“I cannot imagine a serious drama, such as Up in the Air or The Hurt Locker, in 3D.”
Roger Ebert
Film Critic
“I hate 3D. After about 20-30 minutes, I'm always like, 'Okay. I get it.’”
Jason Reitman
“I don't particularly enjoy watching films in 3D because I think that a well-shot and well-projected film has a very three-dimensional quality to it, so I'm somewhat skeptical of the technology.”
Christopher Nolan
“I don’t see why a movie is better in 3D”
Francis Ford Coppola
“I think [The Hurt Locker] would have been better in 3D”
James Cameron
“[3D] is like seeing a moving sculpture of the actor and it’s almost like a combination of theatre and film … it immerses you in the story more”
Martin Scorsese
“You'll hear people say now, 'Oh, I don't want to see something in 3D. That's wrong, because what they've seen is 3D done poorly.”
Michael Bay
“If I knew that 3D was going to be such a big deal, I would have gotten that boob job 10 years ago.”
Charlize Theron

I’d like to share my opinion on 3D movies. Not 3D in the 3D animated sense like pixar movies, but 3D in the stereoscopic sense. Putting on glasses and having things pop off the screen at you 3D.

Much like depth of field, color, aspect ratio, etc. 3D is an aesthetic choice. As an aesthetic choice it is very much a subjective experience. One person might like it, another person might not. There isn’t a definite right or wrong to either side of the discussion. So what follows is not my way of trying to tell you I’m right, it is simply my opinion.

3D is not a new technology. The early 1950‘s were considered the “Golden Era” of 3D. There were some 3 Stooges shorts shot in 3D. Hitchcock shot “Dial M for Murder” in 3D. And yet it never really stuck; it was never particularly successful. Why is that? Is it because the technology wasn’t up to par? Most people would say so. But I think it is something more complex than that.

I think 3D is a gimmick. It’s like a bad visual effect; it calls too much attention to itself. When it works and you are immersed in a movie you won’t notice it. When it isn’t working it takes you out of the movie. I also think the resurgence of the 3D films is a very calculated move by directors and studio execs to make more money. To pull in higher ticket prices. If a 2D movie and a 3D movie ticket cost the same amount I might not be so quick to say that. But they don’t. The most expensive movie I ever saw in my life was a 3D movie. The ticket cost me $18 vs. $12 for a regular ticket. That is a 50% increase in price to buy a 3D ticket. Don’t tell me that isn’t a HUGE factor in trying to push 3D. Plus they get to sell all those nifty digital projectors to all those theaters. And, unless I am mistaken, a 3D movie requires two projectors per screen; one projecting the image of the right eye and one projecting the image of the left eye. And most cinema quality 3D digital projectors will cost upwards of $100,000. Now tell me again with a straight face that the only reason you are trying to push this on me is because you want to enhance my moviegoing experience and because it is SO MUCH MORE immersive than all those old boring 2D movies I used to watch.

For instance, do you remember when you saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for the first time? And do you remember how you said “Well that sure was good but I would have been so much more drawn in if it has been more 3D”. Of course you didn’t. Because in your mind, as you watched it it WAS 3D. That is what artists have been accomplishing for thousands of years. Giving the illusion of depth in a 2D medium.

Why did artists continue to paint after other artists started carving sculptures? Why would they do that when clearly a sculpture is more lifelike than a painting? It has three dimensions; you can even touch it! Why then did Leonardo Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa when he could have sculpted her just as easily? Despite the fact that it is in three dimensions, a sculpture isn’t superior to a painting. They are two entirely different mediums.

Painting isn’t a medium that needs to be improved. It doesn’t need to be upgraded or enhanced. If you could put on a pair of 3D glasses and Van Gough’s self-portrait would pop out of the canvass at you, would that make the painting better?

Then why is it that people insist that if I put on this pair of glasses to make the images artificially pop off the screen it will suddenly become more lifelike and immersive?
If it’s truly all about immersion why stop at the eyes? Why not implement smell-o-vision in every theater? What about D-Box, the custom designed movie seats that pitch back and forth to add that much needed whiplash to the movie-going experience? Aren’t those immersing you more in the movie? If not, why not?

George Lucas is converting all his Star Wars films to 3D. When asked about it he said: “Moving from 2D to 3D is like the difference between watching a film in black and white and watching a film in color. It works in black and white but it works better in color.”

I say that is complete nonsense. And I can prove it. Take a look at this image from “A Touch of Evil”. It is black and white and it is 2D.

A Touch of Evil

Now tell me: what color is the wallpaper in the background? What color is Orson Welles tie? Can’t say? Ok, how about this then. Point to the characters in the picture starting with the closest and ending with the farthest away. That was a little easier wasn’t it. The reason of course is that a black and white image has no color information at all. Not even any hints or clues to speak of. Orson Welles could have a fluorescent orange jacket on and you wouldn’t know. On the other hand, the picture has loads of depth information. The size of the people on the screen, their height in the frame, parallax, the way they overlap each other etc. are all depth clues that our brain processes instantly and automatically. Christopher Nolan (who isn’t a huge fan of 3D) says: “You know 95% of our depth cues come from occlusion, resolution, color and so forth, so the idea of calling a 2D movie a ‘2D movie’ is a little misleading.” In a regular 2D movie, depending on how you shoot a scene some information may not be present; maybe there is no color, maybe there is no camera movement. But there will always be depth. And the better the cinematographer, the better the illusion of depth. Converting a 2D movie to 3D is trying to artificially add information that is already there. It’s completely unnecessary. When you shoot a movie in color the color you are seeing in the movie is the same as color you see in real life. The depth you see in a 3D movie however is artificial; a poor and sometimes nauseating reproduction of actual depth. The other important point to make is that even a black and white movie which is missing a vital component that we experience in real life doesn’t suffer because of it. Did you ever watch A Touch of Evil, To Kill a Mockingbird, Sunset Boulevard, Raging Bull, Psycho, or Dr. Strangelove and think “this would be so much more immersive with color”? I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not calling to abolish all 3D films. 3D has its place. If you like 3D and want to go see a stereoscopic film this weekend, go for it. The problem though is that it is being forced on theaters and on movie audiences. Many theaters are told by studios that if they don’t show a movie in 3D, they can’t have it in 2D either. This is a big problem for little theaters that can’t afford to upgrade to the uber-expensive digital projectors. That means that some of the biggest summer blockbusters may not be allowed to play in their theaters and they lose all those ticket sales. Many directors have also told stories of how they didn’t want to make a 3D film but the studios forced it on them. The results have been something of a disaster.

3D, like black and white or anamorphic is a different look but Hollywood is trying to make it into a magic bullet to be applied to every film. I love black and white movies, but would black and white be appropriate for every film? Would anamorphic? Then why are we trying to push 3D on every film? Ridley Scott said he would be shooting all his films from now on in 3D. Martin Scorsese, whose opinion I respect very much hinted that he would be doing the same. Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh have both talked about making intimate dramas using the 3D format. Even The Great Gatsby is being made as a 3D movie. Why?

Directors and studio executives constantly cite poor theater attendance as the reason for 3D. “We need to make films more immersive” they say “so that people will start coming back to the cinema”.

They are 100% wrong.

Right now, in the current economy, 3D is actually driving people away from the theater. Not towards it. People can’t afford to bring their kids to the movies at $18 a ticket. I know I couldn’t. But I can tell you the solution to the problem and it doesn’t require millions of dollars of extra camera equipment and it doesn’t require spending millions of dollars at at VFX house to do a conversion. It’s quite simple; movies need to tell better stories. Directors need to become better storytellers. Producers need to be more discriminating in the films they greenlight. Less sequels. Less remakes. More original content. Adding a little parallax into your shot and slapping on pair of 3D glasses isn’t fooling anyone. The Last Airbender was just as bad in 3D as it would be in 2D; most actually say worse. People don’t want to go to the theaters but it’s not because they aren’t immersed in the depth of the images on screen; it’s because they aren’t immersed in the characters and the story.

A good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with.” – Walter Murch

Further Reading:

Rian Johnson:

Roger Ebert:

Walter Murch – 2 time academy award winner, 5 time nominee:

Why ‘3D’ Will Fail… Again – This article is a little more technical but worth a read:


7 Responses

  1. I don’t know man, when the secret door in Coraline opens up and that colorful tunnel extends away from you in three-dimensional space, it was one of the most wonderful experiences I ever had in a theater to where I paid to see it again in 3D almost just for that shot (and the garden scene behind the house). And I’m looking forward to seeing Paranorman in 3D as well for the same reasons.

    The 3D dragon flying scenes in How To Train Your Dragon were spectacular as well and, while it made me acknowledge the 3D aspect in that moment, it enhanced my viewing experience rather than detracted.

    I agree that a lot of times the 3D kind of disappears if the story in immersive enough.

    I guess it’s up to the audience to decide if the kind of movie they’re seeing is worth paying extra for 3D. If it’s animated or very visual, sure. A dialogue driven drama? I don’t know, but I’d give it a shot.

    On a separate note, would The Tree of Life been better if it was shot in 3D? I’d hazard to say yes. The movie was all about the visuals and immersion into the scene; I can totally see the shots of planets and looking up into the trees being enhanced by 3D.

    1. You know Tony, I’ve only seen three animated films in 3D. I saw Up, The Lorax and TinTin. Of all the 3D films I have seen I will say they work the best for me. I feel there are two reasons for that.

      1. They haven’t gone through the often poorly executed 3d conversion process. They have a lot more control over the way the stereoscopic images are done.

      2. They aren’t live action. It’s not really real life but kind of looks like it. It’s not trying to be real life either; they are stylized.

      I feel like this fits much closer with what stereoscopic movies actually gives you. They give you an artificial depth; sort of like real life but more of an artificial stylized version. So it definitely works best with computer animated movies in my opinion.

      As for Terrence Malick, I looked for quotes from him about 3d but couldn’t find any. I think though he wouldn’t not agree with you. I’ll bet if he thought it would be better in 3d he would have shot it in 3d.

      Also I feel like there are certain types of directors who are more predisposed to stereoscopic films. You’ve got directors who are all about thrilling audiences and spectacle. Tarantino, Spielberg and Michael Bay would go into this category. They would appreciate 3d just because it is flashy and make it seem like something special. “NOW IN 3D!!!”. Then you’ve got directors who are constantly pushing the envelope on technology. Directors like David Fincher, James Cameron, and maybe Peter Jackson. These types of directors like 3d because it is something new and different. A new technology to be pioneered. Then you have the directors who love the craft of filmmaking. Who see filmmaking as an art form. Directors like The Coen Brothers, Terrence Malick. Not that those other directors don’t love the craft, but I feel like there is a certain purity to those last directors I mentioned. This last group I would expect to be least enthralled with the 3d process because they appreciate movies for the craft and for the artistry and don’t think they need to be “more immersive”.

      Maybe I’m way off on that though because I think would put both Scorsese and Herzog in that last category but they have both made 3D movies.

  2. what about people with no perfect vision? It’s a bit of a hassle to wear 3d glasses on top of the prescription ones. You won’t have a decent 3D experience either if you have any level of vision disparity between your eyes.
    I’ve a slightly passive right eye and 3D never really worked perfectly to me. 🙁

  3. Evan… I agree with you one hundred per-cent, and your very simple but astute demonstration of how we get plenty of depth information in a “2D” image is so effective, I hope you don’t mind my using it to explain to people why I am not a fan of the 3D illusion either.

    That said, I think Tony inadvertently hit on a very interesting point. Tony, did you notice that the examples you used were animated films? I think that 3D is actually an interesting and very effective tool to enhance the animated film experience. Of course, it’s not appropriate for every style of animation – traditional hand-drawn animation, for example, benefits very little from 3D because animators have to create an illusion of depth that is unlike how it works in real life – anyone who saw The Lion King in 3D saw that it basically looks like cardboard cut-outs placed at various distances from our eyes, rather than an immersive 3D experience.

    However, 3D adds a surprising new dimension to computer animated (as well as stop-motion animated) films, and I agree that How To Train your Dragon and Coraline featured the best, interesting and most immersive use of 3D I have seen yet. I have found many other animated films since most enjoyable in 3D, and I think that it’s a great new tool for animation, which is already unrealistic, so the 3D doesn’t break any illusion of reality that it might have (like it does on live-action films).

    I also think 3D would revolutionize the video game industry, but that’s a whole other discussion.

    1. Well, what this article seems to be saying is that 3D is an up-and-coming technology and hasn’t arrived yet. I would agree. If you check out Rian Johnsons article linked at the end of my article here, he says the same thing. The author of the article you sent me also says people like Roger Ebert and Walter Murch shouldn’t say “movies should always be a 2D media”. If that is truly what they think, I would agree with him there too.

      He does say at the end of his article that “the number of audiences for 3D films is still growing with every passing year”. This was written of March of 2011. I haven’t done enough research on the box-office grosses and such (it would be awesome if someone could do a comprehensive analysis of 3d vs 2d movie viewership and grosses) but I think his statement there may already have proved false. According to this article written about 8 months after the one you posted, there was actually a significant drop-off in 3d viewership in 2011 and the share prices of the RealD company which leases all the 3D equipment to theaters dropped 70%. It would be informative to see how 2012 is going for 3d movies.

      I’m no 2D purist; I always interested in new technology or more immersive moviegoing experience. I just think the current way 3D is being done is unacceptable; it’s too fake and unnatural for my liking (the author of the article you sent seems to agree). Rian Johnsons compares it to the early hand painting color onto black and white negatives. That seems like an apt comparison.

      But what I do object to is an up-and-coming technology being forced on the general public to the detriment of cinemas, directors, and moviegoers alike.

      Also how old are you? I find that people under the age of 30 are MUCH more likely to embrace 3d than the older generation. Maybe older people just have more eye problems which makes it more difficult for the current illusion of 3D to work effectively. I don’t know.

  4. good article. the illusion of depth created by modern 3d is blatantly false and exaggerated. it does not really remind me of the real 3d of real life at all…it is a crude gimmicky trick that makes the film more false by distractingly calls attention to itself. rather than “real” depth you end up looking at a series of computerized flat planes that move around annoyingly.
    the only occasions on which i have thought that 3d improves matters (or at least does not make them worse) is in CGI computer animated cartoons like toy story 3, which i thought worked very well. thanks for the cool blog. side note: would love to see some articles on the splendid work of Peter Suschitzky….Eastern Promises is but one example of his great style.

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