-in. As a result, Cameron has expunged Piranha from his own CV, in much the same way that my own resume makes no mention of the fact that I spent 12 months applying aerosol garlic butter to the stuffed crusts in Watford's branch of Pizza Hut.

Piranha 3D's producer Neil Canton was understandably disgusted by Cameron's holier-than-thou attitude, and issued a press release through Dimension Films taking the Oscar-winner to task for his 'mean-spirited' arrogance. Canton goes to great lengths (eight paragraphs in fact) to defend his opus, inferring that the world is a better place for having a five-minute naked underwater ballet performed by Kelly Brook and porn star Riley Steele. And, to be honest, it would be churlish to disagree.

Unfortunately, Canton's rebuttal misses the point of Cameron's original critique - he's not denigrating the film itself, merely its tacky deployment of 3D gimmickry to get bums on (and leaping out of) seats. As a result, his haughty defensiveness around the "originality and the vision of the filmmaker" neglects to address the real contradiction at the heart of Cameron's viewpoint.

Whether you're an auteur or a schlock-merchant, 3D technology is just another widget in the toolbox. Another way of drawing in an audience with the promise of an augmented experience. You can use it to create exotic, other-worldy foliage, or treat your audience to a severed cock floating in mid-air. Ultimately, it's an opportunity to drive up ticket prices and increase your chances of turning a profit. Remember, it's commerce, not art, that really counts.

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