Why 3D TV May Not Be the Next Great Thing — At Least Not Right Away

According to a Digital Home story,

Samsung Electronics has posted an advisory on its corporate web site warning that children and teenagers may be more susceptible to health issues when viewing 3D content on their televisions.

The company also recommends that pregnant woman, the elderly and anyone under the influence of alcohol should refrain from watching programming in 3D.

Samsung also says that wearing 3D glasses for any other purpose may be physically harmful and could weaken your eyesight.

Given such concerns and the tempting thought that glassless 3D technologies may displace the current crop of 3D sets (which require rather expensive glasses) throws doubt on the rapid acceptance of 3D television.

Incidentally, while there are a number of companies working on glassless 3D TV, the fact that Sharp, one of the leading manufacturers of TV sets, recently unveiled its own entry, which is initially aimed at the cell phone and mobile device market. As DailyTech reported earlier this month that:

… Sharp aired its stunning new 3D display.  The mobile display offers switchable 2D and 3D display modes and best of all does not require the user to wear any goofy glasses.

The television manufacturing industry at CES 2010 revealed itself to be deeply enamored with 3D sets.  However, doubts remain over whether users will be willing to don special glasses every time they want to watch events broadcast in TV.

John Bailey on 3D

I’m embarrassed to say I was a bit late in catching up to John Bailey’s wonderful blog, John’s Bailiwick,  hosted by the The American Society of Cinematographers, especially since John and I have been friends since our days as cinema students at the University of Southern California’s in the 1960s.  (John’s recollection of me during our USC days found here is spot on; I should also note his credits include The Big Chill, Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire, As Good as It Gets and The Kid Stays in the Picture.) I was especially taken with his extended piece on 3D, “Ray Zone and the “Tyranny of Flatness,” which is one of the best discussions on the topic.

Stereoscope in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution " styled after the Holmes-Bates model."

It starts out as a profile of his friend Ray Zone, a “3-D film scholar and 3-D photo buff,” who has not only written extensively on the topic but is also responsible for creating many 3D comics; and his book, Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D, 1838-1952, was a primary source for Anthony Lane’s excellent New Yorker article I mentioned in an earlier post. Like Lane, Bailey not only picks up on the importance of Oliver Wendell Holmes in the development of stereoscopic photography with his stereo-cards, but claims

The rapid introduction of sequential stereo cards that featured recurring characters in staged settings became a true forerunner of narrative cinema. A chapter on the work of famed photographers such as Marey, Watkins, and Muybridge, whose stereo landscapes and animal studies are much better known in flat versions, leads directly to William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson’s exit from Edison’s labs when the great inventor refused to adapt his still-new film technology to Dickson’s dream of large screen popular exhibition. There are also fascinating tales of how 3-D films, though still a curiosity, developed alongside flat ones in the early 20th century. The culmination of contending concepts came with the release of the first feature length 3-D film, The Power of Love, in 1922.

He also notes that some scholars link Greg Toland’s interest in deep focus cinematography from his  “projection of film tests at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1935 with producer Sam Goldwyn, of footage shot with a purported 3-D camera built by William Alder” of Cal Tech.

He also quotes from the last published article by Sergei Eisenstein (whose writings were the cornerstone of film theory for many years) in the January 1949 issue of the Penguin Film Review,

Nowadays one meets many people who ask: “Do you believe in stereoscopic cinema?” To me, this question sounds as absurd as if I were asked: Do you believe that in nought hours it will be night, that the snow will disappear from the streets of Moscow, that there will be green trees in the summer and apples in autumn?”

Zone’s writings also lead Bailey to Oliver Sacks’ New Yorker piece on Dr. Susan  Barry, a neuroscientist who (contrary to conventional wisdom) learned to see in three dimensions late in life with the help of  optometric vision therapy despite having a history of strabismus, wherein one’s eyes look in different directions.

Sons and Lovers (Jack Cardiff, 1960)

Though he hesitates from being a full-fledged 3D advocate, Bailey ends by one of those might have been moments:

[British cinematographer Jack] Cardiff also had a distinguished career as director, with more than a dozen credits. His most satisfying film in this role is the black and white feature Sons and Lovers, adapted by Gavin Lambert from an early D.H. Lawrence novel. For his work on this film cinematographer Freddie Francis received his first Oscar. It is a tense and dramatic film, photographed mainly in small sets. It was released in 1960 at the time of a real slough in 3-D production. I can’t help but wonder what Cardiff and Francis, two of the greatest cinematographers in cinema history, would have done if they had elected to film Sons and Lovers in 3-D. Cinema stereopsis may have had a far different history during the following half century had they done so, and my generation of film school brats would perhaps now not be looking at 3-D, here in our mature years, with both intrigued and ambivalent eyes.

The 3D Films Are Coming, the 3D Films Are Coming


A little over a year ago, I wrote that, “I suspect 3D will not go away anytime soon; the question , I believe, is whether or not it will go beyond being a niche market.” I also noted that it was seen as a way to get theaters to switch to digital projection, providing what Tim Partridge, Executive Vice President, Products and Technologies, for Dolby Laboratories, called the “wow factor.”  Well, it now seems certain that 3D has established a strong beachhead, which will go beyond being just a niche market.

For most, the game changer was James Cameron’s Avatar, which seemed to  legitimatize the process; if nothing else, its $2 billion plus box office receipts, with an overwhelming  amount of domestic revenues coming from 3D theaters, made people realize that stereoscopic films were no longer a recurring fad.

As a result, there looks to be a dramatic shift toward 3D production  and, yes, a wider use of digital projection; however, I suspect theaters will only install digital projection only when necessary to show 3D films. After all, digital projection is not cheap (especially in the current economic climate), but those multiplexes that put up signs saying they were not showing Avatar in 3D, will not want to be put in such a situation again. In fact, my local AMC multiplex in the North DeKalb Mall, in Decatur, Georgia, which had one of those signs, has converted its largest screen in time to show Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 3D. And the Regal Hollywood 24, which had been my closest 3D venue (a 15-20 minute drive), now has two 3D screens; previously, the nearest multiplex with two such screens was on the other side of Atlanta.

Clash of the Titans (2010)

The shift to 3D production has now gone beyond the party faithful and Warner Bros. announced it will release the new version of Clash of the Titans, as well as Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1, Guardians Of Ga’Hoole, and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore in 3D. No matter that these films, and Alice in Wonderland, were not designed for stereoscopic viewing, the major studios  see the writing on the wall. In this, it has some semblance to the post-Jazz Singer shift to talking pictures, when talking sequences and musical tracks were anxiously added to silent movies, and to the shift to color in the mid-1960s, when films that began shooting in black and white, like Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid, were reshot in color.

The Problem
The problem, according to this Associated Press story, is:

Movies in 3-D are becoming such big moneymakers that Hollywood studios are cramming them into the nation’s theaters, even though there aren’t enough screens available to give each film its fullest possible run.

That will mean an unprecedented number of 3-D movies for film fans to choose from this spring, and smaller profits for Hollywood studios than they might otherwise get with fewer 3-D competitors.

How to Train Your Dragon

Subsequently, The Los Angeles Times reported, “Studios are using high-pressure tactics to book their films into theaters,” adding that,

Paramount Pictures is using high-pressure tactics against theaters to book DreamWorks Animation’s upcoming big-budget 3-D film, “How to Train Your Dragon” onto scarce 3-D screens around the country, according to industry executives. “Dragon,” opening March 26, will be going head to head against the swords-and-sandal 3-D picture “Clash of the Titans,” from Warner Bros., which opens a week later, and Disney’s 3-D “Alice in Wonderland,” still drawing audiences and expected to remain in theaters for several more weeks.

Frankly, I don’t see the shortage lasting very long. If history is any guide, the shortage could be short-lived. When The Jazz Singer came out in 1927, there was only a limited number of theaters wired for sound; but when Warner Bros. brought out its follow-up, The Singing Fool, in 1928, there were enough theaters available for it to set a box office record that would only be broken 10 years later by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Also, in the early 50s, most theaters underwent wholesale conversions to both 3D and widescreen in fairly short order.

But I see no reason to believe that theaters will feel compelled to convert each and everyone of their theaters to stereo, let alone digital projection.  For now, 3D will probably be limited to specific types of large-budget movies or exploitation films, much as color was initially limited in its early days to the likes of animated cartoons (Snow White), spectacles (Gone with the Wind) and musicals (Meet Me in St. Louis). It was only when US TV networks decided they would only broadcasting movies made in color that Hollywood almost overnight converted to making films only in color. (Since, then, only directors with some clout, such as Martin Scorcese (Raging Bull), could use black and white.)

The Princess and the Frog

Though 3D TVs have recently been introduced, sales would have to take off dramatically for broadcasters to add more than token stereoscopic programs (such as the World Series). The amount of 3D product available on Blu-Ray will be limited over the next few years, though one should not count put the lure of 3D for gamers being a factor. (One of the problems probably hindering sales of 3D TVs, beyond the added premium over conventional HDTVs, is the cost of glasses, which will initially be over $100 each; this will certainly limit the purchase of such sets by bars and restaurants (which were among the first to buy TV sets after World War II and more recently HDTVs) and institutions such as schools, where the cost of providing patrons/students with expensive 3D glasses will be prohibitive.  And until these markets reach some sort of critical mass, any hope of wholesale conversion to stereoscopic production and exhibition seems premature.

Right now, the only type of movie where 3D production will be de rigueur are mass market animated features. Of the non-3D animated films released lately, only Ron Clements and John Musker’s The Princess and the Frog made any sort of impact and then mainly for its merchandizing revenues; ; and because of this, Disney will likely continue to make the occasional drawn animation. (For the record, I found some of its musical numbers sporadically entertaining, but felt it was a lesser effort than than directors’ last effort, the underrated Treasure Planet.)

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Conversion Fever
In the short run, we are in for a number of special effects laden, live-action films haphazardly converted to 3D. The first being Tim Burton’s “version” of Alice in Wonderland, which predictably looks rather awkward. Much of the 3D looks artificial, with discernibly flat layers of action substituting for any real sense of depth (a sort of multiplane effect, if you will). Having no desire to see the film in its flat version, I can only suspect that the conversion did little to help. (I never liked the original Lewis Carroll books and have found any previous screen versions satisfactory.)

The earlier 3D conversion of Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, with its occasional insertions of foreground props in a vain attempt to provide added depth, really diminished the film; even worse was Toy Story, which had new animation added, including full-figure shots of the boy and his mother instead of just legs, which really made no sense. The 3D version of Toy Story 2, however, did not seem substantially hurt by the conversion, since there seems to have been little or no tampering with the film itself. (The two films were given a modest release last year, with distribution obviously limited by the scarcity of 3D venues.)

Though critics will surely pounce on these bastardized films as proof of 3D’s inferiority or whatever, I don’t see the public turning away from them.

Post Scripts
By the way, I do recommend “Third Way: the rise of 3-D,”  by Anthony Lane, in the March 8th issue of The New Yorker, which can be found here. It provides an excellent summary of the history of 3D cinematography, including the role played by Oliver Wendell Holmes in its pre-history.  Along the way, he perfectly reflects both the attraction and horror felt by many at the prospect of converting older films:

Faced with the thought of a 3-D “Casablanca,” one is torn between outrage at such blind desecration and a sneaking wish to know—well, what the hell would it look like? The mind runs riot, in search of screenings past. Imagine the older couple dancing, with slow grace, in “The Magnificent Ambersons,” with the younger pair behind them, watching in admiration from the stairs; imagine the gentle ascent of the camera, at the end of “Ugetsu Monogatari,” as the child lays an offering on his mother’s grave, and we gaze beyond him to the workers, with griefs and rituals of their own, toiling in the distant fields; imagine the arrival of the train at the start of “Once Upon a Time in the West,” with those seamed, all-knowing faces so close to us and the railroad stretching so far; imagine the flirtatious darting between trees, in “Smiles of a Summer Night,” as the maid half seeks to flee the randy groom in the background, both of them blessed and maddened by the midnight sun. All these scenes depend on figures held in separate planes, and on the unspoken feelings that brim in the spaces between them; would it weaken or intensify those feelings if the spaces were given solid form? Try asking Patrick von Sychowski, the chief operating officer at Reliance MediaWorks [an Indian company involved in such conversions], quoted in the London Times: “You can’t just press a button and have a computer do it. You have to take artistic decisions, such as what’s going to appear in the foreground.” Ah.

I would also recommend Kristin Thompson’s report here on a screening by archivist extraordinaire  Serge Bromberg (owner of  Lobster Films and the Annecy Festival’s Artistic Director) of early 3D films, which ended with a surprise:

… two films that had never been meant to appear in 3D.

[Georges] Méliès’s early shorts were often pirated abroad, and a lot of money was being lost in the American market in particular. After the Lubin company flooded that market with bootleg copies of a 1902 film, Méliès struck back by opening his own American distribution office. Separate negatives for the domestic and foreign markets were made by the simple expedient of placing two cameras side by side. The folks at Lobster realized that those cameras’ lenses happened to be about the same distance apart as 3D camera lenses. By taking prints from the two separate versions of a film, today’s restorers could create a simulated 3D copy!

Two 1903 titles–I think that they were The Infernal Cauldron and The Oracle of Delphi–triumphantly showed that the experiment worked. Oracle survived in both French and American copies, and the effect of 3D was delightful. For Cauldron only the second half of the American print has been preserved. Watching the film through red-and-green glasses, you initially saw nothing in your right eye, while the left one saw the image in 2D. Abruptly, though, the second print materialized, and the depth effect kicked in. The films as synchronized  by Lobster looked exactly as if Méliès had designed them for 3D.

Of course, if you’re in Toronto, you could also check out the activities of Reg Hartt’s Cineforum, which tomorrow tonight is having a screening of “The History of 3D in the Movies,” which he describes as

Stereoscopic Cinema from its origins to the present day (Reg Hartt has the most advanced 3D system in Canada and, in his archive, nearly every 3D motion picture ever made). The Cineforum is THE ONLY PLACE in the world where stereoscopic cinema can be studied IN DEPTH.