On October 6, 2011, in ATFMB, by Patrick Hester

Welcome to All Things From My Brain.

3D is Pointless (Except in Avatar).

3D.  It’s the new, cool thing.  Heck, Sprint even has a new phone capable of recording 3D video (EVO).  They hope it will usher in a wave of amateur 3D videos.  I think it’ll usher in a wave of 3D amateur porn.

(Side note: “It’s like it’s coming right at you!”)

I’ve paid to see a lot of movies in 3D this summer, including Captain America, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Green Lantern.  Each of these movies were okay, some were better than others – some were much, much better than others, but all lead me to a single conclusion: there was absolutely no reason whatsoever to see them in 3D (in two cases, the 3D version was playing before the regular version, so I chose 3D just so I wouldn’t have to wait an hour and a half).

Have you ever seen a movie on an IMAX screen?  Pretty cool, right?  This massive screen filling your vision.  The sound.  Lots of Hollywood blockbusters come out on IMAX, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the format is different.  By format, I mean aspect ratio.

Aspect ratios refers to the length and width of whatever it is you’re watching.  Similar to the resolution of your computer’s monitor, if you think about it.  The most common monitor resolution used to be 1024 x 768 – that’s one thousand and twenty-four pixels wide, by seven hundred and sixty-eight pixels tall.  As graphics cards have progressed, so have monitor resolutions.  For example, my laptop has a max resolution of 1280 x 800, but I keep my desktop much, much larger.

(Side note: this has the effect of rendering video games in glorious detail, but text and icons become these tiny little blips…  Also, according to various sources on the web, 85% of computers surfing the web today have a resolution greater than 1024 X 768.  14% of that 85% is set to 1280×1024, for example.)

Your standard Hollywood movie comes in at either 1.85:1 or 2.39:1.  Let’s think of that in inches.  For every 1.85 inches wide, you have 1 inch tall.  This is why movies don’t fit well on television.  For years, TV’s were almost square (inches were measured top corner to opposite bottom corner), which would make their aspect ratio roughly 1:1, or 1 inch wide for every 1 inch tall.  Since movies are much wider than they are tall, they had to be cut to fit.  Over the years, lots of techniques were developed to make those films fit on the small screen, including a panning technique for scenes where there was a lot going on in the frame that couldn’t easily be ‘cut to fit’.

Consider that you might have been watching a movie on tv at some point, and the characters were seated at a table chatting over drinks or something.  The camera might have the tips of each characters noses on either side of the screen, trying to fit them both in frame.  Or, you might have a shot of the person on the left talking, then a mechanical pan to the right to see the other person when they speak – this wasn’t part of the director’s vision for the flick, it was someone forcing the picture to fit the tv screen.

Click to see a bigger image & what you're missing on TV

Today, your flat-panel, widescreen tv’s can see more of the picture, so to speak, but still fall a little short on aspect ratio.  A common ratio for tv’s is 4:3 – that is, 4 inches wide for every three inches tall.  If you do the math, you’ll see that movies still won’t fit correctly.  Most tv’s today have all sorts of extra special settings to let you zoom, or change aspect to make things fit, but these result in either you losing some of the film on the left and the right (zoom), or in black boxes framing the picture on the top and bottom (widescreen) and sometimes, left and right (fit to screen).

You may ask yourself why the television and movie industries can’t just use the same aspect ratio so everything looks good no matter where you decide to watch it – well, the answer is simple: They don’t want to.  The movie industry actually changed the aspect ratio for films on purpose so they wouldn’t fit or look right on the tele.  They did this in answer to declining movie ticket sales as more and more people stayed home with the video revolution of the 80’s and 90’s.  They wanted to have the movie-going experience be different, unique, and better than staying at home to watch a VHS Cassette tape, or later, a DVD – even BluRay.

The party line is that if you want to see the film the way the writers, actors, directors and producers intended it, you have to go to the movies and fork over between $5 and $20.  You won’t have that experience anywhere else.  On purpose.

Which brings me back to IMAX.  IMAX is shot using a different kind of film and a different kind of camera.  (IMAX is shot on 65 mm film stock which passes horizontally through the cameras.  Traditional cameras pass film vertically.  It also takes three times as much film in order to match the standard 24 frames per second of a normal Hollywood flick.)  Many Hollywood films are ported to IMAX format, but are not shot in that format.  There is a difference.

When The Dark Knight was released, they shot several scenes exclusively in IMAX format and when viewing the flick on an IMAX screen, you can tell which is which.  There’s a rule in rasterized resolution: You can always shrink something down, but you can’t blow it up.  This means that a JPG at 800 x 600 pixels, will look great (depending on the JPG, of course) at 800 x 600, but you can also shrink it down and it will still look okay (unless you take it to 80 x 60, at which point it’ll look like shit).  If you try to blow that 800 x 600 up to, say 1600 x 1200 – it will look pixelated and blurry because the computer essentially adds pixels where there weren’t any before, copying the pixels around the area to the new spots.

(Here is a nice, 800 x 600 (not quite 600, but close enough) image of some Aspen trees:

click to see a larger image

Now, let’s take that image and make it bigger, say, 1800 X 1195, and compare it in a zoom to the original:

click to see an even larger, blurrier pic...

Ewww! That looks terrible!)

I bring this up because a film shot entirely in the IMAX format, will blow your socks off compared to the latest Harry Potter flick that was shot with normal cameras and ported to IMAX (I don’t actually know that HP was shot on regular film, but I would bet you that it was).  Will you still be able to see up Harry’s nose when he’s looking at you?  Yes.  But with IMAX, you’d see the boogers.

(Side note – chances are, there’s a museum of some kind nearby that has an IMAX theater – go check out one of those flicks, the ones shot in IMAX and for IMAX.  They are amazing.  I saw one on Greece once that made me dizzy.  The screen was so big, the shots just glorious and full of color and detail – seriously, get thee to an IMAX.)

Back to 3D.  When they release a film in 3D that wasn’t shot in 3D, there’s no point to paying the extra $10 to see that film.  Believe me.  Sometimes they will add in a token 3D scene (someone throws something at the camera, something explodes (meaning debris flies at you), that sort of thing).  Those moments do not make the movie, nor do they justify seeing the movie in 3D or paying that extra cash.

They are parlor tricks.

Avatar is the exception.  Avatar was intended to be in 3D.  They made use of the technology to give us some breathtaking visuals.  Avatar is the standard by which all other 3D flicks should be measured, and so far, none have even come close.

So why would you pay to see them in 3D?

Next time on ATFMB – eBooks.

Tagged with:  

3 Responses to ATFMB – 3D

  1. Hey Patrick.

    Have you ever seen the movie the Interpreter? There is a special feature on that movie’s DVD where the director, the late Sydney Pollack, explains aspect ratios and why “pan and scan” is an abomination.

    I had already had it in my mind that pan and scan was inferior, but he articulated it in a way that crystallized it forevermore for me.

    As far as 3D, I’ve only seen one movie that comes close to Avatar–and that’s an animated film that was natively made for 3D, How to Train Your Dragon.

    • I haven’t seen that interview, but I have seen others like Spielberg and Coppola speak on the subject and they hate pan and scan too. I think most film directors do.

  2. Jacob Ruby says:


    You say TVs were roughly 1:1 and that “Today, your flat-panel, widescreen tv’s can see more of the picture, so to speak, but still fall a little short on aspect ratio.  A common ratio for tv’s is 4:3 – that is, 4 inches wide for every three inches tall.” That’s a bit off. TVs before flat screens were 4:3, and practically every flat screen is 16:9 (1.777). So while they’re still not the same as what we see in the theater, a widescreen is close for many, and can certainly display wider movies just fine IF the DVD or Blu-ray is created properly.

    Other than that, though, I definitely agree with the sentiment. 3D in movies is usually cheesy at best.

    Now 3D in games – when done right, that will be great. 🙂

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:

Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop a comment on a post or contact us so we can take care of it!

Visit our friends!

A few highly recommended friends...