Because scholarship has focused so intently on the addition of depth in 3D, there exists the widespread assumption that the 3D image demands a more embodied response by the spectator. Separating the image into different focal planes makes the objects onscreen seem to share our space. This, we tend to assume, elicits a stronger bodily reaction than a flat screen. Such an assumption undergirds the frequent comparisons of 3D to the shock-based cinema of attractions and Thomas Elsaesser’s claim that 3D is catching up to the vibrations of surround sound (2013). But our bodies count on more than depth. For a thing to appear touchable, it must have volume. Depth is a relation of objects to each other in space; volume is a palpable sense that an object itself occupies space. 3D projection has depth but no volume.
This cardboard-cutout effect of stereoscopy is well-known. Jonathan Crary writes: “[T]he fundamental organization of the stereoscopic image is planar. We perceive individual images as flat, cutout forms arrayed either nearer or further from us.… Compared to the strange insubstantiality of objects and figures…the absolutely airless space surrounding them has a disturbing palpability.” (1990) The effect is especially visible in subtitles (as recently seen in Pacific Rim (2013)) and lens flare (as seen recently in Star Trek into Darkness (2013)). In 3D projection, these elements occupy the foremost plane of vision while remaining flat.
The distinction between depth and volume has important consequences for how we talk about space in 3D projection. For German art historian Alois Riegl, depth demanded a disembodied form of viewing; volume evoked the sense of touch. Riegl famously argued that ancient Egyptian art (especially in bas-relief) engendered a haptic sense of space. Renaissance painting, with its geometric perspective and plays of light, created optical space. He argued that “with an increased space and three-dimensionality the figure in a work of art is also increasingly dematerialized” (1983, quoted in Lant 1995).
2D cinema relies on roughly the same cues of light and perspective as Renaissance painting, and on these grounds we may still want to assert 3D as more haptic. But Riegl’s distinction is based on whether or not a figure is actionable: whether it can be touched, walked around, examined from different angles. 3D cinema fulfills none of these criteria. The surface of the screen is no longer a barrier to the film’s world – yet, paradoxically, this makes the things in the film more strongly felt as surfaces. How might we describe this sensory confusion?
Two accounts of cinematic space are helpful in this regard. First: Noël Burch’s theory of space in early cinema reverses Riegl’s haptic/optical terms (1990). Instead of distance or emptiness, Burch’s optical space is flat. This conception commands early cinema’s use of stage backdrops, even lighting, a perpendicular and unmoving camera, and so on. It is most visible in the work of Méliès. Haptic space emerged with classical film style in the 1910s, suggested through varied camera angles, dramatic lighting, and camera movement. Haptic space is deep and traversable; we can imagine stepping into it. Optical space is fixed and confrontational. (These oppositions are played with in Hugo (2011) when clips from various Méliès films get 3D treatment – see my “Méliès in Stereopsis” (http://thefunambulist.net/2012/04/24/guest-writers-essays-26-melies-in-stereopsis-by-ryan-pierson/).)
Thomas Lamarre’s theory of space in cel animation makes a slightly more complex distinction (2009). Lamarre calls the ability to move in depth across a homogenous field “cinematism” Analogous to Burch’s haptic space, cinematism is tied to a desire to conquer space. “Animetism,” by contrast, occurs when characters and backgrounds are drawn on separate celluloid sheets. These sheets can create depth by moving in relation to each other. Animetism is not flat: movement and depth are created with parallax, moving different layers of the image at different speeds. But this movement of layers yields a special kind of depth that calls attention to the gaps between planes. We can move laterally across these spaces, but not into them. Animetic space seems to exist independently of us, heterogeneous and uncontrollable.
These accounts still assume the primacy of the screen, and so cannot be directly applied to 3D. But they are suggestive models for thinking about the strange ways our bodies are simultaneously hailed into and banished from 3D space. We engage its surfaces as well as its depth.
Burch, Noël. (1990) Life to Those Shadows. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: BFI Publishing.
Crary, Jonathan. (1990) Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Elsaesser, Thomas. (2013) “The ‘Return’ of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century.” Critical Inquiry 39.2, 217-246.
Lamarre, Thomas. (2009) The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pierson, Ryan. (2012) “Méliès in Stereopsis.” The Funambulist, http://thefunambulist.net/2012/04/24/guest-writers-essays-26-melies-in-stereopsis-by-ryan-pierson/.
Riegl, Alois. Late Roman Art Industry (1901). Trans. Rolf Winkes. Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider Editore, 1983. Quoted in Antonia Lant, “Haptical Cinema.” October 74 (Fall 1995), 45-73.