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

Stephen Harris


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.