3D cinema was the big idea that never took off - but with digital technology and better specs, will it finally to leap out and grab us?

Audience watching 3-D movie with 3D glasses

Dodgy glasses: Are these the reason why 3D films never took off?

It's the stupid goggles, right? Surely they are the reason why 3D movies – which have been around for more than a century and enjoyed a golden age in the 1950s with Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder and then a resurgence in the 1980s with classics such as Jaws 3-D – have never really taken off.

The glasses look stupid, fall apart at a touch, slip off your nose all too readily and are not so much 3D as 0D.

And if you're a spectacles wearer, well, forget it – 3D movies are not for you.

But wait. What's that? James Cameron, the man behind the highest-grossing film of all time, Titanic, has his follow-up ready to go and it's called Avatar and it's a 3D spectacular?

It's true, and it's not just Cameron who's revving up to take movies to the next level.

This isn't some barmy whim from a super-rich movie mogul who can probably afford to blow £150m on a high-tech vanity project.

This year alone we've had 18 3D movies, including Bolt, My Bloody Valentine 3D, Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs, Monsters vs Aliens and Coraline. Of those, only the spectral and fabulous Coraline was actually any good.

Yet, even apart from Cameron, there are major players set to plunge into the 3D market.

The next instalments in the Toy Story and Shrek franchises will both be in 3D. That's a lot of very serious money being invested in what many people still claim is purely a periodic fad.

David Hancock, of film industry analysts Screen Digest, is one of the sceptics. 'Having things flying at you out of the screen is a gimmick and, as such, unsustainable,' he insists.

He's right, of course. There still needs to be a strong narrative otherwise no amount of technical tomfoolery will keep us interested. 


Taking movies to the next level: James Cameron's new film Avatar starring Sam Worthington will be a 3D spectacular

Coraline, almost certainly the best 3D movie ever made, should be an object lesson for 3D movie-makers.

The 3D element of this animated version of the Neil Gaiman graphic novel added a layer of mystery and enhanced the fairy-tale creepiness of the film.

It didn't deal in flashy gimmicks – it made the film much better and richer than it would have been in 2D. And that's the key. The fact that it has grossed about £70 million worldwide is a sure indicator of its appeal. 

So, why the sudden resurgence in 3D? It's partially down to the involvement of a box-office titan such as Cameron.

'Up until recently, it's been a chicken and egg scenario,' says Dennis Law, general and technical Manager at London's BFI IMAX cinema.

'No one wanted to release 3D films as there weren't enough screens with 3D capability and no one wanted to install the technology as there weren't enough good 3D movies to show in them.' 

Coraline: The film was a hit this year with its 3D element adding to its appeal

Coraline: The film was a hit this year with its 3D element adding to its appeal

Pete Buckingham, the head of distribution and exhibition at the UK Film Council says, 'The big game change is that we now have the technology to deliver a really good experience of 3D.

'It's a combination of digital projection and new forms of glasses that iron out previous problems for a much more natural experience.'

In the past year alone, the Film Council has been instrumental in funding the upgrade of some 240 screens nationwide.

3D screens are being installed apace (at a cost of about £80,000 each). There are some 3,600 cinema screens in the UK and about 320 are currently 3D (the US ratio is 2,500 out of 38,000). By the end of the first half of next year there are likely to be about 550.

And, crucially, new polarised glasses have replaced the old flimsy horrors that had a tendency to giver wearers a headache. They even fit over most spectacles.

Furthermore, there's an even more powerful reason why the industry is taking 3D seriously again – and that's money.

3D movies take about three to five times more at the box office than their 2D counterparts – the 3D version of Monsters vs Aliens earned more than the 2D version despite playing fewer venues.

Monsters vs Aliens: The 3D version of the film made more money than the 2D one

Monsters vs Aliens: The 3D version of the film made more money than the 2D one

Some observers believe that this can only be a good thing for the major studios as the 3D medium inevitably lends itself to the big blockbusters.

Indeed, Jeff Katzenberg, head of Dreamworks, has announced that all Dreamworks animation is now going to be made for 3D.

Where does this leave smaller and British studios? Surely, they can't afford to become involved in 3D. Not so. The UK Film Council has put its money where its mouth is and funded its first 3D movie, Vertigo Films' Street Dance, starring Britain's Got Talent winners Diversity – due to be released in early 2010.

There are real signs that the 3D revolution, aided by Cameron's adventurousness and the development of digital technology, could prove to be unstoppable.

Certainly, Pete Buckingham thinks so. 'Unless there are artistic considerations at play, I can't see a real reason why the standard for moving images will not now be set at 3D,' he says.

'You can experience film as you actually see the world. Think about going from black and white to colour or even from mono to stereo – you're not going to turn round and say to me that you get better sound with just one speaker.'


Up (Disney, 9 October)

In this charming animation, 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) sets out to see the wilds of South America by tying thousands of balloons to his home and flying off.

A Christmas Carol (Disney, 6 November)

Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman star in this update of the Charles Dickens classic.

Avatar (Fox, 18 December)

Sam Worthington plays a former marine who is transformed into a strange being. He's sent to the planet Pandora, where he finds himself torn between his masters and his new love.

  • Additional research by Stephanie Hirschmiller

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