Non-working prototype of Panasonic 3D camera

Non-working prototype of Panasonic 3D camera

3D movies, you may have noticed if you spent any time at all wandering around at NAB this week, are a pressure point for new filmmaking technology. That’s because stereoscopic movies have reached a sweet spot where they’re firing the imaginations of Hollywood creatives as well as studio accountants. Digital 3D is leagues beyond its counterpart technologies from the 1950s. Like Technicolor and talkies, it’s an innovation that opens new avenues in storytelling. So I feel like an old fuddy-duddy when I say that I’m getting a little sick of hearing about how it’s going to change the way we see movies.

I’m not a 3D-basher. As a kid, I loved stereoscopic technology. I had a Viewmaster, of course, with its round “reels” of 3D slides. I fondly remember a hyped local-television broadcast of The Creature from the Black Lagoon in good old anaglyphic crap-vision 3D sometime in the 1970s. I bugged the local Waldenbooks to special-order me a copy of Fantastic 3D, one of the “photo guidebooks” published in the early 1980s by the recently demised SF movie magazine Starlog, which had lots of 3D pictures as well as an informative look at the history of stereo cinematography.


And I’m still a big fan of 3D. I’ve trained my eyes over the years to easily fuse side-by-side stereo images (like those seen here). I love experiments with pseudo-3D techniques, like wobbly animated GIFs or the parallax-shift technology developed by V3. The U23D concert film is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. But 3D is like good scotch. If you opt for fine-quality bottles, and if you moderate your intake, it will enrich your life. But if you decide that everything goes better with scotch and just go on a bender, sooner or later somebody’s going to have to put you in detox.

Simply put, 3D techniques strain not only the ingenuity of production and post-production teams. They demand a dedication and investment on the part of audiences as well, who have to don a pair of glasses in order to make sense of the images on screen. And, despite some assertions to the contrary, they still provoke some physical discomfort. I was, frankly, relieved when Daniel Engber wrote a provocative article for Slate that highlights this problem — having consumed months and years of industry hype claiming that 3D no longer hurts your eyes or gives you headaches, I was starting to think that maybe I was the only one who invariably started to feel a bit punch-drunk in the second hour of a 3D feature movie.


Those glasses and a little bit of eyestrain are inconveniences that audiences will happily put up with in exchange for being dazzled. But assuming that cinemagoers will prefer that every new movie experience takes place in that highly demanding 3D realm is dangerous. Everyone in the business is pointing to the expected success of James Cameron’s Avatar right now, but Avatar is not the issue. If ever a movie demanded to be conceived, photographed and released in 3D, a megabudget science-fiction adventure film by a thoughtful techno-maven like Cameron is the one. On the opposite end of the spectrum is something like Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience, which stole a whole bunch of 3D screens from the leggy, well-liked Coraline and tanked anyway. Maybe that proves mainly that ‘tween groupies are unpredictably fickle, but it also suggests that it’s already too late in the life cycle of digital 3D to make easy money on quick cash-ins.

And 3D broadcasts to the home? Don’t get me started. Standards for home delivery of stereoscopic images are still under discussion. But while I can certainly imagine the appeal of a stereoscopic version of a big football game, I have a hard time imagining a group of fans gathered around a big screen with beers and chicken wings engrossed in the TV’s depth effects. I certainly wouldn’t expect the guests at my Super Bowl party to wear those funky glasses for three hours plus. (Might be fun to put them on for the halftime show and/or some highlights reels — it’s a terrific shortform technology.) The one market segment where I think living-room 3D could be a slam-dunk is videogaming. Aside from the risks of eyestrain noted earlier, I can’t really see a downside to playing Killzone 2 in 3D for an hour or so at a time.

<i>Opening ceremony, Beijing Olympics</i>

Opening ceremony, Beijing Olympics

I don’t mean to be a naysayer or contrarian. There’s magic in 3D images, and Panasonic provided me with my single most jaw-dropping moment at the show, including spectacular segments from last year’s Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in the HD presentation at its 3D theater. I get a kick out of the mere existence of autostereoscopic displays (Alioscopy seems to have a good system), although I can’t imagine them enjoying much success beyond the digital signage market. And seeing emerging stereo editorial workflows — like the powerful one for Final Cut shown by Cineform using its Neo3D and First Light 3Dsoftware, which lets you easily adjust depth effects and make other tweaks — makes me think that it must be a blast, if still somewhat challenging, to edit a film in stereo.

Watching them is fun, too. But wagering that they’ll become much more than a profitable niche market might be a sucker bet.