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Why 3D film is not the next “Talkie”

November 17, 2011

Let me preface – this is not to say that 3D films are not the next generation of film. They might be. I’m skeptical, but they might be.

But 3D is not the next wave the way sound films were the next wave after silent films. How do I know? Because “The Jazz Singer” was released in 1927, and by 1930 90% of the films released were “Talkies.” That meant that as the Great Depression was beginning, theatres were investing in audio equipment – that’s how important sound was to the movies. Sound is such an integral part of film, it’s really hard to imagine anyone releasing an actually silent film. And 3 years into sound, it was hard to imagine as well.

Let’s talk about 3D. The first major 3D films were in 50’s of course, with resurgences every 30 years. 50’s, 80’s, and now, but let’s pretend those earlier times didn’t really happen, because the tech was different. I can’t see old color based 3D systems very well (I assume being color blind has something to do with it), and even without my issues, they were not fantastic.  The new systems are obviously better in many ways. And I’m going to ignore the glasses and pretend like everyone loves going to the movies and putting stuff on their face.

But Avatar was released in Dec 2009. Bolt (an early popular 3D film) was in 2008 and the real first films in this wave were released in 2006-2007. This is November 2011. Again, sound was so critical to the enjoyment of film that in three years, almost all films were sound films, and all theatres were converted. 3D is an interesting new way to experience films. It is obviously not a necessary component, because audiences are not flocking to it. They did at first, and they did when the film was good and used 3D intelligently (like Avatar – please keep your opinions about whether it was good or not to yourself…), but just the 3D itself is not a draw.

So what’s happening? Obviously part of the problem, like in the 50’s and 80’s, is bad product. Bad films in 3D, and bad conversions to 3D are not helping the form. I don’t know if they’ll be the death knell – I doubt it. There will be more good 3D films, and people will go see those, and that’ll lead to more 3D films. Hopefully more good ones, though that’s hard to bank on.

A lot of people have to change their opinions about a lot of things for 3D to really take over the form. Obviously, audiences don’t see 3D as being worth the extra money unless there’s something really special in the film that makes it “3D worthy” (which really means worth an extra $4).

But I’m also curious how people feel about eye fatigue. When you watch a regular film, it’s set on one plane, and your eye relaxes into a single focus. When you watch a 3D film, you’re focusing all over the place and that’s tiring. While yes, it’s what my eye does all day long, I don’t know that that’s a real argument. With scripts, I don’t want stories about what I do all day long, either. I suspect there’s an unknown quality that is the eye rest I get from focusing on a screen for an entire movie.

As filmmakers get better with the form, and editors understand where they eye is focused, the rough transitions in eye focusing will get smoother, but it’s still a different experience, and again, I suspect there’s something tiring about it that doesn’t occur during a normal film.

But really, here’s what 3D is all about: money. Shocking, I know. But not in just the way you’re probably thinking. Theatres feel justified to charge more for 3D films, and that makes a little more money at the box office, but that’s not the real reason for the charge.

The real reason for 3D is because 3D projectors are digital. It costs studios ENORMOUS amounts of money to show movies on 35mm film prints. First, there’s the duplication costs, which have risen exponentially over that last 20 years. In olden days, a film would get released in a number of big theatres, then gradually roll out of those theatres into smaller ones. Or, if demand continued, more prints would get made to supply that need, but only after you saw that the film was successful. But now, films depend on being in as many theatres as possible opening weekend. That thousands of prints, one for every theatre screening the film, and that’s expensive, both to make and to ship.

With digital, there’s no need to make a print, and if theatres are equipped to download the film, not even any shipping costs. Even if you are shipping a hard drive, that’s still nothing compared to heavy film rolls. That’s a LOT of money saved, for EVERY SINGLE FILM released, every weekend. The savings just keep coming. But if theatres weren’t going digital (which a lot of them hadn’t, yet) then studios couldn’t save that money. Something had to force the theatres to get digital projection, and 3D was the cause. Studios might have believed the hype of 3D, but they still oversold it because they wanted theatres to be get digital delivery and save the massive costs of distribution.

Again, 3D films may stick around, I’m curious to see. But they are not the evolutionary step that audio was. Sound was an integral part of the experience and once audiences saw it (even in The Jazz Singer, which was only partially with sound), they HAD to have it in every film. Hell, many of the first motion film cameras were designed to include sound, they just couldn’t make the tech work, so they released just the picture side of it.

3D may end up being color, which was a nice addition to film, but took 20 years to really take over the industry. The earliest color releases were in 1934, and it wasn’t until the 50’s that they really took hold. Many, many people HATED color when it first began (it’s show-y and vulgar, it distracts from the story, the eye gets tired from so much information, black and white is fine for most people, etc – any of that sound familiar?), but eventually, people came around. 3D may just be something that we have to get used to – both audiences and filmmakers, in how to use it and how to watch it.

Of course, getting rid of the stupid glasses would help…

 

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