What do Julius Caesar and 3D film technology have in common? Not that much, to be honest. But it is safe to say that 3D has finally conquered Hollywood for good this time.
First, some history.
The mostly abused gimmick was first commercially used in the 1950s in the exploitation film Bwana Devil (1952). It attracted movie-goers with it’s novelty, though the tech had been around since the 1920s and would have been common if it hadn’t been for the Great Depression — yet another example of timing being everything. Great directors like Hitchcock experimented with the technique in the 50s, but interest slowly waned and by the 1960s Hollywood had gotten bored and moved on.
3D films had a resurgence just a decade or two later with the advent of newly developed techniques that can be seen in blockbusters like Jaws 3D (1983). Many 3D films focused on the final installment of trilogies (Movie, Movie II, and Movie 3D), further strengthening their reputation as cheap imitations of film (sequels are generally terrible, now combine that with cheap tech tricks — not impressive). The 70s and 80s saw more experimentation by filmmakers, but ultimately the tech crashed again despite the significant improvement in the technology. There are many variables that must align perfectly for a tech to be adopted by Hollywood, all of which boil down to money. It needs to be practical for the theaters– 3D required special equipment; it needs to be “cheap” for the filmmaker — 3D was still quite expensive; audiences have to be willing to pay for it — they were tired of the cheap blue & red glasses. The tech had to become cheaper and more “user friendly” for it to stick around.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, IMAX theaters were showing a large number of documentaries in 3D, like those films about the Titanic by James Cameron. I was a small child in the 90s, and I distinctly remember being terrified of some very large ballerinas I saw at the Science Center IMAX theater in 3D. These sorts of educational films were fairly common in my town, and I expect across the country.
Slowly, 3D started being applied to children’s movies as well, like The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D (2005) or Polar Express (2004). Studios began noticing that 3D was profitable around this time (early 2000s). The glasses were changing and audiences were more accepting of the new edition 3D spectacles.
Then came the 3D movie to change everyone’s (read:my) attitude toward 3D films: Avatar (2009). The 3D effects added to the story and brought the film to life, rather than being distracting and annoying. In fact, the effects worked so seamlessly that they became the main strength of the film. The internet and all forms of media were abuzz about how formulaic the plot was and how familiar the characters were (in a bad way). The effects far outperformed most other aspects of the film. Here are some clips and a trailer you might find entertaining. I was hoping to illustrate the epicness of the film with some shots of avatars flying on the backs of dragons, but I sadly couldn’t find exactly what I wanted.
Check out the dragon!
Mute this and ignore the Train Your Dragon shots….
So, it was no coincidence that James Cameron directed Avatar. He had been perfecting his art for several decades by the time the Avatar project started. It’s equally unsurprising that the 2D version of the film was completely unimpressive. As you can see from the few clips above, the 2D version looks pretty fake and 100% computer generated.
Since then, there has been a fairly steady stream of 3D flicks. Summer 2012 has seen quite an influx of 3D movies itself. One weekend in my neck of the woods, more than half of a chain cinema’s films were 3D including MIB 3D (third of a series), Brave 3D, and Avengers 3D.
MIB 3D Trailer
There are a couple patterns that I noticed lately.
- Film Genre: 3D films seem to be mostly limited to exploitation action films, children’s films, and documentaries/educational films.
- Risk Management: Studios aren’t confident that 3D films can be profitable on their own, but they are willing to bet that 3D sales will bolster their net profit on a script. As a result, theaters are showing 2D and 3D versions of the same films.
- Affect of Effects: If Avatar used 3D to maximum affect, the average Hollywood film does the opposite, I suspect as a result of pattern 2 above. Films seem to be written and shot with 2D techniques in mind using 3D cameras. This allows for filmmakers and their crews to fall back on their experience with standard techniques with which they are familiar without excluding the possibility of cashing in on the 3D fad. For example, MIB 3D had one scene that shot laser beams out into the audience (annoyingly gimmicky? Yes.), but otherwise could have been appreciated equally without the cool glasses.
- Respect for 3D: Filmmakers seem to have had their fun and are past the initial R&D phase with regards to 3D technology. They are beginning to avoid the stereotypical scene where a ball is thrown or a monster bites into the audience. Movie-goers are bored of this cheap effect, and filmmakers have moved on (for the most part). We are now moving into a new era where filmmakers are forced to use the tech wisely, rather than throw it at scenes randomly. I would like to blame Avatar for this trend, because it allowed audiences to expect more similar to the iPad’s effect on mobile computing. Overall, it seems that filmmakers are finally getting a grip on how to use 3D, which I am very happy about.
I have avoided 3D films in general because I frankly don’t respect a large majority of those that I’ve seen. I spent a good $13 to see a few films in theaters recently and was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t completely offended by the way the 3D films were executed. Today, young children and teenage boys are clearly the studio’s target audience for 3D movies. Give it another decade, and I expect this demographic will broaden. People go to the movies to experience something outside of life and the film community has straddled the line of reality and imagination since its inception. Soon Hollywood’s 3D techniques will meet this expectation and films will be that much closer to tricking their audiences’ minds into believing the film’s reality.
Once 3D is perfected, all we’ll need is perspective. Anyone else expecting the resurgence of CinemaScope?