Ending 3-D’s Transience: Narrative Compatibility in 3-D Film

“See it in 3-D!” has become an oft-dreaded addendum of movie trailers. The glasses, the special screens, and the extra cost all create a degree of inconvenience that, to most audiences, is nowhere near worth the trouble. Since James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), each new blockbuster guarantees a mind-blowing 3-D experience, and yet 3-D viewing provides only a small fraction of that blockbuster’s revenue. With 3-D cinema inextricably linked to gimmicks and headaches, convincing audiences to go to 3-D movies might appear to be a lost cause. 3-D use is quickly disappearing as big-name films, such as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, opt out of 3-D and perform well without it. This shift is not unprecedented: 3-D experienced bursts of profitability in the 1920s, 50s, and 80s, and each time it eventually drifted out of Hollywood’s focus. While 3-D technology made progress during each of these periods, it repeatedly lost traction due to its use as a novelty or gimmick. It follows logically that the current 3-D trend will once again wane. Even while some animated films and documentaries have used 3-D in skilled, artistically relevant ways, 3-D has not managed to gain meaningful traction in either critical or fiscal ways. Films that are mainstream, critically respected, and use 3-D as an immersive narrative tool are imperative in making 3-D an artistically viable technology. Gravity (2013) has managed to please both audiences and critics with its use of 3-D technology and has earned the majority of its profits from 3-D viewings. The issue of making 3-D a profitable and respected technology is no longer one of technological innovation or accessibility but one of aesthetics and narrative compatibility. Consequently, filmmakers need a paradigm shift concerning 3-D. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity demonstrates three important principles that can define a new paradigm for the artistic incorporation of 3-D in film: first, 3-D was a consideration from the film’s conception; second, 3-D is used for immersion; and third, 3-D enhances the themes of the story. If utilized in this way, 3-D could be transformed from a cyclical fad to a permanent, artistic, and effective way to increase audience engagement and improve narrative in Hollywood feature films.

3-D is an often-overlooked aspect of film history, but its past is an essential factor in any discussion of modern 3-D technology. Despite the assertion that 3-D is the new way to see film, 3-D and stereoscopic experiences have been around since Charles Wheatstone discovered the technology in 1838. Starting in the 1840s, 3-D technology entered into what 3-D historian Ray Zone calls “The Novelty Period,” a period from which 3-D has never recovered. Various 3-D technologies were used to create stereoscopic peep shows that were part of traveling circuses and carnivals. This type of exhibition was not unlike the exhibition of early films—when film hit the ground running in the 1890s, “3D wasn’t very far behind” (Hayes)—but unfortunately 3-D remained a carnival trick while film technologies left the novelty phase by 1905 (Zone, “Stereoscopic Cinema” 1). In the 1920s the first 3-D films were shown in theaters, marking the first burst of profitability for 3-D film. Films such as The Power of Love and M.A.R.S. or Radio Mania were received well by both critics and audiences, who lauded the technology. However, this burst of profitability would not last. Few feature films were made at this time, and though they did well, their exhibition was rife with problems. Even though 3-D technology was constantly progressing, it never escaped this connection with novelty, likely due to the myriad of different technologies being used. This caused many problems in exhibition. For example The Man from Mars by Laurens Hammond and William Cassidy (1922) was one of the first feature films released in 3-D, but it could only be shown at the one theater that had the technology to play it (Patterson). A lack of widespread 3-D use and the inconsistency of its design, as well as the fiscal difficulties from the Great Depression, kept 3-D from progressing out of the “novelty period.” By the mid-1930s the only 3-D films still being shown consistently were shorts that showcased the 3-D technology, including Audioskopics and Three-Dimensional Murder, and for the most part 3-D technology was relegated to carnivals and peep shows.

In the 1950s, a mix of American post-war culture and competition with television led filmmakers to try 3-D technologies once more. 3-D could have proven successful on its second burst of popularity, but it actually failed more disastrously than before because of rampant over-enthusiasm. Initially this trend, beginning in Britain, seemed to prognosticate a happy future for 3-D films—even Alfred Hitchcock experimented with it, releasing Dial M for Murder in 3-D. For a while this success spread—more filmmakers began using it and more theatres installed 3-D projection systems. However, that success lasted only a few years for a couple of reasons. First, other technologies were more interesting and 3-D was growing old quickly. Scholar Keith Johnston quotes a then-current journal as saying in 1954, “The pattern of entertainment to come is slowly taking shape… the trade as a body is showing more interest in the panoramic sweep of wide film than it is in the entertainment value of a third dimension” (100). Color and wide-screen films were more elegant choices and were associated with critically renowned films, while the films that used 3-D technology were, frankly, poor films. As opposed to the A-list films being produced in color, 3-D films were B-pictures and exploitation movies that were geared toward “the gum-chewing, hamburger-munching adolescent dying to get out of the house on a Friday or Saturday night” (Thompson 381). When Bwana Devil, the first 3-D film of the 1950s, was released the fact that it “was a bad film was acknowledged by both critics and audiences at the time of its release” (Mitchell 209). But the film made money, and when studios saw this success they, with the fiscally difficult post-war years in mind, jumped on the 3-D bandwagon overenthusiastically. Consequently, many of the first 3-D films were made in less than two weeks (Mitchell 209). The films made money as audiences were initially drawn by curiosity to 3-D technology, but audiences were bound to lose interest in poorly made films sooner rather than later. Additionally, any film could be turned into a 3-D one for the sake of spectacle and the possibility of high-grossing profits. Films of all genres were released in 3-D, from the horror/thriller House of Wax (1953), to a Mickey Mouse Club Special, to the musical Kiss Me Kate (1953) (Hayes). 3-D was slapped onto a movie to create novelty, leading the technology to the same demise it experienced in the 1920s. Overall, the 1950’s foray with 3-D was short lived and has been succinctly summed up by Douglas Gomery as follows: “That 3-D was even tried on a significant scale demonstrated how desperate exhibitors of the early 1950s were for something new… By mid-1954 it was clear that with all the expense involved with special attachments to projectors and glasses issued to patrons, the added revenues from 3-D never proved worth the investment” (Gomery 240). 3-D was again left to be a cheap novelty and experiment of the past.

The 1980s saw another brief return. With the popularity of horror and sci-fi films in the technology-obsessed decade, 3-D seemed a perfect fit. But filmmakers had not learned from decades past. 3-D was doomed once again as filmmakers dove into it without stopping to consider how the technology would affect the films, and eventually failed for a few reasons. First, and rather ironically, 3-D production had not caught up to the technology of films. The result was a severe “degradation of image” present in most 3-D films, despite 70mm projection. Second, much like the 3-D films of the 1950s, the films were poorly made exploitation films that could not keep a diverse audience interested. Ray Zone describes the success of first 3-D film of the 80s, Comin’ At Ya (1981) as “a kitsch-laden spoof of spaghetti westerns…it had no stars, got poor reviews, and was actually just a violent bit of tongue-in-cheek misogyny” (Zone, “3-D Revoution” 111). However, because the film grossed over $13.5 million in a short while, more 3-D films were made in the same pattern. With cheap production being at the crux of all 3-D production, the 3-D films of the period were primarily horror films, cheap exploitation pictures, and pornographic films. The height of 1980s 3-D was Jaws 3D or Jaws 3, but the film only made a disappointing $12 million and was pulled from theaters relatively early. By the end of the 1980s 3-D burst, the 3-D effects had been relegated to novelty once more through 3-D rides—think of Disneyland’s Lucas/Disney venture with Michael Jackson, Captain EO. Such a legacy did not indicate a hopeful future for 3-D film.

The 2010s have become a new era for 3-D experimentation, beginning with Avatar. Because of technological advances, right now, more than ever, is the time for 3-D film to flourish. Digital 3-D rather than film-based 3-D is simpler to create and to exhibit. When James Cameron began working on Avatar, he was the first director to have experimented with 3-D in years, and he took advantage of both an enormous budget as well as digital technology. Cameron and his crew managed to deal with many issues of 3-D, including a handheld “virtual camera” that let Cameron view his scene in 3-D immediately in order to consistently create shots that worked well in 3-D (Wrenn). The team working on Avatar also improved the 3-D glasses worn by theatergoers. The modified glasses were un-tinted, which reduced the chance of headaches many 3-D viewers had experienced in the past. Additionally, the glasses could pick up on subtleties in depth making fewer camera movements necessary for the image to come into the third dimension (Wrenn). These glasses have now become standard for 3-D film. Another great advance is that, because of digital technology, 3-D is distributed widely and does not seem as subject to economic irregularities. In the recent “Great Recession,” the number of cinemas—including the cinemas that show in 3-D—did not drop, but grew. Digital 3-D can be exhibited with one projector rather than two, and so is cheaper to install in theaters. 3-D exhibition is an easy step, especially as most theaters are moving to digital technologies anyway. In fact, from 2008 to 2012, the number of movie screens that show 3-D grew from 1,427 to 13,559 domestically. The demand for movies is high, and box-office revenue and ticket sales did not drop but grew in the five years leading up to 2012, increasing a total of 12% (Theatrical Market Statistics). Even though Hollywood has experienced some financial difficulties in the most recent years, between high-ticket sales and more digital theaters, 3-D has many opportunities to do well.

Many of the films made early during this renaissance of 3-D did very well. At the beginning of this most recent 3-D revival, there were even some serious critical approaches to incorporating 3-D, particularly through documentary. While 3-D documentary has mostly been an attraction for museum movie theaters and concert films, German filmmakers Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog used 3-D in critically important documentaries. First, Wenders used 3-D in his 2011 documentary Pina. The documentary is an avant-garde remembrance of contemporary dance choreographer Pina Bausch and is mostly comprised of performances by her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. When the film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival the 3-D elements of the film were lauded and critically acclaimed. Reviewer Brigitta B. Wagner said of the film:

Wenders has an eye for the moments in which depth perception matters. For instance, he explores the emotional impact of 3-D editing, where sudden shot transitions dynamize the play of proximity and distance… A single cut shifts space, time, and identity as the musical track plays on. In this sense of loss and transience, accentuated by 3-D’s layered planes of action, perhaps Wenders has found twenty-first-century cinema’s counterpart to the sublime serpentine dance of Thomas Edison’s early films. (68)

Wenders uses the 3-D in Pina to explore the give and take of choreography and to literally explore the space alongside the dancers. Wenders said of the film, “3-D would allow us to understand the architecture of her choreography so much better than a flat recording” (Pennington and Giardina). Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2012), which also premiered at the same festival, also uses 3-D to explore physical space, namely the Chauvet Cave in southern France. Herzog insisted that 3-D was needed “to capture the intentions of the painters” (Pennington and Giardina). Shortly after the film’s release scholar Barbara Klinger argued that the entire film is a self-reflexive look at 3-D technology: “Herzog’s film plays a fascinating game with the 3-D optic, as Cave advances on and recedes dramatically from this horizon, exploring what can be seen, what is difficult to see, and what remains beyond technology’s ability to reveal” (Klinger 43). These prominent filmmakers managed to, at least for a brief moment, break 3-D out of its gimmicky stereotype and use it to thematically enhance their work.

The 2009 stop-motion animated film Coraline also uses 3-D in a critically acclaimed way. From the start, director Henry Selick was conscious that 3-D could quickly become gimmicky, and so focused much of production on ensuring that 3-D was incorporated thematically instead of just adding to the spectacle. Coraline is about a young girl who finds a passage to an alternate world and a twisted version of her own life that initially seems much more fantastic than reality. While in the normal world, the 3-D effects used are very minimal, but in the alternate world the depth is dramatic, making the world appear to have more life and adventure to it. For much of the film, all of the 3-D effects work toward adding depth to the screen, making the screen appear to be more like a stage. It is only when Coraline realizes that this alternate world is dark and twisted that the 3-D effects start to come out of the screen and invade the space of the theater. Selick said of these moments, “This is meant to make the audience feel uncomfortable, that things are not right and unbalanced” (Pennington and Giardina). Coraline is a good example of how 3-D can be incorporated more narratively, but unfortunately this skilled use was not enough to keep 3-D from fading as it has so many times in the past.

Despite a strong start about six years ago, the way filmmakers are currently using 3-D technology is not working, as evidenced by both critical and audience reactions. The majority of critics have been wholeheartedly against the use of 3-D in film, including the revered film critic, Roger Ebert. Ebert found 3-D to be “an annoying distraction… It is driven largely to sell expensive projection equipment and add a $5 to $7.50 surcharge on already expensive movie tickets… It is unsuitable for grown-up films of any seriousness. It limits the freedom of directors to make films as they choose” (Ebert). Here, Ebert’s opinion—that 3-D is a distraction used only to make more money—represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to negative criticism. Additionally, the overwhelming onslaught of 3-D films seems to have already bored audiences. Box office results are showing that 3-D does not make the money studios hope it will. Turbo, a DreamWorks animated film that came out in the summer of 2013, had drastically low numbers for 3-D, with the 3-D option earning only 25% of the film’s gross. Wolverine, another summer 2013 movie, made only 30% of its gross from 3-D (Mancini). Both Turbo and Wolverine represent genres that have typically done well with 3-D in the past—children’s animation and the super-hero film. On top of all this, an increasing number of popular films are opting out of 3-D: in 2014 Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingay Part I, two of the most successful films of the year, did not have a 3-D option. Simply put, audiences just do not seem to seek out 3-D as they used to. Already, in 2015, just six years after the dramatic release of James Cameron’s Avatar, 3-D seems to be on the cusp of becoming an out-of-date fad.

With some monetary success as well as some critically viable incorporations of 3-D technology, the fact that 3-D is quickly losing traction amongst Hollywood films may seem inexplicable. Unfortunately, the trends are following the patterns of the past, and if they continue on this route 3-D will likely drift away for another thirty years. The genres where 3-D has enjoyed the most success have been documentary and children’s films, but these genres do not hold the audience that will react positively to 3-D. Documentary 3-D will not gain traction due to the independent nature of documentary and its lack of widespread exhibition. And while children’s films might seem like an appropriate place for 3-D technologies, the expense of tickets and overall hassle of a 3-D viewing experience are bound to alienate the majority of family film audiences. Chris Aronson, senior vice president for domestic distribution at Twentieth Century Fox, has stated his concerns about using 3-D for films aimed at budget-conscious families: “I have a very serious concern about how successful those are going to be in the future. Are kids really going to demand to see a movie in 3-D?” Additionally, keeping 3-D relegated to these two genres will keep it a novelty rather than a respected technology. Journalist David Kehr wrote in his article “Pursuing 3-D’s Full Dimensions”: “Once again it appears that the format has failed to make the transition from novelty to normative use… That Steven Spielberg would make “The Adventures of Tintin” in 3-D is virtually a given; that he would make “Lincoln” in the same process is unthinkable” (8). So far, as indicated by this quote, most directors do not consider 3-D an artistically viable technology.

Lastly, 3-D has not been able to escape its association with poorly made pictures due to the bandwagon effect the technology has created. Many filmmakers use 3-D as a marketing ploy and do not incorporate the technology into the artistic vision of the film. For example, in the blockbusters Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim, and The Wolverine, the 3-D effects are a mere after-thought when, in post-production, the images are duplicated and made into 3-D. As Richard Baker, senior stereo supervisor at Prime Focus’ U.K. office, stated, “The way to get the best 3D is to move away from just doing conversion on the end of project towards more collaboration on the 3D throughout the filming” (Lang). The consequences of adding 3-D in post-production include the lack of depth in shots—creating that “jump-out” gimmicky look that is so unpopular. Wayne Miller, president and CCO of Action 3D Productions sums up the current 3D trend: “There’s a lot of negative reaction to 3-D now because consumers saw the studios jumping on the bandwagon and cashing in on premium ticket prices. But 3-D doesn’t make a bad film good, and consumers caught on” (Stanley). It will take mainstream films that are successful with both critics and audiences in order to make 3-D stick around rather than fade into the background as it has so often done throughout film’s history.

In order for 3-D to become a critically viable technology it needs to narratively enhance films rather than only create spectacle. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity proves to be a good case study because it defies the pattern of recent 3-D films in that it did well both critically and commercially. This is because it uses 3-D not for spectacle but to enhance both the experience and theme of the film, and audiences responded to that. Since his last film, Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron has been working solely on Gravity, which took six years to make. It was billed almost exclusively as a 3-D film. Gravity tells the story of medical engineer/astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is on a short mission along with a small crew to do some repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope. When the remains of a destroyed satellite come orbiting her way and ram into the telescope, Stone gets separated from the rest of her crew, the shuttle, and the space station and must find her way to earth alone.

Gravity exceeded all box-office expectations with its October release date, was well received critically, and ended up being nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning seven of them. Such complimentary reactions to a primarily 3-D film are practically unheard of in film history. Additionally, instead of the 25-30% of the gross typical of other 3-D showings (like Turbo and Wolverine of the summer previous), an astounding 80% of the opening weekend gross came from 3-D or IMAX 3-D showings (Acuna). So why has Gravity defied history’s pattern and been successful four years after the start of a 3-D craze? The treatment of 3-D in Gravity reflects a paradigm shift in its use as it is used to enhance the narrative rather than add spectacle. Gravity’s 3-D use illustrates three principles that can move 3-D technology from being a cyclical fad to becoming an artistically relevant tool.

First, as opposed to most 3-D films, Cuaron intended to make Gravity a 3-D film since its conception. As stated previously, 3-D has traditionally been an afterthought added in post-production. For Cuaron, however, it was ever-present. In fact, Cuaron had waited to continue production after writing Gravity in order for 3-D technology to adequately catch up to his vision. As he went ahead with production on the film, he worked with 3-D effects companies to make sure the scenes he was envisioning utilized 3-D in the best possible ways (Lang). Most of the film was Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI ) and the 3-D was added in post-production so that Cuaron could have complete control over how it was used. Most importantly, Cuaron focused on making the non-3-D aspects of the film shine instead of focusing on the 3-D elements. In fact, as Cuaron stated, the focus of the film was not on 3-D, but on performance: “The truth of the matter is that Sandra [Bullock] trained so much and rehearsed so much that when we were shooting, we would rarely discuss technical aspects… most of the time, we were being preoccupied about performance and emotion” (Thompson). Cuaron’s desire to have exemplary acting in the film was also part of the reason he chose not to shoot with the large and cumbersome 3-D cameras, as these would have made it harder for the actors to enter into the space of the characters (Rich and Eisenberg). This filming technique of Cuaron’s dramatically enhanced the success of the film. Since one of the major criticisms of 3-D is that it is distracting and inhuman, Gravity was successful because it never lost sight of the importance of the actors and the connection those actors could have with the audience. Because of Cuaron’s different approach, the 3-D effects in Gravity are seamlessly incorporated into the film and are therefore much more pleasing to watch.

Second, the use of 3-D in Gravity created an immersive effect rather than a gimmick that draws attention to itself. First, rather than using effects that jump out at the audience, Cuaron and the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, utilize the z-axis to open up the screen so that it looks like it extends back farther, like a stage. This makes the overwhelming setting of space feel even larger, drawing the audience to view space like Ryan Stone views it. The 3-D effect of “poking” at the audience was used sparingly, consequently making those moments more intense. For example, when the dangerously fast orbit of a destroyed satellite collides with Dr. Stone, the debris flying close to the audience brings the audience entirely into the action. This effect can also be used to create more intimacy. When she arrives on the escape pod and finds that it is broken, she begins crying. One of the tears floats toward the audience. As it gets closer to the audience, the camera focuses on the tear rather than Dr. Stone. In this moment the tear appears to be the audience’s rather than the character’s. The 3-D technique in Gravity also avoids another major problem: editing. 3-D film editing can cause discomfort because every time there is a cut, the audience has to re-focus on the 3-D effect. In Gravity, this problem is also avoided by the very long takes. At the beginning of the film, long takes and CGI help make the first scene appear to be one take. The camera moves around the characters and shuttle freely. This scene allows the audience to orient themselves to the space as well as to the effects.

Most importantly, the 3-D effects in Gravity enhance the theme. While the story is a simple survival story on the outside, it is really a story of Dr. Stone letting go of the tragedies in her past and taking charge of her fate. Her colleague Matthew lets us know this early on in the film, saying that of all things she needs to “learn to let go.” “Letting Go” becomes the theme of the film, and the 3-D effects use distance to chronicle Dr. Ryan Stone’s progression. From the beginning the effects are set up so that objects traveling away indicate danger, while objects that are anchored equal safety. In the opening scene Stone is working, and she loses grip on a screw. The screw flies away from her and she tries to get it back. Matthew grabs it and tells her to be careful. The next time the audience sees the same thing—something drifting away and Stone—she is detached from the shuttle and flying away with no control. Later in the film, Stone is trying to detach a parachute from an escape pod and a screw comes loose and starts flying away—this echoes that first shot and cues the audience of the danger to come. During these sequences, many of the shots are point-of-view shots of Stone trying to grasp at things in front of her as they continue to go farther and farther away. All of these shots are indicative of Stone’s fear of letting go and how desperate she is to hang onto her past and her sadness over her daughter’s death. This pattern breaks when Stone realizes that she needs to move on. She dreams of Matthew coming back to the escape pod and telling her that she can use the landing mechanism to launch the pod. When Stone awakes she decides to use her landing (the tragedy in her life) to launch her life forward. When she gets the pod working it blasts away from the audience—only this time the camera does not follow. This shot literally “lets go” of Stone, echoing her letting go of her fears and anxieties. This pattern of letting go versus trying to hold on is dependent on the z-axis created by the 3-D effect.

While Gravity is a good example of artistic 3-D use, even Alfonso Cuaron has said that “most 3-D films are crap”—strong words coming from a director who has benefited so much from the technology (Rosser). Gravity breaks from the patterns in history and uses 3-D to its artistic advantage, but it is still a science fiction movie. Its world is rich with potential for 3-D use and inevitably attracts an audience that is more open to new technology. If 3-D is ever going to be a artistically viable technology, it will take films beyond the fantastic to prove its artistic seriousness. And while it is hard to imagine an award-winning drama using 3-D, this step is closer than it may seem. Just as sound and color technologies eventually moved out of novelty and into artistic use in film, so can 3-D become mainstream. Films like Birdman, The Imitation Game, and Selma use depth and immersion to enhance their films, and could possibly be enhanced by 3-D. Filmmakers must continue to make thoughtful 3-D films that utilize depth to enhance the narrative, and scholars must continue to provide research and analysis. In this way, Gravity is a stepping-stone, not the end-all. The three principles it employs can define a new paradigm for artistic incorporation of 3-D in film, even beyond science-fiction: first, 3-D was a consideration from the film’s conception; second, 3-D is used for immersion; and third, 3-D enhances the themes of the story. As technology has improved and 3-D is more accessible than ever, now is the time to transform 3-D from a cyclical fad to a permanent, artistic, and effective way to increase audience engagement and improve narrative. If more films were to follow this example, 3-D could become more than a transient technology, but rather an important narrative tool that audiences will seek out and enjoy.

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