The Avengers and the Case of the Near-Disastrous 3-D

Avengers Box Office

About 20 minutes into a 3-D press screening of The Avengers Monday night in Los Angeles, one member of the audience interrupted the superhero theatrics to make it known that all was not right with his viewing experience. “Fix the projector!” the exasperated gentleman bellowed during a conspicuously quiet moment, as Mark Ruffalo’s contemplative face filled the screen. Something was very off, giving the complainant and others in attendance a less-than-ideal, even disastrous presentation. The only problem? There was nothing wrong with the projector.

The issue that led this particular fed up gentleman — who may or may not have been a film critic on assignment, I’m not sure – to shout out in irritated frustration wasn’t any fault of shoddy projection, or texting teens, or (forbid!) an accidental digital file deletion up in the booth, or any of the common complaints audiences have in the age of modern moviegoing. It was a case of faulty 3-D glasses mucking up the picture for the poor guy, giving Joss Whedon’s ZOMG epic 3-D adventure an unsolicited layer of blurriness, blackouts, green tint and/or other visual muck — only he didn’t realize that it was because of the cumbersome contraption on his face and not the projection itself.

I know this because about 10 seconds into The Avengers, I realized my pair of theater-provided 3-D glasses were also inoperable — and then spent 15 minutes running back and forth from lobby to darkened theater aisle, sorting through literally dozens of pairs in a frantic attempt to find ones that worked so I could get back to watching Hulk and Co. smash, already.

Now, a brief techie aside: The Arclight theaters, which hosted the screening in Hollywood, employ the XpandD active-shutter kind of 3-D glasses — they’re the heavier ones with the rubberized frames and the just-cleaned wet spots, weighty because the active-shutters in each pair are synced to an infrared signal broadcast in the theater which switch alternate right — and left-eye images at high speeds and require batteries. (The alternate kind of 3-D glasses, passive glasses, use polarized lenses and tend to be those lightweight, disposable, hipster-looking shades; these were used at the incident-free Avengers’ L.A. premiere last month at Grauman’s Chinese, but the Arclight cinemas are XpanD partners.)

So the Arclight’s active-shutter glasses were causing a major malfunction for us unlucky attendees who’d grabbed bunk pairs on our ways to our seats. And the exasperated gentleman and I were not alone. In my journeys up and down the hallway I saw many fellow would-be Avengers-watchers doing as I was, all of us locked in a comically desperate dance of grabbing glasses, testing them, returning defeated. Trays upon trays of fresh 3-D glasses were laid out in front of us by the bewildered theater staff, who quickly retired their “These should be working” auto-reply and let us seize handfuls of the damned things at a time.

(The Arclight Cinemas declined to comment for this article, by the way.)

Critic/journalist Fred Topel, who’d been in the same boat, tweeted about the snafu that night along with an explanation he’d received from the theater manager later, after it had been fixed:

Topel managed to find a working pair before too long, but others weren’t as lucky; of the handfuls of folks I saw leaving their seats to hunt down working 3-D glasses, some, like Screen International critic Brent Simon, gave up the search when he’d decided too much movie had gone by to return to his seat.

“My glasses had in-and-out image flickering, one of them went black, and then I had massive green tinting on one pair — sort of like Hulk vision?” he told Movieline. “I tried watching with no glasses for a while, but that was problematic.” After 15 minutes of attempting unsuccessfully to find a working pair, Simon decided he’d have to see the film from the start another time, and left.

But unlike those who’d exited altogether or managed to eventually find a working pair, there were the untold folks who, like our exasperated gentleman, either never realized the glasses were the problem or that they’d have to leave their seat and miss parts of the film in order to find a fix. “I had a good vantage point from where I was sitting of how many people were coming back and forth, streaming down the aisles,” said Simon, “and some people were just watching without their glasses.”

If you’ve ever watched 3-D without 3-D glasses, you know that watching a film for any amount of time with that kind of consistent blurriness would totally suck. So is every 3-D release worth the potential hassle? Or worth the potential risk? I’ll put this out there: The Avengers does not need to be seen in 3-D.

For starters, it contains a number of scenes that are dark and dimly lit to begin with, notwithstanding the added dimness that most 3-D post-conversions usually suffer. (For example: The entire opening sequence is composed of nighttime action shots that are frustratingly hard to make out.) At moments I glimpsed the screen sans 3-D glasses and the film was brighter, crisper, much more vivid, even gorgeous, and if not for the blurriness of the third dimension I'd have preferred to watch it that way. Whedon seems to have shot for immersive 3-D rather than gimmicky 3-D, which is fine and all, but overall the added dimension doesn't add that much. If I were to recommend The Avengers to anyone, I’d wholeheartedly push them toward 2-D.

Besides, to be in a 3-D film and not get the full 3-D effect — or worse, to sit through a blurry presentation without even realizing something was wrong — would defeat the point entirely. And if 3-D isn't an essential or notable enhancement to a film, why bother? Just remember: In our brave new world of 3-D dominance, we are all, potentially, that exasperated gentleman. How many of us might continue to sit there, watching through broken glasses, unaware of why the picture was so darn fuzzy?

But 3-D continues to be pushed upon us, and while Monday's minor debacle was just one isolated incident of the technology revolting against its bearer, I simply offer it up as anecdotal evidence of a bump in the road to our moviegoing future; take from this what lessons you will if you see The Avengers in 3-D this weekend. Just don't rush to blame the blurry curves of ScarJo's Black Widow getup on the projector.

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  • sweetbiscuit says:

    I had the same thing happen at some 3-D movie a while back, maybe Despicable Me? Took me several pair to get it right, and others had similar difficulties. Ushers were baffled. I was already kind of over the 3-D thing by then, but now it's just ridonkulous.

  • Pepe Lopez says:

    The Arclight has the worst, worst, worst, --atrocious 3D system in this side of the lunar hemisphere. This is the same venue where the WSJ film reviewer had a problem with Clash of the Titans. For some reason, Arclight's chief projectionist swears by this system, but the smart guys over at Landmark told me that "it's an internal" company political thing when a theater sides with one 3D system over the other. Meaning, the Arclight it probably using this horrible system b/c it's cheap, or there's a kickback or somethin'.

  • swarmster says:

    "In our brave new world of 3-D dominance, we are all, potentially, that exasperated gentleman."

    That's not really true, unless you're going to crappy theaters like the one above. Most (by far) theaters are using passive 3D tech which can't have malfunctioning glasses. I know it's fun to pile on 3D, but if you're going to normal theaters this can't happen. With the glasses out of the equation, a 3D projector isn't really any more likely to fail than a 3D projector (in fact, they're usually the same projector, with a different lens configuration).

    • swarmster says:

      The last "3D" there is of course supposed to say "2D".

    • jec says:

      Unfortunately theaters do not hang signs out front that say: "We're one of the crappy theaters" or "We're a normal theater." So how exactly are movie goers supposed the figure this out before plunking down $15 to $20 for a 3D ticket?

  • PWB says:

    I think the idea behind the active shutter glasses is that they should result in a brighter image. But for a slight brightness gain, they're trading the simplicity of the passive glasses which pretty-much can't fail, for something with batteries, electronics, dependence on receiving a signal, and which have to be cleaned and reused. What were they thinking?

  • Tom Jacobs says:

    Too many times I've wasted money and been burned on a tepid 3D experience. Only Avatar was worth the extra $4.

  • mulvi says:

    Wow. This must have been the exact same screening that Joe Morgenstern of the Wall St. Journal was at. As I was reading this article I got the faint feeling that I had already all about this problem, because I had.

  • If you walk into a movie you know for a fact is shit, you have no one to blame but yourself, you know.

  • Nick says:

    I've only seen two movies in 3D, the second only because it was not clearly stated beforehand. After Avatar I never wanted to pay extra for a worse experience again. I've missed a couple of movies' theatrical runs this way, but no great loss. Why is 3D still being pushed?

  • Kat says:

    The ArcLight's active 3D system is far and beyond my favourite 3D system. In passive 3D, I always notice image doubling, but the ArcLight's system seems to allow for greater image depth and wider angles of head movement without picture disruption.

    That said, yes, the image does seem to be darker. Of course it is. Just as dark as any other 3D system. The glasses are a lot heavier, but not unbearably so.

    I saw Thor in the Dome. My glasses didn't work, I noticed during the 3D previews, went to the lobby, and FIXED it.
    We saw Avengers at El Capitan with passive 3D and throughout the movie I noted edge doubling.

    If/when I choose a 3D screening, I prefer an LCD system. Hands down.

  • bbock says:

    Ugh. I have tickets on Sunday. I love the Arclight. I totally forgot that they used those heavy rubbery glasses. THEY HURT if you already wear glasses. Yes the battery goes out or the signal goes wonky. I have twice had to leave the theater in mid-movie to obtain a replacement. The other problem is they are reused. Some teenager wipes them with a greasy smudgy cloth. The result is unhygienic at best. At worst the lenses are smudged up. It's an awful experience. What I wanted from the Avengers was to see it in 2D on a really big screen. But even in Los Angeles, that was impossible. None of the big screens (Cinerama Dome, IMAX Irvine Spectrum, IMAX Universal Studios) was showing Avengers. Give me a huge screen and a great sounds system, a dark room, seats where I can't see anyone's head in my way, where I can't hear sound from other movies bleed through, assigned seats, no frigging texting or phone calls, and no damned glasses and that's all the immersion I need from a theater. Unfortunately, nobody does this anymore.

  • Steve Dworman says:

    I so appreciate this blog, Roger. I refuse to see a 3D film at the Arclight any more for the exact reasons you describe. I've gone through bad glasses after bad. And then once I find a pair that works, I discover that the lenses seem to dim the picture by 30-40%. I just saw Avengers at the Arclight in 2D. Picture was bright and everything looked good. I know go to see the big 3D movies on Imax at the Rave theater or Citywalk. Both use the other glass system and it's much brighter.

    As a critic, it might be interesting for you to go back and see the Avengers in 2D. You'll notice lots of tracking shots using foreground props or people that serve no purpose in 2D, only in 3D to add depth. Really interesting.

  • dukeroberts says:

    I am over 3-D. Aside from Hugo, 3-D hasn't really added anything of value to the movies I have seen. I have seen The Avengers twce now, both in 2-D, and do not regret anything about it.

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