Tuesday, February 7, 2017

3D Movies: Always Just Over the Horizon

From its first appearance in 1922 to the current wave of films today, 3D has always been hailed as a great technical advance which would bring the cinema closer to its future as an all-encompassing form of entertainment. This future, alas, has always remained just over the horizon, and the reason is plain to see: it has always required special, add-on technologies that have made films more expensive to produce, project and view. This has led to cost, which has led to its being seen as a premium entertainment, which has prevented it from becoming more widely used. Doubtless the current wave of 3D will fade, but in the meantime, it might be educational to take a look at Teleview, the very first 3D system for the cinema, as nearly all of the technological elements -- and all of the hurdles -- were there are the start, nearly ninety years ago.

Basically, there have always been two methods of achieving the effect of 3D -- one, as with Kinemacolor, was an active method using alternating frames of the film for left-eye and right-eye views; such systems then required either a polarizing filter (with the projected images also alternating in polarity) or a synchronized, electrical shutter for every viewer (this was the method of Teleview, and seen in the diagram of the viewer above). Oddly, this is not only the earliest, but the latest, system: 3D television similarly uses alternating frames, along with a special set of electronic glasses designed so that each eye sees only the frames made from "its" perspective (at $50 a pair, they're hardly cheap).

The other method, the passive one, is to project both left-eye and right-eye perspectives simultaneously, and use either red/blue or polarizing eyeglasses so that the overlapping images are "sorted out" by each eye. This has the advantage of cheap, disposable means of reception, but the disadvantage that the image on the screen will be poor to anyone without the eyewear. While we often associate this system and its red/blue glasses with the earlier heyday of 3D in the 1950's, polarizing glasses were in fact far more commonly used, primarily because such films did not have to be printed on colored stock, or use color at all.

Today, converting a modern multiplex cinema to 3D costs about $300,000 a screen -- which, at some larger houses, would mean several millions of dollars. The practice has therefore been to convert only a few screens, which means that any film released in 3D will be on fewer screens, and even with a premium will make less for both the studios and the exhibitors. The dwindling economic returns of such a thing, especially in the current recession, have caused some studios, such as Warner Brothers, to pull out of earlier commitments to making films, such as the last Harry Potter features, in 3D. The jury is still out on 3D TV, and my bet is that, before too long, we will once again associate 3D, that magnificent technology of the future, with the past.


  1. I agree the fascination with 3D probably will never fade. It is an immersive art form. It puts the viewer right in the mix. One feels a part whatever is being depicted. You feel more like an active participant than just merely a spectator. Tony can attest to this from his experience with Oculus Rift at Best Buy! It heightens the senses and you are a part the scene. As Dr. Potter mentions the 3D experience comes at price though. As a result, 3D remains more a novel luxury than a ‘must have’ necessity.

  2. I find the title of post to be perfect for this subject because of how 3D is literally always over the horizon. I would say that 3D for me was always an experience I wouldn't pay for after my experiences viewing 3D films. Either the effect was hardly noticable or the glasses were simply annoying to wear, espicially over my glasses. 3D films are at a point where similar to discovering a way to perfect coloring in film, 3D in film is almost at its breaking point. But 3D films need to get to a point where it is easily accessible to everyone (without the use of glasses), even if it may be a bit pricey at first. I propose a theater with either two screens or a theater which the 3D is established through some reflection of lights. The first option is simple. If it's a 2D film, the second screen wouldn't be in use, perhaps it's rolled up to give way to the main screen. But when a 3D film is shown, the second screen which is in someways transparent, comes down and helps create a 3D effect with no glasses required, add some more science in there and the resoultion and effect would be amazing. The second option would require a lot of science but I feel that some of that technology is already put into use in theme parks where they use panels and light to give off some 3D effect. It just fascinates me how we're still in the stages of mastering the technology. I do agree with how 3D is in some ways a luxury item where only few have access to it, and in someways is a technology that is dying out, at least in the circle I am inclosed in.

  3. 3D movies give me a headache. Yet at IMAX, where I want to see a new release on a huge screen and with body shaking sound, I have no choice. The premium price for IMAX viewing goes hand in hand with the increased production costs of making a film 3D. That being said, I always have to squint or go somewhat crosseyed to get the 3D effect to “kick in”, kind of like with some 2D op-art illusions which seem 3D if you look at them the right way. We have a 3D TV at home, with special USB charged computer controlled glasses. The gear was expensive, it is uncomfortable to wear, it is affected by where you sit, and it’s generally more annoying than the novelty is fun. The 3D Oculus Rift was a whole other, much better experience. It’s immersive in that it tracks your head movement, and the sound also changes perspective with head movement. This feels like the “you are there” promised by 3D theatre. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there are no major movie releases being ported to this format. Too bad. I’m sure it would be horrifically expensive to create a move you could wander around in. For now. Perhaps the Neuro Mesh (being developed at MIT) surgically implanted to send stimuli directly to the brain will be better entertainment. Someone will have to let me know. I don’t want to see the new Power Rangers movie in 3D quite that badly.
    -Tony Ricci