3D: cinematic revolution or just a trick of the light?

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The studios say it dramatically enhances our viewing experience. But sceptics claim it is merely a ploy to make us pay more at the box office. Jonathan Brown and Kevin Rawlinson investigate

It billed itself as "The Miracle of the Age!!!" and promised viewers a "lion in your lap" and a "lover in your arms". But the miracle that the makers of Bwana Devil, the first full-length 3D feature film, were really praying for in 1952 was a way of battling the advance of television that had had arrived in the American living-room and devastated cinema audiences in the years immediately after the Second World War.

Director Arch Obler's gruesome tale of man-eating lions gorging their way through the native workforce who were building the Ugandan railway spawned a "golden age" in 3D technology, although the critics panned it and the people, who cared little for donning the outlandish glasses necessary to enjoy the special effects, eventually abandoned it.

There followed gems, usually horror flicks, such as the House of Wax, starring Vincent Price, It Came From Outer Space and the immortal Creature From the Black Lagoon. Even Alfred Hitchcock experimented with the format, shooting Dial M for Murder in stereoscopic form, though the film was only ever shown in its "flat" mode.

Although 3D proved little more than a short-lived fad, it was to re-emerge horror-movie-like from the swamps of the 1980s with a glut of multi-dimensional follow-ups such as Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D and Friday the 13th Part III. Again it was not a success and the technology was quietly abandoned from mainstream film making for the best part of two decades.

So this time round, have the studios and distributors got their multibillion-dollar gamble right? Certainly, the public has been keen to try the new format. Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland has spent another week astride the US box office, where it is credited with leading a 10 per cent rise in audiences nationwide. It has topped the charts in the UK and taken $300m outside the US. And James Cameron's Avatar is still in the top 10 after 14 weeks on general release. Its takings are in excess of $2.5bn worldwide.

Up to 30 major 3D films are due for release this year. Remakes of some of the biggest titles are in the pipeline over the next five years, including Titanic and Star Wars. Even the small screen is getting in on the act: the first 3D TVs from electronics giant Samsung go on sale in the UK within days, having already been launched in the US. Panasonic and Sony are to follow by the summer. 3D sport is being pushed. It is estimated that by 2011 one in 10 sets sold will be 3D-ready. DreamWorks' chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg has already called the development "as important as the introduction of sound or colour".

But are viewers suitably blown away, or is it a lot of bluster? The novelty has worn off quickly for many, with complaints about the "annoying glasses", "dim colours" and "over-priced tickets".

Sadia Akhtar, a 26-year-old radio presenter from Bristol, who was among a crowd streaming out of a 3D cinema in London's West End, said: "I was eager to see Alice in Wonderland. But I will be sticking to D. It hurt my head to watch the film and because I already wear glasses, I had to wear the specs on top, which was very uncomfortable and made me feel like an idiot."

One of the problems which dogged the development of 3D last century, apart from the lousy movies, was that audiences often came away from films tired and suffering eye-strain. The Eyecare Trust says that 12 per cent of people have a visual impairment that means their brains are unable to correctly process the individual images which are transmitted via their left and right eyes. This leads to an inconsistency in viewing the three spatial dimensions (height, width and depth) required to enjoy 3D films in all their glory, causing visual discomfort or headaches.

Malcolm Stevens, 25, a software support engineer said: "I find the colours to be darker and the glasses annoying, especially as they only come in one size." Others complained about how small the lenses were.

At the inaugural screening of a football match in 3D, the novelty proved popular, but there was a feeling that 3D would not catch on until viewers could watch without the inconvenience of wearing the glasses. "I felt I was in the stands, watching the match drunk," was one gripe. Ironically, among the 12 per cent of people who suffer from so-called stereo-blindness is Johnny Depp, who plays the Mad Hatter in Alice. He told the magazine Entertainment Weekly: "I've got a weird thing where I don't see properly out of my left eye, so I truly can't see 3D."

Michael Brooke, the curator of the British Film Institute's national archive, said that the big 3D boom in the 1950s was all because "cinemas had been really clobbered by TV and they desperately wanted a way of pulling audiences back".

He added: "The films – although a handful are still remembered with some affection, it is true – were really bad. They tried again in the 1980s when the threat was from video but if anything the films were even worse. Now the problem is digital downloads and sites such as YouTube. People are being put off the cinema because there are cheaper alternatives. At the moment 3D is impossible to pirate and that makes it extremely attractive to the studios."

Copyright theft and the recession have reduced DVD sales in Britain by about 10 per cent and in the US by 13 per cent. Hollywood's dilemma is that DVD sales make up half a title's long-term revenue – and more than twice as much as from ticket sales. It was a unique selling point acknowledged by Avatar director Cameron who observed: "You can pirate a 3D movie but you can't pirate it in 3D, so you can't bottle that 3D experience."

But Ian Freer, assistant editor of Empire magazine, insists that audiences yet to don the big black specs are in for a treat. "The 3D technology used in movies such as Avatar is about as far removed from the 1950s 3D as gramophones are to iPods. And what's more important than the technology is the application of technology.

"A filmmaker like James Cameron on Avatar really knows how to use 3D as a storytelling device. He isn't just throwing stuff at the screen like a 1950s sci-fi flick or an 1980s horror flick. He is using 3D in a sophisticated way that creates a real depth to his images that make Avatar such an immersive experience."

The result could be a winner for the entire industry, Mr Freer said. "For audiences, it will create another level of experience and excitement. For filmmakers, it is another colour in their palette with which to tell their story. For studios, it will give them an opportunity to charge premium prices for screenings as well as 're-purpose' their back catalogue."

The films that are made will be driven by what people are prepared to pay for. But that does not mean audiences should not anticipate some turkeys. Even Tim Burton, enjoying his biggest success to date largely thanks to the format, said he fears it will not all be good. "We're surely going to see a lot of bad 3D films in the near future, because Hollywood cannibalises every recipe for success. That's how the industry works ... It's a great thing when you use it as a technical tool and not as a wonder weapon."

The director yesterday ruled out reports that he was to resurrect the Addams Family in 3D.

Those streaming out of cinemas at the weekend were yet to be completely convinced that a revolution in viewing habits was in store. Office manager Jo Edwards, 41, from Liverpool, complained about the cost and said: "It's more of a gimmick and the cinemas must love it. I will be glad when the whole 3D thing is over, really."

Additional reporting by Kunal Dutta and Sofia Mitra-Thakur

They came your way: Highs and lows of 3D

*The Power of Love (1922)

First commercially produced 3D film premiered at the Ambassador Hotel Theater in Los Angeles. Went on to be shown in New York but was later lost.

*Bwana Devil (1952)

First full-length 3D film told the tale of big-game hunters sent to dispatch a bunch of Tsavo man-eating lions. One critic said: "My hangover from it was so painful I immediately went to see a two-dimensional movie for relief".

*Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

A terrifying Gill-man from the past is working his way through scientists investigating a mysterious swamp. Spawned two sequels and a musical. Now considered a classic of its kind.

*Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)

Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey tried and failed to revive the format outside the arthouse fraternity, despite plenty of sex scenes and disembowelments.

*Jaws 3 (1983)

The sequel to the sequel of the Steven Spielberg classic failed to kill off the Jaws franchise after it was number one in the US box office in its opening weekend. The critics hated it.

*Wings of Courage (1995)

Jean-Jacques Annaud produced the first dramatic picture shot in both Imax and 3D. It told the story of early airmail pilot Henri Guillaumet, who survived an aircraft crash in the Andes and trekked back to civilisation.

*Avatar (2009)

James Cameron's multi-Oscar-winning science fiction epic cost a fortune to make but went on to beat the director's own record – surpassing Titanic as the highest-grossing film in the US. A sequel is already planned.

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