It all started because I wanted a bigger television. As is invariably the case after Christmas, in January an unnamed national retailer offered a variety of deals on TVs and other electronics in an effort to cycle out some of their inventory, and one of those deals featured a 50” Panasonic plasma 3D TV that comes with one pair of glasses, a Panasonic 3D Blu-ray player, and a special set that included two more pairs of glasses as well as James Cameron’s so-called game-changer, Avatar. Suffice it to say, I couldn’t resist, especially since I’d previously owned another Panasonic plasma TV and loved it, and the price tag was so low, I simply could not afford not to buy it (or at least that’s what the salesperson told me, anyway).
Four months after I got my 3D TV home, I’m in love with it. Actually, that isn’t quite right: it really only took about two days, after the good folks at Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment sent me a copy of Step Up 3D (yes, you read that right) and its use of the technology changed my opinion of 3D forever. While the television itself offers even better presentation than my previous one, whose broadcasts were already largely pristine, its presentation of 3D is of such high and consistent quality that not only did it transform my opinion of 3D exhibition over night, but it’s the real game-changer that I believe would convince critics of the format’s artistic and entertainment value where theatrical 3D has not.
The reason for this is that the vast majority of the problems that plague theatrical exhibition in general simply don’t exist on DVD or Blu-ray. Focus problems, the biggest obstacle, are problems no longer, thanks to transfers that preserve exactly what the filmmakers intend to communicate with each shot. Also, the frequent complaint about darkness or low-lighting via the polarized glasses is also solved; while glasses used for home viewing are similar to ones in theaters, the lighting for the image has been carefully designed to ensure that audiences suffer no loss of brightness or clarity as a result.
Of course, just like in theaters, some 3D experiences are better than others, and owe their respective levels of quality just as much to the way in which the film was produced in 3D as the way it uses the technology. But even though I haven’t actively compared the 3D presentation of my television to those of other brands, considering my experience to be the optimal way in which to view 3D presentation, I figured I’d offer a short list of some of the best 3D titles currently available to consumers. (And while there are certainly a number of gorgeous nature documentaries that are equally worth your attention, I am focusing on feature films, since those are the ones that will serve as most moviegoers’ cinematic sustenance.)
Step Up 3D (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment) – While I’m still of a mixed opinion about James Cameron’s insistence that “gimmicky” 3D that breaks the plane of the screen is less interesting or worthwhile than his “immersive” version, Step Up 3D offers lots of both, not only engaging the viewer in the action and especially choreography, but providing a weirdly perfect foundation for almost any viewer’s proper introduction to home-viewing 3D. As much for the sake of watching Madd Chadd in action as its 3D, I recommend the Red Hook dance battle as the best scene to watch; director Jon M. Chu’s camerawork, which occasionally advances directly towards the audience with a couple of fun flourishes, offers a clear, simple and comprehensible use of space. Not to mention, the movie is fun as hell.
Avatar (Fox Home Entertainment) – Currently, Cameron’s breakthrough 3D adventure is available only via the special starter kit that I purchased with my television (although that kit is available individually), but if you’re wondering why this wouldn’t be the benchmark for all 3D presentation, the reason is simple, and one that Cameron himself would admit to: the film’s scope undermines some of its use of 3D. Specifically, my first impulse when I got the film was to go straight to the aerial sequences where helicopters are flying through the flora and fauna on Pandora, and those are the scenes which benefit the least from 3D, because as is the case in real life, everything more than about 50 feet away from us essentially looks 2D, and as enormous as the landscape is, it’s still essentially a painting that’s too far away from us to appreciate the physical depth of its details. That said, however, the following sequence, where Jake finds himself racing through a bioluminescent forest, is absolutely as breathtaking, and the camera’s navigation through foliage and above and around the world’s unique creatures feels fully three dimensional – both spatially and emotionally.
Legend of the Guardians (Warner Home Video) – I was lucky enough to visit the set of Sucker Punch while it was in production, and while we were there, director Zack Snyder took a few minutes to show press selected scenes from this animated odyssey – which even then looked impressive. But scanning through even just shots from the film, Legend of the Guardians looks absolutely gorgeous: the clarity and detail in the images is absolutely perfect, while the depth is carefully modulated to keep the aerial action from becoming too disorienting. Needless to say, Snyder uses some of his patented speed-ramping to enhance certain scenes, but here it only augments the intensity and tangibility of the film’s world. Although it was largely dismissed upon its original release, this is a really good film, and again, a fantastic choice for watching 3D.
TRON: Legacy (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment) – Even though a lot of people felt there were a lot of lackluster things about the long-awaited sequel to TRON, the 3D was not one of them, thanks to Joe Kosinski’s subtle, effective, and, yes, immersive use of the technology. Although the sequences in the arena are vaguely similar in scope to the vista of Avatar’s Pandora, the shape of their design stands out more dramatically on the screen, and gives the world within the computer a dimensionality that seems to leap off of the screen. But it’s the final firefight with the light jets that fully takes advantage of 3D presentation as the vehicles’ light trails twist into beautiful swirls of color and form, while retaining the energy and intensity of the action.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) – Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs actually precedes the 3D glut that studios offered after the success of Avatar, but its use of the technology is no less effective, or entertaining. That said, Lord and Miller use 3D in a very understated way, which is enhanced on the small screen thanks to the increased clarity and intimacy of the image. They’re not trying to knock out the audience with a lot of dramatic spatial movement, at least not directly towards the camera, so when they indulge some impish impulse and construct a sequence, like the single-shot first-person snowball fight, for example, the audience feels it even more strongly.
In terms of the worst presentation, thankfully most of the bad ones are films that most audiences don’t want to watch in any format, but the absolute worst 3D I’ve experienced is via the Piranha 3D Blu-ray. The film was hastily converted and looked awful when it was in theaters, and unfortunately, those same shortcomings have been repeated on home video: everything looks like a ViewMaster image, split awkwardly into a variety of poorly-spaced planes that make characters’ head look disembodied, and their bodies look completely detached from their equally one-dimensional environments. Mind you, the film can be a lot of fun if you’re in the right mood, but it’s a film not worth watching in 3D.
Additionally, I’m holding out hope that Paramount will put out a polarized-3D version of Jackass instead of the first edition which offers only a red and blue anaglyph transfer, but until then I’d say skip that film in 3D as well (probably for the best also if you have a weak stomach). But as more films that were shot in 3D become available, and better conversions become the industry standard, hopefully all films will look great at home; Green Hornet’s terrific conversion is virtually indistinguishable from films shot in 3D, and it’s still an early example of a film converted to 3D using contemporary technology. Again, however, home presentation doesn’t just surpass the current 3D presentation of the theatrical experience, it validates it, because watching these films at home via the exact way they were intended shows that filmmakers are not just attempting to capitalize on a commercial trend, but a creative one – and more than that, they’re actually succeeding, even if it takes a slightly smaller screen and several extra months to see it.