Does the recent announcement that Sky is shifting all its 3D content on to its on-demand service mark the beginning of the end of 3D? Roland Denning and Andy Stout present their thoughts.
Did we ever want 3D anyway? By Roland Denning
Despite optimistic technologists throughout the 20th century predicting ‘one day all films will be in three dimensions’, 3D is usually a response to periods of crisis in the movie industry. The first spate of 3D was in the 50s when TV was seen (rightly) as the huge threat. We still get revivals of classics form this era, made using the anaglyph system of glasses with one red and one green (or cyan) filter, like Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder and Jack Arnold’s Creature From The Black Lagoon and They Came From Out Of Space. Anyone who’s seen them probably remembers them for when rocks tumble out of the screen into the audience or when telescopes or scissors loom over the stalls.
A couple of decades later, 3D was revived by the sexploitation industry - like the 1969 The Stewardess (at the time of its release, the most successful 3D film ever) and the 1972 British film, The Four Dimensions of Greta (promoted, sensitively, as ‘A Girl In Your Lap’). The latter was shot mostly in 2D colour but with flashback anaglyph 3D inserts of Greta (a missing Scandinavian au pair) swinging on a trampoline and throwing her bra to the audience. The 3D sequences were shot on a 1950s camera the director, Peter Walker, had found abandoned in a garage. It took another couple of decades for the technology to evolve beyond gimmick status.
By the time we get to Avatar in 2009, 3D systems had been perfected. But despite the few successes, it seems interest in 3D soon peaked - 3D has failed to get beyond its image as a sort sideshow spectacle. Why? I have my own theories.
Apart from the obvious drawbacks from the point of view of both producers (expense and clumsiness of the systems) and consumers (expense, clumsiness of the systems and lack of product) and think there are more fundamental reasons.
Firstly, we don’t see the world in 3D. What? you scream, of course we do. OK, put it another way - we have 3D vision but we scarcely use it. Put a hand over one eye - does the world suddenly appear flat and unreal? No. Most of the time we are barely aware of our stereoscopic vision - it’s something that is essential for our negotiation of space but, unlike colour, it’s not an intrinsic part of how we see the world. Consequently, when 3D movies emphasise stereo vision that actually look strangely unreal.
Perhaps more importantly, 3D demands a certain sort of imagery - it works best with clean sharp images. But clean sharp images are not what most filmmakers want - most movies depend on images that leave space for the imagination to intervene, we don’t want everything too defined, hence the demand for shallow depth of field, softer lenses, diffusion, grain, smoke - all things that play havoc with 3D systems.
Backgrounds work great if they are a myriad of distant stars or fishes in the ocean (witness the success of 3D movies like Life of Pi and Gravity), not so great if they are lost in the mists. Best of all are the clean-cut outline of animation. If you want to get away from digital precision and seek diffuse, dream-like grainy images, forget about 3D.
3D works best of all with computer generated graphics and games - and, of course, movies derived from games. Now the technology is established I’m sure it will continue to have a place in that realm. But for the rest of the market it seems that 4K is taking off in way that 3D never did - at least there is always something to watch in 4K, even if it is only upscaled HD.