The Randomness: Just How Bad Is The Last Airbender’s 3D?

It all started when Roger Ebert posted this sentence on Twitter:

Frustrated by Airbender’s lousy 3D, Peter Sobczynski took off his glasses and guesses roughly 2/3 of the footage was in 2D!

Bwana Devil audience

This was around the time “The Last Airbender” was making its press screening rounds, around the time when word began pouring out not only of the film’s awfulness, but of the low, low quality of its 3D conversion. Critics began chattering over its clumsiness, its inappropriateness, and, most of all, its complete lack of effort. By the time the film opened, the major buzz was all about how this round of “fake 3D” is the most insulting yet.

I missed out on the “Clash of the Titans” uproar – on the advice of my peers, I went to a 2D showing – but got suckered into a 3D screening of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which suffered an spectacularly junky 3D conversion of its own. Even some of the more recent made-for-3D pictures failed to impress; heck, even the 3D print of “Toy Story 3” doesn’t really add much compared to its 2D counterpart.

As a lifelong fan of 3D cinema, I’ve spent the past few years defending the process, only to watch it wilt away once more. But this time, it’s not dying because proper projection is cost-prohibitive (as it was in the 1950s) or because the movies are just plain bad (hello, 1980s!). It’s because for every honest 3D title out there made with the process in mind (“Avatar” is the obvious example, mostly because it’s the best one for showcasing 3D done right), we get three more that were filmed specifically for the traditional 2D format, then altered in post-production (oftentimes hurriedly so) to squeeze out a handful of barely passable depth effects in an effort to appease audiences who flocked to Pandora.

Nobody seems to like these, but the multiplex upcharge for such “deluxe” editions is enough to boost grosses just enough to make these movies look like successes on paper. Hollywood, with its obsession over the box office haul, is the only entertainment industry that calculates revenue and not quantity sold; studios have long been eager to ignore inflation in order to brag about meaningless record-breaking numbers. They don’t care about lower attendance figures as long as the upcharge makes up for the difference.

Which brings us back to “Airbender.” It’s no surprise Paramount would pick their summer tentpole release for a 3D upgrade, especially considering the film’s use of large scale effects and action sequences. But they failed to consider M. Night Shyamalan’s trademark murky visuals – the guy just can’t get enough of muted colors and oppressively drab compositions, even in movies that don’t need them. Considering 3D requires strong projection lighting to work, and considering 3D glasses dim the image slightly, the process works best with bright, vibrant visual palette. Running “Airbender” through the 3D mill leaves us looking at a soupy mess.

3D also needs a full depth of field. Backgrounds must be in focus to allow the foregrounds to “pop out.” But Shyamalan planned his film in a traditional manner, using cinematic grammar to help tell his story, leaving backgrounds (and sometimes foregrounds) out of focus to create visual emphasis. Which is what a director should do – when working in 2D. “Airbender” in 3D simply can’t work in these scenes. (Not so, says one reader; see the comments below for a detailed clarification.)

So, at this point, they don’t even try. Inspired by my colleague Mr. Sobczynski (and my own increasing eye ache), I removed my 3D glasses somewhere around the movie’s fifteen-minute mark. I didn’t miss much. Only one out of, oh, maybe four shots featured any 3D enhancement at all, which means for a good seventy-five percent of the film, the only thing the 3D glasses are doing for you is making the image a pinch darker and muddier.

Of the rest, the vast majority of shots featured 3D effects so minute they did not impair my viewing of the film. If you remember the old red-blue anaglyph 3D, you’ll remember how an object was printed twice, and the larger the “separation” between the red and blue bits, the greater the “depth” effect. (You can tell I’m no expert on the terminology.) Stereoscopic projection is more or less the same, minus the red and blue. In “Airbender,” I’d say ninety percent of the 3D shots contained object “separation” of only the faintest sort, enough to cause only a minor blurring of the image when viewed with the naked eye.

In other words: watch “Airbender” in 3D but without the glasses, and you’ll only have to put up with a little bit of blur every now and then. You’re paying two bucks (or more) so the box office cashier can hand you glasses you don’t need.

And you thought the popcorn prices were a rip-off.

A review of the film itself can be read here.

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5 thoughts on “The Randomness: Just How Bad Is The Last Airbender’s 3D?

  1. Kevin Mayor says:

    After viewing the hideously sloppy 3D conversion of Airbender last night, I agree with most of your very good article. Indeed the sloppy 3D conversion trend needs to be stopped. 3D conversion can be done right, but too many studios are having it done wrong to save money.

    However, your paragraph starting with “3D also needs a full depth of field. Backgrounds must be in focus to allow the foregrounds to ‘pop out'” is at least partially wrong.

    I have seen many 3D films that intentionally employ a full depth of field in every scene. This haightens the 3D effect slightly in that it allows the audience to focus their eyes on either the forground or the background object at will, which is more realistic. However, contrary to your statements, an image focused on a foreground object with an out-of-focus background will appear in 3D fine if it is filmed/converted properly. There is no inherent incompatibility. Go back and watch Avatar again. You will see out-of-focus backgrounds, in 3D, whether you remember them or not. If the audience tries to focus on the background they will simply focus on a blurred image. This is not bothersome to the eyes; it’s just like looking at a Photoshop-blurred image. And the blurred background will still appear to be in 3D space, along with the in-focus foreground object. The realism of being able to focus on anything on-screen is a minor loss because if something is out-of-focus, it is not what the filmmaker wants the audience’s attention on, so the audience probably isn’t looking at it anyway.

    But more importantly, there is a major disadvantage to having everything on screen be in-focus in every shot that becomes apparent when the film is shown in 2D. Traditional 2D films that constantly maintain a full depth of field are very rare, and are usually very low budget or amateur. Most any movie with a decent cinematographer will have blurred background and sometimes foreground objects in most shots other than some wide shots. This is a photographic standard of filming that has existed for many decades. Remove this standard from all scenes of a 2D film and you will get what can only be described as an “odd”, “off”, or even “unprofessional” look to the film. Preserving the professional look of a 3D film when it is shown in 2D needs to be a priority of any 3D filmmaker simply because it will always be easier to watch a film in 2D than it will be to watch it in 3D, no matter how popular 3D TV may become.

    Examples of full depth of field 3D films that definitely look “odd” when shown in 2D are the Robert Rodriguez films Spy Kids 3D and The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl. Examples of 3D films that successfully employ standard film focusing with frequent or occasionally out-of-focus 3D objects and backgrounds are the aforementioned Avatar, and Toy Story 3. The latter used varying focus to particularly good effect in making the toys appear to be small and shot with a macro lens.

    But thank you for your very good article. I am only criticizing a small piece of it. Just realize that the reason so many of Airbender’s scenes did not appear 3D is mostly due to lousy conversion, not to the depth of field.

    • David Cornelius says:

      I stand corrected, and am now trying to think back on some of my favorite older 3D films to see if they, too, employ more depth of field variation than I claim above. (I’m sure they do, since when I watch them in 2D, I’m never thrown off by any odd-looking shots.)

      Thanks for the clarification!

  2. Steve Long says:

    In fact this is one of the very best films I have seen in the last 5 years. A far as “staying true to the comis” goes, I like to quote a friend of mine: “Comics are for overweight, male, thirty-somethings with greasy hair, who never had a girlfriend and will never get one”.

    • Gary says:

      I know that this almost two years late of a reply but I just can’t stand someone that doesn’t pay attention to things. For one not all comics are for people like that. That’s just a stereotype and believe me when I say that I’ve been quite a few hot girls that love and know comics as much as any other fan. Also, I’d like to add the main point to this reply… The Last Airbender is not based off of a comic book. It is based off of a SHOW called Avatar:The Last Airbender. A show that ran for three seasons with 22 episodes a season. It gained a lot of fans and even got a spinoff-sequel show called The Legend of Korra. This movie was a disgrace and Paramount was stupid to even let M. Night direct this movie because it is based off of a show catering to kids to late teens. I’m done with my rant now.

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