By Darren Franich
Updated January 25, 2011 at 05:05 PM EST

Image Credit: WETA3-D movies give you a headache. They strain your eyes. They make you feel nauseous. We’ve all heard the litany of complaints, and we’ve also heard the response from 3-D apologists. The technology hasn’t been perfected yet. Directors are still learning how to film in 3-D — the format requires less quick cuts, longer shots, more wide-angle framing. And then there’s the most common defense: Real 3-D movies like Avatar look great, and only movies that were converted into 3-D (Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender) look bad.

There is some truth to those arguments, but there’s no denying the fact that the whole apparatus of 3-D cinema — the one-size-fits-nobody glasses, the darkened image onscreen, the added ticket cost — feels just a little bit … well, wrong. According to Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch, there’s a reason for that: 3-D doesn’t work, has never worked, and probably will never work, because it literally runs counter to basic human perception. As Murch writes in a letter to anti-3D activist Roger Ebert, 3-D films “are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared [people] for.”

Murch is sort of a cinematic Renaissance man: the editor of Apocalypse Now and The English Patient, he helped to create the modern film sound format, directed the bleak curio Return to Oz, and wrote In the Blink of an Eye, a how-to manual for film editors that doubles as a deeply readable philosophical treatise on cinema and perception. In his letter, Murch swiftly analyzes all the ways in which the 3-D format fails: Besides the darkening effect, the 3-D glasses “‘gather in’ the image — even on a huge Imax screen — and make it seem half the scope of the same image when looked at without the glasses.”

So, the 3-D image is smaller and darker — that’s worth at least an extra $2, right? But there’s a bigger problem, what Murch refers to as the “convergence/focus” issue:

“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 3-D 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 focused and converged at the same point.

So 3-D technology works great, so long as you’re not a living thing with eyes. (Faceless robots must love 3-D!) “This is a deep problem, which no amount of technical tweaking can fix,” Murch concludes. “Nothing will fix it short of producing true ‘holographic’ images.” Now, it’s possible that Murch is wrong. There are undoubtedly moments of incredible visual majesty in modern 3-D cinema — even the relatively redundant TRON: Legacy had some wowzer images. Still, to hear such a full-scale deconstruction of the 3-D format from one of cinema’s sages is pretty heartening, especially since there’s no arguing with his final point: “A good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with.”

PopWatchers, do you think Murch is spot-on with his assessment of the 3-D format? Or do you think that, with auteurs like Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese embracing 3-D, the best is still yet to come?

Read more:

How many 3-D movies did you see in 2010? Will you see more or fewer in 2011?

‘The Great Gatsby’ in 3-D? You mean 3-D isn’t just for cartoons and James Cameron movies?

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