Still from The Wizard of Oz

SMPTE's 2nd Annual International Conference on Stereoscopic 3D for Media and Entertainment opened in New York City this morning with a defense of 3D technology, which has lately been taking a beating in the consumer press. Sony's Peter Ludé offered the pep talk, noting that the latest figures for summer movies like Green Lantern show that only about 45 percent of ticket revenues are coming from 3D screens. (The percentage was quite a bit higher last year.)

Ludé said that glass was half full. After all, the numbers mean that fully 45 percent of the revenue on 3D films comes from customers who are willing to pay what amounts to a 30 percent surcharge for a 3D screening. “Airlines should have that problem,” he said.

He then made the requisite comparisons to the transition from silent filmmaking to sound, and from black-and-white to color – but those arguments have never held much weight for me. Both were profound technology shifts, and both had their share of naysayers who objected to the difficulty and expense of making films in sound and color and sometimes to what they suggested was a certain vulgarity in the finished product. But both color and sound blossomed quickly in old Hollywood.

Within 10 years of the first use of three-strip Technicolor came The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Just a few years into the history of sound film, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers emerged in Flying Down to Rio. And less than a decade later, Walt Disney was cranking out Fantasia and Orson Welles was drawing on his experience in radio theater to make Citizen Kane, with its richly detailed soundtrack. In other words, it didn't take long for Hollywood to start using color and sound in sophisticated and highly evocative ways, employing them on films that rank among the finest ever made.

I'm loath to call 3D a “gimmick” partly because I know some people take offense and partly because I do believe in its potential. U23D is a fantastic concert film. It was also fantastically expensive to make. Speaking of expensive, some viewers do feel quite strongly that digital 3D found its Emerald City with the release of Avatar. Even so, I'd argue that sound and color made a case for themselves as a fundamental part of film grammar much more quickly and forcefully than stereo 3D has.

Complicating matters, as the presentations throughout the day at the SMPTE conference made abundantly clear, it remains tough to do 3D well. Hopes are running high that new techniques being employed on films like The Hobbit will help matters, and it's possible that the first 48 fps 3D film will be a game-changer. I'd like to see it reverse the trend of stereo Philistinism that produced cheap 2D conversions that hurt the whole industry by devaluing what was a fresh and fun experience.

I took comfort at SMPTE in knowing that many of the engineering brains in the room, all of them acutely interested in the finest points of 3D imaging, seem to agree with that assessment. After doing his best to refute the most common knocks against stereo 3D – audiences are getting tired of it, terrestrial broadcasters are turning up their nose at it — and promising that engineering knowhow will surmount the problems that remain, Ludé finished with a wisecrack. “Finally, there are really crappy [3D] movies,” he said, cracking just a bit of a smile. “We're not going to be able to fix that.”

Look for coverage of sessions from SMPTE's 3D conference at the main StudioDaily site tomorrow.