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Oscar-Winning Editor Walter Murch on Why 3D Stinks

Oscar-Winning Editor Walter Murch on Why 3D Stinks (photo)

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Walter Murch is no dummy. The man edited “Apocalypse Now.” He edited the sounds of “The Conversation.” He made maybe the scariest kids film of all time. On the subject of movies, this guy knows what he’s talking about. In a letter written to Roger Ebert and published on his blog, Murch explains why he believes 3D filmmaking is a creative dead-end. He worked in 3D while editing the theme park attraction “Captain EO” in the 1980s and has observed its return to prominence with concern. Here is part of his explanation why (read the full letter at

“The deeper problem [with 3D] is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen — say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what. But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focussed and converged at the same point.

We can do this. 3D films would not work if we couldn’t. But it is like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, difficult. So the “CPU” of our perceptual brain has to work extra hard, which is why after 20 minutes or so many people get headaches…consequently, the editing of 3D films cannot be as rapid as for 2D films, because of this shifting of convergence: it takes a number of milliseconds for the brain/eye to “get” what the space of each shot is and adjust.”

This letter is brief but damning. I would love to hear what a devout 3D convert like “Avatar” director James Cameron might say in response. Ebert, who has written extensively on the subject of (and his perceived inferiority of )3D claims it closes the discussion on the format forever.

Murch’s fundamental argument is that human beings are ill-equipped to handle the neurological strain of 3D movies. Essentially, 3D works on our minds the way alcohol works on our livers: by upsetting our normal anatomical functions. And as with alcohol consumption, the results vary: some find it pleasurable, others disorienting. Either way, you’ll probably wind up with a headache at the end.

As someone who still enjoys a cheap 3D gag (and the occasional glass of scotch), I still finds something intriguing about 3D. I read Murch’s superb analysis and see an opportunity. I’ve spoken in the past with members of the New York Stereoscopic Society and USC’s Entertainment Technology Center. These men understand three-dimensional filmmaking as well. They talk about the language of 3D filmmaking and how that language is different than the language of 2D filmmaking. They believe that language is still being written.

Murch is certainly right that 3D films work on brains differently than 2D films. And perhaps they do create some perceptual roadblocks for viewers. But couldn’t a smart and enterprising filmmaker use those roadblocks to his advantage in the same way that Steven Spielberg turned production roadblocks on “Jaws” to his advantage? The shark doesn’t work, you make a movie where you’re forever waiting for the shark to strike. If 3D cinematography disorients us, why not use it to tell a story about disorientation?

What I think Murch’s letter does explain conclusively is why movies shot in traditional 2D and then converted in post-production to 3D for exhibition do not and will not ever work. At this point, most of these films — like “Clash of the Titans,” “The Last Airbender,” or the recent “Green Hornet” — do not even offer much of a 3D effect. Essentially in these cases, you’re paying several dollars extra for the “privilege” of watching a blurry movies with glasses that bring the image into focus. In the case of “The Green Hornet,” the post converted 3D didn’t great a true three-dimensional effect, it simply turned the film into a series of 2D planes, flat actors at a remove from a flat background. In its worst moments, the movie looked like a projected celluloid diorama.

But even if the post-conversation process improved on a technical level these films still wouldn’t work because of the physiological processing differences between 2D and 3D that Murch explains. So if 3D has any hope of emerging as a legitimate artform, these fake 3D films have to die, or audience’s interest in 3D will dry up long before the medium’s true potential can be explored. If you don’t believe that, you’d have to be a dummy.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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