The third dimension in film has been around a lot longer than you may imagine. Its first recorded use was at the Astor Theater in New York, on June 10, 1915.
Not quite the spectacle both audience and filmmakers were hoping for – an anaglyphic process (a 3D effect achieved by encoding each eye’s image using filters of different colours) was used, developed by Edwin S. Porter and W.E. Waddell.
The result? Well according to Lynde Denig who wrote for Moving Picture World at the time – “Images shimmered like reflections on a lake and in its present form the method couldn’t be commercial because it detracts from the plot.”
Almost 100 years on, Denig’s review is still relevant and directly applicable to many recent releases. Modern filmmakers who choose to add 3D to their work often still struggle to utilise it to enhance the final picture. Instead the 3D effect usually detracts from the overall experience and in some cases, even highlights other technical and creative inadequacies.
If you know you’re films and had to name a 3D example from the last 30 years which stands out as the worst, most of you would probably name the renowned failure – Jaws 3D.
Although that monstrosity of a film had the power to convince every person on planet earth to never watch a 3D film again, it didn’t stop filmmakers from trying to harness our ever evolving technological capabilities in order to create convincing, entertaining 3D films. In fact, I think it may even have spurred a few of them on to prove that 3D can work in film.
Obviously there was a lull after Jaws 3D’s release in 1983. I think we all needed a period of two-dimensional tranquillity before gathering enough strength to tackle the issue again.
But after the millennium, we did try again.
Of the most famed pioneers, it was James Cameron who started to take the reins and the initiative, in a bid to push us all forward into an era of 3D glory and acceptance. He forged new techniques and technological breakthroughs, allowing an increased number of less daring studio’s and their filmmakers to take an interest in how 3D could improve their productions with significantly less financial risk than before.
Of course, even with a world of possibilities at their fingertips and usually enough money to manipulate and create whatever they desire, many still managed to mess it up. This led to unfortunate releases such as Clash of the Titans (2010), Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) and A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011) all infecting our cinemas.
This last example brings me to another point. The visuals and story in the two former examples are at least suited to how a third dimension could increase entertainment value, but are 3D effects really going to enhance the viewing experience of films like the latter? Some 3D films may look good. But is the extra dimension really adding anything of significant value apart from increased ticket prices.
Take Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Although the story isn’t quite what most of us were waiting and hoping for, the 3D element was realistic and effective. But that is as about as far as it goes. Although it may have looked attractive, the 3D aspect of Prometheus didn’t really pump up the entertainment meter or improve the viewing experience compared to the 2D version (I did watch both). Not enough to warrant about £3.50’s worth extra per ticket anyway.
So for these reasons, films such as Prometheus have not quite made this short but esteemed list. And trash like Jaws 3D and Harold and fucking Kumar certainly haven’t.
The top 3 3D films to date:
After experimenting with the attraction of T2 3-D: Battle Across Time in 1996, and over a decade later, Cameron felt it was time to move on and deliver us a 3D fantasy film like no other: a film which would rival The Matrix for ingenuity, originality and ground-breaking, breath-taking visuals and special effects.
And most would agree he succeeded. Okay Avatar is a simple story at heart, but the scope of the project, its critical and box-office success, and most notably, the pioneering brilliance with the use of 3D, made sure we all stood up and took notice of what can be achieved with 3D when it is done right.
With Avatar 2 coming soon, it will be interesting to see if and how Cameron will improve upon the epically conceived and executed first instalment.
Dredd 3D (2012)
Now here is a prime example of how 3D can enhance a film’s story and action. Last year’s Dredd 3D was an underrated surprise in many ways. Thankfully it was 138 times better than the one starring Sylvester Stallone, but also, it turned outto be one of the most accomplished films of the year.
The cast were exceptional, the story slight, but compact, and the action and violence was emphatic but not gratuitous considering the source material.
And the 3D? The 3D in Dredd enhanced this already edge-of-your-seat sci-fi thriller and allowed the film to express its unrelenting and unforgiving grown-up story in a fashion simply not attainable with two dimensions.
Often combining well with the ‘bullet-time’ action, and allowing the audience to experience the full effects of the aptly named SLO MO drug which the antagonists dealt in, the 3D contributed to the feeling that you were right there with Judge Dredd, dodging the hail of gunfire and in a fight for your life.
Life of Pi (2012)
This year’s Oscar nominated Life of Pi by Director Ang Lee is based on an apparently unfilmable novel of the same title. Boy did Lee prove his critics wrong.
A film which could have failed on so many levels – its location is mainly the sea, the majority of its main characters are CG animals, its protagonist has never acted before, Ang Lee once made Hulk – but none of this stopped Lee and co. from coming out on top.
It succeeded on all levels and the addition of 3D only served to further enhance the viewing experience of a film which probably won’t be rewarded with an Oscar, but if it were to be, it would be as deserving as any of the 84 other Best Picture Winners.
At some stages the 3D is so convincing and effective, it almost feels like an IMAX experience with exotic animals walking out of the screen and tigers springing towards you.
Here is a picture which proves that when filmmakers embrace and respect this new technology and its power to entertain, the result can be a truly memorable cinema experience.