This film image released by Focus Features shows characters, from left, Grandma Babcock, voiced by Elaine Stritch, Sandra Babcock, voiced by Leslie Mann, Perry Babcock, voiced by Jeff Garlin, Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Courtney, voiced by Anna Kendrick, in the 3D stop-motion film, "ParaNorman." (AP Photo/Focus Features)

Focus Features/AP

“That movie would have been infinitely better if it had been shown in 3-D.” I cannot speak for the rest of the movie going population, but this is one sentence I will never utter walking out of a cineplex. That is not to say 3-D technology is completely expendable. With the right movie, 3-D can be effectively exploited and have an enriching impact on a cinematic experience. In a majority of cases though, 3-D merely acts as a shameful method for the studio to increase the ticket price. Some people buy into the assumption that 3-D makes a movie appear more realistic and integrates the audience into the action. When not properly executed, however, 3-D can have dark, dreary and distracting consequences on a film originally shot in 2-D. In that sense, 3-D not only robs the audience of an extra $3, but also takes them out of the motion picture.

From “The Avengers” to “Brave” to “The Amazing Spider-Man” several of 2012’s highest-grossing blockbusters have all come with optional 3-D screenings. The recent increase in these movies might lead people to believe that 3-D is a contemporary innovation. Actually, the development of 3-D technology began in the 1830s with the invention of the Stereoscope. Similar to a View-Master, this device utilized a red lens and a green lens to give an image a three-dimensional appearance. In 1897, C. Grivolas began to experiment with 3-D in motion pictures, utilizing two connected projectors with a red and blue lens. Then 1922 marked the release of “The Power of Love,” the first feature-length 3-D movie. While “The Power of Love” was not a financial success, it did not prevent 3-D pictures from growing in popularity over the years.

Reminiscent of the current 3-D craze, 3-D technology exploded in the 1950s with hits like “House of Wax,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and “It Came From Outer Space.” But why did the 1950s bring about such an immense wave of 3-D pictures? The fad can likely be linked to a little invention known as television. People used to spend entire days at the theater not just to see movies, but cartoons, newsreels, and serials as well. When black and white televisions hit the market though, consumers were granted a revolutionary entertainment outlet that provided free news and escapism. The fact that people could observe television from the comfort of their home was an added bonus.

To compete with television, movie studios needed a new approach to draw audiences back into the theaters. They achieved this by presenting more movies in color and by additionally promoting the gimmick of 3-D. Color and 3-D both played key roles in sparking an interest in film again. Where color eventually became a standard for movies though, 3-D failed to hold the audience’s attention in the long run. As the decades went by, fewer 3-D movies were released. By the 1990s, 3-D had become limited to IMAX features, amusement park attractions, and occasional mainstream wide releases.

Movies in 3-D were so scarce that going to see one would have felt like an event 10 years ago. In 2004, however, a film came along that commenced the renaissance of 3-D. Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” was IMAX’s first feature-length, animated 3-D feature. The film was considered a financial dud upon arrival, having to compete with “The Incredibles” at the box office. As the weeks went by, however, “The Polar Express” gradually found an audience and eventually became one of the 10 highest grossing films of 2004. “The Polar Express” remains one of the finest examples of how to efficiently promote 3-D, creating thrilling roller coaster-like sequences and the essence of real snow falling on one’s head. It is also notable that 3-D glasses started to take a substantial leap forward around this point in time. In the past, 3-D movies were typically viewed through flimsy cardboard spectacles and giant, head-mounted display devices. The 3-D eye wear now had the appearance of regular sunglasses that could be snuggly situated on one’s face, making the 3-D experience much more pleasant.

Since “The Polar Express” made 25 percent of its overall intake from 3-D screenings, other animation studios started to bring their movies to the third dimension. By 2009, 3-D had become the norm for digitally animated features. That same year though, a certain blockbuster proved that 3-D could benefit live-action movies as well. “Avatar” surprised many when it claimed “Titanic’s” spot as the highest-grossing movie of all time. One of the most heavily promoted aspects of the film was its use of 3-D effects. It was only logical for other movie studios to copy James Cameron’s success formula. Today, almost every big-budget release customarily comes with an optional 3-D screening.

The rise of 3-D movies in the ’50s and the early 21st century both share one trait in common. In the ’50s, 3-D acted as a strategy for the movies to compete with television. Nowadays, movies not only have to contend with television, but the Internet, too. Netflix, YouTube and several illegal movie sites have provided a new way for people to quickly and conveniently watch films. The resurrection of 3-D once again acts as a tactic to reel audiences back into the movies, offering them an added incentive that the Internet does not. The question is whether 3-D is worth the extra money and the trip down to the theater. In most cases, the answer is a big, fat no.

Where 3-D is supposed to make a movie appear more authentic and enhance the audience’s viewing experience, it actually removes 20 percent of the brightness from the screen. This loss is only marginally off-putting when a vibrantly colorful movie, like Pixar’s “Up,” is presented in 3-D. But in the case of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which was primarily shot at night, the lack of clarity becomes evidentially noticeable and annoying. Observing Captain Jack’s latest adventure in 3-D is the equivalent of wearing a pair of sunglasses on a moonlit night. As a result, the 3-D distracts and deducts from the story, which should be the most important factor of a movie. The 3-D effects can particularly look fake and cheap when a film initially shot in 2-D, like “Alice in Wonderland,” “Clash of the Titans,” or “The Last Airbender,” is converted to 3-D during post-production. In addition to making these movies look murkier than they already were, the rushed 3-D effects simply add nothing to the equation.

It is understandable why the idea of 3-D appeals to so many people, as it promises them a more lifelike, exciting cinematic outing. What most audiences and production studios do not seem to realize though, is that 3-D only has this effect on a select few movies. Unless a director specifically and thoughtfully fabricates a film with 3-D in mind, the presentation will only make a movie appear less convincing. The best-looking 3-D movies are the ones originally shot or rendered in the format. In the vein of “The Polar Express,” “Avatar” and “How to Train Your Train Your Dragon” marvelously immersed audiences in unique, enchanting worlds to explore and create aerial sequences that simulated actual flight. Perhaps the pinnacle of mesmerizing 3-D was Martin Scorsese’s magical “Hugo.” Every object, angle, color and shot in the film felt specifically tailored so the audience could be incorporated into the almost tangible 3-D environment. The picture ultimately added a new level of engagement to the experience, a quality every 3-D movie should possess.

A recent trend is re releasing classic movies in theaters with a 3-D twist. Although Disney thought its 2011 3-D re release of “The Lion King” would be profitable, they never imagined it would make just over $90 million domestic dollars. Since “The Lion King” struck gold, Disney has released 3-D versions of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Finding Nemo” with “Monsters Inc.” and “The Little Mermaid” scheduled for next year. It is encouraging that the 3-D trend is giving people a chance to revisit these beloved classics on the big screen, especially since the advances of DVD and Blu-ray have made nationwide theatrical re releases rare.

Should every movie be exhibited in 3-D? Many directors believe that 3-D will triumph over 2-D filmmaking one day, much like how color has made black and white feel outdated. Shooting movies in color, however, was a much more logical step forward in the progression of cinema. Black and white still has the capability to add substantial atmosphere and tone to a picture, such as in 2011’s Oscar-winning “The Artist.” Unlike color, there are only about a handful of movies where 3-D effects actually serve a purpose. That is one of the reasons why color continues to prevail while 3-D has undergone an uphill and downhill existence.

The notion of having every movie shown in 3-D is especially uncalled for. Would you honestly pay to see “The Kids Are All Right” or “Winter’s Bone,” two movies that take place in 21st century America, in 3-D? In terms of film, 3-D technology should primarily be limited to certain fantasy/science fiction extravaganzas and animated features. These genres already take the audience on journeys to fictional worlds people will never get to visit in reality. Suitably shooting these otherworldly films in 3-D can take the audience further into a fantastic universe, making the environment look as physical as possible.

With television, video games, and various gadgets now exploring the technology, it is doubtful 3-D will die out. While 3-D should not be abolished, it is becoming drastically overexposed. The more we see 3-D utilized in a pointless, lackluster fashion, the duller it becomes. That is ultimately why 3-D must be reserved for specific directors with specific cinematic visions as opposed to being an everyday occurrence at the movies.

Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, Reach him at

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