Movie Talk Extended Edition: 3-D Movies

With the wild success of Avatar (2009), many critics and viewers were quick to celebrate the next 3-D revolution in film. However, a look at the history, financial success and health concerns, shows that the new revolution might just be a case of déj… vu. And what about filmmakers going back and retroactively adding 3-D to older movies? Is 3-D here to stay this time? Let’s take a look.

A Brief History

The desire for three dimensional entertainment is nearly as old a film itself. While the execution of the medium is only now coming to fruition as a serious instrument of visual conveyance, the notion of 3-D in movies dates back to The Great Train Robbery (1903). In the final seconds of the film, one of the bandits points his gun at the camera and pulls the trigger.

Although a digitally enhanced projectile did not appear to fly into the audience, the sequence planted the seed for exploration into use of the 3rd dimension. It would take about 50 years, but 3-D movies would become a viable source of entertainment.

The first 3-D boom began with Bwana Devil (1952). The film featured the Natural Vision 3-D system, which developed into the polarization system and became the standard for the industry and a precursor for the modern model used today. Some features used the anaglyph system of two lenses (generally one red and one cyan) in a pair of glasses. However, this model best served non-moving images found in comic books of the day.

Because the systems during the first “golden age” of 3-D required dual strips to be played in theaters, the medium fell from favor due to expense.

During the 60s and 70s, studios released several movies using a red/green anaglyph 3-D system, but most were gimmicks in otherwise critically-unsuccessful movies. However, the period did produce one major breakthrough, Allan Silliphant and Chris Condon’s Stereovision system in 1970. The system allowed for two images to be squished on one film strip rather than two, meaning the polarized images would not go out of sync.

The 80s and 90s saw a reemergence of quality 3-D movies, spurred by the desire of several theme parks, Disney World and Universal Studios among others, for specialty 3-D attractions. From this came Francis Ford Coppola’s Captain Eo (1986), starring Michael Jackson. Other films entered the market but the mainstream reemergence of 3-D would have to wait until the 21st Century.

Ghosts of the Abyss (2003), directed by James Cameron ironically enough, was the first to use the Reality Camera System, which allowed for film to be recorded digitally, ushering in the possibility for movies like Avatar and Alice (2010).

The Money Doesn’t Lie

But, it doesn’t tell the whole truth either.

Proponents of 3-D movies point out the financial success of Avatar means that 3-D movies are here to stay permanently. Yes, Avatar is the highest grossing film of all-time domestically and internationally. However, when the domestic numbers are adjusted for inflation, a different picture emerges.

When adjusted, Avatar slips to 14th overall on the list. Even when movies released more than once are removed from the equation, Avatar sits at 7th. In addition, Avatar only has seventy-percent of the adjusted net gross of The Sound of Music (1965), the highest gross for a single release. So, what does this mean?

Avatar has the most money but not the most seats filled. And, don’t forget the extra $3 you shell out to see 3-D films. The numbers don’t support the idea that Avatar is the harbinger of the 3-D revolution, rather, the movie appears to be a flash in the pan especially since only 12 3-D films have ever broken the $100 million unadjusted gross mark domestically.

Health Concerns

When many members of the audience left Avatar, they said they felt “blue” in every sense of the word. Others left the movie feeling “green.”

The ill feeling many 3-D movie goers suffer from is known as “vergence accommodation conflict.” VAC results from the brain being forced to focus on both near and far images in 3-D movies.

In reality, when we look at an object close to us, the background fades out of focus, and vice versa. However, with 3-D movies, the brain must go against what it has learned naturally, usually resulting in eye fatigue and migraines.

The problem had been long thought to exist but was confirmed in a study conducted by Martin Banks, professor of optometry and vision science at the University of California, Berkeley.

“You’re taking that normal relationship which has been coupled in the brain for years and you’re changing it. And what we showed is that can cause fatigue,” Banks said about VAC. In addition, Banks warned that younger people are more at risk.

“When you hit your 50s and 60s, we think that concern is going to be reduced,” Banks stated. “So that is probably more problematic for young adults, teenagers, et cetera.”

While VAC isn’t the next plague, a growing number of people are reporting illness in 3-D movies.

Reimagination or Descecration?

One of the most insidious actions in the eyes of a movie purist is to alter the original. That’s why many are denouncing Cameron’s desire to retroactively add 3-D to Titanic (1997). Aiming for a 2012 re-release of the movie, Cameron hopes the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic will help ticket sales.

But will 3-D make the movie better? Did the new effects in the re-release of Star Wars (1997) make the movie better? What about changing shotguns into walkie talkies in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (2002)? Or the colorization of Casablanca (1942) in the 1980s?

Stephen Bogart, son of Humphrey, might have said it best, “if you’re going to colorize Casablanca, why not put arms on the Venus de Milo?”

So, will a 3-D version of Jack Dawson’s cold, dead hand protruding from the screen as he slips below the waves make Titanic better?

Personally, I doubt it.

A Cinematic Revolution?

Is 3-D here to stay? Historically, it looks like no and we are just on the front-end of the excitement, which will taper off over time. With questionable grosses as a whole for 3-D and growing health concerns, it looks like another case of déj… vu from earlier periods. However, an unprecedented number of 3-D films are in production and 3-D is making the leap to television.

This is the best chance has ever had of becoming a serious medium.