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3D Cinema: Optical Illusions and Tactile Experiences questions the common frameworks used for discussing 3D cinema, realism and spectacle, in order to fully understand the embodied and sensory dimensions of 3D cinema's unique visuality.



Introduction: Stereoscopic Illusions

Maurice Merleau Ponty has said that ‘to see is to have at a distance’ (1964: 166). Vivian Sobchack quotes this in order to make the point that to hear, by contrast, is to be enveloped and surrounded (2012: 30). Although Sobchack frequently discusses audio-visual media that conflate this distinction between the senses (1992, 2004), longstanding artistic practices and theories posit sight as the colder, yet more intellectually engaged, disembodied receiver of phenomena. Consequently, artistic works, particularly those created in the Western world over the last few hundred years, are often constructed to maintain this division (Crary, 1992; Marks, 2000). What, then, of optical illusions that rely on a sense of proximity in order to function? In particular, I am interested in stereoscopy as a mode of visioning that has an almost 200-year history based upon deceiving the eyes’ understanding of distance, depth and solidity.1 While stereoscopic images, be they from the stereoscope, cinema screen, television set or computer monitor, do not fully envelop or surround their viewer, by no means are they at a distance in the same way that flat (2D) images are. I do not use the term ‘flat’ to suggest that these latter images are without significant depth cues (perspective, shading, motion parallax), but they do perceptively operate on a planar surface.
Miriam Ross

1. Hyper-Haptic Visuality

The recent turn to phenomenology in film studies has, in the first instance, refocused attention on the role of the body and multifaceted sensory perception in spectators hip. In the second instance, it has been able to acknowledge the different qualities of moving image types, styles and genres and the role they play in the production of embodied perception so as to avoid a totalising system of cinematic viewership. Under this model, Jennifer Barker’s The Tactile Eye (2009) explores the potential for experimental films to elicit tactile exploration of their textural surfaces and the propensity for the chase film to produce heighted musculature and kinaesthetic reaction. Vivian Sobchack’s numerous essays in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004) examine how diverse films and media texts are able to make meaning out of bodily sense. Elena del Río’s Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance: Powers of Affection (2008) utilises a Deleuzean reading to explain the way films with performing bodies create affective intensity. In a similar vein is one of the most widely used texts, and most useful for this study of 3D cinema: Laura U. Marks’ The Skin of the Film (2000). She examines the way haptic visuality is produced by a specific mode of cinema which, in her book, she identifies as intercultural cinema: films which, when dealing with ‘the power-inflected spaces of diaspora, (post- or neo-) colonialism and cultural apartheid,’ are concerned with embodiment and sense perception (2000: 1).
Miriam Ross

2. 3D Cinema of Attractions

The hyper-haptic qualities of 3D cinema are most strongly activated through the use of negative parallax space to produce presence within the auditorium. While depth construction in positive parallax space plays an important role in the construction of tactile visual fields, the seeming manifestation of objects in the viewer’s physical space draws most attention to the film’s distinct aesthetic presence. It is unsurprising, then, that discussion of stereoscopic films is often concerned with the production of negative parallax space, and film reviews frequently call attention to the extent to which 3D films place objects in the auditorium. Although William Paul notes that ‘there are strong connections between 3-D and the move to deep-focus photography/ his focus on the ‘emergence aesthetic’ displays a greater concern with the way in which images project into the auditorium (1993: 3333). In a similar way, R.M. Hayes’ (1989) extensive overview of twentieth-century 3D films concentrates on the extent to which films pitch objects towards the audience.
Miriam Ross

3. New Realisms

If qualities of display and exhibitionism are frequent across the history of 3D cinema, how, then, do we account for the equally persuasive framework that states that stereoscopy invokes greater representations of reality? As Sarah Atkinson notes, ‘the emphasis on the “realness” of S3D imagery is a key discourse, which has shaped its development and deployment within the cinematic realm, as well as informing the key debates that it has provoked’ (2011: 144; see also Mizuta Lippit, 1999: 215). This is a framework that has roots within stereoscopy’s development in the nineteenth century, when the appeal of the stereoscope was often associated with its duplication of the visual sensation of the real (Frizot, 2000; Pietrobruno, 2011). Frequent accounts of the stereoscope’s popularity relied on its supposed ability to directly mimic natural human perception, so much so that pioneers of the format such as David Brewster and John F. Mascher went to great pains to make the photographic aperture and the distance between cameras replicate the biological function of the eyes (Silverman, 1993: 741; Pietrobruno, 2011). When stereoscopic moving images were developed in the twentieth century, reviews highlighted how 3D cinema’s experiential qualities could provide greater fidelity to filmed objects and scenarios than could be achieved by ‘flat’ filmmaking techniques.
Miriam Ross

4. Depth and Emergence Construction

In his discussion of stereoscopic cinema’s unique visuality, Sergei Eisenstein outlines three major modes:
either the image remains within the boundary of ordinary cinema as a kind of flat haut-relief poised somewhere within the plane of the reflecting screen. Or the image plunges deep inside the screen, drawing the spectator along into unprecedented depths. Or, lastly (and this is the most astonishing effect) — the image, palpably three-dimensional — ‘tumbles out’ of the screen and into the auditorium.
(2013: 22)
Miriam Ross

5. Arresting Forms

The last chapter was concerned with a continuum of shared space between film and viewer that, in its material properties, allows the permeable membrane of the stereoscopic film to bulge and recede away from the viewer. This sense of continuum does not prevent us from appreciating the way that 3D cinema can present its materiality in ways that are attention-grabbing and arresting, thus incorporating the cinema-of-attractions qualities discussed in Chapter 2. In 3D cinema’s display of exhibitionistic moments, it most clearly defines its unique qualities that are not found in flat moving images. This is not dissimilar to emphatic colour palettes in films that provide a sensual demonstration of how their tonal inflections can be affective. Some of the most striking examples are in films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Rumble Fish (1983), Pleasantville (1998), and Schindler’s List (1993), wherein a black and white or sepia palette is turned to colour or has colour elements introduced, calling attention to how colour can operate on the viewer’s relationship with the film (Belton, 2008). Working along similar lines, many stereoscopic films begin with a limited depth budget and wait for narrative peaks to display their stereoscopic abilities, particularly the presentation of objects in negative parallax space.
Miriam Ross

6. Bodies in Motion

This chapter turns, now, from the focus on the fluctuating stereoscopic membrane to consider how motion and character movement are perceived within the auditorium space shared by the film and the viewer. At the heart of all cinema is a concern with the illusion of motion, the bringing forth of movement from still images (Stewart, 1999; Mulvey, 2006; Cubitt, 2010). Stereoscopy adds its own additional layers of illusion when 24 distinct frames per second become 48 frames per second.1 In this case, two sets of separate images, separated by minute temporal intervals, provide the illusion of depth, while their relationship with the illusion created in the previous and subsequent sets of images suggests motion. The extent to which we are knowledgeable of these illusions is, as with many perceptual processes in cinema, dependent on our awareness of the apparatus. Film aficionados and technicians are more keenly aware of the film’s analogue and digital forms, which can be reduced to a series of still frames run quickly together. Home viewing technologies that allow us to pause, rewind, and replay the film demonstrate how contingent continuous motion is upon the viewing apparatus, while slow motion and speeded-up motion within films reveal the malleable relationship between motion and temporal duration.
Miriam Ross

7. CG Animation

The previous chapters have been concerned with stereoscopy’s optical illusions and its hyper-haptic field screen. In each case, the embodied relationships produced between viewer and film in flat cinema are modified by, and contingent upon, enhanced illusions of depth and the placement of the film body within an expansive screen space. In the films discussed thus far, emphasis on live action filming (even in films with extensive CG content such as Avatar) conditions discussions of depth relations in the film. The indication of a once live referent that was mechanically recorded (even when known to be heavily manipulated in digital post-production processes) frequently focuses our perception so that we compare our expectations of real-world depth relations with the presentation of depth within the screen space. Within this context, shooting 3D cinema ‘native’ (with two cameras), as opposed to converting single images into stereoscopic sets in post-production, has emerged as a type of gold standard within many debates in 3D cinema’s digital era. In public discussions, trade reports and even critical scholarship, stereoscopic illusions are thus measured by their ability to reproduce reality, no matter how fictional and mediated that reality may be. It is for these reasons that this final chapter turns towards films that are developed entirely through CG imagery, to understand what happens when the relationship between a live referent or pre-existent pro-filmic is more clearly abandoned.1
Miriam Ross


If we return to a tripartite model for cinematic forms that divides them into the traditional flat screen, the haptic cinema screen and the hyper-haptic 3D field screen, it should be clear by now that stereoscopic cinema’s operation as the last type of form is unique and distinct from the other two. However, it is never in opposition to or entirely separate from the traditional flat screen and the haptic cinema screen, but, rather, overlaps with them, borrowing from and contributing to diverse cinematic and visual culture formations. Stereoscopy’s hyper-haptic depth fields are just one part of a film’s multiple processes whereby engagement is fostered through visual fields, character identification, narrative and sound. In each film viewing there are multiple complex layers that produce meaning, affect, audience investment, and diverse pleasures and displeasures. Within this context there is no one type of 3D film, but, rather, multiple histories of stereoscopic moving images that reach back to the nineteenth century. Although the popular press often prefers a straightforward account of 3D cinema that develops through a number of boom and bust periods in the US, there is a global spread of 3D cinema histories that often interlink through the shared knowledge and development of stereoscopic technologies but equally diverge along idiosyncratic paths.
Miriam Ross


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