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The Third Wave of 3D

The third wave of 3D entertainment is, pardon the pun, heading right for us.

Historically speaking, with each new technological advance adopted by the film industry, we (the general public) receive two distinct waves of films. The first wave consists of movies that simply exploit the new technology, while the second involves good movies that make use of that technology in order to tell their story. For example, when films first made the leap from “silent” to “talkie”, several shorts and movies were released that simply featured people singing or playing the piano for no reason other than to show audiences that, yes, this film has sound. Of course today, sound is an integral part of film. These days, no one is impressed that a movie has sound (in fact we kind of expect it). Today’s movie makers use sound to help tell their stories, and I think most of us would agree that films are better for it.

That is of course a pretty extreme example, but over the past hundred years we’ve seen this happen multiple times. Another example is stop motion animation. Around the turn of the century you had film makers “playing” with the technology, animating things simply because they could. Then in the 1920s and 1930s, Willis O’Brien used that technolgy to turn miniature models into the menacing stars of The Lost World and King Kong. More recently, we saw this with CGI (computer animation). Over the past twenty years, it’s gone from “a trick” to “a tool”.

In the 1950s, movie studios found themselves competing with a new medium: television. For the first time, people could stay at home and get the same type of entertainment that previously could only be enjoyed in a theater. Studios needed to offer something that viewers couldn’t get at home, and for a few years in the 1950s, that “something” turned out to be 3D. According to Wikipedia, here is a list of the most popular and successful 3D movies from the 1950s:

A Day in the Country, Bwana Devil, Cat-Women of the Moon, Cease Fire, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dangerous Mission, Dial M for Murder, Down the Hatch, Fort Ti, Gog, Gorilla At Large, Hannah Lee, House of Wax, Inferno, It Came from Outer Space, Hondo (featuring John Wayne), Kiss Me Kate, Man in the Dark, Melody, Money From Home (featuring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis), Phantom of the Rue Morgue, Revenge of the Creature in 3-D, Robot Monster, Sangaree, September Storm, Son of Sinbad, Space Attack/The Adventures of Sam Space, Taza, Son of Cochise, The Diamond Wizard, The French Line, The Lions of Gulu, and Top Banana.

I’m no a film expert, but I’m having a hard time finding some classic films in that list. I’ve only heard of about half a dozen of them, and the only ones I think I’ve seen are Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dial M for Murder, House of Wax, It Came from Outer Space, and Phantom of the Rue Morgue. People quickly tired of the gimmick and films never made the turn from gimmick to required technology.

By all accounts, the equipment back then required to show movies in 3D was difficult to upkeep and required a lot of maintenance. Thirty years later in the late 1970s/early 1980s, things had improved. The House of Wax and Dial M for Murder were re-issued, which caused a resurgence in 3D movies. Again from Wikipedia, here is a list of what people consider to be the best films from the second wave of 3D films:

Amityville 3-D, Comin’ at Ya!, Friday the 13th Part III, Jaws 3-D, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, Parasite, Silent Madness, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, and Treasure of the Four Crowns.

Of those, I only one I actually remember seeing in a movie theater was Spacehunter. I’ve since seen Amityville, Friday the 13th and Jaws 3D at home and let me tell you, all three of those films needed more than 3D technology to save them.

Another thirty years have passed, and film studios are facing the same dilemna they faced back in the 1950s. Between large home televisions, surround sound stereos, DVD and Blu-ray technology and movie piracy, theaters are having a hard time competing with living rooms. Rising ticket costs and concession prices along with rude movie-goers haven’t helped their cause. The movie industry desperately needs something to get us all back in to theaters, and once again they’re betting 3D movies will do it. The problem is, up until now, we’ve never seen that second wave of 3D movies. For fifty years, every 3D movie has essentially been this:

In the early 2000s we saw a few kid-oriented 3D films (“Spy Kids 3D: Game Over” and “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D”) but it wasn’t until The Polar Express hit IMAX theaters in 3D that anyone paid any real attention to the technology. I personally always thought the film’s technical advance was the motion capture software used to turn Tom Hanks into multiple human-like CGI characters, but studios were convinced it was the 3D factor that brought people in. In fact, studios were so convinced that they went back and added 3D to several non-3D movies like Toy Story and re-released them in theaters.

In 2009 several movies were released in 3D (Coraline, Monsters vs. Aliens, and Up), but none of those made me feel like I had to see them in 3D. Susan and the kids saw “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” in 3D last year, but none of them came home talking about a life-changing experience. They just thought it was “neat”.

But now we have Avatar, which not only used motion capture technology similar to The Polar Express, but is also in 3D. Most reviews I’ve read of Avatar say the same thing: “the story’s okay, but you really have to see it in 3D to appreciate it.” In fact, I had people tell me that the story wasn’t great before I went to go see it, and I went and saw it anyway! It’s all about the experience. Avatar is rapidly marching its way up the “highest grossing movies of all time” list, which no doubt is one of the main reasons we’ll have the following 3D movies to look forward to in 2010:

Beautiy in the Beast 3D, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, Nerverackers, Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Step Up, The Guardians of Ga’Hoole, Alpha and Omega, Oobermind, Disney’s Rapunzel, The Smurfs 3D, Here Be Monsters, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Nemo.

I’m no Nostradamus, but I have to wonder how many of those will be considered classics in twenty years. If I had to pick one, I’d have to bet on “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”.

Additionally, there has been a lot of talk about 3D televisions and 3D video games. If history repeats itself, we’ve got about 3-5 years of this hype before 3D again fades into the background.

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3 comments to The Third Wave of 3D

  • I predict that 3D movies will be faddish until they come up with a 3D imaging system that does not require special glasses. These systems are called Volumetric Displays and they tend to be machines with rotating disks oir shutters. They also have a limited size (less than 6 inches in each dimension) and limited resolution (less than 800 pixels, however I saw a recent model that had 1024 X 763). They’re also expensive (more than $20K) and almost never leave the laboratory from which they were built. I know quite a bit about Volumetric displays as I came up with a design for one when I was in high school (although I never built it – it required more than $100K worth of equipment to build the prototype).

    The thing is, even if they build volumetric displays big enough for large audiences, they wouldn’t play well in theaters. What you want is the display in the center of the room with the audience sitting around the display – like a boxing ring. Putting a Volumetric display at the end of the room like a movie screen would would squander the potential of the volumetric display.

    Here’s more info on the subject of Volumetric Displays: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volumetric_display

  • Brent

    Put me down firmly in the I don’t care about 3D box. I don’t ever remember being impressed by it, but I’m not going to go to a theater just to see a movie that supposedly isn’t even that great just to see it in 3D.

  • lethargic

    This whole 3D TV thing is really stupid. Special TV, special channels? Why? You don’t need a new TV to do the shutter glasses style of 3D. There are a few different companies making boxes that you can plug into your TV and watch 3D movies with shutter glasses. The one I have cost about 50 bucks. Why not just make some sort of set box like that?

    The thing to me is that if I buy a 3DTV why isn’t everything in 3D? That is the technology that makes sense. A 3DTV should just take any signal and make it into 3D. There shouldn’t have to be special channels. Anybody can make 3D videos. I found an easy tutorial on the internet, uploaded some home movies into my computer and made them 3D in less than an hour. Mine worked 10 times better than that Chuck episode or the Superbowl halftime did. So don’t tell me they couldn’t put a device in a 3DTV that would format normal images into 3D images if an idiot like me can do it.

    That just shows what a blatant cash grab it is. Spend $5,000 on a 3DTV, spend $500 on a 3D Bluray player, spend $24.95 per glasses, spend $9.95 a month for 3 3D channels and then rebuy your movie collection on 3D Bluray discs for $29.95 each. Oooh, I look forward to that!

    The sad thing is, they’re not trying to hype up this 3D thing because it makes the movie going experience better. They’re ONLY doing it because it makes movies harder to bootleg. That’s it.