Buh-Bye, 3D? Alas, We Hardly Knew Ye

I had the unexpected and unexpectedly pleasant experience recently of viewing the 3D version of the theatrical blockbuster Gravity in what proved to be a perfectly competent RealD (i.e., not IMAX) presentation. I say unexpected because I’d actually recommended that our group that day skip the 3D entirely and just watch the (undoubtedly brighter) 2D version—such has my need for theatrical and at-home 3D dropped off the cliff. I only walked into the theater reservedly after a mishap in which the wrong tickets got purchased online in advance of our arrival.

And I describe the experience above as unexpectedly pleasant because, for the first time in memory, I actually watched a 3D film all the way through without being reminded that I was watching 3D. The image never seemed so dark or lacking in contrast that I regretted having to wear the glasses. The 3D effect, used subtly but to great enhancement of key scenes, was engrossing but without calling attention to itself or taking me out of the story. I never felt headache, fatigue, or the need to rub my eyes to make it to the end of the movie. I just put on the glasses and forgot about them until the movie was done. Ultimately, all in our group were glad we’d ended up in the 3D viewing. But could I have lived without it? I’ll bet I would have enjoyed the movie just as much with or without the glasses.

I can’t speak for others, but I’d guess this kind of reaction to the 3D viewing experience—a kind of indifferent “whatever…”—is at the heart of 3D’s apparent failure to date in the marketplace. I acknowledge that people really love to hate the glasses, but this becomes the prime argument against 3D only in the absence of a compelling viewing experience. I gather that if 3D was so awesome we couldn’t live without it, none other than Dr. Dre would have come out with a line of fashion 3D glasses by now and made them seem hip.

So why, exactly, isn’t 3D that kind of compelling experience? Here’s a thought: Is it possible that movies can only have too much 3D effect or too little, with no option for a persuasive middle ground? I’ve gotten some reader mail lately about 3D (one with the subject line “Stick a Fork in It”) complaining that Hollywood has lost its opportunity with 3D by playing it too safe. The thinking is that extreme 3D effects that jump aggressively off the screen and reach into the audience are 3D’s raison d’être, but that filmmakers, in their fear of appearing too gimmicky and over-the-top, have gone completely in the other direction and are using it to make things more subtly realistic instead of using it for what it was made for. But these observers may be missing the fact that extreme 3D is inherently unfriendly. The more frequency with which you ask viewers to focus simultaneously on two widely separated planes of action, the more you’re inviting them to an evening of headache, nausea, and fatigue. On the other hand, what might be deemed “restrained” use of 3D leaves us, more often than not, with nothing to write home about.

Whatever the inherent weakness in the format, there can be no denying at this point that 3D has flopped with the mass consumer. My sensational headline not withstanding, it’s not really going away—it’ll continue to come along for the ride in most mid- to premium HDTVs. And, ironically, the quality of that 3D, particularly in the higher-end 1080p and 4K LCD sets that use passive glasses, has greatly improved. But will anybody ever care?

MatthewWeflen's picture

I also saw Gravity in 3D. It was indeed bright enough. I was also kind of "meh" over it. It looked fine, but personally I found the 3D effects (like screws flying at us, or the helmet visors) to be distracting. Eventually I settled in and forgot all about it.

This highlights the reason I think 3D is not impressive to most people - when they watch a movie, it *already* looks 3D to their eyes and minds, especially when the photography is excellent. I've been on a Hitchcock kick lately, and his VistaVision films all have a "3D look." The same goes for classics like Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments. At no point in those movies was I thinking "Gosh, I wish this was in 3D."

3D is a solution in search of a problem. We already perceive movies in 3D.

ChaseTheHTGuy's picture

I agree with some of the article, especially that is inherently unfriendly. That said, I have a 3D tv and I love good 3D, especially IMAX 3D. Saw The Hobbit this weekend in IMAX 3D, dark movie, subtle 3D but that Gandalf vs. Sauron scene made it worth the $21 I paid.

An important point that the writer did not mention is that 3D blockbuster movies and in fact most blockbuster movies are not made for American audiences. They are made for foreign audiences and intended to be rebooted in sequel form. This is a huge profit center for Hollywood, because each sequel makes significantly more money in countries like China and Russia than the prior one. Titanic 3d made 1billion in China. The reason there is a Fast & Furious 10 and an Ice Age 100 is that for those audiences the franchise is already recognized. They're not made for hotrodding American fanboys or suburban families with little kids.

I read an article on Hollywood Reporter about the boom in Chinese theaters to support their growing middle class' interest in blockbuster films. The estimate was an average of 9 new screens a day. 

Film producer, Lynda Obst ("Sleepless in Seattle,” “Hope Floats", etc) has a great book about the industry which talks about the rise of 3d and why it's not going anywhere. 

That said I love good movies and I'm ok with anything that keeps the industry afloat, even if they may only put out 1 good 3d movie every two years. 

javanp's picture

A funny comment coming from a home theater reviewer. You could also be talking about Dolby Atmos or the luxurious leather recliner you were sitting in while you were watching the movie. Do we "need" these things to enjoy the movie? No, not necessarily, but they all add to the experience.

Anyhoo, I personally hope 3d never goes away. As long as the benefits of the 3d viewing experience outnumber the annoying side-effects, I'm happy. Since I've gotten my DLP projector, I don't know if I've ever purposefully switched from the 3d version to the 2d one. If anything, even if I thought I was underwhelmed with the 3d version, I find myself pining for it when I'm watching the 2d version. Case in point is Star Trek Into the Darkness. I found myself getting distracted by some of the 3d elements so the 2nd viewing I went with just 2d; however, that immersing, lose-yourself-in-it effect, was missing.

Also, almost everyone seems to hate the glasses. I'm starting to think I, well I wouldn't "enjoy" them, but I think they add to that immersion effect. They help to cut out any distractions. Again, in addition to my "bought it for its 3d capabilities" projector, the glasses are also pretty top-notch in terms of comfort.

Now, there are movies that I just don't think "need" to be in 3d, but then there are some that I think just HAVE to be. I was watching Dredd again the other night and I can't even fathom seeing that one in merely two dimensions. Anytime I've tried watching Avatar in 2d, I've wanted to go running for the door. Pretty much anything that's CGI-animated is a shoe-in

lostintransocean's picture

You touch on this issue but fail to recognize it's significance. 3D will succeed or fail on the economic decisions consumers make, not on whether or not it is a good technology. Whether or not 3D itself makes you enjoy the movie more.

When you buy a movie for 3D you're making a conscious decision to consume 3D. When you buy a movie ticket you're making a conscious decision to watch a movie in a cinema instead of a torrent copy on your laptop. You expect something from a cinema (big screen, big sound), you expect something from 3D (3D effects). And it's a failure of marketing. Selling 3D as 3D is selling the gimmick of 3D - things popping off the screen. If it's subtle, people will not appreciate the subtle increase in quality they get from a 3D experience. Some theaters are trying to market higher quality video and audio (Imax, XD, et al), but that's not how 3D is marketed.

When you ask, "But could I have lived without it?" I think of all the horrid noise proceeding from the flat panel speakers people live with instead of buying speakers because they can live without it.

I don't know how many times I've heard, "I’ll bet I would have enjoyed the movie just as much with or without the [insert technology here]." Surround sound is a big one (I have clients tell me they can't hear sound from the rear speakers so they set their receivers to all channels stereo). Most people enjoy the movies just as much on their iPads.

Gravity was a movie that did something few movies can produce: real emotion. I was in a constant state of anxiety in the theater, and I attribute it in part to the depth 3D added to the experience. Maybe it's because I went to the theater and watched the movie while you went and evaluated the technology.

Goodfellow's picture

3D is now and was in the 50's a total gimmick. Is is a money grab by the industry and thank God it's not working now any better then it did in the 50's. Good bye 3d don't come back again.

mygo2guy's picture

No working? Based on what facts, your uneducated opinion? It is a cash cow in theaters here and abroad and bottom line, that is the measure of success in industry. If no one went to see them, they'd be gone. As for those who ACTUALLY own them at home and should be the primary commenters here, I can say, all movies should be released in 3D. If you saw 3D on a genuine set up (like mine), you'd eat your words.

tommygunzz's picture

Here is just another item added to the long list of technologies that doesn't receive complete support. With all the bad conversions of 3d, there are some that truly showcased what 3d is meant to do. Terrible indeed.....

mygo2guy's picture

I agree with your point that there have been a lot of tech that didn't receive enough support and faded i.e. divx, super audio, dvd audio ( for mass market, still very hot with those with discernment) but that doesn't apply here. It has been widely supported and continues to be supported in Theaters and home. The tech, just like Bluray when it started, is getting better and better as this article alludes to. When Bluray 1st came out, it caught the same flack. It wasn't good. Not much support (titles) very slow load times (minutes), had bugs (firmware, comparabilities) and picture was at times worse than dvd! But over time with "COMPLETE SUPPORT" it's much faster, sharper, less picture anomalies and true to it's initial promise. 3D is now getting to that promise in hardware and software. I, like those who actual own and have them and set up CORRECTLY, LOVE 3D and completely and absolutely support it.

islandman2020's picture

I recently viewed a 4K TV at Best Buy. OMG, I have never seen anything like it. It's beyond how good I thought it might be. The resolution, and depth of field is so good that everything in the screen looks 3D in a realistic, natural way. I don't see how 3D 1080P will ever survive against 4K unless there is enough interest to make a 3D 4K TV...but after viewing 4K and seeing how good it is I don't see the point.

mygo2guy's picture

I believe most 4k are 3D and passive. Really do just a bit of asking or at least read the info card on the TV or maybe this article YOUR commenting on as it mentions that. FYI, what you saw in store is fools gold. 4k on a hard drive and settings are set to dynamic. No 4k content and if you expect it to look like that with current content, you're in for a rude awakening.

jdesan's picture

I really haven't seen good 3D. Only a small screen demo at Walmart. Wasn't impressed but I'm sure it is better than I saw. The thing is " the glasses" Don't think it will ever be accepted until they find a way to get rid of them. Just too much hassle.

mygo2guy's picture

Really? These comments should be filtered out for shear irrelevance. 1st Small screen at Walmart, bad idea, but you caught that. 2nd this tech has been around for years now, and is, as the article points out, going no away, so it has been accepted. 3rd there are a variety of glasses that are very comfortable and can be worn for hours without fatigue. This comment was a typical maybe 4 years ago, my goodness research, ask questions, and I don't know, maybe go see an actual demo 1st? You'd change your tune in a heartbeat.

Biffstar's picture

3D is and always has been nothing but a joke and a gimmick. At their homes, most people like to fiddle with their phones or tablets while watching TV, and oftentimes with movies as well. The stupid 3D glasses just get in the way. It's just too niche a market to be resoundingly successful in a consumer market. Having a small base of enthusiasts would hardly classify it as a success.

And to the person above who mentioned that 3D movies in theaters are a success because people are going to them, it's because there really isn't a choice. In my city at least, the top crops of movies are always 3D or bust. No other choice. And if they do screen them in 2D, they're always on inopportune days or showtimes. Not primetime. Given the choice, I know that myself and many others that I know would ditch the annoying 3D and the increased price that comes along with it.

mvision7m1's picture

I had no interest whatsoever in 3D prior to looking for a new TV in 2011 when by default I had 3D tech forced on me by choosing one of 2011's top performing TVs, the Panasonic TC-P55VT30 plasma. After some time passed, I was curious and picked up a few 3D titles to not only check out those particular movies in 3D but also to check out my new set's 3D performance. 3D wasn't my set's forte necessarily but 3D looked at least good enough that I purchased a few more 3D discs thereafter. Fast forward to this year in which I purchased a Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 and upon watching those same 3D discs on that new set I discovered that it's a much better performer with 3D than my old set so I found myself enjoying my 3D discs even more.

However, 3D isn't perfect and although I've quite thoroughly enjoyed a few 3D films such as Avatar, Tron and Prometheus, I wouldn't miss 3D if it were gone completely tomorrow. I really wouldn't care at all if it disappeared entirely over night. Feeling that way about it tells me that FOR ME, it's a fad. A gimmicky novelty that has improved in spades since the "old days" of 3D but hasn't improved enough to move past being merely an occasional break from the norm or in the cases of the best 3D movies I've seen, Avatar & Tron to name two, only an occasional treat. If 3D technology continues to improve perhaps it can someday move passed being nothing more than a novelty at least for me but I don't anticipate that happening.

notabadname's picture

Interesting that an image of Avatar is featured on this article. With Cameron officially announcing a trilogy of Avatar films coming, in 3D, it seems premature, if not absurd, to say farewell to 3D. The tech is here to stay, and will eventually be standard on every TV larger than 50 inches, except for the very cheapest. It will even be more accepted as Ultra HD becomes more mainstream, with its ability to provide full HD 3D with passive glasses. For those who have not demoed passive on a U-HD, I think you are really missing out. No crosstalk (essentially), no dim images, and no dropping synch or dead batteries. And, oh yeah, if a kid sits on the glasses, who cares, they are nearly disposable. And to the poster who said his theater offers new movies in only 3D, I say huh? I'm a pilot, watch movies across the country, and have yet to see a theater offer a movie that was new in ONLY 3D. Every Cinema I have been to shows the big releases in both formats, and the biggest blockbusters in 3 formats where IMAX is available (2D, Real 3D, and IMX 3D). Like my comment as to checking out Ultra HD's version of Passive 3D, I would equally encourage people to try a film like Gravity in IMAX 3D, the difference in that and lesser 3D is truly dramatic. (Night & Day if you will, due to the far brighter images of IMAX).

I find it surprising film and home theater has advanced beyond square black and white images, since that is the origin's look. We live in a world still were we seem to need archaic "film grain" and fuzzy, blurred pans because 24 FPS is how film "should look". The perfect way to put the viewer in the world of the movie is to replicate the experience of actually being there. The human eye, and brain sees action and the world at a silky smooth "frame rate" that greatly exceeds 24 FPS, and, oh yeah, in beautiful stereoscopic 3D. As younger generations replace the intransigent old-schoolers, film, and the technology that presents it, will continue to move away from the dogma of the past, and embrace new ways to deeply engage the audience. I guarantee you, 3D is here to stay, even if it this year's buzz is about growing markets for Ultra or OLED.

dcooph's picture

Finally, someone gets it. I have a really hard time predicting the demise of a technology that has, in all reality, been around for almost 100 years (go check my math if you must - this isn't hyperbole). I feel like there is a growing trend in the past year or so to be the first to predict the demise of technology A or B - I suppose it's an easy way to garner viewership via sensational headlines but it is hardly ever the case. 3D is not a brand - or a gimmick - it is simply a completely different way of viewing content. As others have noted, if there truly was no market for 3D, it would not have stood the test of time - clearly there is a desire by consumers to watch content in 3D regardless of venue. The sobering fact of the past couple of years is that even with HD content and the latest and greatest screen technology, the format truly has not transitioned well to the home market. 3D at home continues to be a clunky way to view movies, but let's make no mistake - this is not a byproduct of 3D technology per se but rather the equipment used to display it. With the inception (and continuing development and commoditization) of OLED, UHDTV (4K and 8K), any shortcomings associated with 3D will quickly become a thing of the past. And I'll see your passive glasses technology and raise you glasses-FREE technology. Even better? New 4K glasses free screens will also be capable of upconverting 2D images to 3D! True - it will be a few years before these things are viable for consumer consumption but 3D is about to experience a resurgence not seen for some time.