Published on : 10 January 20208 min reading time

A look at 3D cinema and the ongoing struggle with home entertainment
The technology behind adding that third dimension to our viewing experience is something that has been through many trials throughout the decades. In the past the limitations that came hand in hand with the technology meant that it could never be a viable alternative to standard film. No one wants to see all their favourite films through green and red filters do they? 3D also suffered from a certain amount of overindulgence by those who used it. It’s hard to get into a story when the technology is being used as a gimmick and every five minutes someone is shoving a stick at the camera.

A new impressively realistic 3D cinema

Times have changed, though, and now we are beginning to see 3D grow into a primary cinematic form. No longer are we donning the red and green specs to see a “kind of” 3D movie in a discoloured hue. Now, armed with our mildly more fashionable specs, we get to watch some impressively realistic 3D cinema thanks to RealD technology. This renaissance in 3D tech is giving audiences a new reason to head out to the cinema, leaving their DVD players and HD TVs at home. At least that’s the plan, but how did this all start? Is it helping cinema compete with home entertainment or are people still more interested in their TVs? Most importantly, how long can this success last?

The current resurgence in 3D technology actually began sometime ago, although the huge popularity it has enjoyed in mainstream cinema is somewhat more recent. With the support of many big screen directors the technology has advanced and evolved into something that can fit smoothly into our viewing experience. James Cameron has been one of the biggest benefactors of 3D and has played a significant role in its renewed popularity. In 1996 he directed T2 3D: Battle Across Time, the sequel (of sorts) to Terminator 2. In 2003 he was also behind Ghosts of the Abyss, another 3D event that pushed technological boundaries by being the first full length feature to use the Reality Camera System.
During this period 3D experiences were largely limited to special events or IMAX theatres. Rather than entering the mainstream entertainment market, 3D films remained in a nook of their own that drew audiences for the novelty of the experience- still relegated to being something of a ride rather than a true film. However, in the last couple years we have seen a massive growth in the number of 3D movies being shown in cinemas with films like My Bloody Valentine, The Final Destination and Coraline. This is, of course, a trend that has climaxed in the release of James Cameron’s Avatar.

This change in the offering of movies hasn’t come a day too soon for the cinema industry. It’s no secret that the rise, development and growth of home entertainment technologies have posed a huge dilemma for the minds of many filmmakers and distributors. The movies have managed to hold their own pretty well, but in a busy world where audiences have less and less free time it can be understood that home entertainment has often won the battle.

Facing cinema are DVDs, Blu-ray discs, home cinema systems, surround sound speakers, the internet and video games. Some of these competitors have gained considerable strength in recent years with high definition being a massive selling point for television and home film viewing. In addition to this video games have seen huge growths in popularity and the internet has made it easier to gain access to all of these sources of convenient entertainment. The difficulty for conventional cinema is that, beyond the “going to the movies” atmosphere, it lacks something unique to keep it distinguished from the more economical, more comfortable home experience. Enter 3D.

For some time it has been the hope of many filmmakers that 3D will help to revitalise and renew the draw of cinema. As James Cameron put it, 3D could be a “way to bring people back to the cinema” and “to make the cinema exciting again”. Cameron points out that people are going to “smaller and smaller devices and watching movies on iPhones”, and so moviemakers “need something that kick-starts public enthusiasm for the cinema.”

Well 3D is certainly exciting and the new experience offered by it is, for the moment, unique to the big screen. For the first time in many years the movies have something that no one else can offer and we all want to see it. 3D has seen incredible success, the best example of course being Avatar which has smashed records and planted itself at the top of cinema box office.

Naturally 3D films have invigorated the cinema industry and brought in a lot of new revenue. It can be argued that some of this is due to the higher price of 3D films but even with this taken into consideration it’s clear that 3D is selling well. As such 3D has certainly helped to breathe new life into the cinema but there are still challenges facing it.

The main difficulties

The main difficulty for filmmakers who want to expand 3D cinema is the necessity for enabled theatres. Filmmakers need venues to show their 3D features but, of course, many theatres are hesitant to commit to 3D before they can be sure that their investment will be worth it- they need to know that 3D is here to stay.

The good news here is that more and more directors are getting involved in the 3D resurgence and this will encourage theatres to establish 3D screens. Peter Jackson, famed director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has joined Cameron and Spielberg in supporting 3D by claiming that all of his future films will be 3D. This should certainly help the situation. Those hopeful for a 3D The Hobbit shouldn’t get their hopes up though- that’s still unconfirmed for the moment.

Another difficulty is the cost of making a 3D film and the price to be paid when it isn’t done properly. 3D is still in a delicate stage and audiences could easily be dissuaded if the film industry starts to bring out too many sub-par features. We’ve seen some fantastic work in 2009 and 2010; Alice in Wonderland and How to Train Your Dragon have shown us more of what the technology is capable of. There have been some less impressive works, however. The Clash of the Titans has demonstrated the dangers of a hasty post-production conversion from 2D to 3D. It lacked the spectacle of a truly 3D experience and some even left the theatre feeling like they hadn’t seen a 3D film.

The real problem facing 3D cinema as a tool for strengthening the movie theatre is a much more long term and large scale challenge, one that cinema has faced in the past and will inevitably face again in the future. Like standard film before it, 3D will ultimately be downscaled for household use. In fact, this is already happening.

3D television sets are still quite rare, as is the content to play on them but this is certain to change in the future. Companies such as Toshiba, LG, Sony, Panasonic and Samsung all have plans for 3D TVs with many already available. Also, TV providers are beginning to offer 3D services with Sky having brought theirs online on April 3rd 2010.

Obviously this poses a real threat to the renewed popularity cinema has gained through 3D technology. Equipped with 3D TVs, 3D channels and 3D Blu-ray discs will audiences still have the same enthusiasm for the cinema offerings? This really depends on how people expect to experience a 3D film. Audiences certainly expect to enjoy a film at home in a different way to how they watch it at the cinema- it’s a far more casual viewing experience. 3D is not so malleable; glasses must be worn to facilitate the viewing on most sets and often 3D TVs require that people sit in a particular position in relation to the screen. This, of course, makes 3D less effective in the home.

Another issue that will at least prolong the uniqueness of 3D cinema is the current pricing of home 3D technology. Many viewers have only recently upgraded to HD and so it’s unlikely that they will want to shell out for a new TV and subscription.

It seems inevitable that 3D will one day enter the home, like so many forms of entertainment before it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that audiences will choose this over 3D cinema; there is an expectation of ease of use from a TV and 3D could, at least at first, simply be considered too much hassle for the home. This may one day change but we can, at least for the moment, be confident that going to the movies gives us something we can’t have quite the same way anywhere else.