3D Movies Need to Stop


3D Movies have bugged me for a while, and I’ve been slowly building a list of ways in which they get on my nerves. Up until our latest movie experience, they were nothing earthshattering. But after watching my five year old attempt to enjoy The Lego Movie in 3D at a school fundraiser, I’m now totally sick of it. The problems start innocuously enough:

Film has historically been shown at 24 frames per second (FPS). For static frames and slow moving action, I’ve never had a real problem with this. Pan the camera, though, and scenery appears to flicker: The camera’s shutter speed, being much faster than the frame rate, captures images that don’t blur into each other. Rather, a distant mountain peak panning across the screen over 1 second appears as 24 individual, distinct mountain peaks. In 2D films I can usually put up with this, but do it in 3D, and to make sense of the image, my eyes are trying to correct parallax, only the flickering image has been replaced before it can be resolved.

There are solutions to this, of course. With digital cameras largely mainstream in the film industry, I’d expect the disconnect between framerate and camera shutter speed will be resolved technologically, perhaps through some form of digital collation and conversion to an appropriate FPS (ie, if the camera is capturing 1/1000sec frames due to lighting concerns, then it captures at 1000FPS. Every 41 frames are composited together to produce a 24FPS final frame).

But why do we need 3D at all? Well, it’s a competitive industry, so perhaps to differentiate one film over another. But scenes which look just wrong in 2D also leave me rolling my eyes in 3D. Sure, having a view down the length of a spear in Beowulf is great for anyone who didn’t already realise they were watching a 3D movie, but… if we needed to beat them over the head with it, why do it in 3D in the first place?

Which brings us to the storytelling part of the film experience, and frankly I cannot see where 3D enhances this at all. It’s an additional tool in the visual medium, sure. Just as colour film allows a wider palette and range of artistic expression, it follows that 3D should be an extra tool in the belt of art direction. But does it make the story any more poignant? Schindler’s List is almost entirely black & white, and the lack of colour doesn’t detract from the story. I’ve only watched Avatar and How To Train Your Dragon in 2D, and loved both the art and story. With all the gimmickry of 3D, isn’t there a chance, if we’ve paid extra to see a film in 3D, had to wear funky glasses, been yelled at by posters and ads that 3D! 3D! 3D!, then isn’t it possible we’re sitting in the theatre, concentrating on the 3D and holding our head straight more than the story?

Directed Focus
Picture yourself in the theatre watching The Sound Of Music, and Julie Andrews as Maria is dancing across the Alps, twirling around and singing her heart out. The screen is huge, and at any moment you can look at Maria, the green fields, the majesty of the Alps in the distance. Your eyes are free to wander around, and those mountains, blurred by distance, give a real sense of depth to the scene. And, not being the prime focus of the camera, your eyes are directed back to Maria.

Now repeat the exercise in 3D, but rather than at the cinema, imagine it in real life. You’re on a crane with a camera operator, who is filming a similar scene. You can look at Julie, or you can look up at the mountains in the distance. It’s 3D, right? Sure – but there’s something different to this experience and what our current theatres are delivering. And it is?

Yep. You can focus. On the mountain in the distance: It’s now sharp, and Julie/Maria is blurred. The full experience of seeing with binocular vision isn’t only that of forming a 3D image with parallax, it’s also one of selecting the subject of interest. In 2D films, heck, in cave paintings, the object of our attention is in focus, sharply realised. Both eyes are seeing the same image, and identifying the object of attention is easy. Try the same in ‘3D’ film though, and you first have to resolve the 3D image.

The Physiological Limitations of 3D
I’d only ever been slightly irritated by the above. Technology’s got to progress, I guess, and markets find new ways to be competitive, and it’s either a fad or something that will improve over time. Or so I thought, until we went to see The Lego Movie with our five year old. He suffers a Convergence Insufficiency condition, where when tired from close up work he will start rubbing his eyes and, with trouble getting both eyes to converge on the same point, he sees double.

Initially, the 3D film was fine, but as he got tired, he started to lean on us, and his head tilted. Tilt your head in a 3D film, and your eyes no longer have to converge left & right to resolve depth, one also has to move up and the other down. It’s not how our muscles are trained for binocular vision, and being unable to do it, it results in double vision. So the five year old, wearing 3D glasses and having a rest with his head 30 degrees off vertical, is seeing double. I look down a minute later and he’s watching the 3D movie with his glasses off.

Because if you’re seeing double anyway, who cares about the glasses.

I spent the rest of the film with him on my lap, holding his head straight.

I’ve tilted my head in a 3D film, felt uncomfortable, remedied the situation and thought little more of it. But it’s a real issue. Can you imagine curling up next to your main squeeze and watching a 3D film at home? Not going to happen, unless your eyeballs are more dextrous than most. Perhaps one day, 3D technology will get around this; it’s certainly not impossible to dream up a few ways it could happen.

But for now, 3D isn’t there. The technology is better than red/blue glasses, but in many ways only by a marginal increment. Perhaps the fad will end, or even better, perhaps one day a theatre with every screen showing 3D film will offer you the choice of 3D or 2D glasses. In the meantime, I’ll be seeing the 2D showing when I visit the cinema.

One way or another.