Movie studios and theater operators have toyed with various ways to attract people to the movies throughout the years. Red and blue 3D glasses, smell-o-vision, Cinerama and even buzzers in the seats were gimmicks that were employed in the past to enhance the viewing experience. Of course, many of these gimmicks have evolved over the years to be much more sophisticated and today we have many ways of seeing a film that can’t be written off as merely gimmicks. With that in mind, I decided to see the newest Marvel blockbuster “The Avengers” three different times with three different viewing experiences (traditional 2D, IMAX 3D and D-BOX Motion Seats) to try to see how they affected the same story content. This will not be about my feelings on the movie itself. If you haven’t seen it, it’s awesome and worth every penny for a modern theatrical exhibition. But what exhibition to choose? Here is how I see the answer to that question.
The old faithful; the 2D movie. It may seem passé in the modern word but 2D actually has many advantages that still keep it as the preferred method of viewing for the majority of audiences. Some people have trouble viewing 3D images and some people can see 3D images just fine but they will cause headaches after long exposure. But 2D has another advantage that most filmmakers and studio heads don’t really want to admit. 2D is still the best method for drawing audiences into the story and only the story. As I watched “The Avengers” in 2D, I was focused on all the intricacies of the story and only the story. Being a film buff, I also was watching for technical things like composition, lighting and editing. Even with that, the story was the absolute paramount thing at the forefront of my mind. And just so we’re clear, this was not the first way I saw the movie. I actually viewed it in IMAX 3D the first time but even so, I was more engaged in the story of the movie the second time I saw it, in 2D. So how was my first viewing of “The Avengers” in IMAX 3D?
I have to clear up two issues with this type of exhibition as it pertains to “The Avengers”. First, the theater I saw it in was an IMAX Digital screen and not a traditional giant IMAX screen. These screens were built to fit in any current theater without the huge expense of building a full-sized IMAX screen. It’s a cool experience still, but kind of a ripoff for consumers since they still charge the same price as a full-sized IMAX screen. “The Avengers” didn’t have an IMAX film print made so they were not showing it in full-sized IMAX screens. So you can kind of forget the IMAX part of this exhibition. As for the 3D, “The Avengers” was shot in 2D and converted after the fact in post production. I myself have worked with both 3D and 2D converted content recently and I can tell you it makes an enormous difference if you are working with material shot in 3D. The reason is that when you shoot in 3D you record information from two different lenses or cameras. These cameras simulate both eyes and they capture subtle curvature and other information that creates depth. When you’re dealing with 2D images you don’t have that information and so you’re faking it. That being said, “The Avengers” is an above average conversion. It’s nothing like “Avatar” which was shot and composited in 3D, but it’s still a very good conversion and the folks that worked on it should be commended.
As for how 3D enhances the story, it introduces a new element that you have to focus on. Rather than just looking at the basic composition of a shot you are now introducing the element of depth. This is something you have to get used to and it takes a little while. Luckily it doesn’t take that long if you’ve gotten used to looking at 3D images like I have. Admittedly though, I was finding my mind drifting away from the story and basic composition of image a few times and focusing on the 3D effect itself. This isn’t completely preferable in all cases but in a spectacle movie like “The Avengers” it isn’t really a bad thing. I will say that truly 3D footage bothers me a lot less than converted footage because my brain isn’t filling in the gaps caused by the lack of true depth. But there’s another sensory dimension to consider when watching movies these days; the sense of touch.
This is the newest form of exhibition in the theatrical world and it definitely packs a punch. D-BOX motion seats are sort of like theme park simulator ride seats but I find them a lot more advanced. Most theme park rides move left, right, forward and back. The D-BOX seats move every direction imaginable on every axis of motion. They also provide kicks during scenes of impact and subtle movements that barely register like simulating the click-clack of a train or floating on a plane. It’s very cool but does it enhance the story or just get in the way? This was the third time I saw “The Avengers” so perhaps my mind was drifting off the story naturally since I was well aware of what was going to happen and pretty much could quote every line. That being said, I would argue that D-BOX is the most distracting form of theatrical exhibition and comes the closest to being described as a gimmick. Even having said that, I wholly endorse D-BOX as something that should exist because there are moments in the film that were truly enhanced by these motion seats. When the Hulk smashes something, the smash is much…smashier when you actually feel the smash. But even small story moments like a jolt when Dr. Banner tries to get a rise out of Black Widow by throwing his hands on the table. It was the third time I’d seen the movie but I genuinely got a shock when the seat kicked at this point and I felt a sense of nervous energy that fit Natasha Romanov’s point of view in the scene. That’s right, D-BOX actually improved the scene for me in this instance. That isn’t always the case however. Sometimes the motion simulates camera movements or other random gestures in the film and most of the time I find this cool but distracting to the story.
So what is my overall recommendation? Ultimately it comes down to personal preference. If you have medical reasons related to your vision that prevent you from enjoying 3D then you obviously should avoid that. As for D-BOX, I can imagine many people would be turned off by that and I have to say that I think it’s better as a way to see a movie for a second time rather than your first viewing. The only time I can see that not being the case is if you’re going to see a movie for fun and you aren’t looking for anything special from the story. If this is the case, by all means check out the D-BOX seats if you have some in your area because they really are a pretty fun experience.
There is another option that I sort of discussed above and it’s one that sadly didn’t apply to “The Avengers” and I view it as the ultimate movie experience. That is…drumroll…traditional 2D giant screen IMAX. The giant screen IMAX presentation enhances pretty much every movie and gives it a level of immersion and focus on story as well as spectacle that can’t be matched. There are some narrative films that actually shoot with IMAX cameras for some scenes and the result is a degree of detail that is breathtaking. Last year I had one of my all time favorite moments in a cinema when I went to see “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” in giant screen IMAX. There is a scene in that film where Tom Cruise scales the world’s tallest building in Dubai and it was shot with IMAX cameras. It was probably the most thrilling and heart-stopping action sequence I’ve ever seen and I attribute a large part of that to the IMAX presentation. If “The Avengers” was presented this way, you can be sure that it would be my preferred method of seeing it.
So in the end I don’t view any of these formats as gimmicky but it’s all in how the filmmakers use them. Filmmakers and engineers should be commended for bringing these formats into a level of sophistication where they are viable options for enjoying a movie. But the viewer should be aware that some of them can get in the way of the story to a degree and whether you care about that is up to you. My recommendation would be if a movie is shot 3D you should see it in 3D unless you have health concerns. If it was shot 2D then you should see it giant screen IMAX 2D if possible especially if portions of the movie were shot IMAX. The upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises” is one such film and I absolutely think IMAX is the only way to see it. As for D-BOX, if it’s more of a fun time at the movies with a silly action or horror flick rather than a story you want to get caught up in than I say go for it. It’s a hell of a lot of fun. Whatever you do, just go to the movies. It still beats the crap out of watching stuff at home assuming people aren’t creeps at the theater. But that’s another issue altogether.