Tron: Legacy and the Viability of 3-D in a 2-D Medium
By Jason Haggstrom, December 18, 2010
I went into Tron: Legacy not with the hope that it'd be great, but that it would give me a reason to believe in 3-D as a viable technology for the medium of film. Avatar came with the promise to revolutionize 3-D which it failed to do. With Tron: Legacy, I was hoping for something really psychedelic, like having the film's many glowing lights pop out into 3-D space, completely ignoring their physical attachment to the objects in the frame. In actuality, the film didn't go that far (though its use of yellow often disturbs the eye like blue LED Christmas lights), but what it did do is worthy of both acknowledgment and praise.
In a typical 3-D film, the technology is used to separate objects closer to camera from everything behind them. We've likely all experienced stereoscopic rendering of an image much like what you'd see in a View-Master where the 3-D objects are cut-out of the image like paper dolls. Avatar didn't do anything different (regardless of hyperbole of the Cameron campaign that tried to convince people otherwise). Its greatest innovation in 3-D was its employment of a shallow depth of field for much of the film which softened the division of 3-D planes, rendering the effect a bit more convincing. Still, even that method brought out critical discourse and even a discussion of the morality of 3-D in shallow focus. Tron: Legacy goes in the opposite direction and renders its images in deep focus, allowing your eyes to wander and explore the beautiful design work that fills the frame. The film only employs a shallow depth of field in scenes of talking heads (the backgrounds are comprised of simple, morphing patterns) and, even then, the filmmakers chose to not render the scenes in stereoscopic 3-D. Instead, the shallow depth of field is allowed to do it's job in creating a three-dimensional effect through variations in focus.
Tron: Legacy doesn't reinvent 3-D—nothing is going to truly change until the technology is overhauled into something other than stereoscopy and glasses. But what the film does do is manipulate the mise-en-scène to include visual noise that reduces the overly-noticeable effect of layered planes that we normally see in 3-D films. The effect is subtle, as it's not intended to draw attention to itself but to change the way the way we see the entire image. Sometimes this third plane of dimension is created by lens flares, sometimes by smoke, but more often—rather than being created from an on-screen object—this added layer of visual information simply is. It's streaks of light, translucency, pixelized dots layered over faces, or some variable of non-matter. The film can get away with this variation because its world is not the one we know, but a virtual one called "The Grid" that exists inside of a computer. As such, the filmmakers can get away with virtually any aesthetic choices they want. In fact, this design choice doesn't just improve upon the 3-D presentation, it enhances the design of the digital world that is "The Grid." Even Roger Ebert, who typically goes out of his way to rip on the use of 3-D in films, notices the difference here. He calls it "useful, and not just a promiscuous use of the ping-pong effect" which, coming from a person so critical of the technology, is an enormous compliment. If you haven't already, I recommend reading his article "Why I Hate 3-D (and You Should Too)" where he very eloquently—and convincingly—tears 3-D to shreds.
I've tried my best to capture some moments with screen grabs that illustrate the aesthetic of the translucent third plane, but the effect is lost when rendered motionless. I've also included the trailer below where you can (briefly) see some of these moments in motion and look for the aesthetic I've described. In the trailer, they are most prominent in the moment where Sam jumps at 2:00-2:04 and in the the light-cycle sequence from 1:42 to 1:48. Pay attention not to the focal point of the action, but to the moving streaks of light and other non-matter that are layered upon the image. In the 3-D presentation, these non-matter elements are typically placed between the foreground and background planes which gives the sequences in "The Grid" an aesthetic that I can't say I've ever experienced before. The effect is not terribly obvious in the trailer (because the images go by so fast), but on the big screen these design choices impact the film for the better.
As much as I enjoyed the way the film used 3-D and the inspired production design, let me be clear about the movie on the whole: Tron: Legacy is not a great film. But if you're looking for a two hour light show, you'd have a hard time finding a better experience. As a 3-D experience, the film gets it right by employing it in a way that is unique (it also helps that they don't constantly throw or point things out into the audience). I've been long suspect about the viability of 3-D in the 2-D medium that is cinema, but Tron: Legacy proves that 3-D can be used effectively as an aesthetic choice. Not even Avatar can lay claim to that.