Wednesday, 09 August 2017 16:50

The Third Slow Death of 3-D film

According to recent reports, IMAX will reduce the amount of 3-D films shown in their theaters. With second quarter earnings down a significant percentage from a prior-year period IMAX executives will restructure the way they present tent pole flagship Hollywood films.  

 

In a conference call with The Wrap, CEO of IMAX, Greg Foster said:

 

“We’re looking forward to playing fewer 3-D versions of films and more 2-D versions … which customers have shown a strong preference for (2-D),” Foster added, mentioning that Warner Bros. “Blade Runner 2049” will be shown in 2-D exclusively at IMAX theaters when it opens in October weekend.”

 

That’s all well and good. But does it really mean that 3-D is dying, or dead?

 

Probably. More directors are shooting on the 70mm IMAX cameras and if the company itself is dropping 3-D in favor of 2-D then, yes, I would say there is a strong possibility that 3-D is going the way of the dodo.

 

I for one, am happy to hear this. I know you will be able to find plenty of love for 3-D, usually in today’s youth. And I will admit to watching a 3-D movie, from time to time -- but only once by choice. A couple of times someone bought me a ticket for a 3-D movie. I thanked them and watched said film in 3-D.

 

A couple of times I read movietickets.com wrong and didn’t realize I was showing up for a 3-D version and decided to see it so as not to wait for the next 2-D showing at a much later time.

 

I felt, much as the way you probably do -- for the added cost of the ticket price the 3-D experience is not worth it. The movies are too dark. Frenetic, hyper-edited action sequences become even more of a negative ADD experience.

 

The only movie I actively bought a 3-D ticket for was James Cameron’s, Avatar.  I’ll get to that later.

 

But first ...

 

Just where did this obnoxious 3-D crap come from?

 

From wikipedia:

 

“The stereoscopic era of motion pictures began in the late 1890s when British film pioneer William Friese-Greene filed a patent for a 3D film process. In his patent, two films were projected side by side on screen (one meant for the left eye to view, one meant for the right eye to view). The viewer looked through a stereoscope to converge the two images. Because of the obtrusive mechanics behind this method, theatrical use was not practical.”

 

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting 3-D to have been around in 1890.  Though, it really wasn’t until the 1920’s when a few directors and cinematographers tried to make the process marketable for a then modern audience. Three 3-D films from the twenties - The Men from M.A.R.S., The Power of Love and The Ship of Souls had limited runs. Nothing really peaked audience interest.

 

The thirties and forties showed little additional interest in 3-D films with each era producing only a handful of 3-D films. Even the arrival of Technicolor didn’t help. A few 3-D films were shot and printed in Technicolor but none of them screened in color and the use of color printing was only to help achieve the red / cyan (blue) 3-D coding effect.

 

In the early thirties polarized filters (which reduce glare) hit the market as a commercial product. This really helped with the 3-D process but again, wasn’t enough to peak audience interest.

 

It wasn’t until the 1950’s that 3-D exploded and the time between 1952-1954 was known as the “golden era” of the process. It all began late 1952 with the hit, Bwana Devil -- a drama based on the real life Tsavo Man-Eaters -- a pair of man eating lions responsible for the deaths of a number of construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway from March through December 1898.

 

From wikipedia:

 

“As with practically all of the features made during this boom, Bwana Devil was projected dual-strip, with Polaroid filters. During the 1950s, the familiar disposable anaglyph glasses made of cardboard were mainly used for comic books ...

 

Because the features utilized two projectors, a capacity limit of film being loaded onto each projector (about 6,000 feet, or an hour's worth of film) meant that an intermission was necessary for every feature-length film. Quite often, intermission points were written into the script at a major plot point.”

 

To make a long story short -- 3-D suddenly boomed. In 1953, House of Wax, landed in the year’s top ten at the box office, the first time ever for a 3-D film. House of Wax also catapulted and forever typecast legendary actor, Vincent Price into the role of creepy horror film guy.

 

Alas, the “golden era” was short lived. Endless problems occurred with 3-D technology, the prints, and the time management to run the films. A few of the issues:

 

  • The silver projection screen was directional and caused sideline seating to be unusable.

  • The prints had to project simultaneously and remain exactly alike after repair or sync would be lost. If sync was off by even a single frame -- the picture was unwatchable.

  • Oftentimes theaters had to have two projectionist keep sync.

  • Mandatory intermission meant less features could be shown daily which resulted in lowered profit for all involved.

 

By 1955, 3-D films were gone from theaters.

 

Thankfully 3-D went away forever, never to return!

 

Ugh. I wish. There was an explosion of 3-D in the eighties and suddenly, horror films thought all “third” films should be 3-D -- Jaws 3-D, Amityville Horror 3-D, Friday the 13th 3 in 3-D -- you get the picture.

 

Disney caught on and released Magic Journey and Captain EO (starring Michael Jackson and directed by Francis Ford Coppola) in special venues at their theme parks. In the mid eighties IMAX began producing non-fiction films in their 70mm format and pushed as a key point for their 3-D films vs. traditional 3-D -- the IMAX process, then and now, emphasized mathematical correctness of the 3-D rendition and thus largely eliminated the eye fatigue that resulted from the approximate geometries of previous 3-D incarnations.

 

3-D was back and it was here to stay!

 

Except, no -- it wasn’t.

 

3-D, like the tide, waxed and waned all throughout the decade but for the most part had faded from mainstream use by the nineties. It’s true that 3-D stayed alive through special attractions throughout the entire nineties but just as the fifties, it mostly faded from mainstream cinema.

 

The next resurgence of 3-D began in 2003, with the release of James Cameron’s, Ghosts of the Abyss released as the first full-length 3-D Disney / IMAX feature and filmed with the Reality Camera System. This camera system, built by Cameron and Vince Pace used the latest HD video cameras, not film to produce the 3-D effect.

 

The film joined James Cameron, actor Bill Paxton and a team of the world’s foremost historical and marine experts as they journey underwater to the site of wrecked ship, the Titanic. The film was a colossal critical and commercial success.

 

And suddenly studios were interested in 3-D. Again. Studios began experimenting in releasing both a 2-D print and a 3-D print for their high profile products. The Polar Express (2005) was the first feature length animated film released in both prints with the 3-D version pulling in about 25% of the films total box office. Which was enough to raise 3-D interest from other studios.

 

Over the course of the next decade studios went 3-D crazy. Selected large budget films were released in both 2-D and 3-D, old films were re-released with a post production 3-D process and handful of films were specifically shot in 3-D cameras.

 

Which brings me to …

 

James Cameron’s, “Avatar.”

 

Much has been written about the herculean effort Cameron put into Avatar. Entire books, movies, documentaries and short films can be found. I offer only a few tidbits for context:

 

James Cameron spent twelve years developing technology improving 3-D cameras in order to shoot Avatar. He is the only director who seems to fully understand that the 3-D process makes your film darker. And so what did he do?

 

Well, he spent six months working with botanists, creating an ecologically accurate planet to set his story in. A planet that has glowing flora. So even when the 3-D process darkened his film for all those nights scenes the entire film is still brightly lit do to the glowing plants all over the planet!

 

I want to make that last point clear. He didn’t just want glowing plants all over the planet -- because that would be easy to accomplish. He wanted his planet to work. And so he spent months working with scientists to make sure the plants he showed would be one hundred percent ecologically accurate. He wanted the planet to be able to survive -- if it had been a real planet.

 

Which is amazing and it’s only a few of the reasons that Cameron’s Avatar remains one of the monumental directing achievements in all of world cinema.

 

Not that it’s without flaws. I’ll be the first person to admit that I think the script to Avatar is awful and the acting, for the most part, is adequate to incompetent. That being said, the film was a must see movie event in 2009. But you had to see it in 3-D. Cameron spent so long working in 3-D that he just seems to be the only working American filmmaker to just -- get it.  

 

In fact, of all the movies that have gone on to gross a billion dollars only one of them is an original story idea -- James Cameron’s Avatar. All the other movies in the billion plus club are sequels and franchise films.

 

Which says something (probably that Cameron was the first and only person to knock the novelty 3-D process out of the park).

 

Which brings us to today …

 

The “Avatar” resurgence has faded. 3-D is dying. Again.

 

It had a good run. But IMAX is right. Consumers, by and large, greatly prefer 2-D movie events. 3-D comes and goes and comes and goes and it never amounts to anything more than a novelty. 3-D was huge in the early fifties but, because it was a novelty, was gone in two years. 3-D had a resurgence in the eighties but, because it was a novelty, was gone in several years. 3-D had a second resurgence with Cameron’s technology achievement in the early 2000’s but, because it’s a novelty, has faded and will probably be gone in another three or five years.

 

Novelties, it seems, make a lot of money in short bursts but audiences quickly get tired of them. 3-D may be fading but if history repeats itself (again), I can almost guarantee you we’ll see another resurgence of 3-D -- oh-- somewhere around 2040.

 

For better or worse.

 

 

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