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3D Is Not Just A Fad and It’s Not Going Away

By • Nov 27th, 2017 •

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We all know the now-endless conventional wisdom mantra; “3D is a fad. Sophisticated people don’t want it. It’s a gimmick and not worthy of real artistic cinematic consideration”. Since most of the major consumer electronics giants like Samsung had no new 3D TVs for 2017, many publications have been seemingly gleefully heralding the “death of 3D”. However, ignorance is a terrible thing, so you need to know that their conclusions are manifestly wrong on all counts.

To begin with, 3D is not just a sporadic fad that started in the 1950’s. A large proportion of audiences have always wanted the 3D experience. Hand-held, still-image Stereoscopes, starting in 1838, were all the rage for no less than 100 years until motion pictures got into the sound era, and even then, Stereoscopes have continued unabated in different forms. The Viewmaster 3D viewers, for example, started in the late 1940’s are still going strong after 75 years, with elaborate tie-ins to such giants as the Smithsonian and the Discovery Channel. There’s even Viewmaster Virtual Reality. An offshoot of that product, too, variations of which, manufactured by who-knows-how-many, allows you to take your iPhone, slip it sideways into a sort of Viewmaster arrangement and watch high quality, color side-by-side (not red/cyan) HD 3D video content off the internet – basically a video phone Stereoscope. Video gamers now have their affordable private virtual reality headsets and of course, many of those headsets also allow for a terrific 3D movie viewing experience.

Despite a near-decade of now-absurd naysayers proclaiming that 3D is dead, 3D at the motion picture theater is extremely robust and vigorous. Of the motion pictures reported to be coming out in the remainder of 2017 and through the end of 2018, as reported by Box Office Mojo, I counted 41 which are to be released in 3D, and those are the ones where the producers and studios are gambling their biggest bucks.

Additionally, 21 (over 20%) of the top 100 highest grossing 3D movies ever made, going back over a decade, was released within the last 14 months. That doesn’t sound like a dying fad to me.

None other than Hollywood giant James Cameron, last November, said that he wants 3D without glasses for Avatar 2. “I’m going to push… I’m still very bullish on 3D… and ultimately I think it can happen – with no glasses. We’ll get there.” What he says is no joke. At least a few of the biggest electronics names in the world have patented designs for glasses-free 3D technology for the motion picture theater – and what is described in the patents makes sense. Additionally, RealD, the biggest player in motion picture 3D theater projection, has also announced the creation of glasses-free 3D for the theaters, so it’s definitely no joke. Martin Scorsese, by the way, is also a big 3D advocate, as is Peter Jackson, director of Lord of the Rings and others.

There are even new 3D cameras coming out this year, including one from Sony. 3D is blossoming everywhere, now – theaters, iphones, internet, virtual reality goggles – everywhere except TV, which begs the question of why poor 3D TV is getting kicked in the pants. Amusingly, the solution to the problems plaguing 3D TV is often found amidst the seeming enthusiastic sadism found in the cheerleaders heralding 3D’s supposed demise. CNET mentioned at the end of an article pronouncing 3D TV as dead, “Of course 3D TV could come back to life, but not before TV manufacturers devise a way to watch without using glasses.” The BBC also ended a drooling, victorious eulogy similarly, saying, “It may well resurge. There has been good progress in making glasses-less 3D which, to my mind, is the biggest barrier here.” As usual, in both instances, what should be the headline is relegated to the last paragraph.

One core problem for 3D TV up to now is that despite a positively striking visual experience, glasses-dependent 3D TVs can strain the eyes: the screen size relative to the viewer distance compared to either the theater screen or the Stereoscope is not good, and force the viewer to literally cross their eyes more than is comfortable for some people. This last problem can be easily solved by sitting pretty close to the TV, and therein lies the second of the big problems with 3D glasses TV, and that is that 3D TVs requiring glasses force the viewer to abandon lifelong TV habits. The TV habit is a casual thing, not a formal experience. The extra formality of wearing the glasses, which is accepted in everything from a 3D theatrical movie to a Viewmaster to virtual reality goggles, is simply contrary to the casual way people are used to watching TV. The answer, of course, as predicted even by the naysayers, is easy-on-the-eyes glasses-free 3D TV, so audiences can casually watch TV and still have the 3D experience. And not only is that experience just around the corner in the United States, it already exists in Japan.

Understand, the television manufacturers and programmers know that 3D movies are still huge money makers, and the 3D versions often easily financially eclipse the 2D versions of the same movies. 7-time Oscar winner “Gravity” made an astonishing 90 percent of its U.S. $274,092,705.00 box office in 3D ticket sales.

Manufacturers and programmers will find a way to get 3D into the home and make it work commercially. By the way, the 3D TVs being abandoned by Samsung and others are the glasses variety. Most are at work on glasses-free 3D TVs, and there are some fascinating upstarts, as well.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, as if you had not guessed, I am a big 3D partisan. I loved it when I was a kid and I love it today, even as my personal chronology is colliding rather loudly with my childlike enthusiasm. I love to work with 3D and at this point I’m pretty good at it, too – so there! Now keep reading and learn some very important things you didn’t know about 3D, lest you unknowingly start quoting ignorant 3D haters who are all totally wrong in their assumptions and predictions!

The most common way of achieving 3D TV without glasses is called Lenticular: the picture is broken up vertically into alternating left and right lines and a sawtooth-effect glass or plastic is put over the screen to merge the lines into a 3D effect. Sony even had (and may still have) a consumer-grade 3D video camera a few years ago and it has a stunning Lenticular prosumer-grade viewscreen. I bought one just for the viewfinder, and I sometimes use it to make the point to producers and investors: “Here, LOOK!” – and they pan around and see their office in real time in 3D on the screen without any 3D glasses necessary. It works. The technology to make Lenticular 3D TVs at an affordable price point more than exists. The only hang-up is fine-tuning the effect to get a wider angle of 3D viewing on a large TV, and that problem is being solved rapidly.

Additionally, there are upstarts in the industry and they’re making headway. A Chinese company called KDX had quite a CES booth. A company in India has a 3D TV, not to mention advertising specialists Viewpoint, Visamotion, Tridelity and several others, whose Lenticular billboard and signage R&D is making the 3D TV potential look more attractive than ever.

If the Japanese consumer electronics giants don’t want to satisfy millions of American and European 3D TV fans, the fans will simply buy from China and India. 3D fans like the ones who started and signed a petition to LG to reinstate a 3D model, glasses or no glasses, for 2018. https://www.change.org/p/lg-please-revive-3d-on-a-2018-oled-tv-model. Slow and arrogant TV manufacturers beware: with a 65-to-1 exchange rate between the U.S. and India, anything from India looks pretty attractive to the bottom line right about now and customer service from a couple of electronics giants has gotten so poor that people might as well be buying from India, anyway (a country with generally very nice people, by the way).

There is also a fascinating, non-lenticular type of glasses-free upstart called Ultra-D, which apparently has a milder effect which they are promoting as a positive, “like looking out a window”. I spoke to the marketing people at Ultra-D repeatedly at length, however, and found them, frankly, entrenched in what was, in my opinion, pretty terrible thinking, something which often hinders wider success in new ventures (higher-end video editors will remember the technically totally superior but painfully less-than-stellar self-promotion of DPS Velocity).

The final bit of outrageous conventional wisdom which needs to be taken off the table is the idea that 3D is only an artless novelty. That is just exactly true of the motion picture medium itself depending on what you do with it. I have not read or heard of the following anywhere else, so let me, possibly, say it for the first time, here, at Films In Review: 3D is potentially nothing less than the Z-axis extension of D.W. Griffith’s cinema narrative form, which virtually all movie directors have used since Griffith invented it in the silent area.

If you don’t know, Griffith invented the close-up, point of view, parallel intercutting, and most of the other techniques which make watching motion pictures more like the visual equivalent of a literary experience instead of what it started out as, in a word, a novelty. But Griffith’s technique has been mostly limited to the “X” (side to side) axis and the “Y” (up and down) axis. What Griffith never had was the “Z” axis – stretching from the lens to infinity as well-realized as the other two axis were and are. 3D is not just a novelty; 3D can effect the dramatic impact of a motion picture moment as intensely as the 2D version of Griffith’s techniques. I know it. I’ve done it.

One example for you to see on your own might be the stereoscopic 3D (Blue Ray 3D HD, not the old red/blue 3D) 1954 Creature From The Black Lagoon with which I assume most regular FIR readers have at least a passing familiarity. About halfway through, the intrepid amazon boat explorers are using a loud wench to try to to free a passageway to the Black Lagoon, not to get into the Black Lagoon, but to get out! While no one bothers to look over their shoulder – something I’d be doing a lot – the Creature silently climbs aboard and makes his way toward the girl.

It’s always been a pretty good scene for what it was. However, one shot, where the Creature is slowly walking toward the camera before he grabs the girl, passes the benchmark of novelty and becomes different dramatically because of the 3D. There is no “eye-poking” exploitation of the 3D process per se; the 3D aspect changes the emotional feeling of the moment. This is an extremely important cinematic distinction which cannot be emphasized enough. I use this example because FIR readers are probably fairly familiar with that film but have likely only seen the 2D version of that scene, so the 3D effect on the actual dramatic feeling of the moment will hopefully be starkly illustrated to them if they now see the moment in 3D.

In my own work, also, I’ve seen the 3D Z-axis unarguably effect the emotional content in ways true to Griffith’s cinematic techniques. For example, hypothetically, suppose you have a scene in which two teenagers are talking about their romantic relationship in a large, empty cafeteria. The boy tells the shy girl that he is leaving her. and he walks away. You have probably already guessed the usual cliched approach to illustrate the loneliness of the girl at the conclusion of the scene, ending on a high-angle wide shot of her sitting looking small and alone within the frame of the screen. A hypothetical 3D approach to the same hypothetical scene: keep the sequence fairly low on 3D depth and then finish with an intensely 3D medium or close shot of the girl looking very separated from the deep, 3D background behind her. In this case, you get the best of all worlds: you get to see her face and performance, otherwise not discernible in the extreme wide angle 2D high shot, dump the cliché and at the same time exploit, for emotional, dramatic effect, the isolation of being in a vast, empty room by kicking in the 3D strongly.

I grant you that the above example of ending on a close shot potentially lessens the feeling of isolation in the “2D version” of the same hypothetical film moment. However, such transitions in technology, in this case from 2D to 3D, have always had some trade-off on the artistic content of motion pictures during the transition from one presentation standard to another. The heavy lights needed for the first larger volume of mainstream color movies drove film noir – which requires subtle and artfully arranged low-key lighting – into a then-second-tier of black and white marketability for a couple of decades. Among other transitional moments, the transition from silent movies to sound eliminated the option for the massive reorganization of a failed film. For example, bad dramas could be turned into comedies (or vise versa) by re-cutting the entire film and writing a new story on the silent-film title cards. The advent of sound, however, suddenly demanded continuity and adherence to the story which had been shot as scripted. After sound, while music and sound can help a struggling film, compared to what could be done in the silent days in terms of content, a failed sound film remained and remains, generally, a failed sound film; no more turning the movie into an entirely different story. Quasi-Luddites who have no trouble with sound movies but resist 3D would do well to accept the 3D future. The potentially awkward artistic growing pains in the transition from 2D to 3D legit drama is plainly inevitable because people will learn to apply 3D to the subtle narrative moments of their films and 3D remains popular, just as it has been since photography was first invented.

Though still in its dramatic narrative application infancy, 3D can be used in extremely sophisticated ways in cinematic storytelling. The potential for new and original cinematic moments in 3D is tremendously vast and, for all intents and purposes, entirely untapped. It matters. A lot.

So, look for glasses-free 3D TVs in stores soon enough, deal with the fact that motion picture theaters will have 3D forever as glasses-free 3D creeps into your local cinema house, hand-held video game players, smart phones, tablets and who-knows-what-else the future brings, and be ready to watch Griffith’s library of techniques get the first real face-lift its ever had, as filmmakers explore the artistically genuine dramatic possibilities of the 3D Z-axis… and with each accidental discovery which gets imitated by others, sets the path until the entire cinematic narrative technique gets a staggering upgrade.

It’s perhaps the most exciting time for a filmmaker to be alive since the first of the silent days.

Make no mistake. 3D is here to stay.

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