Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The past, present and future of 3-D?

3-D has been in the news a lot recently. The Polaroid spectacles are annoying; the technology is restrictive; people are tired of having things thrown off the screen at them; story should be more important than technological gimmicks; 2-D versions are just as good as 3-D; this is just a knee-jerk novelty from an increasingly desperate Hollywood film industry. The arguments are repetitively familiar, with commentators like Mark Kermode and David Mitchell lining up to kick 3-D while it’s down.

Except it’s not down. It might not even be reeling. In fact, with major 3-D media conferences in Los Angeles, Asia and London; Sky's 3-D TV channel, the release of the Nintendo 3DS, the promotion of fashionable 3-D glasses, and a new wave of 3-D films coming to cinemas, 3-D might actually be growing in availability, if not perceived popularity. So is there a disconnect here between published opinion and popular acceptance? Could it be that people actually like 3-D, and want more of it rather than less?

If we start with film, the financial box office success of Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, and Toy Story 3-D has positioned digital stereoscopic technology as the apparent saviour of cinema. Yet recent statistics suggest that 3-D may not be as popular with audiences as box office takings state, implying that the 3-D bubble is artificially afloat because of the increased ticket prices and the cost of Polaroid spectacles, with actual audience numbers for each subsequent 3-D film since Avatar slowly inching downwards. With films like Clash or Alice being ‘converted up’ from 2-D rather than being designed and filmed for 3-D, it may be that the ‘game changing’ Avatar has actually changed very little. While it is too simple to make direct comparisons with the last commercial expansion of 3-D (a convention of pieces such as this), the 1953 example of House of Wax remains tempting. The major financial success of the period (dwarfing Bwana Devil), it encouraged film companies to rapidly convert existing productions into full or partial 3-D projects, with no real awareness or understanding of, for want of a better term, the 3-D aesthetic. As we are in the eye of this particular stereoscopic hurricane, it is too early to tell if Avatar is this generation’s House of Wax or The Jazz Singer (another problematic example, as synchronised sound took five to seven years to become dominant).

The conglomerate nature of the modern media industries, however, suggests that history is unlikely to repeat itself. In the 1950s, 3-D was designed to compete with other screen technologies: in 2010, computing, the Internet, home video and television are lined up to support corporate Hollywood. The Nintendo 3DS offers 3D without glasses; Internet sites are experimenting with anaglyph and sequential field videos; 3-D Blu-Ray releases are growing; while Sky’s 3-D television service promises to introduce 6 hours of unique 3-D content a week for British audiences. Initial uptake for the latter may be slow, but Sky has the ability to play the long game (the recent figures for HD uptake across Britain are evidence of that) - and the world premiere 3-D broadcast of Avatar for Christmas will help build that domestic audience.

So, rather than stick our heads in the sand, repeat the same tired 3-D arguments, and hope 3-D fails, should we instead hope for the success of 3-D? The technology contains the potential for something new and different, something aesthetically innovative: a true development in vision, rather than its current use in adding artificial depth to standard film narratives. The true test of 3-D is whether it can add something new, beyond the layers of imagery we are currently seeing (or not seeing, depending on your preference). The hope should be that 3-D is used to experiment: the 1950s produced a series of short British films that offer more original use of stereoscopic photography than most current 3-D films put together: yet they are rarely seen outside of the National Film & Television Archive. In rediscovering films like this, we can see new routes for 3-D composition and presentation, new possibilities that extend beyond Hollywood’s past, present or future applications.

Because, ultimately, the lesson learnt from the 1950s is that if 3-D fails, viewers rarely lose out. All 3-D films, television shows and computer games are transferable to 2-D viewing. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to see what 3-D can do, than sit back and wait for it to fall into this particular historical trap?

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