3D in Film


Left to Right: Bwana Devil theatrical poster, Red/Cyan anaglyph passive glasses, Polarized passive glasses, Active alternating shutter glasses (all images courtesy Wikipedia)

If you are like everyone here on the CPO team, then you have seen Avatar or some other major release in 3D and now you might be thinking about buying one of the new 3D TVs, but are maybe asking yourself "will 3D TV be the same as 'Avatar' or one of the other 3D movies at the theatres?" The short answer is yes... and no! Confused? Read on then...

While some of you might think 3D is a thing of only the last 10-15 years, or those who are a little older may remember the 'cheezy' 3D movies from the late 1970s and early 1980s, but 3D film actually has a very long and storied history, with many ebbs and flows in the 'tidal waves' of 3D.

3D imaging dates back to the very early days of photography where a Stereoscope was invented in 1844 by Scottish inventor David Brewster that could take pictures in 3D. From this system was derived 3D film where a specialized motion picture camera, or cameras, is used to record images from two slightly different perspectives or angles. This process reproduces the kind of depth perception the human eye naturally interprets at every moment.

Although there were a number of projects and trials with 3D filming in the years beforehand, the first confirmed mass public viewing of a 3D film was for 1922's The Power of Love. During 1922 and the next few years there was a burst of 3D activity with a number of studios and producers taking a crack at the new 'craze'. Then the craze died down for a number of years as interest in 3D waned. Then there was a slight resurgence in the late 1930s, but this period also petered out quickly, this time due to the Second World War.

During these early periods the main technique used to project the 3D images was called anaglyph. This is when the viewer wears a pair of 'passive' glasses where one lens is red and the other is cyan. The glasses are called passive because they are not powered or mechanical/electrical as the type to be used much later in the history of 3D. With the anaglyph system, a dual film strip is run through the projectors, and either the strips are tinted with the red/cyan colours or the projectors have special colour filters mounted.

In the 1950s the second major wave of 3D enthusiasm began with the 1952 release of Bwana Devil (promotional poster is pictured above). This film, as well as the dozens of other 3D films that were released betwen 1952 and 1955, used a new system called polarization. Like anaglyph, this was a dual strip format, but the two strips were superimposed and projected onto the screen through polarized lenses, and then the audience wore passive glasses that were also polarized. Besides the large number of films released in 3D during this era, it was also considered the 'Golden Age' because they were almost all feature-length as opposed to the early 3D forays mostly being just shorts. Two other innovations occured along with this 3D wave. First, these films were also mostly in colour, with Bwana Devil being the first ever colour 3D film, as well, stereophonic sound was also introduced with Warner Brothers' 1953 film House of Wax.

Unfortunately, as before, this wave of 3D was again shortlived and died off by 1955. One major factor in the short lifespan was the cost and cumbersomeness of having two projectors running simultaneously. Another, was that if there was any difference in the two filmstrips than the movie would go out of sync and become very difficult to watch.

The creatino of 3D films never seemed to be completely killed off however. In the late 1970s another revival occurred where a string of movies, mostly horror and softcore, were released with a new single filmstrip format where two images were squeezed onto one strip, either side by side (called anamorphic), or over and under (called widescreen). These movies most often used the anaglyph system with the red/cyan passive glasses. They also had limited 3D content where only particular scenes or images were actually 3D and the vast majority of the movie was not 3D. This is one major reason why this wave of 3D again died out; because many people felt it's use was just a 'cheezy gimmick'. Movies from this wave of 3D that lasted from approximately 1976-1983 included such movies as Jaws 3-D and Friday the Thirteenth Part III.

The next wave of 3D, which began only a few short years after the previous period and actually lasted into the early 2000s, was dominated by IMAX and theme-park attractions. In 1985 IMAX released it's first 3D film We Are Born of Stars and in 1986 Disney and Universal Studios began to use 3D in specific theme park attractions. Both IMAX and Disney had a greater vested interest in the value of these productions, versus earlier 3D incarnations, and therefore meticulousness and quality were of utmost importance.

The introduction of digital production and projection, the improvements in computer animation and the improvements in digital video capture have all lead to the newest and current wave of 3D. In 2003 3D came back to the theatres after spending the previous 15 years in special venues and limited presentations. IMAX again began this wave with the 2003 release of James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss, IMAX's first feature-length 3D foray, and 2004's Polar Express, their first full-length animated film. Some of the other movies released during these first few years of this wave include; Spy Kids 3-D (2003), and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (2005).

As mentioned, digital and technological improvements over the last ten or so years suggests that 3D might finally be here to stay. Also financially speaking, 3D content has become more practical to produce and display. Another factor is that the interest in 3D movies, and the higher ticket prices, has been a shot in the arm for the waning movie theatre industry. In deed James Cameron's 'Avatar' has become the biggest grossing movie of all time with almost $3 billion USD in ticket sales, helped in great part by the premium price of 3D tickets. Plus Tim Burton's March 2010 release of Alice in Wonderland had the best March opening weekend ever with $116 million USD in 3 days, again driven by 3D ticket sales.

But what of that original question we posed at the start of this article? Will watching 3D at home on the new 3D TVs be as good as in the theatre? Again, the answer is yes and no. This latest wave of theatrical 3D movies has been dependent on passive glasses, most often of the polarized format. But since 2010 some TVs released require what is called active glasses. These glasses are expensive electronic glasses that use alternating shutter technology where each lens is electronically turned on and off in synchronization with the images on the 3D TV to project the depth perception. So while in the perfect setting the viewing experience can be just like in the theatre, there are many drawbacks to this style. First, the viewers have to be at a fairly specific angle and distance to the TV. Second the lighting in the room can either reduce or completely distort the 3D perception. Finally, each person watching must have the expensive (pairs can run $200 USD or more) active glasses on.

So what does the future hold for 3D? As suggested there is a good chance that this may not be just another short-term fad, and 3D is here to stay. But further improvements and standardizations do need to be made to ensure that. There is still not one standard format for both production and presentation. Also, the wearing of glasses is a hinderance to many people and the need for glasses must be eliminated to make it easier and more comfortable for all. Finally, the actual end-product of 3D is best when filmed right from the start with the proper high-quality 3D cameras, as with 'Avatar', but some of the 3D content coming out as of now is of movies filmed originally in 2D and digitally converted to 3D after the fact. While still better than 3D of old, when this conversion is done it is still not the best 3D could be.

Quite possibly, if these hurdles are surmounted, then one day in the not to distant future all films and TV might be in 3D. Let's wait and see... in 3D!

2015 Addendum: Well, based on the fact that less and less movies seem to be released in 3D and that 3D TV channels are being shut down (Sky TV in Britain just announced it was stopping it's 3D channel this year) it looks like 3D will mostly likely turn out to be a failed experiment, AGAIN.

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