3D Movies - Mainstream or Gimmick?

26 Apr 2008

So, now I have watched samples of the latest trend in the motion picture industry: three dimensional (stereoscopic) movies. The main part of the reason for this trend is probably that there currently is no affordable way to view 3D movies at home, so they are a way to lure people back into the cineplex. 3D movies have been around since the 1890's (source: Wikipedia), and there have been several waves of 3D movies since then, but 3D hasn't caught on as the standard way of doing movies, like sound and colour once did. It is still a gimmick for just a handful of films.

The current digital 3D movies have far better image quality than previous technologies. I went to a 3D screening at the "inspiration weekend for filmmakers" Drömfabriken (site in Swedish!) this week, and the talks before they actually showed the movie clips sounded very promising. One person thought that 3D movies are here to stay this time. And the clips they showed looked good. I could see no ghosting (where you see a little of the right eye image in your left eye and vice versa), and the colour reproduction was excellent. The main technical problem I saw was that the 3D effect was more or less exaggerated. The image had more depth than what it would look like in real life. This causes double vision sometimes, and looks unrealistic all the time. The reason for the exaggerated 3D effect is probably that the "eyes" of the camera they used for filming were further apart than human eyes are, so it's a problem that can be solved by just moving them closer together. But if you do not exaggerate the 3D effect, the image would look quite flat.

When you're looking at stuff in the real world, you do not actually have that much sense of depth at distances that are greater than a few meters. Stereoscopic vision is most useful at close distances. At larger distances, other parts of the brain do the work of figuring out how far away objects are. So, if you move the 3D camera's "eyes" closer together to get a realistic 3D effect, you don't get much of a 3D effect at all except for closeups. So why would the film production go through all the trouble of filming in stereo and forcing the viewers to wear those ugly glasses for such a subtle effect?

I think the glasses is the reason that 3D movies won't go mainstream this time around either. You just don't want to make out in the back of the theatre wearing alien goggles. Since one driving force behind 3D movies is to get the audience into the theatres, it's ironic that the first 3D displays that don't require glasses are suited only for home use. The technology wouldn't work in a cinema. (This has to do with the fact that these 3D displays have a small "sweet spot". They don't allow for a wide viewing angle.)

So, was I impressed by the 3D screening? No. It didn't feel very fresh or new, but it still is a cool effect, no doubt about it. It has always been. I just don't see it going mainstream any time soon. James Cameron (director of Aliens, The Terminator, Titanic and upcoming 3D feature Avatar) has a different opinion in this interesting article.

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