3D Or Not 3D, That Is The Question

I have been watching movies for longer than I care to remember and during that time have both enjoyed and endured the various fads foisted upon the medium. I would put the recent resurgance of 3D in the latter bracket. As far as I’m concerned, the supposedly revolutionary tech is merely a gimmick to sell tickets to substandard movies and in turn for the cinemas showing said movies to hike up the prices. Further, any 3D films I have seen, and to be fair I have not seen a whole lot, tend to look poor. The tech has a tendency to either darken the screen print or make the actors and scenery look flat, like cardboard cutouts in a shooting gallery. This is often due to the cinema not having the correct lamps to run the film in question, due largely to the expense of acquiring them. This might  explain why cinemas are so keen to whack on an extra couple of pounds / dollars to “hire” glasses to see a film you have already paid through the nose to see.

I just find the whole thing pretty unscrupulous and I haven’t yet spoken of the high probability that any given film you will see with 3D tacked on will be rubbish. Last year’s Clash Of The Titans was a case in point. Like many releases boasting that they are screened in groundbreaking three dimensions the jiggery-pokery has been added in post production. This should explain the distinct lack of visual oomph one might expect from a product they have paid extra money for – oomph Clash Of The Titans most definitely did not deliver.

Avatar, in sharp contrast, was always designed to be shot in 3D and was filmed accordingly using a clatter of very, very expensive cameras. Now, I really thought that film was deadly boring but at least it looked good. The 3D there was pretty impressive but it was nothing but bells and whistles. Icing on a very dull and bland cake. And there’s the rub. Too many directors  – or rather, ad agencies – are using 3D as a particularly blunt instrument, a mountebank tactic designed to sell people a pig in a poke. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, the wonderful Toy Story 3, which was not so much a brilliant animated film as a brilliant film by any genre’s standard, but one wonders if it really needed 3D to sell it. Or if the 3D made it any better. Personally, I doubt it.

Anyway, not that long ago I wrote a piece on this very issue. It was edited heavily before it went to print so it would make the designated wordcount (I do have a tendency to overwrite) so here is the full, unabridged version…


In 1959, as the conflict in Vietnam was gaining momentum, movie mogul William Castle released The Tingler, a fairly nondescript b-picture in which Vincent Price tangles with a spinal parasite. The gag was that several seats were packed with a buzzer which “tingled” the sitter at appropriately scary moments. Castle also planted fake nurses in the foyer stooges in the audience who would feign a fainting fit to put the willies up those sitting nearby. He called the gimmick “Percepto!” and pretty soon he would become renowned for equally hokey attention-grabbers, where auditoriums were filled with inflatable skeletons, plastic axes and “Illusion-o!” ghost viewers.

If you find yourself scoffing at such a concept, consider for a moment the recent trend of paying a premium price to don plastic glasses before you slouch into your reclining seat. Of course it is not recent at all. By the time William Castle had given ticket buyers magic coins and “punishment polls”, 3D film had already been in existence for several decades, though the technology was largely restricted to car adverts and experimental shorts. The 1950s witnessed a brief rise in popularity of Spectroscopic Photography, to use the correct term, most notably House Of Wax (1953, later to be remade with Paris Hilton doing her best impersonation of a teak sideboard), The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) and Bwana Devil (1952), an oddity about big game hunters which received a more savage mauling from the critics than from the titular lion.

The 3D phenomenon initially failed to catch on, largely due to the financial and practical specifics of screening the films, a process which required two prints and, occasionally, two projectionists. There was another flurry of interest in the 1980s, resulting in bargain basement fodder Jaws 3-D (tagline: “The third dimension is terror”), Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone, a fun if bonkers Sci-Fi romp, and Friday The 13th Part 3. The latter epitomised the very thing that was bad about 3D movies at this stage: cue a series of convoluted scenarios which ended with objects such as an evacuated eyeball, a machete or – oh, scary – a yo-yo to be poked towards the camera. It reduced a script to a series of visual jokes, and the actors to the level of the carnies who dress up as monsters in ghost trains. It’s important to note that funfairs and amusement parks were at this point using the same screens for their roller-coasters and simulators. In 1896, the Lumiére Brothers achieved a similar effect without the use of red and cyan glasses: when the audience saw footage of an approaching train, they thought it was going to break the fourth wall and steam into the theatre.

Imagine then, the smattering of embarrassed coughs, when James Cameron declared that 3D would change the language of cinema. Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana were currently strutting and honking on 3D IMAX screens the size of space shuttles, so you can understand why people were dubious. Cameron had already proclaimed his love for stereoscopic imaging with underwater documentary Ghosts Of The Abyss (2003), but lost his shizzle altogether when it came to filming Avatar (2009). “When you see a scene in 3D, that sense of reality is supercharged,” he told Variety. “A 3D film immerses you in the scene, with a greatly enhanced sense of physical presence and participation.” Fair dos to Cameron, upon its release Avatar lived up to his promises. The plot, an amalgam of everything from Ferngully (1992) to Dances With Wolves (1990), may have been derided, but the effects were truly revolutionary and did indeed change the language of cinema. Many critics sniffed at Cameron’s hyperbolic self-aggrandising and leaden direction, but as Avatar has since bankrolled around a gazillion dollars worldwide one doubts that he is worried.

However, other academics expressed concerns about the dangerous precedent the resurgence of interest in 3D would have on the medium. Roger Ebert, a man who clearly knows his film onions, didn’t mince his words: “It’s a waste of a perfectly good dimension. Hollywood’s crazy stampede toward it is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience.” This might sound like sour grapes, but other accusations levelled against 3D movies are harder to refute. They have a tendency to make some viewers nauseous – a condition called “vergence accommodation conflict”. Boking, unless induced by beer and a dodgy kebab, isn’t something most folks want from a night out. Another problem relates to design and pre-production. When Cameron dreamt up the planet of Pandora in his Cerebro chamber, he always intended it to be shot in 3D and invested a huge amount of time tracking down the right cameras for the job. When studio bigwigs got wind of the runaway success of Avatar, they immediately asked for regular movies to be converted to 3D retroactively. Earlier this year, both Alice In Wonderland and Clash Of The Titans fell foul of this process, and both looked desperately flat. Compare, for example, the warmth of the physical effects, stunts and wirework used in Inception with the cold CGI you will see in most 3D movies, and you may be convinced that this supposedly revolutionary tech is not in fact the way of the future.

Further, it’s prohibitively expensive to retrofit a cinema with the right equipment, which doesn’t take into account the process of cleaning the customers’ glasses after use. Many emporiums will simply choose not to buy a sufficiently powerful lamp, which might explain why viewers find the print dark and sapped of colour. Others will slap a surcharge onto the regular price of a ticket, as Mark Kermode observed in The Guardian: “3D exists not to enhance the cinematic experience, but as a pitiful attempt to head off piracy and force audiences to watch films in overpriced multiplexes. It’s a con designed entirely to protect the bloated bank balances of buck-hungry Hollywood producers.” Thankfully, this unscrupulous practice has not been adopted by all venues. Moviehouse have chosen to absorb the cost rather than foisting it upon their client base. According to General Manager Hugh Brown, “We made a deliberate decision not to charge our customers more for tickets to a 3D film. We didn’t charge extra when we brought in surround sound, so why should we do so for 3D?” Sadly, Moviehouse seem to be in the minority. The language of cinema is now the language of cold, dirty cash. It always was, but at least people used to be subtle about it. With 3D you can really see the hand grasping towards your wallet.

In spite of what you, me or Mark Kermode says, the 3D juggernaut will carry on thundering through the multiplexes, scooping up cash as it goes. The next instalments of Saw, Harry Potter, Final Destination, Tron, Resident Evil and Jackass – skater genitalia and poop in your face – will all be marketed as 3D productions, regardless of how genuine that claim might be. It’s worth remembering that Alfred Hitchcock dabbled in 3D with Dial M For Murder (1954) but was so unimpressed by the results that he dropped it like a bag of burps. And he knew a thing or two about making movies. Innovation is not always progress.


3 Responses to “3D Or Not 3D, That Is The Question”

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  2. Tim Higgins Says:

    Good piece Ross. Funny enough I’m yet to anything in 3D yet. I live in coleraine with no 3D option and when i’ve been elsewhere times have suited better to see the movie in 2D. I’m not that interested in the whole thing and I reckon it will pass, as kermode states, it’s a gimmick. However I would love to see Herzog’s latest project which is in 3D. Have you seen it?

    • Ross Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Tim. I haven’t seen the new Herzog yet but it’s on the list. That said, it’s quite a long list so Mr. Herzog might have to wait for a bit. I know what you mean about a lack of options. In Bangor so it means making the journey to Belfast if I’m going to see a film. I kmow it sounds mercenary but after paying for petrol and maybe the car park and the ticket itself the idea of having to “rent” a pair of special glasses rankles with me. Particularly when it is likely that the film you are paying extra for is not worth paying for let alone paying extra for. As I see it, 3D is a neat marketing pitch rather than a seal of quality.

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