I was expecting great things when I took my kids to see Star Wars Episode I in 3D. I had already seen a few minutes of converted 2D to 3D Star Wars IV at CES a few years ago and my impression of it back then was pure awesomeness. I was expecting the same type of thrill with Star Wars Episode I in 3D, but instead I had a strange sinking feeling build the longer I sat in the theatre and watched. I looked around to see kids and adults just sitting back, seemingly in a daze, and then later on squirming restlessly in their seats. What was wrong? I should have known better, but somewhere deep down I had hoped Episode I had somehow improved in 3D from what I had remembered when I watched it twice in 1999. It hadn’t. After all, I’m the one who continually says “you can’t make a bad movie better by adding 3D.” Star Wars Episode I in 3D is a clear example of this truth.
Before I get down on the film too much I should first mention that on a technical level I think ILM did an excellent job dimensionalizing the shots. For the most part roundness of all faces seemed correct, there was very little ‘cardboarding’ effect throughout the shots, and I didn’t notice any artifacts or double edges you sometimes see in cheap conversions. ILM definitely took their time on this conversion.
However, as a stereoscopic professional, all I could see were missed opportunities. Seeing as George Lucas is prone to revise the VFX on the Star Wars movies I had wrongly assumed some extra elements would be added for 3D effect, or possibly even some VFX shots re-composed for the 3D medium. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The film was for the most part “windowed” with all action happening in positive parallax (behind the screen.)
I can’t really blame anyone for the lackluster 3D compositions since the film was framed for 2D. For example, spaceships leave frame on the bottom in 2D. If we were shooting for 3D then the ship would likely take a path closer to the camera. The only off-screen “3D” hyped effects were the small pieces of debris flying into theatre space during the pod race explosion and the explosion on the droid control ship. In fact those two moments were the only highlights of the whole film for me, even for my 7 and 9 year old sons.
I was also disappointed in how much attention the 3D brought to the shoddy bluescreen compositing of the actors. Back in 1999, a hazy light glow effect coupled with soft edge keys were used to composite the actors on the virtual backgrounds. It was ‘OK’ back then but I always thought that the real problem was the infinite depth of field on close ups. However, the 3D conversion has revealed the soft edge mattes as the elephant in the room you just can’t take your eyes off of. Unfortunately this couldn’t be changed by the conversion team without starting from scratch on the shot, and they obviously didn’t have access to the original elements or mattes, just the flat master. They clearly had issues separating a transparent holographic Palpatine from the background, but with the difficulty of that task considered, they probably handled the best way current technology would allow.
My last little gripe with the conversion was the tendency to add unnatural parallax cues for far-away planes on the big wide vista shots. This suggests a very wide interaxial distance between the virtual lenses and as a result suggests miniaturization to the viewer. This is exactly what you don’t want to do when the audience member is suppose to suspend his disbelief and accept big shots with models as the real deal.
I keep thinking back to the five minute 3D preview I saw on a Mitsubishi DLP TV at CES in 2009. Why was I so impressed with it, and why didn’t Episode I have the same emotional effect on me? I think the simple reason is that, in many ways, the original Star Wars trilogy is simple and relatable. It is made up of real people shot on actual sets, mixed in with actual models, not CGI impostors (not counting the special editions.) It has always been easy to suspend your disbelief with those films because there was always something real to latch onto in each frame. I question Lucasfilm’s decision to release Episode I in 3D first and let the fate of the rest of the conversions rely on its box-office success. I would have loved to skim the Death Star trench in 3D, fly through the asteroids in 3D or speed through the forest in 3D. 3D won’t make any of the original trilogy films better than they already are, but it will bring me a step closer to realizing my childhood fantasies of being in Star Wars. Until that time comes I guess I’ll just have to take my family to Star Tours at Disney World!