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Is 3D cinema all it's cracked up to be?

As a technology journalist I’m embarrassed to admit this, but until this week I’d never seen a 3D film. It wasn’t that I was strongly against the concept, just that a confluence of events happened to prevent me watching one.

But any scepticism that I did have turned out to be more than justified. In fact, 3D may just be the biggest con in the history of cinema.

Instead of the immersive film experience I was promised, I was treated to watery eyes, unsettling focus and no obvious improvement in picture quality – and charged almost 40 per cent extra for the pleasure.

Once I had become used to the 3D effects, I soon forgot they were there, partially because I was enjoying the film (Toy Story 3) so much. Some would argue that that’s how 3D is supposed to work – unobtrusively improving your movie-going experience.

But I’d question whether a costly technology that is often uncomfortable for users (and doesn’t work at all for one in 10) is worthwhile when you don’t even notice it.

Cinema screen technology has improved rapidly over the last few years, and 3D has been called the biggest change since colour replaced black and white.

Some films probably do benefit from the eye-popping opportunities for effects that 3D provides (especially if the plot doesn’t stand up to scrutiny), in the same way seeing an IMAX movie can be fun. But in most cases, I doubt that 3D can fundamentally change our enjoyment of a film – in fact it’s more likely to be a distracting gimmick.

Which raises the question of whether we should employ a technology just because we can. Toy Story 3 would have been just as enjoyable, if not more so, in 2D. Yet because of the growing trend, my local cinema didn’t provide that option and so instead I paid the inflated ticket price.

Admittedly in London I could have found an alternative venue but as more and more cinemas and studios become convinced 3D is the only way to go, it will be harder to avoid.

Film companies argue they need 3D to help tackle piracy and boost attendance – you can’t record a 3D movie via videocamera in the cinema and post it online. While the success of films like Avatar have helped draw massive crowds (2009 saw the second highest box office figures in the UK since 1971), for productions without blockbuster effects this thinking is skewed. Or else it’s a cynical justification for upping prices.

If you’re already umming and ahhing over whether to download a film illegally or see it in the cinema, how is being forced to pay a massive hike in the ticket price likely to sway you towards the latter if you don’t get any real benefit?

3D is a tool that can enhance certain productions, but it can’t replace or change the fundamentals of filmmaking. It was the powerful storytelling of Toy Story 3 that brought a tear to my eye. Unless it was those annoying glasses making my eyes water.

Readers' comments (37)

  • Can't agree with you more. Saw Avatar in 3D at the cinema and wished I had seen the 2D version. The glasses tended to wash out the colours and after a while you ceased to notice the 3D effect anyway. Enjoyed it much more in 2D when it came out on Bluray.

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  • Saw the Toy Story 3D last night. While the film was good, the 3D effect was not too hot, the best bits seemed to be the adds for other films and for 3D TVs. The technology has some way to go if it is going to tempt me to part with the extra hard earned. Simon

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  • I'd sooner watch Humphrey Bogart in "African Queen", in back and white.
    A recent survey showed that half the people who bought HD TVs didn't know that they weren't watching HD material.

    Some serious phychology here. When we are immersed in a story it doesn't matter whether it's in colour, black and white or a book, we aren't continuously analysing the media.

    Same goes for DAB radio, no one can tell the difference, and most young people are using ear plugs of relatively lo-fi.

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  • I can't disagree more. Avatar in 3D at the cinema was incredibly entertaining with the feeling when watching it in 2D that something was missing. The visual effects infact made a film that had an OK storyline into a film that kept me glued to the screen.

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  • Interesting article, although another comment to add to the mix is that it depends on whether the film is a true 3D film or purely converted to 3D to make money, using Clash of the titans as an example of a poorly converted 3d film.
    Also it depends on the Cinema you opt for, I saw Avatar in 3D at the imax and it was the best cinema experience I have had, but I also greatly enjoyed it in Full HD on my home entertainment set up.

    3D gives depth more than anything, I would watch a few more "real " films before making judgement.
    I woud expect a film like Lord of the Rings, if 3D technology would have been available would have looked amazing due to the depth of field it gives you for big scenic shots....

    My two penneth nehow.

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  • Can't disagree with you more. With high quality large screen televisions and high quality home cinema audio, the only reasons to go to a cinema today are cause you can't wait for the DVD release or to enjoy the wonderful 3D experience.

    Judged by the commercial success of 3D recently, a majority of the population feels more like me than like you!

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  • It is a con. When we look at things our eyes independantly point at what we're trying to see. In a 3D film the director chooses what we're supposed to look at and focuses there, or goes for a deep delth of field. So when we see the movie we can't look around in the 3D image because our eyes are not able to refocus and aim properly...hence the watery eye syndrome. We learn to see the image differently during the film. It looks different, but its not 3D.
    It is hype to try to sell, that's all.

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  • I think that there is a lot of ground to explore regarding the use of 3D.

    I was quite impressed with the look and feel of 3D used for a filmed sporting event (football). Though I'm not a fan of the game, it seemed to bring the action alive.

    I think the danger with 3D is the overuse of contrivances like weapons flying at the viewer - I've never seen anyone duck - or like bouncing cleavage at the audience - which I must admit was a use of 3D I hadn't previously considered but which could ultimately end up being eventually somewhat annoying.

    What I like about 3D - is the use of depth in Shrek 4, where a chase scene seems to go "into" and "out of" the picture - and I would really love to see Hitchcock's Dolly zoom done on 3D withe the extra plane.

    I think 3D will provide scope for more creative cinematography - providing creative people on board with the technology to take it forward and move it beyond the blah-blah stereotype. Otherwise it is just going to be yet another silly technology designed to boost the cost of tickets, sell plastic specs and prevent the filming of movies with standard hand held devices. And just because it could be made with 3D, doesn't mean it Should be.

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  • I agree it is more of an irritating gimmick than any kind of technological advantage. I would normally wear prescription glasses to be able to comfortably watch a film at the cinema and found myself with a headache and juggling two pairs of glasses. I cannot see how it will ever take off in the home environment as people already loose the remote control let alone loads of floppy plastic glasses.

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  • While I agree that there is still something missing in the films currently in vogue - Toy Story. Avatar and so on, 3D has got to be the way forward. The possibilities it has for enhancing the viewing experience is just too much to ignore. Whether or not we have the correct technology - the TV format seems to be questionable - remains to be fully answered. But let's not give up on 3D. After all, that is how we see the rest of the world and all that happens in it........

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