Since the invention of cinematography over a century ago, the media world has undergone rapid changes that have influenced moviegoers’ experience and the artistry of film itself. Each stage in the strange world of filmmaking has seen some new development intended to make movies more accessible, more exciting, and more enjoyable. From silent black-and-whites to the colorful computer-designed films of today, the film world has continued steadily down the road to modernity. Now, a new revolution has emerged. Once considered a futuristic oddity, three-dimensional (3D) movies have become a common and expected luxury of the viewing experience, branching from theatrical releases to television broadcasts.
Though existing in some form since 1915, 3D media was not available to the masses because of the costliness of producing it and the lack of a standardized format for displaying it. The first few tests of 3D technology were shown at the Astor Theater in New York City; primitive reels of tests, including rural scenes and footage of Niagara Falls. The response was positive, leading to more major breakthroughs, such as the releasing of the first public 3D movie in 1922, “The Power of Love.” The cinematographer, Robert F. Elder, collaborated with photographers to utilize anaglyph images, the earliest method of presenting theatrical 3D. This method introduced the phenomenon of 3D glasses, beginning with the archetypal red and blue design. These innovations influenced the production of newer systems of 3D, from polarization systems that utilize the modern black glasses to Autostereoscopic displays, 3D without glasses, a relatively new development.
Despite how long ago 3D media was pioneered, for much of the 1970s and 1980s it was poorly received. These decades favored a smattering of more introspective period works, paired with some of the nation’s first blockbusters. But all the landmark hits released from the ‘70s right up until the start of the 20th century—centerpieces of American filmmaking like “Jaws,” the “Star Wars” trilogy, and even “Titanic”—were all released in 2D. The desire for 3D media seemed low as well; American moviegoers were content to see movies in their “flat” form, and the world of 3D entertainment seemed to remain a fascinating, but surreal oddity. In fact, the technology remained unused and un-demanded.
The 3D resurgence we see today is in part thanks to the work of two major entertainment corporations: IMAX and Disney. IMAX allowed movies to be presented on a massive scale with new, high-tech projectors. The calling card of the IMAX company was to bring viewers into a more accessible movie experience, one the emphasized a shocking, adrenaline-filled, overwhelming view of the film. One of the technologies best suited to enhance the IMAX experience is 3D film. IMAX gained a newly devoted fanbase when they put the 3D glasses into their arsenal of alluring surprises, and began featuring popular films in 3D.
IMAX’s first major 3D project was born humbly in the animated “The Polar Express”; it proved a huge success. According to IMAX’s own statistics, the 3D version grossed some 14 times as much as its two-dimensional counterpart. Disney also helped to reintroduce 3D media to the world. The Walt Disney Company, and their animation affiliate Pixar, began to experiment with the application of 3D to Disney films, and their first test came in another animated feature, “Chicken Little.” Again, the three-dimensional version was a huge success. In its early stages of becoming a mainstream phenomenon, 3D film dazzled the younger audiences first, before whom it was tested with animated features by IMAX and Disney. But soon, the technology would make the leap towards big-scale box office success and demand mainstream attention as a new, cutting-edge sensation.
By 2008, 3D film styles had permeated into other genres, from a variety of nature films and documentaries to the first 3D horror film in “My Bloody Valentine: 3D.” But a project by James Cameron, one that he reportedly had begun long before in 1994, was soon to change the status of 3D entertainment everywhere: “Avatar,” the fantastic science-fiction feature that captured the attention of the entire world. Boosted by the success of its 3D version, Cameron’s biggest project would smash all box-office records, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time. It took the world of media to a new level, and with it we see today the frequency of 3D media, whether in computer graphics, video games, or feature films, on a sharp incline.
Because of the growing popularity of 3D cinematography and the increased revenue it generates, old classics, such as “The Beauty and the Beast” and “Titanic” have been remade with 3D technology to hit the big screen again. The latter was converted with $18 million, only to earn a worldwide total of $316.9 million. Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers rated the reissue 3.5 stars out of 4, and said, “The 3D intensifies ‘Titanic.’ You are there. Caught up like never before in an intimate epic that earns its place in the movie time capsule.”
But how will the growth of the 3D industry affect filmmaking? Sometimes it seems that all the attention drawn to the visuals may take away from some of the classic elements of American movies. Certain films just suit themselves better to three dimensions: action-packed features of violence, car chases, and the like. But the subtleties of some of the film world’s greatest acting performances, the intricacies of the plot and script, may be lost beneath impressive visual effects.
The next time you see a 3D film, and enjoy the exhilarating visual experience, ask yourself how much else in the film really caught your attention, whether you really paid attention to the plot or thought about the characters. Most of us don’t. The question comes down to whether moviegoers mind. Will they forego the chance to understand a more interesting film in favor of a more instantly stimulating experience? Optmistically, filmgoers across the world will keep a taste for truly good filmmaking, and this may balance out the drive for simpler and more adrenaline-oriented movies. But for now, we can only hope that 3D film is a trend or a bonus, and not a revolution.