The novelty of 3D as a format has a certain magic that, as a child, gives you the illusion that you’re watching something real, almost to the point of trying to reach your hand out to touch what’s on the screen in front of you. Unfortunately, it is hard to feel that exact same magic as an adult. The format of 3D has been such a hot and cold topic for decades that even though it’s been around for nearly 100 years, it hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves. My generation will remember 3D classics such as Sharkboy and Lavagirl and Spy Kids 3D. Those films truly went the extra mile selling their 3D and pop-out effects with the red and blue glasses, which is sadly what people think of when it comes to 3D, and thus see the format as childish.
The history of the 3D film is riddled with myths. Small details such as red and blue glasses (which were more commonly used for 3D comic books, not movies) and pop-out gimmicks (not nearly used as much as Spy Kids) seem like common (mis)knowledge now. Not many people realize that the first 3D film came out in 1922 or that a lot of films shot in 3D during the Golden Age used their format in interesting ways that enhanced the picture not through pop out effects, but through depth. The history of this format is interesting on itself, and I’d highly recommend looking it up (3D Film Archive wrote up an excellent article about it), but what I want to focus on is how 3D films have effected me, and how I came to love them.
The biggest complaint people have today about modern 3D movies are the glasses. A few years ago many audience goers were excited about the prospect of glasses-less 3D films because they hated putting them on their face. I can understand some people not liking their 3D experience because they were expecting more pop-out effects, or because the United States is very cheap when it comes to 3D projectors and a lot of movie theaters are not equipped for the brightness that 3D needs to be projected in, but the prospect of putting something on your face to watch a movie as the sign of a bad experience baffles me. I need to wear glasses. In life, I can’t see properly without them so when I go to a movie theater to see a 3D movie I need to put glasses on top of my glasses and I have no problem with it. In fact, it’s easier to wear 3D glasses now than when I was a kid because not only were the cardboard blue/red glasses not made to fit on any face with glasses, but they also hurt your ears if they were even a smidge smaller than your face.
Other than comfort level, I love 3D glasses because it allows me to focus on the film. Having the glasses on allows me not to look at my phone. If you look at a screen that isn’t 3D with 3D glasses on you’ll notice that it’s blurry and hard on the eyes. It’s more work than it’s worth to take your glasses off, check your phone, and then put them on again to continue your movie. It’s a great excuse to devote all my attention to what I’m watching, and because of that I’ve sat through many bad films projected in 3D where I normally would have been checking my phone during constantly. Wearing these glasses also allows me to not pay attention to the audience around me. We’ve all had experiences of going to the theater and having that one annoying person out of the corner of your eye distract your attention. With glasses, they’re gone. I’ve had less annoying theater experiences in 3D projected movies than 2D and generally leave the theater happy, regardless of the film’s quality.
On a filmmaking level, it took me a long time to understand that 3D films are all about not what comes out of the screen, but what you see in the screen. The joy that comes from this format is the depth that it provides, and that didn’t fully click with me until I watched Kong: Skull Island. There is a scene fairly early on where Samuel L. Jackson’s character is talking to somebody in a phone booth and the way the 3D shows him inside the phone booth, separated from the camera by a glass wall, was stunning. It blew my mind the first time I saw that and realized that 3D was so much more than I had thought of it up to that point. When Avatar came out and changed the game of 3D it brought about many great uses of depth. Unfortunately, that movie made two billion dollars and all studios saw was the equation 3D = $$. Many 3D films that came after Avatar were not made with 3D in mind, the post-conversion wasn’t good enough, and studios were not giving their films enough time it needed to properly make 3D good. Because of this unfortunate turn of events, the poor quality of 3D films being released either focused their marketing on pop out effects or presented their films in muddy unfinished 3D which sent a shockwave through American audiences and basically killed off domestic 3D presentations. Which is a shame since in 2014 filmmakers finally understood what made 3D good, post-conversion was starting to get better, and filmmakers were starting to make movies with 3D in mind. It only took five years.
When I watched Kong: Skull Island I started seeing more movies at the theater in 3D. Shortly after finding out that I enjoyed what I’ve been watching I bought a 3D TV, which I absolutely adore, and started watching older films in 3D. Creature From the Black Lagoon was the main attraction for me. I loved that film in 2D so much I needed to experience what it’s original 3D presentation looked like. The underwater scenes in 3D are breathtaking. The depth the medium gives to the picture really makes it feel like another world; and so, I started going down my road of appreciating 3D cinema like I’d never expect.
By the time I started appreciating 3D films in 2017, it was already too late. Disney slowly stopped their domestic home releases of 3D films and blockbusters that were almost guaranteed a 3D presentation weren’t getting them anymore. If I wanted to watch a 3D movie my options were pretty much only going to the theater, and for me that gave movie-going a prestige experience. There has been a lot discussion about the death of theaters lately, though that discussion is nothing new, and I couldn’t help but think about the most memorable film experiences I’ve had in recent years, and surprisingly enough they were all 3D films. When you’re not sure if a film will be released on 3D Blu-Ray you’ll prioritize the theater experience. James Cameron re-released Terminator 2: Judgement Day in 3D. I was lucky enough to catch a screening of it before it left theaters and it was amazing. I loved that experience and will cherish those memories because I can’t experience them again. That movie is not available in 3D in the United States and it’s not as simple as importing the disc. Many 3D films are region free and can be played on any (3D) video player, but there are some films that are still region locked and T2 is one of those films.
The biggest joy I’ve found with 3D films is from understanding that it gives me a different viewing experience. It allows me to focus on the film, it makes even boring films such as Immortals watchable because you’re constantly experiencing the 3D effect, and personally I’ve found 3D to be the clearest format. The prestige format right now is definitely 4K with theaters upgrading their projectors to it. AMC Dolby even makes a show by presenting the audience with a screen test of how black their blacks are. But when it comes to 3D, and I don’t think this comes across in the theater nearly as well as it does on disc, I find the image clearer and better than 4K. The simplest comparison I can make is skin. When you look at an actor’s skin in 4K it looks great. It’s clear and well defined, but when I look at skin in 3D it feels like I’m watching a real person standing right in front of me, to the point where you can sometimes see their pores. When it comes to my own collection I tend to buy more 3D than 4K titles for this reason.
So, when theaters do open back up and it’s safe to go places, I hope 3D still exists. It brings about a different theater experience and I truly hope that audiences give it another chance. There is so much to learn about this medium that many audience members will not care for, or give a chance, but for me I’ll always try to support it in any way I can. I tend to do repeat viewings in a theater for the 3D, I make memories by seeing it in 3D, and I experience the medium from the wonderful work that is put out by 3-D Film Archive, Warner Bros. and everyone else that hasn’t given up on the home 3D experience.
If you’re interested in more 3D discussions I put out an interview last year with 3-D Film Archive that you can listen to here.