“That movie would have been infinitely better if it had been shown in 3D.” I cannot speak for the rest of the moviegoing population, but this is one sentence I will never utter walking out of a Cineplex.
That is not to say 3D technology is completely expendable. With the right movie, 3D can be effectively exploited and have an enriching impact on a cinematic experience. In a majority of cases though, 3D merely acts as a shameful method for the studio to increase the ticket price. Some people buy into the assumption that 3D makes a movie appear more realistic and integrates the audience into the action. When not properly executed however, 3D can have dark, dreary and distracting consequences on a film originally shot in 2D. In that sense, 3D not only robs the audience of an extra three dollars, but also takes them out of the motion picture.
From The Avengers, to Brave, to The Amazing Spider-Man, several of 2012’s highest-grossing blockbusters have all come with optional 3D screenings. The recent increase in these movies might lead people to believe that 3D is a contemporary innovation. Actually, the development of 3D technology began in the 1830’s with the invention of the Stereoscope. Similar to a view-master, this device utilized a red lens and a green lens to give an image a 3-dimensional appearance. In 1897, C. Grivolas began to experiment with 3D in motion pictures, utilizing two connected projectors with a red and blue lens. 1922 marked the release of The Power of Love, the first feature-length 3D movie. While The Power of Love was not a financial success, it did not prevent 3D pictures from growing in popularity over the years.
Reminiscent of the current 3D craze, 3D technology exploded in the 1950’s with hits like House of Wax, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and It Came From Outer Space. But why did the 1950’s bring about such an immense wave of 3D pictures? The fad can likely be linked to a little invention known as television. People used to spend entire days at the theater not just to see movies, but cartoons, newsreels, and serials as well. When black and white televisions hit the market though, consumers were granted a revolutionary entertainment outlet that provided free news and escapism. The fact that people could observe television from the comfort of their home was an added bonus.
To compete with television, movie studios needed a new approach to draw audiences back into the theaters. They achieved this by presenting more movies in color and by additionally promoting the gimmick of 3D. Color and 3D both played key roles in sparking an interest in film again. Where color eventually became a standard for movies though, 3D failed to hold the audience’s attention in the long run. As the decades went by, fewer 3D movies were released. By the 1990’s, 3D had become limited to IMAX features, like Space Station 3D, amusement park attractions, such as Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, and occasional mainstream wide releases, like Spy Kids 3D.
3D movies were so scarce that going to see one would have felt like an event ten years ago. In 2004 however, a film came along that commenced the renaissance of 3D. Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express was IMAX’s first feature-length, animated 3D feature. The film was considered a financial dud upon arrival, having to compete with The Incredibles at the box office. As the weeks went by however, The Polar Express gradually found an audience and eventually became one of the ten highest grossing films of 2004. The Polar Express remains one of the finest examples of how to efficiently promote 3D, creating thrilling rollercoaster-like sequences and the essence of real snow falling on one’s head. It is also notable that 3D glasses started to take a substantial leap forward around this point in time. In the past, 3D movies were typically viewed through flimsy cardboard spectacles and giant, head-mounted display devices. 3D eyewear now had the appearance of regular sunglasses that could be snuggly situated on one’s face, making the 3D experience much more pleasant.
Since The Polar Express made 25 percent of its overall intake from 3D screenings, other animation studios started to bring their movies to the third dimension. By 2009, 3D had become the norm for digitally animated features. That same year though, a certain blockbuster proved that 3D could benefit live-action movies as well. Avatar surprised many when it claimed Titanic’s spot as the highest-grossing movie of all time. One of the most heavily promoted aspects of the film was its use of 3D effects. It was only logical for other movie studios to copy James Cameron’s success formula. Today, almost every big-budget release customarily comes with an optional 3D screening.
The rise of 3D movies in the '50s and the early 21st century both share one trait in common. In the '50s, 3D acted as a strategy for the movies to compete with television. Nowadays, movies not only have to contend with television, but the Internet, too. Netflix, Youtube and several illegal movie sites have provided a new way for people to quickly and conveniently watch films. Even if a person does not like viewing movies via a computer screen, they may still prefer staying in to surf the web rather than going out to a theater. The resurrection of 3D once again acts as a tactic to reel audiences back into the movies, offering them an added incentive that the Internet does not. The question is whether 3D is worth the extra money and the trip down to the theater. In most cases, the answer is a big, fat "No".
Where 3D is supposed to make a movie appear more authentic and enhance the audience’s viewing experience, it actually removes 20 percent of the brightness from the screen. This loss is only marginally off-putting when a vibrantly colorful movie, like Pixar’s Up, is presented in 3D. But in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which was primarily shot at night, the lack of clarity becomes evidentially noticeable and annoying. Observing Captain Jack’s latest adventure in 3D is the equivalent of wearing a pair of sunglasses on a moonlit night. As a result, the 3D distracts and deducts from the story, which should be the most important factor of a movie. 3D effects can particularly look fake and cheap when a film initially short in 2D, like Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans, or The Last Airbender, is converted to 3D during post-production. In addition to making these movies look murkier than they already were, the rushed 3D effects simply add nothing to the equation. In the case of The Last Airbender, a Razzie winner for Worst Picture, it is like pouring lemon juice on a fatal wound.
It is understandable why the idea of 3D appeals to so many people, as it promises them a more lifelike, exciting cinematic outing. What most audiences and production studios do not seem to realize though, is that 3D only has this effect on a select few movies. Unless a director specifically and thoughtfully fabricates a film with 3D in mind, the presentation will only make a movie appear less convincing. The best-looking 3D movies are the ones originally shot or rendered in the format. In the vein of The Polar Express, Avatar and How to Train Your Train Your Dragon marvelously immersed audiences in unique, enchanting worlds to explore and created aerial sequences that simulated actual flight. Perhaps the pinnacle of mesmerizing 3D was Martin Scorsese’s magical Hugo. Every object, angle, color and shot in the film felt specifically tailored so the audience could be incorporated into the almost tangible 3D environment. The picture ultimately added a new level of engagement to the experience, a quality every 3D movie should possess.
Another recent trend that has become increasingly widespread is re-releasing classic movies into theaters with a 3D twist. Although Disney thought their 2011 3D re-release of The Lion King would be profitable, they never imagined it would make just over 90 million domestic dollars. Since The Lion King struck gold, Disney has released 3D versions of Beauty and the Beast and Finding Nemo with Monsters Inc. and The Little Mermaid scheduled for next year. George Lucas and James Cameron have additionally gotten in on the action, re-releasing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Titanic in 3D. It is encouraging that the 3D trend is giving people a chance to revisit these beloved classics on the big screen, especially since the advances of DVD and blu-ray have made nationwide theatrical re-releases rare. At the same time though, 3D does not always work to the advantage of these cherished 2D films, which worked fine in their initial format. Why travel to the third dimension when there the second dimension was never broken?
3D has clearly had some positive repercussions on the film industry, integrating audiences in the detailed settings of various movies. Does this really mean that every movie should be exhibited in 3D though? Many directors believe that 3D will triumph over 2D filmmaking one day, much like how color has made black and white feel outdated. Shooting movies in color however, was a much more logical step forward in the progression of cinema. Black and white still of course has the capability to add substantial atmosphere and tone to a picture, such as in 2011’s Oscar-winning The Artist. But most modern movies, especially action adventure pictures, benefit from the radiance and beauty color schemes supply. Unlike color, there are only about a handful of movies where 3D effects actually serve a purpose. That is one of the reasons why color continues to prevail while 3D has undergone an uphill and downhill existence.
The notion of having every movie shown in 3D is especially uncalled for. Would you honestly pay to see The Kids Are All Right or Winter’s Bone, two movies that take place in 21st century America, in 3D? In terms of film, 3D technology should primarily be limited to certain fantasy/science fiction extravaganzas and animated features. These genres already take the audience on journeys to fictional worlds people will never get to visit in reality. Suitably shooting these otherworldly films in 3D can take the audience further into a fantastic universe, making the environment look as physical as possible.
With television, video games, and various gadgets now exploring the technology, it is doubtful 3D will die out as quickly as it did subsequent to the 1950s. While 3D should not be abolished by any means, it is becoming drastically overexposed. This is especially apparent in the medium of film, with dozens of movies being needlessly violated by the format every year. Seeing a movie in 3D used to feel like a special occasion reserved for specific movies. Now the novelty of seeing somebody extend a sword out at the audience has lost all impact. The more we see 3D utilized in a pointless, lackluster fashion, the duller it becomes. That is ultimately why 3D must be reserved for specific directors with specific cinematic visions as opposed to being an everyday occurrence at the movies.
Nick Spake is a college student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for the past seven years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com
Reach the reporter at email@example.com