3D Or Not 3D: The Divisive Nature of 3D Filmmaking

The use of 3D technology in filmmaking is a notoriously divisive topic among fans of cinema. Some love the technique, and others loathe it, but few lack a strong opinion. Late film critic Roger Ebert became infamous in his dislike of 3D, often including footnotes at the ends of his reviews suggesting to readers that they ignore the masses and view films that he enjoyed in traditional 2D instead. Indeed, Ebert went so far as to release a list detailing why he hates the technique, including points such as, “It’s the waste of a dimension,” “It adds nothing to the experience,” “It can be a distraction,” and “It can create nausea and headaches.” Always the champion of the average filmgoer, he also voiced complaints in regards to the extra surcharge added onto the tickets of 3D films. Although Ebert was not a fan of this medium, many individuals are, as evidenced by the massive success of many 3D blockbusters. Personally, I believe that the use of 3D has become overly excessive as of late, yet can result in a unique film going experience when administered correctly and with the appropriate amount of restraint within a very particular type of movie.

The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey

3D films have actually been around a lot longer than many are aware. The first known 3D screening occurred in 1915 in New York, and consisted of three parts; the first showed rural scenes in the United States of America, the second a selection of scenes from the film Jim, the Penman (1915), and the third images of Niagara Falls.  However, the technique was not common at this time due to obvious expenses associated with the advanced technology. 3D gained immensely in popularity in the 1980s with the introduction of IMAX (Image Maximum) theatres by the Canadian IMAX Corporation, which allowed moviegoers a whole new and previously unheard of cinematic experience. Suddenly, instead of watching a film, audiences were becoming a part of them, and nonfiction documentaries took on a whole new life.

I clearly remember my first 3D experience as a young child, which was an underwater IMAX documentary feature at Canada Place in Vancouver, British Columbia. As sea creatures seemingly swam towards me, I raised my hands in an attempt to swat them away. I was not alone in this reaction, as many adults in the theatre allowed their reflexes to get the better of them and reacted with their bodies as opposed to their minds. Nonfiction films such as this one allow a viewer to experience that which they probably would never have the chance to otherwise. If a spectator sitting in a crowded movie theatre can be caused to feel as if they are underwater and about to be attacked by an aquatic predator, then the power and effectiveness of these films cannot be denied.


3D has not stayed in the realm of nature documentaries, however, and that is where many feel the problem lies. In addition, not all 3D is created equal. Most 3D films that are made today are filmed in 3D and released as such. However, when a studio wants to re-release a film such as Titanic (1997) in 3D – an occurrence that is becoming increasingly common and, in my opinion, gratuitous – they must convert the film from the original 2D into 3D. 2009’s Avatar, directed by James Cameron, marked a major breakthrough in 3D filming, as it was based on a new process that actually reflects how the human eye views an image. Other developing technologies have an effect on the 3D experience, as well. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) was filmed at forty-eight frames per second, as opposed to the usual twenty-four frames per second, a strategy that is supposed to decrease the eyestrain that many people complain of when watching 3D films.

The first Hollywood film that I viewed in 3D is also one that I remember vividly. Although I enjoyed Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), it was only upon the second viewing that I found it enjoyable, and that one was in plain old 2D. When watching a film starring such incredible performers as Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, I wanted to be able to focus my attention on the actors on screen. I found the 3D to be highly distracting; it hurt my eyes and rendered the images slightly blurry, and there were moments of cheesy, gratuitous overuse. When this film was viewed in 2D, however, the brightly coloured images of the whimsical fantasy world appeared sharper, and I was able to enjoy every nuance presented by the talented individuals as they performed.


As clearly evidenced, when given the choice, I generally opt to view a film without the added cost, headache, and distraction of 3D. A recent exception, however, was Alfonso Cuarón’s space thriller Gravity. Here, the 3D was not only superb, but also quite necessary for the full, integrative experience. Instead of using the technology to throw objects into the faces of audience members for cheap thrills, Cuarón uses it to place us right into the middle of the outer space world that he has created. For the vast majority in the audience, these images and sensations are highly unfamiliar, and the third dimension allows one to almost tangibly feel the weightless lack of gravity around which the film centers. Any nausea or discomfort felt only adds to the realism of the film, and strengthens the connection with the characters that doubtless felt the same way. Watching this film is the closest most will ever come to experiencing outer space, and the intensely real and immersive experience is made possible mainly through the effective use of 3D technology.

Life of Pi

Legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock originally shot Dial M for Murder in 3D, but was so displeased with the result that he decided to release it in 2D instead. Critic Rex Reed of the New York Observer has called 3D “a silly gimmick for kids from the 1950s,” and Roger Ebert made his opinion known time and time again. For the vast majority of films, with the exception of IMAX documentaries, I believe 3D to be entirely unnecessary. What could shooting a One Direction concert in 3D possibly add to the experience? Why must classics such as Titanic be “improved” by the addition of 3D? On the other hand, well-made films such as Life of Pi (2012) and the aforementioned Gravity use 3D masterfully to draw an audience into the worlds that they create. Neither of these films would have been the same without this technology, and the experience could not have been as immersive nor awe-inspiring. I believe 3D filmmaking to be a vastly overused gimmick the majority of the time. However, when used effectively and with restraint, it can provide a very special and eye-opening experience. Like all things, there is simply a time and a place.

  1. Personally I find 3D far more visually stimulating; technically 3D is delivering twice the visual information to the senses as a 2D film, which actually presents greater clarity and levels of detail. Beyond this the subliminal effect of 3D is much the same as good quality surround sound or even colour grading which can have a dramatic effect on the “feel” of the film. Filmed and projected correctly there should be none of the nausea or headache inducing moments which were more common in the 50’s due generally to projection problems.

    As for “gimmick” 3D again I believe this depends on what the film aims to achieve – if you are making “Despicable Me” your aim is very different to that of “Gravity” in which case I’d argue that using out of the screen shots for entertainment effect is very much a decision based on genre and tone.

    What naive observers don’t understand is that (in the best cases) the 3D is scripted alongside the narrative curve to enhance the audiences emotional involvement with the characters and plot.

    Your statement that “Most 3D films that are made today are filmed in 3D and released as such.” is inaccurate as great number of films, probably around 50% Gravity included, are post conversions shot in 2D. Conversion quality has come on in leaps and bounds though, although I generally prefer native 3D, and in good quality conversions the untrained eye would not be likely to notice the difference. Your comments regarding “Alice in Wonderland” are little wonder in this regards as this was a post converted film and not a particularly well converted one at that.

    Your post also selectively names anti-3D critics whilst not presenting any of the pro arguments beyond your own opinion – perhaps you could consider the views of James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee amongst many, many others.

    1. Hi Andrew

      You bring up interesting – and some valid – comments, and I am sure Talia will get back to you when she can.

      Just wanted to share opinion on the matter of 3D. I personally think 3D is an interesting technology, one that has immense potential to truly transform the visual experience. However, I do strongly feel that 3D, whether its a post conversion from 2D or not, is being used a bit incorrectly in the modern sphere of filmmaking. A good example of 3D not hitting the mark is the latest Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow. It was hands down a beautiful film and in the more environmental, panned out shots, the 3D worked beautifully. However, in the close up battle scenes or interactions in general, there was too much going on for you to take in all the information. The 3D experience didn’t let you enjoy the details – in the mech suits, the movements, etc – and much of the time was spent trying to keep up.

      A comparative example between two films from the same genre: Captain America Winter Solider vs The Avengers: Captain America was finely crafted, with visuals to match. However, the 3D just didn’t work. Sure, from the wider angels, the more environmental shots, the 3D experience sort-of kicked in. However, when you go to the upfront battle sequences, the 3D tech just made it difficult to watch. More than stimulate my senses, it gave me a headache. On the side of the coin, The Avengers used 3D very well to put us into the fight, truly tapping into the 3rd dimension when absolutely needed. You didn’t necessarily get the strain in close up battle sequences as you would with Captain America. I don’t know the underlining technical details between each film, will admit that, but here are two films in the same genre where 3D worked in one and not the other.

      I do feel that 3D is getting there, with projects such as Avatar proving that. However, I do feel that directors and their respective creative teams need to either a) seeing if a film truly needs 3D or b) how much of the technology should be integrated into a project. I think that due diligence will let the technology evolve and enhance the viewer experience.

    2. Thanks for your comments; I enjoyed reading both of your ideas. I will be seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 3D this weekend, and am excited to see how this film uses the technology.

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