Three-dimensional movies have been a thing for almost as long as cinema has existed. It has taken on various forms throughout the decades, from stroboscopic animation in the late 19th century to the first 3D film shown to an audience in 1922, The Power of Love. Many of you may even remember the green and red anaglyph glasses that use to be needed to experience 3D films and TV that actually date back as far as the first half of the 20th century. While taking a back seat from the 30s onwards, the medium would be revived again in the 50s with the advent of colour 3D films like The House of Wax, starring Vincent Price and then again in the 1980s. Then in the late 2000s, 3D started to make yet another comeback with movies being projected in 3D, such as Beowulf, Chicken Little and the re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas. It would evolve yet again with the release of James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009, as the director worked on creating a new way of using the medium for storytelling. But since Avatar, the innovative technology that was pushed so heavily down consumer’s throats has begun to fizzle out, with most filmmakers not even getting a chance to really explore a potentially interesting storytelling technique. So what happened?
A Bright Beginning
Unlike the 3D technology that came before it, Cameron actually shot Avatar with specialized 3D cameras, as opposed to converting the film stock in post-production. With this newer version of 3D, the red and green glasses of yesteryear were gone and were replaced with thick darker tinted glasses to help create the 3D effect. As you can imagine though, this was an extremely expensive bit of technology and only a handful of films released since Avatar have really capitalized on making a movie with 3D imagery in mind. Most notably, Life of Pie and Hugo would be movies where the filmmakers, Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese respectively, were able to use the technology in tandem with story in order to create a unique and immersive film. Peter Jackson attempted this as well with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but he used a much higher frame rate to display the 3D images, opting to use 48 frames per second as opposed to the traditional 24. While this certainly made the 3D image smoother (or at least so says Jackson), the effect was nauseating for many and the ultra HD imagery actually made the movies feel less like, well, movies. As someone who got to see this movie in 48 frames (a limited theatre as most cinemas didn’t have the projects to display this frame rate) I can attest to the bizarre and alien nature of this frame rate, which made the movie appear almost like daytime TV or a soap opera, but with the ultra HD imagery, the makeup in 3D looked…well…bad. It became much harder to find the two sequels with the higher frame rate due to the poor reception of the format. Note that a higher frame rate, while not per se conducive to cinema, can actually be extremely useful and pleasant to the eyes for video games.
Cutting Corners and Flying Too Close to the Sun
Unfortunately, most films didn’t get this luxury and many studios opted to convert movies that were shot in 2D into 3D. This produced a much weaker 3D effect, with images looking rather flat and dull, rather than the increased and immersive depth of field found in Avatar. With this less than stellar image quality came the reason why so many studios opted for 3D converted movies: the increased movie price tag. 3D movies would cost a few dollars more than your regular 2D movie and when combined with ultra-large screens like the IMAX, ticket prices went through the roof. For the early half of the 2010s, it could be extremely difficult to find the next big blockbuster movie in 2D, as the studio would force 3D conversion upon the audience and charge them more for it.
But audiences didn’t want this and got wise to the poor quality of converted 3D films. By the end of the 10s, cinemas began to prioritize 2D movies once more, knowing that audiences were literally sick and tired of being priced gauged for nauseating films with 35% dimmer screens. There was no benefit in paying more for something inferior and as the years went on since the initial 3D craze, box office figures for those movies began to steadily decline. By 2017, 3D movies’ box office revenue had dropped by 18% in North America, or almost $1 billion USD compared to revenues in 2010. Ang Lee, who made the visually stunning Life of Pi in 3D, took Jackson and Cameron’s stance on high frames and made Gemini Man with 120 frames per second, something that arguably killed the movie (aside from its messy script).
One Last Attempt?
But Cameron is ever the innovator and instead of conforming to audience demands and trends, he’s committed to filming is Avatar sequels in 3D as well, despite evidence that audiences are past the gimmick at this point. In an interview with Collider concerning 3D and high frame rates, Cameron stated:
“I mean, I have a personal philosophy around high frame rate, which is that it is a specific solution to specific problems having to do with 3D,” Cameron explained. “And when you get the strobing and the jutter of certain shots that pan or certain lateral movement across frame, it’s distracting in 3D. And to me, it’s just a solution for those shots. I don’t think it’s a format. That’s just me personally. I know Ang doesn’t see it that way. I don’t think it’s like the next 70 millimeter or the next big thing. I think it’s a tool to be used to solve problems in 3D projection. And I’ll be using it sparingly throughout the Avatar films, but they won’t be in high frame rate.”
So it looks like while the current model for 3D seems to be on its last breath, James Cameron is trying once again to revive the technology and to develop it even further. Is he flying too close to the sun or can he bring 3D back from near death? Let us know in the comments!