What's Holding 3D Back? 
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Written by Dick Ward   
Wednesday, 10 February 2010

It was almost ninety years ago, back in 1922, that the first 3D film was shown to a paying crowd.  They used red and green glasses at the time, but the idea was the same.  Add a third dimension to film – a field of depth – and give viewers an experience they’ve never had before.  

The Great Depression made it difficult to conduct expensive experiments like 3D film, and the technology lay dormant for thirty years.  In the 1950s, 3D film exploded back onto the scene and was on its way to becoming the primary form of theatrical entertainment.  High installation prices and another slumping economy meant that 3D would once again have to wait.

Since then there have been numerous 3D resurgences.  Theatergoers are always on the lookout for something new.  For younger generations, three dimensional films are a brand new experience; for older generations, they’re nostalgia.  3D film has experienced another big boom with James Cameron’s Avatar leading the way.  The next step – the step never successfully taken in the past – is to bring three dimensional viewing to television.  

Manufacturers gladly state that the era of 3D television is here. The reality is that there’s a treacherous road ahead for 3D, filled with potholes and bumps that need to be smoothed out before the general public is going to be willing to drive on it.

3d Audience

Changing Filmmaking Forever

Though it may sound boastful, when Cameron states that Avatar could change filmmaking forever, he’s absolutely right.  The success of his project means that 3D filmmaking is going to take the forefront.  Making a 3D movie isn’t as easy as filming a 2D movie with a different camera though, the old tricks don’t work anymore.

Movie making can be an artistic impression, true, but that doesn’t mean that each filmmaker paves their own way.  Just like all musicians work with the same twelve notes, all filmmakers have the same basic camera angles in their arsenals.  There are standard shots in film that have been used since the beginning, but in 3D they just don’t work.

Take a shot where the camera is looking through a chain link fence at two people having a conversation.  The fence obscures the subjects of the shot, the two characters.  When seen in two dimensions though, it’s simple to ignore the foreground and focus on the actors in the background.  The foreground is blurry and therefore not to be paid attention to.  In a 3D film, the blurry fence is right up close to the audience, and they stare straight at it, missing the action in the background.

Changing the craft of filmmaking is a bold endeavor, but some of the old guard may not have the desire to adapt.  If filmmakers simply shoot 2D movies with 3D cameras, instead of learning how to utilize the new tools of the trade, 3D may lose its appeal.

A Truly Immersive Experience

Immersion is the hot word for companies that are pushing 3D.  And why shouldn’t it be?  The audience wants to be immersed.  In the very best cases, a person watching a film can even live vicariously through a character, feeling what they feel.

Of course, immersive experiences are fleeting in the theater.  When a baby cries or when the guy in front of you checks his Blackberry, you‘re torn from the experience and back into the real world.  That’s where home theater comes in.   The elaborate setups with receivers, amplifiers, preamplifiers, 7.1 channels of sound and massive screens aren’t just there for casual television watching.  They’re made for total immersion.

When 3D is done right, the feeling of being immersed into a movie is easier to achieve, but it’s also much easier to break.  3D glasses get a bad reputation, but there’s a reason for it.  A smudge on the lenses, or a bad fitting pair of glasses can ruin the experience; an experience that can’t continue until the problem is fixed.

Glare becomes an even larger issue with 3D tech.  The glare on the screen is two dimensional, while the images on the screen (under the glare) are supposed to be popping out at the viewer.  It creates an odd effect that breaks the illusion completely. Traditional filmmaking comes into play again here too.  In a 2D movie, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a character that’s half out of frame.  It creates a certain effect.  In 3D, the viewer is left to look at half of a floating torso, which creates a completely different effect altogether.

Consumer Education

The industry as a whole should be applauded for the steps it’s taking towards compatibility.  Some people already own 3D capable televisions and they don’t even know it.  Many others have Blu-ray players that can be made 3D compatible, such as Sony’s Playstation 3.  The rollout of new 3D televisions and players all working on the HDMI 1.4 format is on its way.  Anyone that’s happy with a less than 1080p 3D signal can use HDMI 1.3 components that they may not even have to upgrade.  It’s a fantastic setup for consumers.

Of course, this only really helps if the industry educates the consumer on what they’ve got and what they could have.  The rapid spread of bad news and misinformation spelled the death of plasma, which now holds a much smaller market than LCD.  Already I’ve heard phrases like “Sure 3D’s cool, but you’ll have to be rich to afford those TVs” thrown around while shopping in big box stores.  That’s not true of course.  3D capable televisions – aside from a few luxury models such as Toshiba’s CELL TV – are going to cost roughly the same amount as any new higher end television.  It’s simply an added feature.

A great many people are already convinced of the 3D advantage; films like Avatar and Up were the best advertisement possible.  The industry now needs to focus on letting people know they might not need a whole new home theater to get 3D in their homes.

The Lord of the Rings

Movies and television shows not shot in 3D will gain the benefit of automatic conversion from some of the higher end 3D Blu-ray players and televisions coming out this year.  Initially this sounds like a great idea, just like converting standard definition to high definition.  It all goes back to how moviemaking must change with 3D.  The problem can best be explained using The Lord of the Rings.  

Lord of the Rings on Blu-ray This summer brings us one of the most anticipated Blu-ray releases yet.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy is just behind Star Wars on the Blu-ray wish list.  There’s no question that Peter Jackson’s epic will look great in high definition.  It has some of the most well produced digital effects ever created.

It’s not all digital though.  Many shots in the film were constructed using practical effects.  Forced perspective, for example, is used throughout all three of the movies to show the size difference between the hobbits and regular sized humans.

It’s the oldest trick in the book and it’s simple to pull off.  In a shot where Frodo is standing next to Gandalf, digital effects could be used, but it’s much easier to have Frodo stand a few feet back.  When the two characters are filmed with traditional cameras, they look as if they’re standing next to eachother.  The flat image tricks our eyes.

With 2D to 3D conversion though, the difference in positioning will almost certainly be evident.  Instead of a four foot tall Frodo and six foot tall Gandalf, we may end up with shots where a six foot tall Frodo is standing three feet behind a six foot tall Gandalf.  Watching old sci-fi movies in high definition can be a letdown because the effects just don’t hold up, but 3D presents a whole new standard to live up to.

Those Darned 3D Glasses

It’s easy to harp on the glasses.  They’re a simple target to pick on and they seem to be the chief complaint that people have when it comes to watching anything in 3D.  They may annoy some people, and they may take away from the experience.  They may even turn some people off entirely because they just don’t look cool enough.  It’s not the style or comfort that’s the problem though.  It’s the supply.

Active shutter glasses, now known as Active 3D Glasses, are the standard for viewing 3D content.  They won’t be cheap, but they produce the best image.  They’ll be included with 3D TV purchases, but it’s up to each company how many sets get packed in. Flash forward to Christmas 2010.  There’s a family of four eagerly waiting for Dad to finish setting up the new 3D Bravia they picked up.  Unless Dad also picked up some glasses they’ll be in for disappointment, since Sony only includes two sets of the glasses.

Now zip ahead further to the 2011 Superbowl.  It’s time for the guys to come over to check out the big game in 3D.  Everyone that wants to watch will need 3D glasses or they’ll be forced to look at blurry football.  Active 3D Glasses are currently selling at prices starting at $100.  New sets of glasses may be a hard sell at that price though.  They’ll either need to come down or more sets will need to come with each television.


3D movie and television technology is fascinating.  The idea of watching a movie that pops right out of the screen is fascinating; feeling like you’re looking through a window at a sporting event, rather than sitting at home on the couch, is an unrivalled experience. People want 3D technology, and manufacturers want consumers to have it.  Everything in between is still a bit of a haze, but we’re getting there.  After all, this may be the time that 3D finally sticks.

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