The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of 3D Cinema

Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.


“The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.”

—Ecclesiastes 1:5

Most fads come and go once. Twice, if they’re particularly annoying. Some though, seem to come around every twenty or thirty years, like clockwork—maybe none more so than “3D” cinema.

Making movies look more like real life has always, of course, been a problem. The real world exists in three dimensions. (Four, if you’re Einstein.) And y’know how many dimensions a movie has? Just two. (Three, if you’re Einstein.) What a rip-off.

Attempts at stereoscopic photography date back to even before the American Civil War, but stereoscopic cinema wouldn’t be attempted on a large commercial scale until the 1950s, with the release of the (otherwise forgettable) adventure film Bwana Devil. There’s a popular myth that the 3D films of the fifties were “anaglpyhic”—i.e., that they used the colorization that required those now-iconic red-and-blue glasses to create the 3D effect—but in fact, 3D cinema has always relied overwhelmingly on the same “polarized” technology that modern 3D films use: dual images are projected at slightly different angles onto a screen that reflects them in slightly different directions, and each of the glasses’ lenses catches only one image. This, in turn, tricks the viewer’s brain into seeing depth. (Anaglyphic technology exists, but it’s mainly used for media that can’t support polarization, like comic books and traditional television.)

Another common myth about 1950s 3D is that it was used exclusively for exploitative garbage, like no-budget horror movies. While the craze did feature its fair share of schlock (notably Robot Monster, which features a monster that is definitely not a robot), it also produced some genuine classics, including The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Afred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. Nor was the output all horror and suspense; several Three Stooges comedies were released in 3D, and MGM filmed their big-budget musical Kiss Me Kate in 3D as well.

Unfortunately, Kate and especially Murder proved to be the death knell for the short-lived fad, as theater owners began begging the studios for permission to exhibit those films in 2D. There were probably several reasons for this, but one was that 3D films were just expensive and difficult to screen. Since each movie used two separate filmstrips, a screening required two projectors and a very gifted projectionist. If the projectors got even slightly out of sync, the film would turn into an unwatchable mess. Add in a mandatory intermission for every reel change, and the experience was kind of a big ask for moviegoers. If 3D had begun as a gimmick to get people to visit the cinema instead of staying home and watching TV, it died for a similar reason: when it wasn’t projected perfectly, it made the cinema a far worse experience than just turning on Leave It to Beaver.

When you factor in the higher costs, the uncomfortable glasses, and the headaches, it was probably only a matter of time before the novelty wore off.

I don’t think it’s entirely an accident that a whole generation passed before 3D made a comeback—by the late seventies, there were enough moviegoers who hadn’t been around to experience the early-fifties boom and bust and were wondering what the big deal was. (It also didn’t hurt that new distractions like home video, cable TV, and videogames were popping up to keep kids away from the cineplexes.) By now the technology had improved enough that 3D films could be shown with a single projector, but “serious” filmmakers still shied away from it—it was mainly used for genre sequels, after ultra-clever producers noticed that “3D” slid well into the titles for a franchise’s third installment, as with Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D, and Friday the 13th Part III: 3D (they sure whiffed on that last one).

This second 3D fad didn’t last long, either—apparently just a few experiences were enough to convince moviegoers that they hadn’t missed anything—and for another generation the 3D experience was relegated to theme parks in the form of mercifully short experiences like Michael Jackson’s Captain EO and Jim Henson’s Muppet-Vision 3D.

If you’re old enough to be reading this right now, though, you probably know about the third wave of 3D (known to its friends as 3D Part III: 3D). This time around, it was championed, at least early on, by those perennial advocates of pointlessly overwhelming cinematic experiences, the IMAX Corporation. IMAX’s association with educational institutions lent it a new patina of credibility, and this time it was digital! Which meant it was better! Actually, there were a few improvements this time, including a new emphasis—made easier with the digital technology—on rendering depth with mathematical precision, which led to fewer headaches among viewers. It was also done with digital video instead of film, which eliminated the previous projection hiccups. Early IMAX 3D films were educational, if big budget (such as Aliens of the Deep, James Cameron’s paeon to weird fish), but what really opened the floodgates was The Polar Express. While Robert Zemeckis’s creepy-slash-forgettable Christmas fable was released on only sixty-six IMAX 3D screens compared with 3,584 plain ol’ 2D screens, the 3D showings accounted for a quarter of its total gross. Having seen those numbers, theaters couldn’t install digital 3D equipment fast enough, and for a few years, seemingly everything was released in the format. This made more sense for some films than others, but it all (as you know) culminated in James Cameron’s 2009 mother-of-all-blockbusters, Avatar, which you mainly now remember as “that movie that’s sort of like Pocahontas / FernGully / Dances with Wolves / The Last Samurai / any other well-meaning fish-out-of-water-movie that could never get made in the 2020s.” Avatar managed to gross nearly three billion dollars worldwide on its eye-popping visuals alone, and held the record as the highest-grossing film of all time for a decade. Cameron immediately began work on two (no, three! no, four!) Avatar sequels, and when electronics manufacturers started rolling 3D TVs off their assembly lines, it was clear that 3D was here to stay.

Then it all disappeared a couple years later.

Those Avatar sequels never happened (they’re currently slated for 2022, until the next inevitable delay happens), 3D TVs never caught on, and you’d be hard pressed to find a theater showing many 3D films these days, even assuming you can find a theater that’s open. So what happened?

People just sorta got tired of it. Again. Right around the time the 2010s kicked off, 3D film revenue fell off a cliff. No doubt the factors included the large amount of subpar 3D content being released and the fact that tickets cost way too much, but I think maybe there was something a bit simpler at play, which is that 3D just doesn’t add all that much to the average film.

There were films that took real advantage of the format (besides Avatar, Coraline and Tangled come to mind), but the reality is that the human eye doesn’t typically need a stereoscopic image to perceive depth. If you look at a flat photograph—or if you look at the world with one eye closed—your brain generally fills in the depth for you. There are ways to show depth without beating people over the head with it (so to speak). And when you factor in the higher costs, the uncomfortable glasses, and the headaches, it was probably only a matter of time before the novelty wore off.

But give it another fifteen years or so, and 3D will inevitably be back (just in time for those Avatar sequels). To stay this time! We promise!

Because there’s nothing new under the sun.

(Which, until James Cameron makes a movie about it, I can only assume is a sphere.)