The Role of 3-D in Motion Pictures

By Vlahos, Petro | American Cinematographer, April 1974 | Go to article overview

The Role of 3-D in Motion Pictures


Vlahos, Petro, American Cinematographer


A coldly realistic appraisal of 3-D as it relates to films, and a rational debunking of some of the myths that have grown around it

"Some day someone will perfect 3-D without glasses and revolutionize the motion picture industry." This statement has been made many times, with no recognition of the fact that there is considerable evidence that 3-D would not revolutionize the motion picture industry.

Every few years there is a renewed interest in 3-D. Those who are sold on 3-D have made the assumption that 3-D is desirable in motion pictures, that it improves the presentation. Little effort has been made to establish whether this assumption is true or false. We had 3-D in the 1950's with such pictures as "BWANA DEVIL" and "HOUSE OF WAX". Various explanations were given as to why it died out: Projection problems, out of sync conditions, poor glasses, people don't like glasses, etc. It has not been suggested that the principal thing wrong with 3-D movies might be 3-D itself, or that 2-D is inherently better than 3-D for movies.

I would like to submit that 3-D detracts from the enjoyment of watching movies, no matter how perfect, and whether it is seen with or without glasses. Before going into the reasons, I want to acknowledge and identify the one positive value of 3-D.

Whenever the motion picture industry, or any industry, offers something new and novel, it generates a temporary public interest. Hula hoops, miniature golf, trampolines, etc., each went through a temporary period of popularity. In motion pictures our novelties have included sound, 3-D, Cinemascope, Cinerama, color, and explicit sex and violence on the screen. Sometimes the novelty also represented a real value. In those instances, the technique remained and became a part of picture-making. Examples are sound, color and the wide screen.

3-D has novelty value. Every 10 or 15 years a new audience has grown up, one that has not seen 3-D. There are several millions of young viewers who will pay to see a few 3-D presentations. After seeing them, the novelty is gone. At this point the 3-D must and will be evaluated by the public on its own merits. This evaluation is in the form of theatre attendance, and it answers the question of whether 3-D improves or degrades the presentation of the story.

However, at such times as 3-D is again "new" (and has novelty value) one should be concerned with the quality of the 3-D that is being offered. If the quality is sufficiently good, the novelty value may be increased and extended in duration to perhaps as long as two or three years. Unfortunately, there has been very little published about the quality of 3-D that might be helpful to a producer or cinematographer. Even worse, there is a growing number of do's and don'ts that are simply not valid.

Most persons in the industry assume that 3-D is what we see with both eyes, while a one-eyed, or one-camera view is 2-D. Actually, 3-D is the presentation "or information in such a manner that one may obtain a reasonably accurate judgment of depth and separation between objects. Much of this information, these cues to depth, are present in one-eyed (or one-lens) views. The second eye (or camera lens) provides one more cue to depth and this two-eyed cue is called stereopsis. It is a very effective cue at short range.

Nevertheless, when we talk about 3-D movies we mean two-image movies. These two images require two lenses to represent the two eyes. Both images are projected on a screen, and we view them through Polaroid glasses. Another pair of polaroid plastic pieces is placed over the projection lens or lenses. What the Polaroid does is to insure that the left eye sees only the left camera image and that the right eye sees only the right camera image.

Much of. past 3-D caused eyes'train and headaches, and the polaroid glasses were blamed for this. The polaroid glasses do not cause headaches,- but improper photography and projection may do so. …

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