I've been a fan of 3D media for as long as I can remember. From the old View Master toys to books and magazines that came with cardboard red and blue glasses so that the anaglyph pictures inside would pop off the page, I always thought that the use of illusory three dimensions to enhance entertainment media was a fascinating, under-utilized idea. I've felt this was for almost three decades, come to think of it. Boy, am I old . . . .
Anyway, with the blockbuster success of Avatar and the impressive sales of Panasonic's S3DHD TVs, the first line of high-definition, flat-screen TVs, it appears that the idea of 3D has caught on--at least in the circles of movie production. Even Warner Bros. has gone so far to recently announce that all of their upcoming tentpole films will be in 3D.
With this sudden growth of the 3D movie market, there has been a fair amount of backlash from both critics and fans alike. For example, I usually enjoy reading Roger Ebert's movie reviews (even if I disagree with his overall evaluation of particular movies) but I've noticed over the last few years that if Ebert was reviewing a film that was released in 3D, it was a safe bet that the review would include at least one anti-3D rant. Likewise, just about every message board I've seen concerning the release of a 3D movie and/or Hollywood's increasing receptivity of 3D technology has resulted in countless posts about how 3D causes headaches, how movie makers are going to become over-reliant on 3D to the point where all of their films will be crap, how the gimmick of 3D movies should have died in the 1950s, etc.
So, being the 3D freak geek (or 3D geek freak?) that I am, I just thought I'd throw in my two cents. Yes, I believe that the era of 3D entertainment is here to stay, and it has been for some time. However, I don't think that it was Avatar or even the usage of higher-quality 3D technology such as RealD that made it happen. I think all of the credit should go to computers. Read on . . .
Let me be more specific: I think that 3D video games, followed by 3D computer animation such as the Pixar movies, were what made 3D entertainment the cash cow it is today. My initial video game experiences in the early 1980s were with games that were almost always two dimensional in nature: Games such as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Dig Dug and Defender in the arcades and games for the home game consoles were always flat. When 3D video games arrived on the scene, from 3D beat-em-ups such as Virtual Fighter to 3D first-person shooters such as Doom, the landscape had changed. The added layers of depth added new possibilities of game play and narrative devices within the games; thus, while 3D may be regarded by many as nothing more than a gimmick for movies, 3D has become the irreplaceable ingredient in video games. Sure, there are still many popular 2D video games out there, but the video game industry wouldn't be where it is today without 3D.
Then, the era of 3D computer animated movies began with Pixar and it imitators. One of the things that made these films really impressive is that unlike their live-action counterparts, there were no limitations on where the "camera" could be placed within a scene and thus no limitations on what kind of shots and perspectives could be seen in such films. When shooting live actors in physical sets, considerations always have to be made as to where the cameras, audio equipment, and lighting will be placed in order to get the right shots. If you place the lighting at the wrong angle or a boom microphone is visible, a shot can be ruined. No such limitations exist in 3D computer animation. Add in the feature of 3D film projection, and the unique visual style of 3D computer animated films becomes even more impressive. Take the opening chase sequence of the 3D version of Bolt--I've never seen a chase sequence like that, and I doubt it could be done the same way in a live action 3D film simply because it would be that much more difficult (if not impossible) to get a sequence of similar shots. I guess you can say that there is no better medium to capitalize on the illusion of depth (3D film projection) than one that already relies on the illusion of depth (3D computer animation).
I can't speak for others, but the difference between live-action 3D movies and computer animated 3D movies couldn't be more obvious. I enjoyed watching the remakes of My Bloody Valentine and Journey to the Center of the Earth, but the 3D effects in those films felt quite flat in comparison to their digital counterparts. Meet the Robinsons, Monster House, Monsters vs. Aliens, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs . . . all of them were a joy to watch in 3D, with their unique visual styles taking full advantage of the illusion of depth without having to constantly poke you in the eye with arrows, spikes, needles, and so on. It's no wonder that Avatar made the money it did in 3D, because it relied so heavily on computer animation as part of its narrative; thus, I expect a similar windfall for the 3D Tron Legacy for the same reasons. Then again, for all of the talk I've heard over the years about how George Lucas is going to re-release all six of his Star Wars movies in 3D, I think he'd be better off rendering the entire computer animated Clone Wars TV series in 3D--the overall effect would be more impressive and it would probably cost less to do so.
So to some degree, the critics are right--3D shouldn't be seen as the new technological application that will revolutionize movies. However, what makes 3D movies relevant and profitable now is not the idea of illusory three dimension but that the technology for making movies--due almost entirely to computers--has finally caught up to the concept of 3D entertainment. It's about time.