With the totally irrelevant upcoming re-release of Titanic in 3-D, Dermot O’Rourke looks at current status of 3-D in modern cinema and explains why it won’t be around for too much longer
Proclaiming some sort of technology as a ‘fad’ is often a dangerous game. The whole thing tends to come back to you and smear egg on your face. Take the case of Ken Olsen, founder of the now defunct computer manufacturer Digital Equipment, who brushed aside the notion of Personal Computers, to his detriment, because of his naive belief that, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” In the world of movies it was Henry Warner of Warner Brothers who brushed aside the innovation of sound for dialogue in his pictures when he rhetorically asked, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Everybody did, it seems, as Warner soon found out, when the “talkies” quickly forced out silent films at the end of the 1920s.
Although these are cautionary tales for people who casually dismiss new technologies, it has been apparent in recent times that 3-D in modern cinema is now in deep decline since its explosive reintroduction into theatres in 2009 with James Cameron’s mega-hit Avatar. Since Avatar, and a few films in its immediate wake such as Alice in Wonderland, capitalised on the spectacle of 3-D, sufficient time has passed and it seems now that the gloss has very much worn thin. Despite a record forty-seven films released in 3-D in 2011, the average takings were almost half of those in 2010, when there were only twenty-eight 3-D films released.
More significant than that is for huge blockbusters in 2011, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the majority of movie-goers ditched 3-D and actually opted to view the films in 2-D. Even Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, which was critically acclaimed and picked up a host of awards, underperformed at the box office, having only barely broken even. This is similar to the early days of cinema itself, when audiences were initially mesmerised by the technology of moving images but soon became tired of pure exhibition and required artistic innovation to tell stories with the images to keep them engaged with the technology.
It may be surprising to hear but 3-D is not a new innovation in cinema at all. In the early days of cinema there were experiments with stereoscopy, but the first real drive for the introduction of 3-D into theatres by Hollywood was in the 1950s. In fact, there are distinct parallels between 3-D in the 1950s and the current generation of 3-D. In the 1950s, 3-D was introduced by Hollywood studios as an “immersive” theatrical experience in order to compete with a change in the public’s viewing practices, that were threatening box office revenues. Does this seem familiar? In the 1950s there was the advent of television becoming part of the furniture and offering people the cinema experience in the comfort of their own home, while nowadays the primary threats to Hollywood seem to be digital distribution and piracy, as well as a golden age of TV dramas.
So, why has this generation of 3-D failed to maintain the public’s enthusiasm? On a technical level, not only is there significant light loss in the image but there is a problem that lies on the fundamental human anatomic level that no amount of technical wizardry can fix. In a letter to the film critic Roger Ebert, renowned editor in modern cinema, Walter Murch (sound editor for Apocalypse Now and Oscar-winning editor for The English Patient), explained that this is a “convergent/focus” problem with humans. Normally, when a person focuses on an object their eyes also converge at the distance the object is at. However, 3-D films require us to focus at one distance and to converge on another, which means our brains have to work very hard to overcome this optical trick and it is something “that 600 million years of evolution never prepared [humans] for.”
However, the primary reason that 3-D has not worked out is that the motivation for its incorporation into films has been financial, as it was in the 1950’s, and not artistically driven. This is particularly evident in films that were originally shot in 2-D and retrofitted for 3-D afterward in post-production, thus appearing to be an afterthought instead of being an integral part of the creative process. Even films that were shot in 3-D often crowbar in a demonstration of the 3-D technology, often of no consequence to the narrative, simply to justify it to the customers forking out for the dearer movie ticket and glasses. Advocates of 3-D often cite the turbulent introduction of colour to replace black and white as a step for cinema toward actuality, and say 3-D is the next logical step, but this an unfair comparison. Colour transcends matching reality and provides an artistic dimension. It is used, for example, as a leitmotif by filmmakers to symbolize and convey meaning or establish a tone for a film and this is, ultimately, the crucial characteristic that current 3-D cannot provide.
This is certainly not the end of 3-D in cinema. Hollywood has invested heavily in the technology and it will most probably reappear in theatres under a new guise in the future – possibly in a more holographic form. Akin to the 1950s generation of 3-D effectively being killed off by the introduction of Cinemascope’s widescreen system, it appears that IMAX is the real future for 2-D and for cinema. What this generation of 3-D has shown is that movie-goers do not require gimmicks like 3-D to be immersed and what is really demanded are well-crafted stories; something to which Walter Murch would very much attest, “A good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with.”