Coraline, Monsters vs. Aliens and the Future of 3D

CoralineI’ve been rather busy of late with work on this summer’s The Persistence of Animation/Society for Animation Studies Conference (check out what’s happening with it here), but did want to put in my two cents about Henry Selick’s Coraline and Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman’s Monsters vs. Aliens before it’s too late.

Henry Selick is one of the good guys in the animation world and Coraline was eagerly awaited by one and all, myself included; however, I found the film disappointing, especially in its use of 3D stereo; on the other hand, Monsters vs. Aliens seemed much more enjoyable and its use of 3D considerably more effective and, above all, was not as self conscious.

Coraline’s reception seemed to ran from mixed to ecstatic, with a generally positive response to Selick’s handling of 3D. Among the few dissenters of sorts was Cartoon Brew’s Amid Amidi, who led off his comments on February 26 by noting,

Coraline was the first time I’d seen a film in 3-D in a very long time, and while I enjoyed the film immensely, the 3-D technology was a huge dud. The imagery on-screen was so fuzzy that I initially thought my glasses were defective and exchanged them for another pair. Apparently, it wasn’t the glasses though; that’s just part of the 3-D “experience”. Add to that an annoying strobe on close-up shots, tinted glasses that obscured details during the film’s darker scenes, and leaving the theater with a headache, and it ends up being a miserable experience that I don’t anticipate repeating anytime soon.

One of the reasons sometimes given for the failure of 3D films in the early 1950s were complaints of headaches, which recent technology claims to avoid; though Amid’s is the only such complaint I have come across of late, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was not alone. This is not something to be taken lightly, but so far it does not appear to threaten the technology’s increasing popularity. (Recall that the Denn? Senshi Porygon episode of Pokémon caused seizures among Japanese children; also, a few students complained to me about the stroboscopic effects when I screened George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine.)


I wonder whether Amid’s problems were aggravated by Selick’s poor use of 3D? While Selick is not throwing things in the viewer’s face as much as Robert Zemeckis did in Beowulf, it’s a major annoyance. Yes, the story of a young girl who finds an idealized version of her parents in a parallel universe has a certain whimsical appeal, but Selick’s use of 3D, which constantly calls attention to itself, just gets in the way. (I suspect this self-consciousness might even carry over into the non-3D version.)

Monsters vs Aliens

In terms of story, Monsters vs. Aliens, which tells of a woman turned into a giantess on her wedding day after being hit by a meteor and her subsequent encounter with aliens, seems more pedestrian; however, in terms of direction, script and use of 3D, it is easily the better film. DreamWorks Animation, like Disney before it in Meet the Robinsons and Bolt, seems to see no need to constantly slap the viewer in the face to remind them they are watching a 3D movie. (I did cringe at the beginning when a bouncing paddleball is aimed at the camera, but this thankfully proved proved a momentary affectation.) Instead, Vernon and Letterman make the stereoscopic environment seem natural and unaffected; as a result, the climatic scenes, where the stereo effects are most pronounced, does not call attention to itself.

Monsters vs Aliens

I wonder how much of the positive reception accorded Coraline was due to it being a Henry Selick film produced by an independent studio (Portland, Oregon’s Laika), using stop motion puppets, rather than from a mainstream Hollywood studio (DreamWorks Animation) using computer animation? (Film history is littered with films whose initial reception was heavily colored by premature expectations [e.g., Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and  Mike Nichols’ The Graduate], which may or may not be fully realized.)

While, Monsters vs. Aliens may not stand up to the likes of Sita Sings the Blues, it nevertheless affirms my faith that the current wave of 3D films will not soon go away.

P.S.: In the for what it’s worth department, my wife, who has limited vision in one eye and thus limited depth perception, has no problem in this regard when seeing stereoscopic movies;  and one of my students with similar vision problems reports a similar experience.

More From Life: Widescreen, Big Screen

CineramaThe premiere of the first Cinerama film, This is Cinerama, at the Broadway Theater on September 30, 1952, marked a turning point in film history. The three-projector process developed by Fred Waller spelled the end of the old Academy aperture format that had dominated filmmaking from its very inception, and was the first effective response by Hollywood to the threat posed by TV. Widescreen experiments date back to the silent era, most famously in Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), and the early sound era (e.g., Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail [1930]), but Cinerama was the first to prove itself at the box office. (The one exception was Magnascope, which Paramount first used in films like Old Ironsides [1926] and Wings [1927], in which big action sequences were shown on a bigger screen.)

The above photo for Life magazine by Ralph Morse, bears the caption of “3 Dimensional Film At Broadway Theater,” and was probably taken just before its premiere. The people sitting facing the camera were obviously put in to provide a sense of scale, or perhaps the impression that the screen surrounded the audience (which it did not). The film itself was a documentary produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and narrated by Lowell Thomas. (Cooper, of course, was co-director of King Kong with Ernest B. Schoedsack, who apparently directed the film’s prolog).

Audience at Los Angeles premiere of Bwana DevilTwo months later, producer Arch Obler caused another sensation with his 3D production of Bwana Devil, which opened  in Los Angeles. The Life archive’s caption for J. R. Eyerman’s photo notes: “3-D Movie Viewers. Formally attired audience sporting 3-D (3D) glasses during opening night screening of movie Bwana Devil, the 1st full length, color 3-D (aka ‘Natural Vision’) motion picture, at Paramount Theater, Hollywood, CA.” The 3D craze petered out after about two years, but has been reborn of late.

The Robe in CinemaScopeCinerama never took hold beyond a limited number of theaters, but it did inspire 20th Century Fox to dust off an anamorphic process from the 1920s and called it CinemaScope, which is still with us. The caption for this July 1953 J. R. Eyerman photo says: “Huge Cinemascope (63-by-24 foot dimensions) screen [with] image of actor Victor Mature as Demetrius in Calvary scene [from] the movie The Robe dwarfs 5′ 8″ man man standing in front at right as producer Spyros Skouras & associates watch during private [screening].” Today, in this age of home theaters and multiplexes, we tend to think of CinemaScope as a widescreen rather than a big screen process.

James Wong Howe with VistaVision cameraFinally, here’s an August 1955 “Portrait [by Allan Grant] of cinematographer James Wong Howe beneath [VistaVision ] camera.” (This may have been on the set of The Rose Tattoo.) VistaVision was a high resolution process almost exclusive to Paramount in which 35mm film moved horizontally through the camera, producing a negative twice as large as a normal, though rarely shown that way. (Technicolor later added an anamorphic lens to VistaVision cameras and called it Technirama, which was used by Disney in Sleeping Beauty.)

Howe, who was one of the few cinematographers who was close to being a household name, seems curiously forgotten these days. However, he was one of the most respected names in movies whose credits included such films as The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) to The Sweet Smell of Success (1955).