3D’s Redemption, or: Why Cave of Forgotten Dreams is More Awe-Inspiring than Transformers 3

Posted in Video by Nathan Lee Bush on July 6, 2011

3D is under attack from every direction, with influential critics like Roger Ebert denouncing it as a distraction at best and at worst, a cynical ploy to extract a few extra bucks at the cineplex from moviegoers, without any real added value.

Criticisms tend to fall into a few categories. Color loss from post-converted films and a darkened image resulting from the glasses are common complaints. An second-rate 3D effect is often added in post, after the film is shot conventionally, to avoid the extensive costs and complications of shooting with a 3D rig. Some filmmakers, notably Christopher Nolan, have defended so-called ‘2D’, saying it’s perfectly adequate at representing 3D space, since our mind can understand space in a two dimensional image. The technology has also been known to lead to motion sickness, eyestrain and induce headaches in some viewers, since it’s essentially tricking your brain into thinking it’s seeing a two dimensional image in three dimensions.

After audiences failed to trade up for the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, with only 38% of first week take-home accounted for by 3D ticket sales, analysts were quick to point out the steady decline in 3D ticket sales. Richard Greenfield of Wall Street’s BTIG declared audiences were “increasingly rejecting 3D movies.” This certainly seems to be the trend. When Avatar launched the 3D craze in 2009, it took over 80% of it’s theater earnings from 3D, while among recent summer popcorn fare, Green Lantern, Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, take home from 3D accounted for less than half of receipts.

The death of 3D would not be unprecedented. Cinema history is strewn with more false starts for 3D than Duke Nukem Forever, the game famously announced in 1996 and only just released this year. The earliest known 3D projection dates back to 1922. Numerous revival pushes have come and gone, hampered by technical issues and gimmicky B-movie adoption often giving it a poor reputation.

This seems to be the trend this time around. I’ve only watched a handful of 3D movies, mostly because the offerings seem relegated to schlocky horror films (Pirana, My Bloody Valentine) and brainless action films (Clash of the Titans), but generally, I like the effect when thoughtfully and subtly implemented, in service of the story rather than a novelty, as in the Pixar movies Up and Toy Story 3 and aforementioned Avatar.

But my faith in the technology to add to the film art was completely restored from an unlikely place. Werner Herzog is probably the last person you’d expect to dapple with a new trendy technology, but with his low-budget documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he has contributed the single most effective use of 3D yet. The eponymous cave is the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, which contains the oldest known oldest cave paintings in the world, sealed off by a landslide and immaculately preserved. Herzog gained unprecedented access, usually granted to a tiny group of scholars and art historians every year, to protect the incredible resource. What results in his brief time with the cave is an almost spiritual experience, which I’m not sure would have been achievable with a 2D rendering. The paintings’ employ shockingly sophisticated use of the contour of rockface to indicate motion and shape by the paleolithic artists. The LED light panels cast a ghostly light on the walls, defining every subtle undulation of the rock with such intimacy, that it’s as close as I can imagine to being there.

By the end, in an extended montage of the paintings, I found myself unexpectly tearing up, overwhelmed at the profound beauty of experiencing the space and all the mystery it evoked from the deep abyss of lost time. It felt as though I was present in it. It’s the only situation where I couldn’t have imagined watching it in 2D. Ben Simington at Mubi, the online art film video startup argues that by giving the audience the first person POV of experiencing the cave, the images go beyond traditional definitions of “cinematography,” and could more aptly be described as “holography.”

In the recently released Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Michael Bay spared no expense to digitally destroy Chicago, each explosion and shattered window painstakingly rendered in 3D. Many critics described it as physically exhausting to sit through the climactic, hour-long battle. Instead of feeling awed, they felt as though they were being beaten into submission. How ironic that a pensive indie director with a skeleton crew and tiny budget was able to take this quintessentially cutting-edge technology and create the most intensely experiential use of it yet.

A-List Directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are all due to release 3D films in the coming year to show what the format can do and in the process resurrect it, but I’ve already been convinced.


Nathan Lee Bush is a fashion and fine art photographer and filmmaker in New York City. His work is on his site and blog.


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  1. […] this blog, Through The Looking Glass, I explain why the most impressive 3D experience I’ve had yet has come from an indie documentary on a shoestring budget, and how it […]

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