Every decade since the 1950s 3D has gained a lot of publicity, popularity and profit, but it seems little more than an occasional trend that lacks any sustainability. Peter Zeitlinger discusses the artistic values of 3D and how it benefits his cinematography in The Cave of Forgotten Dreams…
Although it first appeared in a very basic form in the 1920s, it wasn’t until the early 1950s that 3D film became a popular approach to cinema. This period, recognised as 3D’s golden age, saw a large quantity of 3D films including the legendary The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954). However, in the same year 3D saw a heavy decline and disappeared from the big screen, largely due to the technology being undeveloped and uncomfortable to watch.
Having returned to cinema with newer, better quality technology and with much more money invested in it 3D has never been more popular among filmmakers. Despite its success in terms of profit 3D has been greeted with a lot of criticism. Mark Kermode does not recognise the artistic value of 3D and believes that no film has benefited from it. He believes its true value lies in documentary and one of the few directors capable of unearthing its potential is Werner Herzog.
Lo and behold it was announced earlier in the year that esteemed documentarian and filmmaker Werner Herzog would be creating a 3D documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), in which he provides footage of the earliest cave paintings known to man from inside the Chauvet caves of southern France.
To create the film he turns to the cinematographer he has worked with most throughout his career, Peter Zeitlinger, who reveals that “Werner refused it [3D] immediately” and he “believes that 3D is a gimmick of the commercial cinema” with films like James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) using “it as an effect to attract the audience, like spears coming out of the screen or weapons reaching out in to the audience”. Even though Avatar gained an incredible amount of commercial popularity and quickly became the highest grossing film ever he “didn’t want to use those effects, but actually to capture the surface of the paintings, the reliefs and the three dimensional structure of the walls on which the animals are painted”. Regardless of Werner’s scepticism and distaste of 3D Peter always felt “this project was a 3D project [and the] only way to capture this wonderful art”.
The technology has advanced dramatically since its early days and the effect can now be achieved in post production. This method used on films such as Alice in Wonderland (2010) provides a strong 3D image, but it suffers a 30% colour loss. This didn’t even come in to question when filming The Cave of Forgotten Dreams as Peter states, “we never thought about doing a fake 3D, or shoot in 2D and then convert it to 3D. This would not have made sense because the basic idea was to capture the reality, how it really was”. This is something the two have craved in their work and Peter sees their films as “a collaboration of two archaeologists” revealing consistently breathtaking locations most of us will never see.
Even though 3D is in its greatest form to date Peter believes it remains “a demanding to tool to capture the art” because unlike high budgeted features “3D is not really developed for use in documentaries [and] a lot of problems arose when using 3D vision in the real world”, he adds. Peter admits that occasionally on the shoot “we were not able to put the lenses close enough together and the object got too close to the lens, which created a depth conflict and a very hard 3D effect which was very tough to watch”. To counter this Peter “had to be very inventive” and after “experimenting with a lot of new technologies and new softwares they were able to create a fake 3D”, an image that “all in all was 3D, but parts of the image were basically 2D”.
Unlike the 3D films of the 1950s, the problems suffered on location can be easily corrected in post production, where previously the images would have to be reshot, which would have cost too much. In the 1950s the filmmakers had to leave these uncomfortable to watch images in the film, which resulted in the downfall of 3D. Now with the technology able to aid and even generate 3D images, unfortunately for Mark Kermode, 3D cinema could stay for a very long time.