A History of the Third Dimension: Past Future Visions of 3D in Movies

3D Glasses

The future would be brilliant, glowing, and rich in color. The future would be lifelike on the screen as much as off. The future, Hollywood attempted – and attempts – to tell us, is 3D.

Watching Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One in 3D a few days ago, I was once again struck by how bad a deal 3D is for cinemagoers. Despite a discount for a weekday showing, I paid an extra three Euros for the privilege of seeing the movie in 3D. It felt like less for more. I am not alone in that assessment. Vice‘s Meghan Neal summed it up succinctly:

The problem is, 3D is often not a premium viewing experience at all. For many people (myself included) it’s a far worse experience than seeing the movie in regular 2D, so now you’ve paid extra money for two hours of unpleasantness.1

Two years earlier, in 2014, Jeff Bakalar, writing for CNET.com, had come to the same conclusion:

As much as the movie studios would like the opposite to be true, 3D movies are handicapping the theatergoing experience and there’s almost never a time you should pay extra for it.2

I paid more money in order to see a movie that was, as the overwhelming majority of so-called “3D” movies are, shot in 2D. Ready Player One, chock full of CGI scenes set in a futuristic, immersive alternative reality, was nonetheless exposed onto Kodak 35mm film stock in Panavision cameras whenever actual actors took the stage. This is not a bad thing. In fact, though I am perfectly happy to record 4K video on my iPhone for home videos and low budget cinematography using DSLRs and mirrorless cameras has opened doors for many creatives, movies shot on film still to me look “right.” A preference, for sure. But one that was informed by over a century of motion pictures that were naturally captured and presented this way since there was simply no alternative.

Patent for a 3D Movie System
Patent for a 3D Movie System

If you go into a movie theater today you will, unless you happen to live in a place where an IMAX theater is available and playing the film you want to watch, see a 3D presentation that uses the same projectors as 2D movies use. Since 3D, however, has to display two distinct images which are then filtered by a pair of unwieldy and seemingly always already smudged plastic glasses to create the 3D image, the brightness of such a presentation is about half of what you’d see if you were watching a 2D movie.

To be fair to the technology, this isn’t inherently a problem with 3D. In the age of high-powered Laser projection, this loss of brightness could in theory be compensated for. A general lack of care in cinema projection rooms the world over, owing to cost-cutting by cinema owners by hiring less, and less qualified staff than would be needed to run projectors smoothly and without a hitch, is most often to blame here.

In the words of Den of Geek‘s Brendon Connelly:

The 3D format doesn’t inherently result in darker, dimmer, less focused images, but the typical multiplex has a terrible track record in taking the few, neither difficult nor expensive steps to make sure 3D is being presented properly.3

In essence, then, through a combination of technology, marketing, and the economic bottom line, 3D today means you a) pay more to b) watch a movie that was not captured in 3D. To see it you have to wear c) a decidedly non-futuristic and often uncomfortable pair of plastic goggles which d) make the picture significantly duller. The 3D effect, in most cases, does not make up for this. I’d prefer to see a brilliant, colorful image instead of a dull excuse for a presentation in which sometimes, maybe, something pops out of the screen.

Not everyone is bearish on 3D, though. Michael V. Lewis, in a 2017 piece for Variety argued that “3D will continue to transport our imaginations light years ahead.” Then again, Lewis is the CEO of RealID, which bills itself “the world’s largest 3D cinema platform with more than 32,000 screens in 72 countries.”4

Past Futures of 3D

3D for decades has meant the promise of a better, more immersive medial experience. Of a narrative world that would not only be presented to you, but envelop you. Without fail, it has been, for the most part, a disappointment. This is despite 3D image projection having a long history dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and the technology to make it work reasonably well as projected still or moving pictures has been around since the 1920s.

The 3D in use today is essentially the same basic technology developed by Edwin H. Land and others at Polaroid. Incidentally, the company that became synonymous with instant photography, first produced polarizers that split light. Since a polarizer lets through only light of a certain orientation, by using one on each eye with their polarization offset by 90 degrees, one can filter out the unwanted parts of an image. A projection system that works in sync with these glasses can thus project two images onto one screen at the same time, and the glasses will feed only the image meant for the right eye to the right eye and vice versa.5

The first big push for 3D came in the 1950s. Much like Cinerama, Cinemascope, and other widescreen formats, as well as the ever-elusive Smell-o-Vision, it was born out of the confluence of technological progress and the advent of television.

My own father recalled how his parents, financially stable but far from rich in Post-War West Germany, calculated one day the cost of the many times they went to the cinema, and decided that amortization for what was then a splurge of an investment, a black and white tv set, would not be too far off. Their case is typical. People who had become accustomed to being entertained by the big screen several times a week traded in the size of the movie screen for the convenience of their own couches. The movie industry reacted with complicated, expensive, impressive, or simply different ways of presenting movies. This is what gave us Cinemascope widescreen motion pictures, and improved definition and depth from 70mm projection. And it gave us 3D.

Ultimately, the technology was brought down by some of the same issues that surround 3D today: price (studios wanted to rent out two copies of a film for 3D, since each eye needed to see one), and the sloppiness of projectionists.6

3D had another straw fire in the 1980s. This, too, did not last.

The current 3D craze dates to 2010. To be more exact, it dates to one movie (and, some might argue, the only movie) which showcased what the technology was capable of: Avatar. With studios riding the coattails of Avatar‘s success and hastily converting movies to play in 3D that gained little or no benefit from the technology, audiences quickly became fed up with 3D – again. Although 3D has not died, the hype fizzled pretty quickly.

You may have noticed that there is essentially always something like twenty-five years between these attempts. Time for a generation to have grown up that does not remember 3D was ever a thing, and that does not remember the problems that come with the technology and/or its lackluster implementation. Enough time, too, to hope that technology has moved on to obsolete the issues with 3D that led to the end of the previous wave.

You Don’t Want 3D (Yet)

All 3D Systems suffer from drawbacks. Most importantly, that all of them require specialized capture systems if the 3D effect is to be convincing, and that none of them work with just 3D projectors alone. You, as the viewer, also have to do something. You have to put on 3D glasses. Unless this limitation goes away, and leaves behind with it the headaches (literal, in the case of 3D cinema, as well as virtual), 3D will not become the default option for screened entertainment.

Technologies fail, over and over again, if they are not able to insert themselves successfully into the everyday habits of people. Despite being ostensibly higher quality or more convenient than what came before, media formats of all kinds have failed because they were too expensive, incompatible, suffered from limited availability, or a combination of all of the above.

8-Track cartridges lost out to the smaller, cheaper, cassette tapes. The APS photo format, pushed by camera manufacturers in the 1990s and 2000s, offered more flexibility than the 35mm film then typically used for snapshots at the cost of somewhat reduced quality. But not enough. It never gained a strong foothold in the market, and was eventually doomed by a technology that had almost all of its advantages, but none of the disadvantages: the digital photo camera.

Augmented reality (AR), too, has been much more successful to date than virtual reality (VR). Augmented reality only requires you to use technology you already own in a somewhat different way. The Pokémon Go craze of a few years back was made possible because many people had the necessary technology – a smartphone – already in their pockets. VR, in contrast, requires us to buy expensive, specialized displays in the form of unwieldy glasses that, even if one owns them, one doesn’t just carry around.

This wave of 3D, too, seems to be cresting. IMAX, the company behind many a giant-screen nature documentary and some of the better 3D projections around, announced in 2017 that its future plans include fewer 3D showings. Instead, it plans to capitalize on IMAX-ready 2D movies, such as those shot in large film formats. According to IMAX CEO Greg Foster:

Consumers in many markets are showing a clear preference […] It’s apparent that the demand for 2D film is starting to exceed that of 3D in North America, and we’ll be looking to keep more of our films in 2D as a result.7

If your preferences are similar, you can go see Ready Player One not in 3D, nor as a digital projection, but in the grand scale 70mm format that made 2001 look outstanding fifty years ago. In glorious 2D.

  1. Meghan Neal, “Why Are 3D Movies Still a Thing?,” Vice, May 12, 2016. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/8q8xy3/why-are-3d-movies-still-a-thing
  2. Jeff Bakalar, “Here’s Why Watching 3D Movies Is Miserable,” CNET.com, May 30, 2014. https://www.cnet.com/news/heres-why-watching-3d-movies-is-miserable
  3. Brendon Connelly, “How the Film Industry Blew It with 3D,” Den of Geek, June 24, 2016. http://www.denofgeek.com/uk/movies/3d/41729/how-the-film-industry-blew-it-with-3d
  4. Michael V. Lewis, “3D Shows Enduring Value, Delivering Entertainment Not Found at Home (Guest Column),” Variety, August 24, 2017. http://variety.com/2017/voices/columns/3d-movies-audiences-1202535879
  5. For the technical side of things, see: Eddie Sammons, The World of 3-D Movies. Delphi, 1992. https://thefsu3dproject.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/sammons-two3dm-300dpi-c.pdf
  6. John Hayes, “‘You see them WITH glasses!’… A Short History of 3D Movies,” Wide Screen Movies Magazine. Last revised September 14, 2014. Esp. subsection “Decline and Fall…” http://widescreenmovies.org/WSM11/3D.htm 
  7. Ashley Rodriguez, “The reign of 3D is over in US cinemas,” Quartz, July 27, 2017. https://qz.com/1039936/imax-says-no-too-the-reign-of-3d-movies-is-over-in-us-cinemas 
Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

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