The summer sci-fi thriller Prometheus by filmmaker Ridley Scott was moderately successful as an addition to the Alien Anthology. It is particularly intriguing not for how well (or how poorly) it fits in with the rest of the Alien franchise, but rather for its success in a new form of cinema: the 3D film. Cinephiles heatedly discuss the validity of 3D as a serious format, and many insist that it is just a fad; but any Hollywood-conscious cinematographer will assure you, 3D is here to stay. It makes sense that 3D isn’t taken seriously; there has yet to be a film that really feels like it is supposed to be in 3D . . . until Prometheus. In order to understand how Prometheus is supposed to be in 3D, it is beneficial to first look at what makes 3D tick.
The obvious is, of course, that 3D is, well . . . 3D. It is three-dimensional; it has the appearance of having volume in space. The brain’s natural reaction to 3D is to treat it as such: as the real world, in which our eyes look about. We look at what we want to, at me, at the wall behind me, at the person sitting to your left or your right. This is all fine and dandy until a filmmaker gets their hands on 3D technology.
Filmmaking is all about control. It is a language of shorthand that moviegoers understand without even realizing it. For example, a cut between a character passing into a doorway and a view of them emerging from another is not questioned. It does not cross the mind that these shots may have been filmed hours if not days apart; the cutting and correct joining of these shots is a shorthand way of compressing time.
Herein lies the challenge of 3D. The brain deals with it in a fundamentally different way from 2D film, so that simply shooting and cutting a 3D film just like 2D causes problems. For example, the average duration of a single shot in a Hollywood film is six seconds, and it should be . . . for 2D. But in a 3D world, each cut to a new shot requires the brain to readjust to a new place, most importantly by refocusing. Doing this every six seconds for two straight hours gives many people headaches.
Another way that 2D shorthand becomes unnatural in 3D, is the control of the camera over something that the human eye is used to having its own control over, namely, the iris. The irises in the camera and in the eye are what cause some things to be in focus while other things aren’t. Using the camera iris to dictate what is in focus is a useful trick in 2D. It literally focuses attention per the filmmaker’s intentions. But not only does doing this in 3D cause the eye to be confused over its inability to focus freely, it imparts a cardboard cutout appearance.
Prometheus may not be a perfect Alien prequel; it may not even be a good film story. But it is the first film I have seen in 3D that seemed to be consciously aware of how 3D is different in these two important aspects. Prometheus used lots of deep depth of field (all in focus) shots that allow the eye to focus at will, and which frankly are stunning in 3D on the big screen. Prometheus also adopted a slightly more reserved cutting cadence thanks to a tendency towards tracking shots in lieu of frantic cutting, which gives the eye time to focus and explore the 3D space. The result is a 3D film during which the audience is not constantly reminded of and put off by the fact that it is 3D. Instead, for the first time a 3D film begins to impart an immersion subtly deeper than that of 2D; this makes sense, but 3D’s strengths must be played to for it to be immersive in this way.