When moviegoers first heard that Pixar’s decade-old underwater adventure, Finding Nemo, was getting a post-conversion rerelease in 3D, even fans of the film were quick to accuse Disney of a shameless cash grab. However, as indicated in our Finding Nemo 3D review, insight into the Disney/Pixar 3D conversion process reveals a lengthy and multifaceted approach for transitioning the computer animated film into the third dimension – an approach that ultimately delivered a worthwhile rerelease.

Bob Whitehill, Disney’s Stereoscopic Supervisor, describes the effort as “recreation” instead of post-conversion – since reformatting the computer generated assets from a 2D plane into a 3D sandbox creates glitches and even reveals oversights in the original production. As a result, how does Disney’s 3D guru feel about the often utilized “glasses off” test – which qualifies a 3D film by the amount of movie that is still watchable scene to scene sans third dimension eye wear? Unsurprisingly, the filmmaker asserts that glasses off is “not an accurate measurement.

We recently had a chance to sit down with Whitehill, as well as Disney’s Director of 3D Production, Josh Hollander, to discuss their 3D methodology. The pair openly admit that a number of shoddy post-conversions have created a stigma against 3D – and that the industry, as a whole, is still trying to decide on what types of 3D experiences to offer and how to effectively use the format in each respective case. We’ve seen in-your-face 3D heighten the gross-out set pieces in Final Destination 5 and more subtle uses of the format have helped films like Hugo and Avatar deliver unparalleled sense of immersion – Whitehill even champions the U2 3D concert film as one the most interesting and satisfying uses of the tech.

However, with so many different 3D experiences available at the theater, why do so many moviegoers revert to the basic glasses off method of determining whether or not they are getting their money’s worth? Whitehill might consider glasses off to be “problematic” but, before we get started, it’s important to note that he feels for moviegoers:

“I want to be generous to those folks because they’re thinking about 3D and they’re trying to evaluate it and God bless them. We need people to be critically looking at 3D.”

However, in spite of that goodwill, Whitehill and Hollander consider glasses off to be an extremely limited measurement that dismisses intentional artistic choices, not to mention the comfort of diverse viewers around the world, in favor of a notion that the majority of a film should include a noticeable 3D effect:

It’s a measure that is really problematic. Our philosophy is trying to keep things around screen – the same philosophy James Cameron has. If you watch Avatar, he actually racks that point of convergence like you would rack focus. So if I was going through [Finding Nemo 3D director] Josh to the door behind him, he actually purposefully has Josh right at the screen and the door right at the screen as I panned up. So, if he did that [glasses off] test with Avatar, he could almost be watching the entire movie in 2D. Because that point of entrance is always at screen. So, [glasses off] is a faulty measure of how good the 3D is.

In fact, I would almost argue that [more aggressive 3D] is adverse in many ways to a good 3D experience. For us, it’s really about the composition, the lighting, and does it feel comfortable?

Of course, 3D (like any aspect of moviegoing) is subjective and certain audience members are free to prioritize in-your-face experiences with noticeable 3D effects – since there’s room for a variety of tastes at the box office. That said, when it comes to measuring the quality of a 3D offering, the problem rests in public perception – specifically the assumption that the value of a 3D experience is directly correlated to the amount of depth visible on screen at any given moment. Many moviegoers assume this point to be true; however, the best directors and filmmakers are making frame by frame decisions about how the 3D effect can be used to enhance the emotion or action in a scene (dialing it down might actually be in service to the onscreen drama) – all while providing a comfortable viewing instead of attempting to satisfy an arbitrary (and entirely subjective) scale.

In an effort to help audiences think about why glasses off undermines the available variety of 3D film choices, Whitehill relayed how Disney approaches 3D in each one of their films (and, in many cases, scene to scene).

I would say the main thing to think about [as filmmakers], and this might sound obvious but I think people miss it, is ‘how does 3D really play in your movie – in your story? Is it a fun kind of romp where you can play more with the 3D and have more 3D moments or is it a more reflective and you know thoughtful or serious movie in which case you’d want to dial it down. In a case like Nemo, where you have this amazing environment, where you get so much of that reward for free in a way, because of the camera movement in the environment, you don’t need to perhaps push it as far as you otherwise might – so I think it really is a lot like a composer would look at a film and compose different scores. You need to take a deep breath and step back and really recognize how 3D is going to best serve individual projects [or scenes] and make decisions based on that. There is no one size fits all. So if you look at the 3D as supporting the story and moving with the story arc, you know, you can see maybe how to use in that way.

Supporting the emotion of the story (as well as the action in certain cases) is the chief priority for the Disney/Pixar 3D team as they rerelease prior projects (Finding Nemo 3D and Monsters, Inc. 3D) as well as collaborate with directors on upcoming features (Monsters University and the new film from Nemo co-director, Lee Unkrich, Día de los Muertos, to name a few). According to the Whitehill and Hollander, all future Pixar projects will be produced for 3D viewing – grounded in the studio’s aforementioned focus on both audience comfort and supporting on-screen emotion.

However, the approach wasn’t just an arbitrary decision and it’s clear that a lot of thought has been put into 3D methodology at Pixar. Next to the glasses off cost/benefit complaints, eye strain is one of the bigger problems that casual moviegoers often mention after a 3D viewing. For Whitehill and Holland, the team’s approach comes down to basic anatomy – and their job then becomes getting the largest emotional payoff for their 3D choices without compromising comfort.

This vision scientist, 100 years ago named Archibald Stanley Percival, he was a British guy. In 1913, he published ‘Geometrical Optics’ and had this idea called the ‘zone of comfort’ and basically it means your vision system has two major muscles: one is to focus and one is to converge. So if I’m looking at this bottle and focused at a certain distance, just like a camera lens is always focused at a distance, my eyes are converging on that spot. And you do that your entire life – you converge and focus at the same distance so those muscle systems are working together.

When you watch a 3D movie, your focus is always going to be the same distance – because your chair is not moving and the screen is not moving. You’re twenty feet away but you’re asking your eyes to converge and go in and out. So you’ve now dislodged those two muscles – and you can do that a little bit for a long period of time or you can do it a lot for a short period of time. But you can’t do that a lot for a long period of time – that’s where a lot of the eye fatigue and strain comes from in watching 3D. So with that in mind, we try to keep things [specifically: emotion] relatively close to the screen. If it’s not important than it’s not going to be near the screen. So that ‘glasses off’ test is not a great measure that’s able to communicate actual quality effectively.

Moviegoers are free to disagree with Whitehill and Holland about glasses off – since some viewers may not see enough value in subtle uses of the format or 3D for the purpose of enhancing emotional impact. Ultimately, it is audience members who are shelling out money for the added 3D upcharge – and, for some, glasses off viewing might help them qualify their experience and offer recommendations to like-minded friends.

However, as a general guideline for the now extensive variety of 3D approaches and experimentation, it’s hard to argue with Whitehill’s claim that the glasses off measurement is “problematic” (at the very least) and, in most cases, “not an accurate way of measuring 3D quality.”

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future interviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

Finding Nemo 3D is Rated G. Now playing in 3D theaters.