Suffering from success: where did 3D films go?

A few years ago friends roped me into seeing Justice League at the cinema. Turns out it was a 4D cinema and every fight sequence was punctuated a corresponding punch from my (4D) seat. As water sprayed over us during an underwater sequence, I was undecided on the success of this immersivity that, rather than engrossing me further into the film, seemed to call attention to its spectacular four dimensions instead. 

4D (which can be broken down into the equation 4D = 3D + massage chair + facial mist) is an extension of 3D, or ‘stereoscopic’, cinema, which has existed for over a century. Stereoscopes rely on binocular vision, with each eye perceiving a different image, which fuse in the mind to create depth. In cinema, this is usually aided by glasses, which restrict each eye to see one of two images. From 1900, stereoscopic photographs were extremely popular and it made sense to try to expand into film, provided it were commercially viable.

Autostereoscopy: unfocus your eyes until a third, 3D image appears.

The ‘Golden Era’ of 3D film is often considered to be the early 1950s, when the first colour 3D films were made. Another boom in 3D cinema happened in the 2000s, reaching a peak in 2009 with the 3D version of Avatar making 70% more than the 2D. Within a few years, however, studios were making losses on 3D films. In part, this explains the shift away from the medium – but why did audiences stop going in the first place?

All astonishment, no aesthetic

The business model seemed solid for the first few years of the noughties. The extreme depth and immersivity of 3D cinema made it easier than ever for audiences to suspend their disbelief. Film theorist Tom Gunning’s concept of an ‘aesthetic of astonishment’ explains a paradox in viewers’ minds between knowing they are watching a film and being immersed enough to believe the film is ‘real’. Radically immersive forms of cinema such as 3D film provide this aesthetic of astonishment, potentially leading to studios relying on 3D as a form-over-content crutch that audiences grew tired of. Once 3D was understood as a gimmick, the ‘astonishment’ was gone. This became increasingly obvious as studios cashed in on made-to-be-3D releases that included objects moving towards the viewer that were so transparently designed to immerse you that they ended up doing the opposite.

Another potential reason for the falling profits of 3D is its alleged health risks, with frequent reports of nausea and headaches after viewings. Furthermore, around a tenth of people are anatomically unable to see the depth effects produced in 3D films as they don’t have stereoscopic vision. For those 10%, why pay more per ticket for a film that just looks mildly out of focus and leaves you with a migraine?

A digital failing?

Trends cycle; 3D oversaturated its market and it now seems inevitable it wouldn’t last. What strikes me as interesting is the role digital post-production had on the success of the form. As they saw the initial profits in 3D versions, studios rushed to digitally convert films that were not filmed stereoscopically. This led to a wide variation in the quality between native and converted 3D. If a film is filmed conventionally and digitally processed retroactively into a 3D format, it faces a number of issues that can lead to the 3D effect to be minimal or appear distorted. This is because the process of conversion involves introducing distortion to create two discreet images per frame and, if not done correctly, the distortion may contradict depth perception markers that the brain uses apart from stereoscopy.

A rare instance of digitisation reducing a product’s commercial lifespan? To some extent, 3D or non-3D, cinema has suffered due to the rise of online platforms such as Netflix. Immersive forms of cinema such as 3D have been transformed to be more interactive, such as the Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch, which combined film and computer game formats, enabling viewers to interact in the plot.

All Bandersnatch endings a viewer can cause

In this example, the interactive format aligned with and enhanced the substance of the episode, working symbiotically – unlike many 3D films in my memory, which often felt like 3D had been slapped on afterwards, a cash-grab bandage over a fundamentally lacking film. Interactivity is a direction that immersive cinema seems likely to take, with virtual reality and user-controlled plot formats on the rise – and who knows, 3D may have a revival within this space, as it is uniquely suited to the experiential and the somatic.

3D’s particular optics necessitate an embodied and unstable mode of film viewing, one with intensely ephemeral and haptic qualities. Offering a “unique type of visuality that cannot be found elsewhere, digital 3D media are composed of (twinned)images, but they are not received imagistically.

Nick Jones, Spaces mapped and monstrous: digital 3D cinema and visual culture: 141.