Was Baz Luhrmann right to shoot The Great Gatsby in 3D?

Baz Luhrmann sought to enhance drama with 3D

The use of 3D has been largely limited to fantasy movies, documentaries, animation and live shows, hence some eyebrows were raised when Australian director Baz Luhrmann decided to shoot The Great Gatsby, which he adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel, in 3D.

Luhrmann, who is known to razzle and dazzle the audience in his movies, was aware that he would be derided and mocked for trying to be flash and gimmicky, but he insists that his motivating reason behind his decision was purely to enhance the drama. “I can tell you from my heart the reason I did it was that I thought seeing those actors in a room for 10 pages of dialogue just acting, moving around the space I thought would be powerful and immersive,” he stresses.

The actors are Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the mysterious millionaire Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as his lover Daisy, Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan and Tobey Maguire as Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway. Luhrmann is referring to a heated scene in a New York hotel room, where Gatsby, confronts Buchanan, and Daisy has to choose between the two.

Luhrmann admits that he could’ve shot this scene and the entire movie in 2D with the same dramatic effect, but seeing Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder in 3D on the original projectors at Warners studio, he had an epiphany. “This is a drama set in a room where the cameras are static,” he enthuses. “Grace Kelly is like walking around acting in a room in a Dior frock. You’d see this movie in 3D, you’re not cheating with angles. She’s just doing this. It’s like theatre and I was just blown away by the drama of the body moving in space.”

Luhrmann was introduced to 3D technology by James Cameron, whose 3D science-fiction Avatar became the biggest hit in movie history with a $2.8 billion worldwide gross. Avatar, which was shot in a 3D process that is based on how the human eyes see an image, is still considered the best movie that demonstrated the immersive nature of 3D. The ensuing 3D movies, however, have failed to match up and consequently the public interest in the format has reportedly dropped over 40% in the US. Cameron, who is credited with the revival of 3D,  blames it on the film makers. “We are trying to show them how to do it, but they go make up their own technique,” he protested, when I spoke to him last year.

But the detractors of 3D, such as the director Christopher Nolan, who shot the most recent Batman movies on 2D Imax format, has suggested that the 3D format’s illusion of depth could be achieved equally in 2D using visual elements including occlusion, colour, resolution. He also criticised the 25% drop of brightness in 3D. Similarly, the late film critic Roger Ebert decried the 3D format as distractive and nausea-inducing that added nothing to the value of movie-going experience.

Indeed, there have been reports of headaches while watching 3D movies, which still rely on the brain to process and converge two different images from the stereoscopic glasses. Some directors, such as Sam Raimi, the director of Oz the Great and Powerful in 3D, have endeavoured to minimise this extreme convergence from one shot to another and back again. “I don’t think there’s a future in 3D unless they can get rid of the glasses,” Raimi told me after releasing his film.

In addition, the 3D glasses often achieve the opposite effect of immersiveness, for they add another layer of detachment between the viewer and the image. Cameron dismisses this notion flatly: “Once you put the 3D glasses, you forget about them,” he said.

Cameron, Luhrmann and other filmmakers, who have embraced 3D, are not fazed by the critics of the format, believing that inspite of all its challenges, it’s here to stay. “When sound came along it was problematic for some people because when they were silent you thought they had a certain voice. The studios said that on-one was going to want to hear actors speak, and it took a long time before sound was used artistically,” Luhrmann says.

But 3D has been around since 1915, long before the emergence of sound, which arrived in the 30’s and was embraced universally thereafter. 3D had indeed some resurgence in the 20’s and the 50’s but it failed to sustain its momentum due to its expensive hardware and its underlying complex technology that is still being perfected. “I think we’re at the beginning,” Luhrmann concedes. “Look, Ang Lee did a wonderful job with the 3D in Life of Pi, and you’ll see it used dramatically more and more.”

Luhrmann had spent ample time practicing with the 3D cameras before he commenced shooting The Great Gatsby. He even auditioned his actors in 3D in order to fully appreciate its dramatic effect. His ultimate goal was to get the audience to feel as if they were in there with the actors, like in theatre. “When an actor is really great on the stage, they draw you in so I wanted to use it like that,” he enthuses.

Unlike in 2D, where the director utilises camera angles to induce drama in a dialogue scene by tilting the camera up to shoot the dominant character and tilting it down to capture the submissive one, in 3D the director achieves this dramatic effect by bringing the dominant character to the front and pushes the submissive one behind the plane of the film. The director could also enhance this effect by dialling the convergence of the two eyes, but at a cost to the viewer’s brain. The more extreme the convergence is -and hence the more dramatic the effect- the harder the brain needs to work, which could sometimes lead to headaches, instead of inducing emotions.

Watching The Great Gatsby in 3D is no doubt a thrilling experience, particularly when the camera floats over Gatsby’s sumptuous mansion and dives into his glittering parties, transporting us back to the roaring 20’s and immersing us into its excesses. But I personally struggled to connect with the characters and their emotions, for it seems that 3D framing and indeed use of glasses, form a bridge of detachment between me and them instead of bringing them closer.

The irony is that Luhrmann delivered similar visual virtuosity using 2D in Moulin Rouge (2001) without sacrificing the dramatic effect. So was 3D worth the effort?

“I didn’t find 3D to be time consuming,” he insists. “Will I shoot everything in 3D? I don’t know. Do I think we’re scratching the surface? Yes. Did it bother me? Not at all. It’s a great medium and I found it really enjoyable.”

One thought on “Was Baz Luhrmann right to shoot The Great Gatsby in 3D?

  1. The novel has so many gaps the reader can fill with his/her own emotions and ideas… Daisy’s voice that is so alluring, Gatsby’s smile… and of course a movie takes away a lot of gaps… but to leave us there in the dark at the end, with the green light shining from the screen towards the audience… Turning us into Gatsby… Longing… Reaching… Leaving everyone alone with their lack, their dreams… That was great…


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