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Seth Shostak

Seth Shostak

Posted: September 18, 2010 12:33 PM

I'm willing to bet you this: within three years, 3-D movies will fall flat.

Sure, they're all the rage now. Not only are oodles of new films being shot in 3-D, there are multiple efforts to retrofit existing pictures in a frenzied effort to keep the distribution pipeline stuffed with stereo.

This latest wrinkle for adding a whole new dimension to your multiplex experience began big time, with honking hits such as Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and James Cameron's Avatar. Hollywood -- never reluctant to bet on imitation -- has given 3-D two thumbs up. The titans of Tinseltown have rushed for the technique quicker than greased weasels.

The television industry isn't far behind. Already busy muscling high-def TV into the world's living rooms, equipment manufacturers are ramping up the production of 3-D sets. Hand-held devices aren't far behind.

So what's not to like?

First off, allow me to point out that 3-D has been around the block more than a few times. And it's always, always run out of steam. The first efforts date back to the 1920s -- short films made using the anaglyph (red/green glasses) technique. Audiences, impressed at first, soon became less so.

There was a brief resurgence of anaglyph in the early 1940s, but the real action came in 1953, when the new Polaroid process finally permitted 3-D films in color. House of Wax, in its time about as noisy a new arrival as Avatar, spawned two years' worth of 3-D product.

At the time, Hollywood was locked in a brobdingnagian battle with an existential competitor: television. Instead of sauntering to the cinemas each weekend as had been their wont for a generation, Americans were increasingly content to watch living-room boob tubes. The film biz responded with wide-screen processes (Cinemascope, Todd A-O, Cinerama), stereo sound, and... 3-D. The first two eventually succeeded, albeit in modified form. 3-D, until now, didn't.

The answer to "why not?" is complex. To begin with, there are those troublesome glasses. While engineers keep promising a glasses-free process that's both pleasing and practical, no one expects success any time soon. For someone who already wears specs, donning a second set is an irksome irritant. And can you seriously picture a macho, sports bar crowd shouting at a televised football game while decked out in stereo goggles?

Then there are the optical problems. All 3-D schemes will reduce screen brightness or picture resolution (and sometimes both). Even the vaunted Polaroid process dimmed the light entering each eye by a factor of two. Not good.

In addition, at the edge of any screen there will be parts of the scene that lose depth because they are imaged by only one of the two camera lenses, a problem that's especially noticeable for small-screen displays.

Then there's this: If the director makes a cut from a long, establishing shot to a close-up, it's as if someone had suddenly jumped in front of you, and your eyes have to "toe in" to accommodate the closer view. In real life, that doesn't happen much (unless you're trying to queue in Europe). When it happens in the cinema, it can be tiring, so film makers have to slow down the rate at which they cut certain shots together.

In other words, even aside from the additional costs of shooting, editing, and projecting 3-D, there's an aesthetic cost -- one which I think is going to prove too steep to pay. Despite the impression you may have from watching too much TV, movies are not about reproducing reality. They're about telling stories.

So I'm betting that 3-D, which reliably returns to the popcorn palaces every few decades, will once again show itself to be an ephemeral novelty. I'll give you a thousand days to prove me wrong.