Will the 3-D Revival Go the Way of Pixar's Up?

Slate's Culture Blog
June 2 2009 12:51 PM

Will the 3-D Revival Go the Way of Pixar's Up?

The 3-D revival appears to be a success. With $68 million in receipts over its first weekend, Pixar's Up may become the highest-grossing 3-D film of all time. Only 11 3-D movies have ever pulled in more than $50 million over their entire runs-and five of them have come out since last fall.

The 3-D boom interests me for two reasons: First, because I've been a fan of the medium since I was a little kid ; and second, because of a prediction I made in April that may soon turn out to be deeply embarrassing. In an article entitled " The Problem With 3-D: It hurts your eyes. Always has, always will ," I declared that the 3-D bubble would soon burst because problems with stereo cinema technology had not been fixed. "Eventually, inevitably, perhaps unconsciously," I wrote, the eye strain 3-D movies cause will "creep off the screen and into our minds."

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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It may be time to start hedging my bets. I still think the future is dim for live-action 3-D movies, and I don't believe Jeffrey Katzenberg's claim that everything will soon be produced in stereo. But I now believe the revival could find lasting success ... in children's movies. Here are three possible reasons why:

1. Kids are too young to remember Jaws 3-D .
One of the problems facing the marketers of 3-D cinema is the medium's sketchy past. The last wave of 3-D films in the early 1980s comprised a run of dreadful horror and sci-fi flicks, from Friday the 13 th , Part III to Metalstorm . Hollywood has been aggressive in targeting youngsters this go-round, perhaps because kids are an audience that hasn't been tainted by 3-D's unsavory past. At least seven more animated 3-D children's movies are scheduled for release this year.

2. The 3-D effects are better in animated films.
It takes a lot figuring to get the cinematography right in a live-action 3-D film. For one thing, you have to decide how far apart to place the two cameras during shooting. (In general, the further apart they are, the more intense the illusion of depth, and the more eyestrain for viewers.) But the makers of an animated film have full control of the frame, since every pixel is generated by a computer. It may be easier to correct for imperfections in the stereo effect in computer-generated imagery—and that would in turn lead to a cleaner, more comfortable experience for viewers.

3. Kids may be less susceptible to eyestrain.
No one knows exactly why 3-D movies cause headaches, fatigue, and nausea, but the most intuitive theory has to do with what's called the convergence-accommodation disparity. In short: In order to see the 3-D special effect, you have to point your eyes at the screen while you focus them at a depth somewhere in front of the screen.

If that unnatural state of affairs does cause eyestrain, it may be that adults are more susceptible than children. The ability to change the focus of your eyes gradually deteriorates over the course of your life. It's altogether possible that these

would affect how we experience convergence-accommodation disparity. Kids might find 3-D easier on the eyes. (They might also be less put off by donning a pair of novelty glasses every time they go to the movies.)