Cinema’s Zion: The Third Dimension

Exploring 3-D at a special themed program at the 61st International Short Film Festival Oberhausen.
Yaron Dahan

Embargo (Johann Lurf, 2015)


As Neo awakes from his immersive slumber covered in the pink goo of experience, The Matrix provides us with the perfect image that is the cyborg theorist’s wet dream and cinema’s eternal promise: an immersion so total in the artificial perceptive experience that this fiction becomes entirely indifferentiable from any supposed external reality.

This promise of cinema’s ‘realer real’ is in full force in the mythology driving the production of 3-D movies. As 3-D cinema was the curated theme of this year’s International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, the plethora of films and 3-D techniques  (or as the curator Björn Speidel more accurately calls it: “stereoscopic techniques”) granted the perfect opportunity to explore the myths, possibilities and limitations of a cinema in the third dimension.

Just being in the theater during the screenings of the program’s nearly 50 films sufficed to highlight 3-D’s messianic promise. Because the films in the selection used a variety of stereoscopic techniques (from the red/cyan anaglyph glasses of yore through Chromdepth glasses, to the polarized 3-D glasses of today) nearly every projection aroused a confusion about which of the four glasses to wear in order to fulfill 3-D’s inherent promise. Members of the audience were constantly switching their glasses time and again in the expectation that if they could only find the right tool, the truly third-dimensional image would reveal itself, and grant the satisfaction of the real’s salvation.


Ora (Philippe Baylauc, 2011)

But alas, the stereoscopic image does not seem to provide a cinematic experience fundamentally different from the two-dimensional one. Every film in which the director took the myth of stereoscopic salvation as an act of blind faith was a film which exposed the very fallacies in this myth. The logic of the 3-D legend might go something like this: “Since 3-D cinema allows for a perception of depth, then anything which inherently requires depth – such as the motion of shapes in space, architecture, dance, etc. should be perfectly representable in stereoscopic cinema.”

Yet, all the films which concentrated their efforts on space, on body, on architecture were the least effective, and the most corrupted by false pretenses. 5Pointz, a 3-D activist documentary about the former massive graffiti mural in Queens, New York was unable to generate any interest of depth other than the vague idea that the film should be able to expose more profundity than it actually did. In fact, all the films which revolved around a reproduction of depth in space were unable to convincingly do so - images of abstracted three-dimensional shapes which never fill up any visual space; stereoscopic cathedrals which are flatter than in plain two-dimensional cinematography; bodies which took upon a particularly inhuman quality. Only the awful trope of an object travelling down a tunnel (in one short film, a bacterial ball descending the colon) seemed to effectively transfer the illusion of depth, but on so limited a form as to be of remote interest.

Much of this dimensional ineffectiveness may have to do with the 3-D’s technical limitations: its illusion can be easy dispelled by lateral motion; it requires deep focus to provide a realistic deception (otherwise resulting in something that looks like a poorly executed trompe l’oeil); it struggles in confusion against other psychological and visual stereoscopic effects (for example, color contrasts normally causing certain colors to recede or  come forth can work against the stereoscopic affect).

However, the true cause for the repeated failure of many experiments seems to be the unquestioning misconception that stereoscopy can (or should) exactly reproduce binocular vision and its accompanying depth perception, whereas in fact what it provides is not so much depth as a limited series of flat planes organized in relation to one. The resulting illusion is not dissimilar from the artificial depth of a pop-up book or the cut-outs of a theatrical background.

The instances in which stereoscopic vision most resembled binocular vision were images in which, for example, the brightest elements were separated into a distinct foreground. Remember the white floaty things in Avatar? Bright white subtitles also seem to hover over the screen in true foreground rather than be embedded in the image1.

One of the 3-D section’s most successful experiments, Johann Lurf’s Embargo, an architectural re-composition of the Schiebel camcopter factory, works so well because the film works with a technique of multiple planes. We are presented an image which we suppose at first to be the real space of a building, yet through subtle alterations in speed, direction, and angle amongst the various planes we understand that this space is a composed one. This composed space, presented as a single image, radiates a sort of uncanniness which emerges from the space itself, giving an almost drug-induced feeling of motion, and this artificial movement in time and space functions so well because it exploits the stereoscopic effect as it actually is, and not as it is imagined to be.


If one is to rely on the experiments visible at Oberhausen as well as the plethora of action/superhero films released in 3-D, it becomes obvious that one thing which stereoscopy is least apt to reproduce effectively in depth is the human body. As several experimental dance films at Oberhausen have shown, natural bodies cannot seemingly be convincingly represented as bodies unless they are made inhuman through computer generation. In retrospect, perhaps this explains why Avatar had to be made with blue-skinned, computer-generated avatars, because the visual reproduction of the human in the stereoscopic would only emphasize its own inhumanity, as well as the technology’s limitations. One could conclude that it was not so much the film which created the technique, but technique which creates the film.

Although reproducing bodies in worthy depth seems to be beyond stereoscopic cinema’s current capabilities, textures, rarely requiring more than two superimposed planes to fulfill their nature, are quite convincingly reproduced. Renditions of crumbling walls, of woven cloth, of concrete grain require little more than a touch of relief to reach their necessary spatial depth. In Cochemar, a sci-fi fantasy about a solitary spacewoman/snail-mother, one of the most hilarious and vulgar cuts in the program functions as jokey edit on texture: the astronautess scientist floating in the zero-gravity of her space station falls into the trance of a nocturnal sexual fantasy, and as she touches herself in her sleep, the film cuts to the moist pink texture of snail-flesh in all its tangible relief.

3D IN 2D!

Red Capriccio (Blake Williams, 2014)

One of the odd conclusions which could be drawn from viewing all these stereoscopic films is that often the most interesting experiments both technically and artistically were the films which were not necessarily conceived with any technological stereoscopic viewing method in mind, but those which were simply visually aware of the physiological and psychological effects of stereoscopy. For these films, the plain flat plane of the cinema screen was enough to evoke the most stereoscopic of moments.

Ito Takashi’s Box, a reflection about space produced in a very two-dimensional manner (photographs all too obviously wrapped around a 3-D computer animated object), gives more thought to spatiality than the majority of the films which make efforts to reproduce illusory depth realistically. Perhaps because, as Godard showed us in Adieu au Langage, it is not the failure or success to reproduce the third dimension which is of interest to cinema, it is the failure or success to think in the artifice of its recreation. Adieu au Langage is so significant because it is not so much a film in 3-D as it is a film about 3D (and of course its deconstruction: the two binocular eyes creating the illusion of a single perspective suddenly separated to reveal underneath the double and superimposed cinema of the two cameras, designed to visibly reproduce a more real image, which Godard’s film does anything but).

The 3-D image seems well-served when taken ironically as in Godard or as in Blake Williams’ Red Capriccio, made to be viewed with the cyan/red glasses. In Red Capriccio, images of a police car in red or blue-hued video (in fact a Chevy Caprice, giving the film its tongue-in-cheek title), with its red and blue lights flashing. The anaglyph glasses do more or less nothing other than change the colors. And as the audience watches the police lights flash on the screen actively seeking the third dimension with both eyes, with one and then the other, without glasses, with another set of glasses, it finally becomes clear that that blue-filtered red is just about as dimensional as the film will ever get, and the recognition of the participatory communal folly for having believed so wholeheartedly in what was so evidently yet another unfulfilled promise, brings a necessary jolt of self-mockery to a process on the whole treated far too much in earnest.


Brouilard - Passage #14 (Alexandre Larose, 2014)

Two other artful 2-D films are more revelatory about the true cinematic nature of the third dimension than all the efforts to literally reproduce that dimension. Ken Jacobs’s Capitalism: Child Labor shows in repeated succession two frames of a single image in phase2—through the image-phase, a surprisingly effective illusion of receding space caused by a temporal variation, reminding us that cinema is not and never was an art of space, but is and always has been one of time, and perhaps the best way to access and manipulate cinema’s spatial possibilities is to do so through this time.

Alexandre Larose’s poetic Brouillard – Passage #14 does this very thing – it superimposes multiple passages through a single space, a country lane from a cottage to a lake, weaving the multiple possible temporalities of a repeated moment into a single image and creates a sort of ‘space’ belonging by nature to the cinematic space-time continuum.

These two habile, yet very two-dimensional non-stereoscopic works reveal that the stereoscopic effect we attempt to evoke may have less to do with an illusion of visual depth then about multiplicity of images or temporalities.

The limits of current three-dimensional cinematic promise is that as yet, they do not deliver any true physiological, psychological, or philosophical difference which would fundamentally differentiate these films from the regular cinematic image. The 3-D technique is an embellishment, a technique which adds a stereoscopic flourish while still reproduce the same “linear monocular perspective vision”3 that has been replicated since the start of the Renaissance.


The film which opened this 3-D section at Oberhausen was appropriately the famous image of the frères Lumière of a train arriving at the station is Ciotat, this time stereoscopically. Yet, this image, transformed anachronistically into a sterescopible 3-D image can only disappoint our hopes and expectations. For, despite our deep-seated desire to be delivered into the liberties of the totally immersive Z-axis, the Lumière’s three-dimensioned train arrives no more real today than it did 120 years ago.

There is, however one significant distinction. When the ancient train arrives, instead of seeing the arrival of a locomotive engine as we once might have, what we see instead is but the arrival of 3-D. Technique has replaced not just artistry but content too. And this too is part and parcel of the myth of the 3-D film: it replaces the spectacle of cinema itself with the spectacle of the technology of its creation.

Never having experienced the deliverance of real depth, we must at least come to terms with a messianic non-arrival. And like any messianic promise, the moment of its fulfillment risks being the moment of its obliteration: We can experiment in search of “true depth” because we have not and likely will not arrive at any promised land. In our disappointment we can still hold out for that cinematic experience akin to that perfectly conductive pink goo in which we can lose our selves outside the scope of either nature or the cosmos and emerge as flawless virtual beings of fiction. And this disappointment permits that on the edge of the horizon lays still another promise of the world’s transliteration, the promise of salvation through the arrival of the Oculus Rift and true 3-D, one which in disappointing us, will still allow us to hope for an ever more perfect cinematic experience.

1. In fact subtitles, seems to be one of stereoscopy’s greatest potential uses for non-stereoscopic films, and every foreign film could benefit from having their subtitles lifted out of the image rather than embedded in it.

2. Its musical counterpart might be Steve Reich’s series of phase compositions.

3. See the work of Daniel Arasse

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