3D is back. But do we really want to wear these glasses again?
James Croot is the editor of Stuff to Watch.
OPINION: Just when you thought it was finally safe to return to the cinema – with or without a mask depending on your Covid sensibilities – one of the film industry’s potentially most annoying gadgets is back.
Seemingly almost single-handedly, Wairarapa’s most famous farmer and occasional filmmaker, James Cameron, is determined to bring about the fourth wave of stereoscopic cinema.
In truth, 3D movies never really disappeared, but they’ve all but disappeared from our multiplexes since Matt Damon battled various Chinese beasts over five years ago.
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Now, thanks to the reappearance of Cameron’s blockbuster, 2009’s record-breaking sci-fi adventure Avatar in cinemas this week, ahead of potentially four sequels, partly filmed in New Zealand over the next six years (starting with Avatar: The Way of Water on December 15), cinemas up and down the motu must dust off their reusable glasses (and arguably sanitizing since their last pre-covid use) and stock up on disposable glasses.
But while the man who also gave the world such popular cinema as Titanic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Aliens is convinced that 3D was never really over, it has, he says – like color 80 years ago – “just been accepted” and that one day soon we will be able to watch it without the need for special glasses, the prospect of wearing headaches, scratches, light reduction (and in a cinema 2022 crowded, perhaps relentlessly fog-prone) pieces of cardboard and/or plastic while packing an extra price tag for the privilege seems like unnecessary faff, especially in these straightened times.
Of course, I understand the need for theaters to find ways to differentiate the cinematic experience from watching a movie on a streaming service at home, but raising the average price of a single ticket above that that you’d pay for a month of seemingly endless content seems like the opposite. -productive.
If I want to pay extra, I’d rather spend it on more comfortable, roomier seats and superior sound and vision for those immersive few hours of escape from our increasingly troubled world. And hasn’t going to the cinema been a much more pleasant experience since ticket prices have become more affordable and cinemas have done away with the old-fashioned “stadium seats” of the 90s – once that the thrill of the last 3D wave faded a decade ago?
Let’s not forget that 3D has always been Hollywood’s answer to declining audiences, whether the threat comes from television, home video, the internet, or a global pandemic.
Although stereoscopic imagery was first created in the late 1890s, it didn’t actually make a massive appearance until the 1950s. Green and red paper fold-out glasses abounded in movie theaters, so that audiences were thrilled by horrors like House of Wax and The Creature From The Black Lagoon and perplexed by the sight of a pneumatic Anne Miller singing Always True to You in My Fashion in Kiss Me Kate. However, there were some major limitations – the two prints needed for 3D to work had to be exactly in sync or it became a headache and a mess causing eye strain. Additionally, theater owners disliked it because its limited viewing range meant secondary seats could not be sold.
Consequently, public enthusiasm waned until more relaxed censorship rules in the United States allowed the introduction of 3D pornography, such as 1969’s The Stewardesses (one of the highest-grossing films ever made). ) and 1973’s Flesh for Frankenstein.
But a lack of interest again saw the concept shelved until the early 1980s, when the movie industry was threatened by growing interest in home video. Again, 3D flashed briefly, in low-budget horror sequels for franchises such as Friday the 13th, Jaws, and Amityville.
More than 20 years later, 3D is resurfacing, not out of great artistic will, but rather to fight against the rise of downloading and piracy on the Internet. Granted, the image quality was better, the glasses were a bit more comfortable, and rather than filtering out colors, the systems presented separate color images to each eye.
In 2009, DreamWorks Animation Worldwide Stereoscopic Supervisor Phil McNally explained that the new technology uses unique digital projectors that perfectly synchronize and align the two streams of images for the brain to read them in 3D. “Basically, 3D happens in the brain,” he said.
Oscar-nominated filmmaker turned movie underwriter Ralph Hirshorn added that 1950s 3-D “was hokey like a pop-up children’s book, objects pushing you from the screen. This new 3-D pulls you into across the screen and into the stage”. And yes, you can tilt your head without the image becoming blurry.
An optimistic Tim Partridge of Dolby said he hoped a 3D version of each film would be available one day and added that critics have been wrong more than once.
“When we introduced surround sound and digital audio, [they said] that it would only be used for big action movies. And yet, every movie deserves to have technology that makes it more realistic. That’s what filmmakers try to do – try to engage you in the story.
“In real life we have surround sound, in real life we have 3D, so why shouldn’t 3D benefit all films?”
Thanks to the mega-success of Avatar in 2009, everyone from Ang Lee to Sir Peter Jackson and even Martin Scorsese were persuaded to try the format, but ultimately, perhaps because of too many 3D conversions shoddy 2D shot movies weary audiences of what was essentially a pared-down experience, little more than a gimmick that glossed over and – indeed – highlighted shoddy storytelling.
Now only the biggest blockbusters are released in 3D, just like they are in IMAX, and New Zealand’s three major cinema chains (Hoyts, Readings and Event) have been content to let the format die.
Their resolve will be tested by the power of Disney and Cameron, who, if successful, would only allow Avatar: The Way of the Water to be viewed in 3-D. However, I think all it would do would be to persuade many potential viewers to stay home.
Avatar (M) is now showing in theaters nationwide for a limited time, with select sessions available for 3D viewing.