Last week, Boxoffice offered an editorial rebuttal to Roger Ebert's publication of a letter from Oscar-winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch about "why 3D doesn't work and never will." On Saturday, James Cameron, executive producer of the new movie Sanctum, said that Murch and Ebert's objections were not only purely subjective to their 3D viewing experience, but largely unfounded scientifically. "I think that argument is 180 degrees going the wrong direction," Cameron told Boxoffice in an interview in Los Angeles, Calif. "Since you're asking these very specific questions, and I know this is a controversial issue, I feel it's important to get down to brass tacks. There is a biological precedent for our sensory system, which goes back hundreds of millions of years."
Famously, Cameron spent seven years pioneering the Cameron/ Pace 3D camera system that he eventually used to shoot Avatar, and which he lent to the production of Sanctum to offer audiences another demonstration of the potential for 3D storytelling. Reacting to Ebert's recent blog post, Cameron said, "I think you've got to ask yourself a couple of questions. One, can these guys actually experience 3D? It's a little bit like a colorblind critic suddenly having to deal with Technicolor, and saying, ‘I don't see what all of the fuss is about.' Now, I don't know for sure whether they can see it or not, Roger and Walter, if they can see it or experience it, but here's what I know: 95 percent of people put on the glasses, watch something in 3D, and they love it. They're hooked, just as I was hooked."
Although Cameron has actively supported the development of 3D technology and encouraged its use as a great new tool for filmmakers, he insisted that its proliferation in recent years was a result of market forces rather than any personal agenda. "I'm not trying to ram stuff down people's throats, I'm reacting to what I see as a filmmaker," Cameron said. "When I see something cool, I want it in my movie. It's that simple. It's kind of a dumb ass principle of filmmaking—I see it, I like it, I put it in my movie. Because I make the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that other people will like it, and I've been resoundingly proved correct in 3D. We've gone from 100 theaters in 2005 to I think worldwide maybe it was like 5000 or 6000 when Avatar opened, and now we're up to over 10,000, 11,000, and we're going to have 20,000 by next year. It keeps doubling, and this is market-driven. It's not me doing it! It's the audience doing it."
In Murch's letter to Ebert, he offered a scientific explanation why viewing images in 3D was so difficult. Cameron observed that biology answers most or all of his objections. "I think there is a biological precedent for our sensory system, which goes back hundreds of millions of years," Cameron said. "You look at all of the animal phyla, from fish, through amphibians, mammals, us, they all have two eyes. They either have no eyes, or in the case of insects, they have many eyes, but they're forming a very different image of the world than we could even comprehend, or they have two eyes. So what does that tell you—it's Darwinian. There are actual survival reasons for seeing stereoscopically. Like I'm a predator and I can perceive exactly how far my prey is away from me before I leap, so I don't miss, because if I miss, I don't eat, and I die.
"So it's Darwinian, so we all experience the world stereoscopically for a reason," Cameron continued. "Not because God was just being kind to us and he wanted us to see the world in 3D, but because there are reasons for it. It makes us better at hunting, at gathering, at running, at fleeing, at doing all of the things that we need to do to survive. So if stereoscopic information is important to the brain on a fundamental survival level, what's it doing when you're watching a movie in 3D?"
Cameron suggested that 3D offers a deeper potential for emotional interactivity with a subject than in 2D. "Here's an interesting fact that Walter Murch should be aware of," he said. "Early childhood researchers have found through brain scans that babies who are reacting to social scenarios, if they can have a social scenario play out, like somebody talks to the baby's mother, the baby will become very interested in the new person talking to the mother as opposed to if the new person enters the room alone, the baby won't be interested. Right? Now, you take that same social scenario and you video it, you put it on a screen in front of the baby at the same distance so that the subjects are the same size. Is the baby interested in the new person? Not at all. It's the same image, it's the same interaction. What's going on? Scientists put it in the following terms: The baby knows that the flat picture is symbolic and can be ignored, but the true scenario cannot be ignored—it is important."
"Now, what if the same thing is happening in a movie theater?" he asked rhetorically. "What if we are being triggered at a deeply subconscious or preconscious level that what is happening cannot be ignored? It's not symbolic, it's not like a painting, but it is something real. Now we know it's not real, we know it's a movie. We paid for a ticket and we're sitting in a movie theater wearing dorky glasses. But what if our brain is being fooled at a deep neurological level that what's happening is real, even a little bit? Does that account for the heightened experience of 3D, and the resurgence of cinema and the fact that all exhibitors are resoundingly saying ‘3D is saving our business when we're being eroded and randomized by downloading and piracy and streaming and other media sources?' I would say the answer is pretty freaking resoundingly yes."
Despite his considerable experience and knowledge, Cameron admitted that he wasn't an expert, but his commitment to the technology was not just theoretical, but financial. "I'm practicing neuroscience without a license here, but I think I'm right," Cameron said. "And by the way, I thought that before I made Avatar, and I was willing to bet the farm on it to the tune of close to $300 million."
Sanctum opens nationwide on Friday, February 4, 2011.