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New Dimensions: The Undeniable Merits of 3D Cinema

woman wearing 3d glasses to watch 3d cinema

This article explores the artistic merit, and the recent resurgence of 3D cinema to the mainstream market. Helped, seemingly, by James Cameron, 3D is everywhere.

We have seen a monumental spike in the amount of 3D films that are flooding into theatres. With the almost obscenely large box-office gross of Avatar, James Cameron showed us exactly what was possible with 3D technology. Now, it seems that every film that is coming out is being released in 3D as well as 2D, be it animated, horror or action films. There seems to be no stone unturned. As the master of the 3D universe, James Cameron, puts it, “We’ve demonstrated that the 3D market is an extremely lucrative market and this is not a fad; this is not something that is going to go away” (Lyus).

A Bit of Film History

Years before James Cameron took us to Pandora, or we were following Alice down the rabbit hole in Tim Burton’s latest film, 3D had already come and gone, written off as a fad and often reserved for kids’ movies such as Spy Kids 3D. Actually, 3D technology initially started with a toy that some of us might remember from our childhoods, the View Master. For those unsure as to what it was, the View Master was essentially a set of binoculars in which you would insert a paper disc with images. Each eye would be shown a separate image and your brain would interpret the two images as one 3D image. This nifty little toy first showed up in 1939 at the New York World Fair and presently has “25 different View-Master models and over 1.5 billion discs made” (Burke).

From there, technology moved into films. Again, it was based on our eyes ability to see two images that are slightly different. There would be one red and one blue image displayed on the screen, or sometimes one red and one green, depending on the film. The 3D glasses would have two different colored lenses corresponding to those on screen, allowing each eye to see one of the colors. The red light is perceived by the eye with the blue lens and blue light is perceived by the eye with the red lens. While this method can be effective for some of the more popular 3D “pop-out” gags, the color effects can be considerably harder on your eyes than the polarized version we see in theatres these days. Typically, these early 3D films were campy horror or sci-fi films, which could be the reason many died off between the time of their inception until recently.

But, How Does It Work?

The dominant method of 3D presentation is the polarized or RealD system, including films like My Bloody Valentine, Coraline and How To Train Your Dragon. However, Avatar was filmed with James Cameron’s own twist on RealD and brand new 3D technology, which will be touched on later. RealD is shot using the same basic principle as its predecessor, using two slightly offset images. However, it only requires one projector, which projects at 144 frames as opposed to the traditional 24 frames per second. John Lyus describes exactly how this system works:

With the RealD system, a single “time” of film contains two images that comprise one moment during filming, and it’s projected three times. With the polarizer in place, for each frame filmed, your eyes get alternating views of the frame three times each, thus accounting for the 144 fps rate of projection. The duplication of the individual frames is designed to reduce the flickering and stuttering effects that can occur if each eye is only exposed to an image once every 1/12 of a second.

3D Revolutionizes Film and TV

The first time we saw this technology used was in the 2005 film Chicken Little. The family film was released in both 2D and 3D and the latter made almost three times what the 2D version of the film made. Not long after that, RealD technology was put to successful use in 2009’s remake of My Bloody Valentine, which had a total domestic gross of $51,545,952.

The Man Who Changed Everything

staircase from the movie titanic

Of course, you can’t discuss 3D without talking about the man who may have changed the face of filmmaking forever: James Cameron. After sitting on the Avatar script for 15 years, and achieving extreme commercial success with films like Titanic, Terminator and Aliens, James moved on with his dream project and developed a whole new kind of stereoscopic cameras. Cameras that Wren says: “…changes the ballpark of moving images.” 

What makes these developments so significant is that instead of the typical flat scenes with the occasional gag jumping out at you (like a car tire or blood spray), the scenes in Avatar have depth and layers to them. This allows a further immersion into the world Cameron created. In essence, the cinema screen becomes a theatre stage. The only real similarity between this form and the older days of 3D cinema is that you still have to wear glasses to experience the effect. As opposed to the cheap, often flimsy, cardboard glasses that you would have gotten before, you have sturdy untinted polarized glasses. This advanced eyewear shouldn’t cause the headaches some have experienced with the older technology. 

How These Glasses Translate the Image Into 3D

Each lens has a different filter, which removes different parts of the image as it enters each eye. This gives the brain the illusion it is seeing the picture from two different angles, creating a 3D effect. As if it weren’t enough to invent a new kind of 3D camera, Cameron also developed a “virtual” camera in the form of a handheld monitor that allowed him to move through the world he had created. In essence, it worked to allow “Cameron to direct the film as if it was a computer game. If he wanted to change the viewpoint, he could click a few buttons on a mouse and a computer would redraw the virtual world from the new perspective” (Wren). There is no denying that Cameron has truly changed the way that we view films, and as this technology progresses it is safe to say that movies will be drastically changing in the not-so-distant future. As Cameron works on Avatar 2, set to be released in 2021, we can only guess how many more innovations one man can make.

The Issue With Inventing New Technology

The real issue with inventing new technology is that you begin to get critical of the older versions, or the inferior versions. This is very true in the case of James Cameron. He is very opposed to the “inferior” versions of 3D. Essentially, he is not a fan of any film that doesn’t use his technology, especially those films which are shot in 2D and rendered into 3D in post-production, such as Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans

As Cameron puts it: “…It’s just not the way to do it, if you want to make a movie in 3D, make the movie in 3D! And by the way, it should be a filmmaker driven process, not a studio driven process. I’ve been telling filmmakers for the last five years, [there’s] this whole new way to paint, with whole colors, and they’ve all kind of hung back. Now it’s getting crammed down from above, and people are getting told to make movies in 3D, and it should’ve been the other way around, they should’ve been banging on the doors of the studio saying, ‘I want to make a movie in 3D, let me do it!’ And it didn’t happen” (Billington).

Movies Should Be Made as a 3D Movie From the Beginning

Otherwise, you wind up with old-style feeling 3D films that cause headaches and give 3D films an increasingly bad reputation. On the other hand, this post-production conversion seems to be a natural reaction to the obvious financial success that is the 3D film market. It’s normal to see business people jump on bandwagons when they see how successful other films are. It’s my opinion that this isn’t something that we can stop. We’ll just have to accept them and if they are so objectionable to people then they can choose to see the films in 2D.

But It’s Not For Everyone, Clearly.

As with everything, not everyone is quite as ready to accept this major step forward in cinema. Even Michael Bay initially had fears, prior to Cameron’s Avatar. In an interview posted on Slash Film in April of 2009, Bay said, “‘3D? I don’t know… I might be old school. I think it might be a gimmick’” (Sciretta). 

However, Micheal Bay’s words have been strongly critiqued in the cinema world. Mack Rawden’s article on Cinema Blend shared his complete displeasure with 3D and where he felt it was going:

“I hate most Michael Bay movies because they’re just shiny things. An hour and a half of visually stimulating nothingness followed by ten-minute conversations consisting of, ‘Were you watching when that guy got impaled on the rusty pole?’ But, most of you goddamn idiots, most of you goddamn members of Ritalin Generation love Michael Bay movies because, to you, visually stimulating nothingness is everything. Well, going to the movies shouldn’t be vapid, mindless entertainment. You should cry; you should laugh; you should fall in love with the characters; you should fall out of love with the characters; you should think; you should question; you should ponder; you should, flat out, be alive. I’ve never felt any of those things because glasses tricked me into thinking actors were stepping down off the screen” (Rawden).

The Issue I Take With Rawden’s Argument

He completely misses the fact that not all films need to be life-altering and brilliant works of cinema. The reason that the general audience goes to the theatre is to escape from life for two hours. If the movie is brilliant and mind-altering, great, but this shouldn’t demerit movies that exist simply for their entertainment value. What better way is there to present an escapist film in 3D? Adding to the entertainment shouldn’t be demonized.

It Seems Quite Clear That 3D Is Here to Stay

With the recent release of 3D televisions and the ever-evolving technology behind both home and theatre 3D experiences, we can either embrace this advancement or we can continue to talk into the wind about how much we dislike it. I have to agree with Cameron when he said:

“With digital 3D projection, we will be entering a new age of cinema. 

Audiences will be seeing something which was never technically possible before the age of digital cinema – a stunning visual experience which ‘turbo charges’ the viewing of the biggest, must-see movies. The biggest action, visual effects and fantasy movies will soon be shot in 3D. And all CG-animated films can easily be converted to 3D, without additional cost if it is done as they are made. Soon audiences will associate 3D cinema with the highest level of visual content in the market, and seek out that premium experience.”

I really see no problem with this, and it seems to me that this emerging technology will be extremely important in creating a new and interesting experience for the audience and the filmmaker.