3D films are currently the hottest things in cinema. From the comic book shenanigans of The Green Hornet and Thor to the gob-smacking prehistoric nature lesson, Flying Monsters 3D, 2011’s release schedule has been full of them, and there’s plenty more to come. But with us audiences - and consequently movie studios - being a fickle bunch, is the 3D format here to stay? Or is it just another fad?
Ever since cinema’s birth, moviemakers have gone all out to lure us to the big screen. Capitalizing on our constant hunger for something new, they’ve created and exploited a plethora of film trends. Some of these enticements have cashed in on technological advancements; such as the lush Technicolor visuals that amplified Marilyn Monroe’s sizzle in Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953), or the split-screen craze of the ‘60s, as seen in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Other cinema bait has been pure headline-grabbing hype, as epitomised by “King of Gimmicks” William Castle’s sensational stunts. These included issuing insurance policies covering “death by fright” for his 1958 chiller, Macabre, and putting vibrating devices under cinema seats to give viewers of horror-thriller The Tingler (1959) an additional shock!
Yet, of all these crowd-pulling techniques, 3D has been the most enduringly popular. In fact, since the first time a paying audience saw the first proper 3D feature in 1922, the format has continually come in and out of fashion – even the Nazis shot some of their 1930s propaganda films in 3D.
However, the so-called “Golden Era” was the early 1950s, when 3D was used to counteract the spread of TV. During the era’s short-lived boom, movies including groundbreaking, horror classic House of Wax (1953) had audiences flocking, encouraging such important directors as Alfred Hitchcock to try the format. Sadly, by the time he’d finished his resulting suspense flick, 1954’s Dial M For Murder, the public was already bored of 3D. Consequently, most fans had to wait until the fad returned fully in the 1980s before they could enjoy the film the way Hitchcock had intended.
This time it was the rise of home video that prompted a major revival. But with the production and screening of 3D movies so expensive, ‘80s releases were predominantly ‘50s reissues or in niche genres, particularly horror. The linking of 3D to often rubbish films (hello, 1983’s Jaws 3-D!) was a serious blow to the trend, and it was only really the growth of specialist IMAX cinemas that kept 3D features trickling out.
Happily though, today’s biggest movie studios have grown wiser: re-thinking their approach to the format, thanks to astonishingly immersive, 3D money-spinners, such as Pixar’s Up (2009), and, above all, 2009’s Avatar (the highest grossing movie ever), most recently traditionally ‘arthouse’ directors like Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog have also started using 3D in their documentaries Pina 3D and The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
What these films demonstrate is that, unlike in the past, high-quality 3D has developed into an atmosphere-creating tool to tell stories better and make events more believable – something that has the potential to enhance any theme or genre, not just visually-led projects. It’s these exciting possibilities, along with the amount of money that’s being invested and made, that suggests 3D has transcended fad status to become an essential part of modern cinema.
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