3-D: Everything Old is New Again, and Vice Versa

60s 3-D movie audience

3-D is just as exciting and innovative as it was in 1960

Written by: Holly Troupe

3-D is the bane of the contemporary cinephile’s existence. It is brain-addling. It encourages filmmakers to insert awkward and jarring stunts. The ticket cost is prohibitively high. Yet movie studios cling to the new technology as one might to a life raft in the swirling seas, even in the face of dwindling receipts. Will 3-D weather the storm of passing fancy, or will it go back on the shelf for another 50 years?

Who doesn’t enjoy a novelty? Impresarios have dazzled consumers for hundreds of years with innovative methods for the absorption of diversions: P. T. Barnum and his menagerie of wonderment; Nickelodeons projecting images of strongmen and dancing ladies; Al Jolson strapping on a microphone for “The Jazz Singer.” 3-D technology is nearly as old as movies themselves, and was one of the numerous movie amenities entertainment industrialists attempted over the decades. However, for the past 10 years with the implementation of digital technology, 3-D has enjoyed a boom that has surpassed even its 1950s heyday.

The biggest technological innovations in filmmaking—color and sound—began as curiosities. As use of the technologies became more sophisticated, the market demand became such that color and sound became studio no-brainers. While black and white films will never entirely go away, use of black and white is a specific style choice, rather than something the industry drags out of mothballs when the color bloom wears off. Once those technologies came into the mainstream, it was all on-wards and upwards. The same cannot be said for 3-D. Yasser Hamed, a senior 3-D animator, attributes the fluctuations in popularity to short-sightedness on the part of filmmakers. “3-D failed once before in the 1950s because directors considered it more of a gimmick,” he said. “People no longer go to the movies just for a story, they go for the experience. But directors need to ensure they are not making the same past mistakes to secure the long-term future of 3-D.”

Can 3-D ever be more than a gimmick? We can hear and we have color perception, so it makes sense that an audience wants the flickering on screen projections to be perceived just as they would be live. But 3-D on screen isn’t really three-dimension as in life. “The biggest problem with 3-D is the ‘convergence/focus’ issue,” says film editor Walter Murch. “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.” This optical phenomenon is what causes many movie-goers to experience headaches and nausea while watching 3-D films; our brains just aren’t wired to efficiently absorb visual information that way.

The quality of projected 3-D films is also an issue. Some theater projectionists have been deliberately dimming the bulbs in the projectors during screenings to save money. As a result, many films have a dark, muddy look theatergoers (and, occasionally, reviewers) attribute to the filmmakers. Filmmaker Michael Bay, in desperation, wrote to projectionists before the opening of his film “Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon,” asking them to turn the bulbs back up, telling them: “Projectionists are of ultimate importance because your expertise defines the audience’s experience. Let’s make the audience believe again.”

What does 3-D offer? Something that has no convenient hand-held alternative. An enormous swathe of stimuli; a sensory wash of color, shape and excitement; something impossible to recreate at home. “3-D is about choice and it’s an option our guests have when they come to our theaters. We believe 3-D has a bright future as undoubtedly evolving technology will only work in its favor,” said AMC Director of Public Relations, Ryan Noonan.

3-D has evolved, albeit in a meandering way. The technology existed, in some form or another, for nearly 100 years. It first made an appearance in 1915, when the Lumiere brothers modified their original film “L’arrivée du Train” for 3-D using Stereoscope. Studios have released at least one 3-D film nearly every year since 1934, with 57 released in 1953 alone. These films were primarily a series of oddities—Andy Warhol’ version of “Frankenstein” was in 3-D—that became more and more laughable as the culture became more politically and socially charged in the 60s and 70s. 3-D dwindled until the late 90s, when digital technologies made 3-D conversion more practicable. IMAX cinemas with specialized projection also began showing huge screen productions that eclipsed anything seen in a standard multiplex. IMAX’s gain in popularity caused a steady increase of 3-D conversions in the early 2000s. We all have James Cameron to thank for the rest.

“Avatar,” James Cameron’s fiscal magnum opus and the world’s blue-skinned cultural touchstone, earned 71 percent of its $2.7 billion total gross on the 3-D version of the film. However, the biggest 3-D releases since—“Shrek Ever After,” “The Green Lantern,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”—earned more money opening weekend on standard screens than their 3-D counterparts. For many, the 3-D experience isn’t markedly better, at least not enough to justify paying as much as $6 more for a ticket, not including the cost of glasses. “So many movies are made in 3-D now, people are tired of it and so many are just not that impressive,” said Rob Weiner, film librarian at Texas Tech University. “The suits in Hollywood think that audiences only want to see something 3-D which is totally wrong.”

Not according to James Cameron. “When color came out, was it overkill? It’s just the way things are. Everything is in color now. It’s not in black and white. Everything will eventually be in 3-D.” Woe betide the cineaste planning to re-make “My Dinner with Andre.”

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