3D Filmmaking: Past, Present and Future


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“3D Filmmaking: Past, Present and Future” is a short analysis of 3D filmmaking; its history, benefits and limitations that is influenced by the thoughts of Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Ang Lee – some of the few directors who have achieved critical success with this technology. 

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, known for their prestigious Academy Awards, have recently acknowledged 3D filmmaking as an important art form with films like James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar, Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo and Ang Lee’s 2012 film Life of Pi. The three films have a combination of thirty-one Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and twelve wins. Ang Lee is the sole winner for Best Director and the first to helm that award for a 3D film (Hughes, 1). As does Avatar and Hugo, Lee’s Life of Pi shows the director’s enthusiasm towards the 3D art form and states that while he remains “attached to 2D filmmaking [he] is excited by the new language of cinema that 3D provides a filmmaker with” (Kemp, 2).

Lee refers to the art form as a new language, but the 3D process has been around for more than 100 years. The process is first associated with William Friese-Greene who patented it in the late 1890’s. It needed two films to be projected at once as the audiences watched it through a stereoscope; a viewing device that allowed the spectator to see slightly different angled images in the left and right eye to create a sense of dept (Otto, 1). This technology led to the first commercial 3D film release in 1922 with The Power of Love (Deverick and Fairall). Its presentation utilized anaglyph glasses; a device that was similar to the stereoscope but each lens had the opposite colors of red and cyan (Schedeen, 1). Since then, films have remained black and white until 1952 witnessed the first 3D color film Bwana Devil directed by Arch Oboler (Schedeen, 2). This sparked the golden age of 3D filmmaking in the 1950’s.

Years passed and audiences became tired of the anaglyph glasses, which led IMAX to develop a new rendition of 3D projection and polarized glasses in the 80’s and 90’s to eliminate eye fatigue (Schedeen, 4). They introduced an improved 3D technology to a mainstream audience and influenced filmmakers such as James Cameron to incorporate it in feature films. While Cameron was interested in the present technology, he further developed it to a sophisticated level.

Avatar influenced the new renaissance of 3D filmmaking with Cameron’s innovations in the technology. It is regarded as the most expensive film ever made because of its custom built cameras and 3D software, yet it developed cheaper and more versatile 3D technology for future filmmakers (Waxman, 1). Having used the technology for critically acclaimed material, Cameron, Scorsese and Lee are passionate about the benefits of 3D. Cameron expresses that 3D heightens our sensory experience in cinemas in relation to reality. He explains, “We have two eyes. We see the world in 3D. It’s the way we perceive reality. Why wouldn’t our entertainment be in 3D?” (Ho, 1). Scorsese says the extra dimension allows the audience to have a stronger connection to the story and wishes his past films like Raging Bull (1980) and Taxi Driver (1976) had been in 3D (Silva, 2). Finally, Lee argues that 3D offers realism and gives drama emotional volume (Mitchell, 1).

As always, technology will be opinionated with its limitations. On a film technique aspect, 3D requires to compensate on types of shots and editing. There are certain camera distances that will not translate well on screen because too much depth of field can cause eyestrain. Eyestrain can also be caused by too many cuts, therefore restricting 3D filmmakers to longer takes (Soriano, 2). Critics have also called 3D technology a gimmick. They believe that a more expensive movie ticket influences the making of 3D films and that they rely on spectacle rather than focusing on character and story. Of course, I’ve only mentioned great 3D films in this essay, but they are exceptions from the repertoire of poor 3D films such as Wrath of the Titans (Liebesman, 2010) that contribute to that argument.

Whilst the criticism, the supporters of 3D filmmaking are optimistic that it will develop even further, to the extent that no glasses will be needed to experience 3D (Schedeen, 5). As Cameron, Scorsese and Lee relate the 3D technology to the advent of color film in the industry, they are certain that a new era is coming. As the technology develops as it has been for the past 100 years, they predict every film will be made in 3D (Ho, 1). Brace yourselves. 


Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. 20th Century Fox. 2009. Film.

Bwana Devil. Dir. Arch Oboler. United Artists. 1952. Film.

Ho, Stephanie. “James Cameron Discusses 3D Movies, Sea Exploration at Beijing Film Festival.” VOA. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Hughes, Mark. “Oscar Night Is Another Affirmation For 3D Filmmaking.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 23 Feb. 2012. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Hugo. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Paramount Pictures. 2011. Film. 

Kemp, Stuart. “Ang Lee Tells Wannabe 3D Filmmakers: ‘Trust No One'” The Hollywood Reporter. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Life of Pi. Dir. Ang Lee. 20th Century Fox. 2012. Film.

Mitchell, Wendy. “Ang Lee: 3D Offers ‘so Much Realism'” ScreenDaily. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Otto, Jeff. “A Tour Through the History of 3-D Movies” Reelz: Hollywood Happens Here. N.P., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Raging Bull. Dir. Martin Scorsese. United Artists. 1980. Film.

Schedeen, Jesse. “The History of 3D Movie Tech.” IGN. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Silva, Christina. “Martin Scorsese & 3-D: Director Says All His Future Movies Will Use The Technology.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 25 Apr. 2012. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Soriano, Rianne Hill. “3D Movies: Hype Vs. Quality.” Yahoo Contributor Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Taxi Driver. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Columbia Pictures. 1976. Film.

The Power of Love. Dir. Nat G. Deverich and Harry K. Fairall. 1922. Film.

Waxman, Olivia B. “8 Celebrity Inventions That Are Actually Smart Comments”. TIME NewsFeed. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Wrath of the Titans. Dir. Jonathan Liebesman. Legendary Pictures. 2012. Film.



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