That 3D Stuff Is Crap!


This is one of my favorite quotes because it, very handily, catagorizes what I call the pet rock syndrome of 3D imagery. I tend to agree that 3D imagery that is presented as a gimmick is crap. To say that something is good solely on the basis that it can be perceived with depth is ridiculous.

Why do images need to be created with an illusion of depth?

That question rarely gets answered with a thoughtful response. For many months, I asked myself “What has to be in 3D?”.  And upon reflection, the answer is “not much”.  Portraits don’t have to be in 3D. We can infer depth from a traditional portrait very easily – whether a painting or sketch or photograph. Shadows and lighting depicted in a photograph can infer a sense of depth sufficient that a person looking at it doesn’t feel like the image is lacking. It is interesting how many 3D enthusiasts got that wrong, started a 3D portrait business and were surprised when very few people showed up as customers. Hello! Business rule #1 – identify the problem your customer has and how your product solves that problem. Having a 2D portrait isn’t that much of a problem for most people. 

Do we really need to feel that the image we are looking at needs to occupy the same space we are in? The answer is “not usually”. If we did, would there be a bagillion 2D images on the internet? There are exceptions, and that is what I’ve been working on.

It became obvious to me, when I started looking at tattoos, that traditional photography was seriously lacking. Depicting a tattoo with traditional photography IS a problem. Shadows and lighting do not infer a correct sense of depth for images of tattoos. A referential image with only depth clues is very problematical with regards to depicting tattoos. Tattoo art is unique in that it is experienced in the real world within real world space. To flatten it, is to remove the essence of the art itself. What you are left with is an approximation, a reference that is missing context and the sense of space that it occupies.  It wasn’t until I started creating duplicate 2D versions of 3D prints that I realized just how shocking that difference is. The 2D photograph looks lifeless and abstract as compared to the 3D image. But before I go on, I need to quantify that an AMPED 3D image is not just any old 3D image. Years of research and trial and error have shown me that getting a 3D image right is very complicated. Size matters. Lighting matters. Detail matters. Math and learning about how the brain fuses multiple perspectives into a single image with depth  – matters.  Get those things wrong, and a 3D image of a tattoo isn’t very impressive.

Indeed, it has been several months and I feel that I’ve only reached the baseline of what I need to know to make important AMPED 3D images of tattoos.  Understanding the technical stuff, while difficult, was only part of the requirement.  Understanding the story telling and artistry is even more difficult because it is not transferrable from traditional photography dogma and methods. When you employ immersion and space sharing you are entering completely different territory as compared with traditional referential photography.  Traditional photography has no space and is removed from any sense of realness. That facilitates a much simpler set of rules.

What do I mean exactly?

Well, nobody ever gets confused whether or not a photograph or painting is an actual window or mirror reflecting real life.  They know it is not a real mirror or real person standing in the photograph.  A photograph is a photograph — simple.  Today, it is possible to create an AMPED 3D image that calls “realness” into question. People poke it and look at the back and side, confused at where the space is coming from. An AMPED 3D image can emotionally engage in a completely different way from traditional imagery. This is a different experience that is not well understood. But as understanding grows, we will be able to effectively transition from gimmick “crap” to a completely new art form with amazing possibilities. There are glimmers of quality out there, but quality is the exception and not the rule. In my opinion, Hollywood’s obsession with gimmick 3D will impeede its true potential for some time.  3D TV will be even longer because there are simply too many short cuts and a lack of willingness to thoroughly do the work to understand the issues.

To sum it up, 3D is not going to replace traditional imagery. It can’t, precisely because of what makes it desirable in the first place: a sense of realness. A referential 2D image is easy to interpret because it doesn’t look “real”. Conversely, a 3D image will be easer to experience (which is different than interpretation) the more it matches what we perceive in reality. This isn’t a hard and fast rule as there will always be exceptions. But generally, there is a bias to instantly know what one is looking at so as to easily and quickly make a determination about it. Do we interpret the image or experience it as something real? That is the question to which our brain wants an immediate answer. This is a big problem with 3D imagery because we can’t instantly categorize it in the brain. We have to get past accepting the illusion which takes time.  The key to that is the same for all imagery, and that is to present something that people will want to look at in the first place.  Where the bias is to interpret that imagery in a referential way – traditional 2D imagery is going to always win out. Where the bias is to experience and share the space with the image – 3D imagery will be far more desirable (potentially). But the quality of the illusion is a rate limiting piece of the puzzle.

Trust me, it won’t take long for people to tire of seeing the gimmick of stuff flying out of the screen or something appearing to poke them in the eye. If something is going to be in 3D, then there needs to be a compelling reason for it to be in 3D.  Where a sense of immersion and sharing space with the imagery is integral to the experience – 3D is a giant benefit.  Where thought, inference and referential interpretation are important – people are going to prefer traditional flat imagery for the most part.  I say “for the most part” because novelty does play a roll and in many cases novelty can be fun.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see future films featuring both 3D and traditional 2D within the same film. Also, the use of black and white and different types of color and lighting. The sophistication of the general public is growing. The scope of our experience is changing at a much faster rate and people are much more attuned to all sorts of image treatments, styles and levels of sophistication.

Ok, enough rambling… I’d love to hear other people weight in on this! Is novelty enough to drive 3D into the mainstream? Do people really want to see stuff flying at them out of the screen?

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