The numbers say that 3D isn’t the future. Can it still succeed?

Do you remember walking into a crowded cinema, picking up a pair of plastic-wrapped glasses and thinking “This is the future?” Whether that thought was accompanied by a sense of dread or excitement I suppose depends on your feelings about 3D cinema. Some people insist that it’s an expensive gimmick, others believe that we’re in the early stages of a technological breakthrough that will see stereoscopic film surpass the ‘flat’ format in the same way that synchronized sound surpassed ‘silent’ cinema. Indeed, when Avatar came out in 2009 (arguably the height of 3D), many Hollywood studios salivated at the film’s profits and started investing in 3D films. As the advent of TV’s Golden Age threatened cinema, 3D was seen as an exciting way to attract audiences to the cinema. Big box-office successes like Ang Lee’s Life of Pie and Dreamworks’ Monsters Vs. Aliens seemed to give hope to the 3D fans. And yet, the numbers aren’t looking too good. The 3D box office in 2016 ($1.6 billion) comprised only 15% of the total box office. And last year’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk (also from Ang Lee) was a critical and box office bomb, grossing a total of $30.9 million, against a production budget of $40 million. The film, which used super-bright 4K 3D with 120fps, was deemed as unwatchable and distracting by many critics. So, what are we to make of 3D? Fad or future?

To answer this question, I’m going to look way back at the beginning of cinema. If you know your film history, then you know that the Lumière Bros’s films were basically short and mute documentaries, that was shown in vaudeville shows and in fairs. Silent cinema was, according to the film theorist Tom Gunning,  ‘the cinema of attractions.’ People came for the technology on display, not for the content of the films. These exhibitionist films “display their visibility” and “solicit[..] a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer’s curiosity.” And ‘the cinema of attractions’ hasn’t gone away. That’s what 3D is. Gunning is insistent on regarding early cinema as an alternative to the narrative films of Méliès and D.W Griffiths, not a primitive version of them. So is 3D just part of the cinema of attractions? Certainly, the audience reactions to 3D cinema can be linked back to early cinema. In fact, Scorsese’s Hugo, which was shown in 3D, did a very clever job of referencing the wonder and shock at watching a train rush towards the viewer.  And yet, Philip Sandifer doesn’t think that 3D cinema is just a newer version of the cinema of attractions. He states that,

“this is the crucial problem of 3-D film as a technology: the point of the technology is to provide an aesthetic of astonishment that was, by the 1950s, already fifty years outdated, and to do so within the context of narrative film – the very framework that supplanted the aesthetic of attractions.” (2011: 72)

Ciotat Animation Small

‘L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat’

This seems to be the struggle of many 3D blockbusters. How do you find the balance between haptic pleasure at the hands of technological innovation and narrative development?  Can you be immersed in the narrative at the same as being immersed in the ‘attractions’? Back in days of early cinema, there wasn’t yet an alternative format or cinematic mode for audience members to chose from. There wasn’t a choice to be made between narrative cinema and the cinema of attractions. But now there is. When presented with the option of 2D and 3D, many filmgoers aren’t convinced that the 3D surcharge is worth it. Being ‘worth it’ mostly depends on the extent to which objects appear to come towards audience members in the theatre. Perhaps then, 3D is most conducive to films set in space; because, well, objects floating in the space between the screen and the audience is kinda like zero gravity. In fact, on the list of highest grossing movies shown in 3D, 3 of them are science-fiction films set in space.

Gravity

Gravity (2013)

So clearly, films, who by their very nature, interrogate space feel less like a money-grabbing gimmick when shown in 3D. But now I’d like to make the argument that we’ve been misunderstanding 3D this whole time. Although 3D refers to the illusion of depth perception, maybe the original 3D is surround sound. Surround sound is one of the technological innovations that we take for granted but creates a sense of spatial and sonic depth in the auditorium.

At least, that’s what Walt Disney wanted to achieve when making Fantasia. He was inspired by English conductor Leopold Anthony Stokowski.  When working on Fantasia, Stokowski told Disney that he wanted to record the soundtrack in stereo, at that point a novelty in cinema. Disney was all on board, himself inspired by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s operatic piece “Flight of the Bumblebee” to have a bumblebee sound as if it was flying around the theatre. Thus, surround sound was born. The initial multi channel audio application was called ‘Fantasound‘. Although the bumblebee sequence was cut from the film, the sound innovation was incredibly influential.

Surround sound does a similar thing as 3D does: creating the illusion that the image does not stop at the edge of the screen. In an interview for “Film Quarterly”, legendary editor and sound designer Walter Murch talks about designing the sound on American Graffiti: “I always like to think, not only about the sound of the space a character is in but also about what’s outside –to break the wall and invoke some kind of presence of the exterior.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that 3D is ‘the new surround sound’ because 3D isn’t new and they’re both working to create an immersive experience in very different ways. And Walter Murch hates 3D. And he even edited a 3D film. In a letter to Roger Ebert, he claims that “the deeper problem [with 3D] is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen — say it is 80 feet away. But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. This is constant no matter what. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focussed and converged at the same point.”

Then, although surround sound and 3D are both immersive techniques, 3D in its current incarnation, goes against human nature, whilst as surround sound is replicating the ways in which we experience sound every day.  Ultimately, Murch is right: if a great film “grips an audience they are ‘in’ the picture in a kind of dreamlike “spaceless” space. So a good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with.”

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