3-D: The Gimmick that Won’t Go Away

glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | june 2016

The use of gimmicks to wow moviegoers is nothing new, but unlike other gimmicks, 3-D continues to hang around. Cinema has a lot to compete with these days. Computer games, TV and DVD, in particular, offer the kind of escape that previously only the movie theatres could. Gimmicks, those mad, mad ways some distributors and directors get the audiences attention in as solidly cheap a way as possible are a deeply amusing footnote in the world of cinema.

We're all used to the heartbeat interrupting levels of bass we sit through at the cinema these days and don't you just love it when a nice quiet, maybe tender scene you're watching is invaded by the rumble of Superman and Zod destroying a city next door. Now imagine that raised to the levels that will literally knock chunks of plaster out of the ceiling. It's been done. Electrifying the patrons seats in order to give them a mild jolt at an appropriate moment, yup. Sick bags, fake life insurance, smell-o-rama, scratch and sniff, all ways of messing with the audience and involve them have been tried but there is one of these gimmicks that has hung around through thick and thin but never quite become the norm: 3-D.

3-D made an appearance way further back in time than almost anyone realises, “The Power of Love” made its debut in 1922 when cinema was still a very experimental form and that was only the first feature film. According to 3Dgear.com, 1915 saw the screening of a series of three shorts in 3-D. It was hardly the first gimmick as the tours of films in their own right were something of a gimmick at the time and showmanship was hardly unprecedented.

3-D has, of course, never quite gone away and these days is still hanging on as the studios refuse to let it lie despite a lack of enthusiasm on the viewers' behalf. Touted as “The future of cinema” by several notable directors and forced upon many cinemas and audiences by the studios and distributors, it's amazing that given the financial and industrial clout put behind it, not to say the shear amount of hardware that has been installed across the world, that it's not how every major film is released now. But it's not, there seem to be fewer films that are trumpeted as being 3-D and when they are, the 2-D screenings either do just as well or outperform the 3-D shows.

The reason is that despite the claims to the contrary, 3-D is just another gimmick, it always has been and it always will be. A common comparison made by the pro-3-D faction is to the introduction of sound or indeed colour to film, after all, both these features had similar criticism back in their day. The difference is though that sound and colour have functions that go beyond the aesthetic. Sound allows for more complex communication through things like sound effects, music and of course the dialogue, and colour is an important component in the visual medium and is manipulated all the time to suggest something of the film's world and even to offer clues to the film's meaning.

Long story cut short, both colour and sound have uses that go beyond replicating reality, they add depth (no pun intended), texture and variety to the filmmakers palette and the experience of the film goer. As fun as 3-D can be, what does it offer?

Well, if you listen to those who are making the films it's the “immersion” it offers that makes it a valuable tool. For me, however, I have always found the forced poking of objects at me to be a short-lived thrill and the ambient 3-D (something Avatar was rather good at) to be a minor plus and one that more often than not was poorly realised and short-lived in its effectiveness. A major part of the problem is that 3-D movies are hobbled by the technology of 2-D cinema, i.e. a flat and fixed position screen that can only occupy a limited field of the audience's vision and an image that is not responsive to the viewer's movements or focus. The 3-D image is locked down and limited by the confines of the screen when an object goes outside of the edge of the screen the illusion is blown. In short, the cinema's physical environment and relatively unchanged technology just doesn't lend itself to the format of 3-D and the immersion it seeks to bolster is something it often works counter to. When a film is good, when it involves the audience on an emotional level, then it is immersive. Make a good film and you don't need to rely on the gimmick. As a gimmick, 3-D is fun but as a standard, it has little to offer as it doesn't lend anything to the film other than a cheap (or in fact rather expensive) thrill, and this is why it's considered a gimmick by many including myself. Had the industry not spent so much forcing the issue, the format would undoubtedly have died off again by now but there's now a huge financial commitment that unfortunately means the format will remain in spite of its fundamental flaws and lack of general acceptance. We now have a gimmick that will not go away, at least not completely. The “future of cinema,” as we know, doesn't rest in this fake 3-D format and unless there is a major shift in the technology, probably along the lines of some kind of virtual reality, then 3-D will be never be anything more than a head-achy, travel sickness inducing gimmick.


He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.

For more of Glenn's work, visit his Youtube channel under the name lampyman101.

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