3-D, 3-D, 3-D, in All Directions


Is this camera rig the future of American filmmaking?

State of the art digital 3-D rig.

If you agree with the predictions of some of our most successful studio executives, producers, and directors—the answer is an unequivocal YES. And it is an affirmation that resonates through the multiplexes and into the offices of movie exhibitors who are newly flush with wondrous grosses from the hugely successful 3-D movies bursting off their screens and into their coffers. Movie writers and pundits crank out articles after TV news clips, brimming with glosses on the imminent demise of flat screen movies and the elevation of deep screen space into some kind of digital cinematic empyrean. If it’s in 3-D it’s gonna be a cash cow. Damn the ticket price increase (those plastic glasses must be way more expensive than those old paper ones— nice try, guys). The number of admissions may be down, but the per-screen average is in high orbit compared with those of the earthbound 2-D screens. This is not solely an American phenomenon. Several weeks ago, I listened to a Brazilian exhibitor in Sao Paolo wax on about how much more lucre he was raking in at the multiplexes he owned, at least the ones where he had installed 3-D screens. His only problem was the difficulty he was having with the too long lead time in receiving 3-D hardware from foreign manufacturers, the shipping and customs delays essentially robbing him of greater profits.

Or does this next photo also represent the future of American filmmaking?

Panasonic Prosumer 3-D camera.

Is the smaller prosumer type of HD 3-D camera, one without the bells and whistles of interaxial adjustment, a viable alternative for indie production? Will its lower resolution hold up on large theater screens? Is the limiting factor of fixed lens interaxes a mere grace note that is relegated to secondary relevance in this putative all 3-D future?

Or is the ever-growing “democratization” of filmmaking ready for a 3-D rig like this one, a homemade setup that fits easily in size and price into anybody’s backpack.

Ad hoc bargain basement 3-D rig.

Not a sanctioned Kodak display; try this only at home.

Kodak may not include the mounting bolts and wing nuts (or even wish for this set-up to feature their brand name), but the challenge of synching such amateur level cameras is catnip, most likely a no-brainer—at least if you want to believe the confident would-be savants in this “4 Minute Film School” tutorial:

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And here’s an inane YouTube anaglyph home video that’s already had over two million hits:

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In the July 2010 issue of Popular Mechanics (page 115) DIY Tech writer Anthony Verducci presents a print version of how to color correct (subtractive) the dual uploaded files in your computer, then sync and merge them for anaglyph viewing. He concludes by writing “this fall a Roxio-branded 3-D software suite from Sonic Solutions will completely automate the 3-D editing process.”

In the midst of all this tech hoopla which seems to be gaining currency at high end as well as amateur levels, I have found the voice of the professional cinematographer to be curiously muted, even pensive. Admittedly, we are not a group who clamors for attention inside the media buzz whenever a new technology emerges, especially a re-cycled one like 3-D. We are more inclined to step up to new technology and the equipment that implements it— and just figure out in a hands-on encounter, what it is exactly that we are facing. We have learned through hard experience that the imperatives of the box office and manufacturers do not necessarily mesh with our creative aspirations.

But the forces of the next new thing march onward, even if the direction of the march is still indeterminate. As if to fill a need not yet clearly defined, users’ guides to 3-D filmmaking are readily available, an easy reference in case you are an over twenty-five, tech stumblebum or, like me, lost without a roadmap into this virtual New World.

This may be effective entry level but is "3-D for Dummies" next?

Of course, all this amateur and entry level interest in do-it-yourself 3-D may seem to be only the very low-hanging fruit on the stereoscopic tree, but it is symptomatic of pop culture’s obsession with the NEW. And with the release of 3-D gaming and the push to market 3-D TVs flooding the sports channels airwaves, it is anybody’s guess where it will all wash up on shore.


I have the (mis?) fortune to remember the rise and fall of the great euphoric wave of 3-D filmmaking in the early 50s. Frankly, projection problems aside (issues of screen brightness, as well as dual projector syncing and alignment) I wondered even then why all of the films had such a strange rendering of spatial depth. Either spears and arrows were flying out at me at too predictable intervals, or the actors seemed otherwise so recessed inside the screen plane (positive parallax) that watching these movies was like looking into a dollhouse that could at any moment blow up in my face. All the actors looked small and toy-like compared to their flat, astigmatic, but heroic, sized selves whenever I removed my glasses. Why this lingering impression is so, became clear to me during the course of a recent 3-day 3-D workshop sponsored by IATSE Local 600 and longtime master 3-D guru Buzz Hays at Sony Studios Stage 7 in Culver City. Beyond the hands-on setting up and shooting of scenes using varied lighting and set dressing situations, there was an in-depth examination of key feature films of the 50s and 60s. (Despite considerable interest by the assembled students in the fleshy delights of the soft-porn 3-D feature from 1969, The Stewardesses, this “classic” feature was not included.) An NPR story by Neda Ulaby on June 29 profiles this  3-D “boot camp.” The professionals attending give a full spectrum of reactions. In addition to the text story you can hear a more complete audio version at:

www.npr.org audio link

Stereoscopic movies of the Fifties were photographed with 35mm film cameras, most of which had wide lens interaxes, (“interaxial” being the term referring to the lateral distance between the two camera lenses, as opposed to “interocular,” which refers to the distance between the human eyes). Because of the sheer size of the cameras it was difficult to place the side-by-side camera lenses close to each other. (Yes, 3-D historians, I know that not all systems were side-by-side). Even if the cameras could approximate human interocular distance (about two and a half inches) such a fixed distance would not necessarily create a pleasing effect for every distance, lens focal length, or image size. What became clear to us in the workshop is how necessary it may be to alter interaxial distance, even during the shooting of the shot. This turns out to be a highly personal choice, some of us preferring a wide interaxial distance, even at the expense of having (to me at least) an exaggerated sense of depth, often resulting in distorted features in the portraiture; others opted for a greatly reduced interaxial distance of less than one inch, creating a more subtle blend of foreground to background. It is partly the interaxial distance that determines depth and it is this greater distance between the two lenses that made the characters in these older films appear to be diminutive, doll-like.

Ah, if only it were that simple. The viewer’s distance from the screen, effectively the image size in relation to field of view, as well as the degree that the viewer is centered to the screen, present personal, but very real variables in judging the effect of 3-D, not to mention the more subjective element of one’s emotional investment in the scene. And we haven’t even begun to discuss the effects of focus (accommodation), depth of field, convergence, parallax, and divergence—and, of course, lighting, as crucial elements to consider and critique.

One thing quickly became apparent to me. Working in stereo movies in a responsible way is not simply a point and shoot affair, even in the most simple of conditions. Oh sure, you can do that—but that kind of off-the-cuff approach is what partly undid 3-D moviemaking in the past. Such a slipshod effort is one of the principal sources of viewer eyestrain. There is a dictate that became a mantra doled out by the workshop instructors and taken to heart by we eager students—3-D in movies is NOT REAL. Like an Escher drawing, it is an illusion. Our actual eyes simply don’t function the way 3-D movie imagery does. In constructing the 3-D movie frame we professional cinematographers have to evaluate carefully all the visual elements contained within the shot, as well as their cumulative effect as the sequence develops, shot by shot. One of the gravest mistakes we can make is to create exaggerated depth cues. This makes for an unreal sense of space that conflicts with the ability to integrate more dominant monocular cues. The result is a confusing sense of scale. Here is a photo that is an example of this exaggerated use of 3-D, so tempting for the neophyte and the trickster when employed in a simple single frame still photo, yet so assertive if it were in motion that it could well disrupt the equilibrium of an entire scene. (Get out your dusty anaglyph paper glasses from commercials during last year’s Super Bowl game)

Watch out, she means business.


First off, human interocular distance is constant, but the most pleasing 3-D movie images are not necessarily the product of maintaining this constant lens interaxis. This simple fact gets to the root of what a conceit the whole idea of a 3-D movie is. Many call 3-D, not disparagingly, “a trick,” a trick that contains a lot of inherent pitfalls. The point of image convergence can be variable, chosen separately from the shot’s interaxial distance. The lens focus may or may not be locked into this convergence point. The single greatest concern about  parallax (the displacement between the left and right image) is that it is for many viewers it is the single most disturbing and fatiguing element when the eyes try to resolve or fuse the image. Our human eyes, unlike the movie frame, shift convergence points effortlessly and instantly, parallax playing a negligible role as the brain works as a kind of psychic filter.

I can easily imagine that those of you who are not working cinematographers but who read these weekly essays because of your interest in all the arts, know even less about the workings of 3-D movies than I did even a few weeks ago. I admit I am no wiz in the technical intricacies of 3-D filmmaking, but I have begun to understand some of the challenges inherent in the format and why its effective use has often been so problematic in the past. This old memory may be why not all older filmgoers (myself included) are jumping onto the 3-D hype wagon. It seems to me, that given the technical and aesthetic pitfalls surrounding 3-D cinema, it is important to develop a methodology, a working schema, to not have the “trick” of 3-D subvert the dramatic narrative.

There is also the issue of a limiting factor called “edge violation.” This happens when a shot element that is in negative parallax (out in front of the screen plane) intersects or overlaps the screen edge, especially the sides; it becomes impossible for the viewer’s left and right eyes to achieve fusion, as one of the images is incomplete. The corrupted image appears to either stutter in place or retract inside the screen. This is one reason why a classic bit of 2-D film grammar, the over the shoulder shot, is trickier to execute in 3-D and why many instructors and stereographers try to avoid it. Edge violation is enough of a taboo that I could clearly discern arbitrary editorial cut points in some of the older 3-D films that we watched in the workshop, cuts that were determined not by scene pacing, but by the avoidance of edge violation.

A clever device called “floating windows” is meant to alleviate this problem. The Walt Disney Studio has posted an online tutorial to aid projectionists in setting the side mattes of their screens. Here is the brief explanatory video, done as a tongue-in-cheek parody of a 50s educational film:

digitalcinema.disney.com link

I have two observations: first, just in case there are not already enough challenges in dealing with 2-D, d-cinema projection, especially in venues not easily accessible for maintenance troubleshooters, there are now suggested daily set-up guidelines for the already harried projectionists, who may also be doubling as snack bar servers; and second, having been a working projectionist myself during film school days, I have the utmost respect for this beleaguered profession whose job description has become geometrically more demanding in a digital age—with little compensatory wage boost to reflect it. So does that make the projectionists the de facto gatekeepers of 3-D as well?


I have been told by very smart people with much more experience and aptitude in 3-D filmmaking than I will ever achieve, that I will have to work differently as a 3-D cinematographer—that there is not an across the board integration of 2-D planar filmmaking grammar and style into 3-D. I understand this—in principle. When primitive sound movies rapidly displaced visually sophisticated silent ones in the late 20s, adjustments had to be made. It took smart directors and cinematographers a while to adapt to and adopt the new reality. But they did so amazingly quickly. I recently saw the John Ford/ Ray June film Arrowsmith from the Sinclair Lewis novel. It was made in 1931. It is a subtle and well-rendered film in its use of sound and dialogue, without compromising the camera style and lighting. The deep focus lensing and chiaroscuro light even anticipate Welles and Toland’s Citizen Kane, made a full decade later.

This evolution from silent to sound cinema did not really displace thirty years of filmmaking technique. Nor should the adoption of 3-D technology require setting aside a century of filmmaking style, of a grammar and methodology that has evolved into a powerful narrative and emotional art form. Perhaps this seems an obvious proposition to you. But I have to admit that some astute 3-D proponents have told me straight out that I WILL have to work differently and create images in a new mold.

It’s no secret that the anamorphic format is my format of choice for photographing feature films, as I recently discussed at a CineGear panel with fellow ASC cinematographers Rodney Taylor, James Chressanthis and Daniel Pearl. It has been suggested that in the 3-D world, a much reduced selection of lenses (and wider ones at that) is advisable — that the longer focal length lenses I often prefer, and the shallow depth of field I choose for dramatic purposes, are elements that do not strongly support the guidelines for effective 3-D cinema. I understand the optical mechanics of this— but I refuse to accept it as a preset aesthetic mandate. To do so would be for me to march backwards into the future—that is if we want to assume that the inevitable future is, in fact, 3-D as the dominant, if not sole, distribution platform for theatrical films. Excuse me for the moment if I demur. I am as excited by a new technology as the proverbial next guy (well maybe not so, if the next guy happens to be James Cameron, who is so far ahead of all of us that mere filmmaking seems inadequate for his visionary look into the future).

I have never wanted to define my own career in terms of any singular movie technique or any emerging new tool, and I certainly don’t concede that 3-D is anything more than an optional tool. Marshall McLuhan’s axiom that “the medium is the message,” (a rampant oversimplification, I know) does not readily apply, it seems to me, to the medium of filmmaking. It’s difficult to believe that traditional filmmaking is going to become a time capsule relic much as silent films became, damned by that peculiarly American obsession with whatever technique or gimmick du jour is “new.” The label “new” too often implies that the merely “not so new” is now “obsolete.” (It is only with the magnificent digital restorations of silent classics such as Kino International’s of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis that we see what a sophisticated medium silent film often was. Watch the trailer.)

kino.com—Metropolis link

“Metropolis”: Maria the Robot and Rotwang, her mad inventor.


Cinema is indeed a highly complex and technical art form; it is easy to lose focus that we are the artists who drive this seductive technology, rather than its minions. I still revere an encounter I witnessed between an old-time Universal Studio gaffer and a young electrician on a TV show where I was myself an inexperienced camera operator. The lamp operator was struggling with a (for him) new kind of set lamp cabling. “Listen, kid,” the gaffer yelled up to the green-bed, “You gotta be smarter than the equipment.” That has pretty well defined my own career love/hate relationship to equipment and technology. Learn enough to not be intimidated by the tools. But you don’t have to become enamored of them. They don’t have feelings. I remember well that my mentor, Nestor Almendros, was so myopic that he could barely find the on/off switch on the first generation Panaflex (a first-time camera for him) that we were using on Days of Heaven. But that did not impair his vision as a great artist; he won the Academy Award for his breathtaking photography on that film.

A back-loaded reverse motion shot from “Days of Heaven.”

Arrival at the farm, the Titan crane ascending.

The critic Roger Ebert is certainly no fan of 3-D, at least not the cheesy 3-D that he fears is going to be grunting and running amok in the cinematic pigpen of new technology.

Newsweek.com—“Why I Hate 3-D and You Should Too” link

He does express interest in what Werner Herzog may do in 3-D as an immersive technique, in his new documentary on the 30,000 year old Chauvet Cave paintings in the Ardèche region of southern France. But that hardly constitutes spear-chucking Cro-Magnons assaulting the screen plane.

The Chauvet Cave.

Herzog talks about his plans for shooting in 3-D in this video (the camerawork is by Ebert)

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In the midst of this 3-D maelstrom, I think it is important to remember a simple fact: our depth perception in real life is essentially monocular. Many ophthalmologists affirm that over 80% of our depth cues are two-dimensional and that the subtleties of depth perception develop only during early childhood. Also, about 4% of the general population is strabismic, having no depth perception at all; almost another 20% are to some degree depth compromised. I discuss this in the context of the biography of neurologist Susan Barry in my essay on Ray Zone and 3-D:

John’s Bailiwick—Ray Zone and the “Tyranny of Flatness” link

Dr. Susan Barry, once strabismic, now binocular.

Dr. Barry was in her mid-forties before she saw the world in 3-D— and vision education had been part of her teaching curriculum.


When I was interviewing Canadian camera assistants for my first film in Vancouver many years ago, one candidate said right off, “I know what you’ve heard about me.” “What’s that,” I asked, intrigued. “I only have one good eye,” he said. I looked down again at his impressive resume. “I see you’ve done a number of anamorphic films: more challenging focus situations, for sure. From your credits, I don’t expect there’s a problem.” Every film I have photographed in Vancouver has been with him. He’s a gentleman, a friend, and one of the best technical assistants I’ve ever worked with. So much for the primacy of depth perception.

I recently considered choosing 3-D for a movie that I will soon be shooting in the Arctic. After a teasing temptation with 3-D, I dismissed it for several reasons that are germane to the current state of stereoscopic movie technology. The best of the 3-D camera rigs are extremely complicated electronic entities with highly sensitive dual camera connectivity. The umbilical feed from the cameras to the recording platform is thick, vulnerable and (as explained to me) “more expensive to replace, if run over or severed, than you would ever want to know.” Then there is the very large, angled, mirror array that the lenses shoot through, a veritable target for light flares and washes, no friend to top or back light beaming onto the exposed mirror. There is the considerable question of performance reliability of a sophisticated video system when it is subjected to very hot and humid conditions, or (in my situation) extreme cold and moisture. Finally, there is the issue of bulk. Most rigs may not weigh as much as a blimped 3-strip Technicolor camera like this:

The blimped 3-strip Technicolor camera, circa 1938.

But the size is just about the same. Personally, I find it difficult to believe that a camera system the size of these 3-D high-end digital camera rigs is one that I can feel comfortable with in a filming environment that’s beset by sub-zero temperatures with  less than five hours of usable daylight. Maybe I’d be more accepting if I were shooting in the controlled environment of a soundstage where there’s plenty of room for the video and human support team (a larger crew than for 2-D video production), where the tag-along video village required for any HD 3-D shooting, can be tucked away into a rather large corner of the soundstage — conditions just not possible for me. Another question addresses visual aesthetics. Just what are the cinematic depth cues with an actor standing on ice, more undefined ice masses behind him, a flat, ill-defined horizon, overcast, flat light, and a whiteout sky? Hmmm.

On the other hand, much more favorable shooting conditions are offered by the climate-controlled confines of a modern sports stadium. The combination of static camera positions, the cameras themselves equipped with wide interaxial telephoto lenses, present an easy fit, a really great shooting gig for the 3-D TV camera operators— that is unless the combination of telephoto lenses and the exaggerated interaxial distance creates an even more odious dollhouse effect.

ESPN 3-D sports rig.

On the level of purely personal amusement, my recent acquisition of a pocketsize Fuji 3-D digital camera with a no glasses required lenticular screen is a conversation starter anywhere. For the time being, this will have to satisfy my curiosity about 3-D imaging.

The Fuji 3-D W1.

But I am reserving for the near future, I hope, the option to photograph an intimate dramatic film in this format, in a style close to traditional production, a film where depth cues are subtle and where the actors converge at or near the screen plane. This is how I imagine Jack Cardiff and Freddie Francis would have made Sons and Lovers had the 3-D frenzy lasted until 1960.


Even as I write this, I can hear howls coming from some devoted stereophiles, impassioned advocates who get easily riled at anyone’s discussing the topic who is not as technically informed as themselves, or who may argue that 3-D digital “capture” (hate that term) is anything less than a total cinematic revolution, that a dissenting perspective could only come from a Luddite. No matter. My skin is pretty thick; it’s part of the prerogative that comes from forty plus years on production battlefields.

But the challenges of how to integrate this technology into more than a century of film grammar are real. Yes, I’ve taken potshots at clay pigeon images of amateur 3-D. But we need only look at TV manufacturers’ commercials making a hard sell at every World Cup half-time break, or at theater trailers for next weekend’s stereo blockbuster, to survey the landscape that the studios and manufacturers are ploughing. For professional filmmakers to mindlessly walk down those furrows will put us smack up against a stone fence line. It is incumbent on cinematographers more than any other category of filmmakers to step forward and challenge the present marketing of 3-D, and not to be sucked into the maelstrom of hype. If it is a truly new way of making movies, it will be up to the cinematographers and the directors with whom they work to seamlessly fold these techniques into the historical stream of cinema going back to Melies and the Lumieres. Otherwise, once the novelty has worn thin, as it has in the past, the current  3-D product will have the shelf life of one of Lady Gaga’s wardrobe malfunctions.

Herzog is quite specific in what he hopes 3-D will add to his documentary on the Chauvet Cave. It is this kind of close questioning that all filmmakers should be making. The Marinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, home of the Kirov Ballet, recently broadcast a medley  dance program in 3-D conducted by Valery Gergiev. It was seen throughout Europe by the few who had 3-D TVs, but it is a start. I remember that the best 3-D demonstration I have ever seen was a ballet short made by Vince Pace, which he showed Rob Hummel and me at his Burbank facility. Its immediacy and immersion made me consider its future potential for MetOpera HD broadcasts in 3-D. Already, in big screen 2-D presentation these transmissions into neighborhood multiplexes create an intimacy and immersion in the musical experience that is drawing a new generation to opera. If there is a real future for 3-D it is for venues like this, where it is defined by its subtlety rather than its vulgarity. 

What I want to accomplish with this multi-perspective look at 3-D is to elicit reactions on the subject from many quarters: from those of you who have kept the faith, carrying the torch of 3-D filmmaking during the dark days, from those of you who today are making personal 3-D films for yourselves, and who may screen with my friend Ray Zone and the Stereo Club of Southern California in a vintage downtown movie palace. I’d appreciate the thoughts, as well, of those who are studying the 3-D path but have not yet set out upon it. I also would like to hear from those of you who reside outside these hermetic circles, hovering on the periphery of the technology, and from those who have mixed or unresolved opinions, and, yes, from those of you who think the whole phenom is bunk and wish it would just dry up and blow away.

The comment box is open. If the box is not open below, just click on “comments” at top of the essay located to the right of the header.

(Many thanks to fellow ASC members Rob Hummel and Frederic Goodich for their assistance on this essay)

About John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey’s cinematography career encompasses such mainstream Hollywood films as Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire, As Good as It Gets and A Walk in the Woods, and such offbeat fare as Tough Guys Don’t Dance, That Championship Season, Swimming to Cambodia, A Brief History of Time and The Kid Stays in the Picture. He lives in Los Angeles and New York.


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  2. Benoît Perrier

    Thank you for a much needed position on a topic that many critics have chosen not to or dare not address (maybe because they do not master the technical elements you put forward).

    Your statement that “the challenges of how to integrate this technology into more than a century of film grammar are real” could not be truer. What about depth of field, for instance ? There’s so much in 2D film grammar that relies on front or back focus, yet, in my opinion, it doesn’t work in 3D (also loved your shoulder shot example).

    We need to get past the gimmick and really think about what the technology allows or prevents in terms of visual experience and storytelling. Movie makers must then choose accordingly, instead of jumping on the 3D bandwagon for fear of being left behind.

    Among Avatar’s innumerable failures, its stubborn refusal to develop any kind of grammar (or even acknowledging that a new one was required) was the one that angered me the most. About Cameron, I thought: “OK, you had all the money in the world, the smartest and sharpest collaborators, you could have brought us immortal shots, used new perspectives, freed yourself from gravity while providing truly revolutionary visions, and this is what you attempt to make pass as coherent aesthetics?” I exited the theatre with the feeling of having played a videogame (one of those with a flying virtual cameras trailing the protagonist). Truly frustrating.

  3. Jozo Joe Zovko

    Thanks for such a well thought out and thoroughly written article John.

    You really hit every nail square on the head.

    In my opinion, this post should be “the” starting point for any 3D expert, journalist, or layman interesting in making and questioning todays 3D image making.

    Here is a fun T-shirt link emphasizing my opinion on 3D filmmaking.


  4. Matt Moriarty

    As someone who may soon have to lug one of these enormous rigs around on a steadicam, I’m not particularly thrilled with the prospect of 3D becoming a “prerequisite” to getting a film greenlit. (My chiropractor and his accountant, however, both love the idea.)

    If the studios really knew how to hedge their bets in a fast-changing media environment, they’d workshop their material for years the way Pixar does and they’d be really careful who they put in the director’s chair (oh, and the guy in charge of the studio would be a storyteller, first and foremost). But the current crop have neither the skill nor the work ethic to do that. In fact, it’s a miracle nowadays if the executive overseeing your film has even read the script!

    Having said that, if a studio wants to take an existing film and pony up an extra $10 million for a 3D conversion, more power to them. Everyone wins: the studios get their higher ticket prices, the filmmakers aren’t saddled with all the constraints of 3D capture, a bunch of good people make a living doing the conversion and, in the end, I’ll still be able to go to a theater without getting a migraine.

    But anyone who says the current rush to 3D is driven by anything other than pure economics is absolutely full of it. The studios want the higher ticket prices and the 3D crowd wants everyone to either buy or rent their new gadgets and services. Economics, plain and simple.

    So you’ll understand when I say the most noteworthy thing I see in the article above is that, after roughly 40 years of dealing with all of the crap a filmmaker has to endure in order to simply practice his craft, John Bailey’s passion for cinema is undiminished. I only hope I can say the same thing 25 years from now (when 3D has come and gone at least one more time and made my chiropractor rich in the process).

  5. John A. Rupkalvis

    Very good article on 3-D, and more accurate than most.

    One thing that may be of interest regarding the movies of the 1950’s (all polarized!) was the little-know reason for the demise of that era’s efforts. Most treatises blame it on technical problems, especially in projection. I am sure that, with the thousands of playdates, there must have been some glitches, sometime, somewhere.

    But, of the over 30 3-D films that I saw at that time, in numerous different theaters in two different cities (Duluth, Minnesota, and Minneapolis, Minnesota), without exception all were exhibited flawlessly. 3-D was very popular, and the popularity was growing when it disappeared. So, what happened? Economics (no surcharges then).

    The system at that time was double-strip (two film prints were required for every foot of film of every product released), and twice the shipping cost. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to the distributors that this was not cost-effective. They surmised something like this: “Let’s see, I have 2,000 3-D prints. No, I have 4,000 2-D prints”. So, what they did was to split up the 3-D prints and send them out to twice as many theaters as 2-D. Typically, in the United States, the “Left-eye” prints were sent to the Western half of the country, and the “Right-eye” prints were sent to the Eastern half. In fact, that is probably where the phrases “Left coast” and “Right coast” came from, as they originated at about that time.

    It did not take long for the studios to realize that there was not much sense in going to the expense of shooting in 3-D if the result was only going to be exhibited in 2-D. So, they also stopped 3-D production. This was the real major reason for the decline of the 1950’s 3-D era.

    This is an important lesson to pay heed to today. Not only the art form and technology must be considered, but the economic situation as well. Even though most playdates today are single projector (usually, but not always digital), other factors come in (availability of venues being primary) that could create economic problems. It would seem that utilizing the many more theaters that are equipped for film projection would make economic sense. Exhibitors should be looking at the Oculus 3-D film projection system, which provides much brighter, yet lower cost displays, without the digital artifacts.

  6. Tim Sassoon

    Many of the same arguments made against 3D can also be made against color, and one may note that a cinematographer wishing to make a true B&W film today has an upstream swim ahead of them, not least because there’s easily as much difference in shooting style required between B&W and color as there is between 2D and 3D.

    I’ll take Ray’s prediction a step further and ask, if we were at a stage of development where all cameras pro or amateur, motion or still, recorded depth information along with color and tone, how many productions would discard that information? Remembering that, with any digital camera today, one can desaturate the image to B&W very easily. But how many do?

    I absolutely agree with the author that current camera technology is reminiscent of multi-strip Technicolor, both in difficulty of operation, and also in quality of result. I don’t think our current understanding of 3D is any more sophisticated than our understanding of reproduced color was in 1939 when The Wizard of Oz, another film which like Avatar showed what was possible in the movies, premiered.

    There were a lot of B&W movies in the years that followed, but then, when color negative reached an adequate level of maturity in the 1960’s, it suddenly became much more difficult thereafter to produce in B&W, now near-impossible.

    It may be a while before all films are in 3D as they are in color, but at the same time, I’m quite sure that it won’t be 3D as we experience it today, either.

  7. Clyde DeSouza

    This is a well presented insight on the subject.

    I like the frank and open way that you’ve noted down your views.

    Although, I am one of those “stereophiles”,sometimes the tone of the articles I write about on the subject is a bit condescending but aimed at cinematograhers who have developed massive Egos, understandably, over the course of their careers.

    They do not want to learn anything new, and quickly ridicule anyone who’s name is not on IMDB. These are the same cinematographers who proclaim that 3D is just another tool in their tool-chest to help in directing.

    I define it as a medium of visual storytelling, and hence the new Grammar that will grow with it.

    For example: “Spatial Resolution” This is something that is not fully studied as yet… after all, 2D movies do not capture spatial information in a scene.

    However as you mention.. there are visionaries (Cameron) and lesser mortals who *are* willing to learn.

    Stereoscopic 3D has been prominent before Hollywood re-discovered. Areas such as Data Visualization (medicine, Archeology, Oil&Gas) .. where everything is huge data-sets that render and are visualized and manipulated in realtime. If you though “Avatar” was state-of-the art.. 🙂

    Getting back to the subject of those “hernia rigs” as I call them… Here’s one recent article on the subject of cameras and why in today’s age of miniaturization, we should be carrying those monsters on set just to “capture” or “sensor” a scene (being politically correct, it isn’t “filming” any more?)


    Thanks for the great article.

  8. Clyde E. Bryan

    Well informed and well written piece. Thanks John for sharing your thoughts so well.

    I have been to several of the new films in 3-D and, other than some eye strain, I haven’t found them to be improved by the “new” technology. “Avatar” worked for me as an experience because it was supposed to be in another world, outside our everyday one, so it was a bit akin to visiting a zoo. Do I think that a picture which is about the old verities of the human heart will be improved by 3-D? Certainly not, and it would pobably be compromised by the ‘trick.’

    Many years ago, I did a film in 65mmm 3-D for Disney that still plays as an interactive experience at the theme parks. The interaction with live performers on stage, mechanical gimmicks in the theatre, and the projected film worked well for the time one spent in the attraction. It seems to me that this is a more practical application of the technology than in my theatre going experience or my home!

    As always, thanks for sharing.

  9. Allan Silliphant

    Fine article, John. You may or perhaps may not know about my

    off and on career in 3D film and video. I directed , wrote and line produced “The Stewardesses” in 1969, and revised it into an R rated film in 1971. That film is historically significant in that it made about 170 times it’s original cost back…probably some kind of a record! The $26 million domestic gross, would be over $145 million in our current inflated dollars! When I developed the technology with my life-long friend, Chris Condon, we wanted to debug the issues that you cite,relative to the “mini monkeys, in lipstick” size distortion and other dire problems in the 1950s crop of Hollywood 3D films. Chris and I chose to shoot with a single 35mm camera, changing the the small “side by side images” into anamorphic with a 1.37 to 1 aspect ratio, in polarized stereo.We were first with plastic glasses! Our chosen inter-axial base was only 1.7 inches. This allowed us to capture the traditional “bigger than life look” of Hollywood movies.A year later I blew the film up to side by side 70mm, and showed that version in theaters with up to 4000 seats. A couple of years later, Chris &I made a deal with Warner Bros. to convert “House of Wax” to 70mm, and opened it in theaters like Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and the 4300 seat, Boston Music Hall.Chris and I bought most all of the available 65mm cameras in theUSA, hoping that Hollywood would give 3D a serious “reboot”, but it never really came to be on a big scale. But over the years, internationally, nearly 30 films and venues carried our Stereovision technology brand. Some of us, in cinema, remember an obscure English gentleman named Willy Frees-Greene, who even more than Thomas Edison, worked out the art and technology that became “the movies” Chris and I sometimes feel a good deal like poor old “Wille F.G” We put 3D into one roll of film, one projector, one camera with images that were easy on the eyes.Showed the advantage of 70mm 3D, as well! Allan Silliphant, still filing patents, and trying to advance the state of the 3D art.

  10. JC Cummings Sr.


    Great research and very comprehensive. The world of 3D is complex, compelling, but marketable. Your comment of 3D being another tool defines this format perfectly. We should embrace the good and correct the bad factors as our creative visions use this tool to show a story to an ever changing audience. As many of us who began our careers with a B&W 16mm Bolex, willing to shoot anything for the experience, have overtime, encountered so many format changes that I can no longer be the purest I once set out to be in the late ’60’s. I’m committed to shooting our future projects in 3D, offering end content in 2D or 3D as long as it remains a format distributors will pay for…or until something else comes along. Your points were well taken and tips noted. Thanks for a job well done!

  11. Rodney Taylor, ASC

    Thanks John for your thought provoking article on 3d and the future of filmmaking.

    I believe that 3d films and the more traditional 2d films are two kinds of films and experiences in a cinema. As you know I still love traditional filmmaking, particularly the great anamorphic films of the 70’s that, Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, Gordon Willis, ASC, and Conrad Hall, ASC made. These are the films that inspired me to become a cinematographer.

    For the time being the studios are chasing the profits of Avatar and feel that 3d is the answer. The choice for shooting in 3d is being driven by the box office instead of the story. I think the important issue here though is the cinematographer should be consulted about the format a film is going to be shot in. We are facing a serious erosion of our participation in this question. Will the film be shot with film, digital, or 3d? This is a question the cinematographer should be deeply involved in answering. Often these days by the time you get to an interview this decision has already been made without any regard to the story.

    I think the story should determine what format you’ll be shooting in and this goes for 3d and 2d. It is an exciting time to be a cinematographer with all these choices, and I’m happy to try any of them, but I would like to be consulted as the cinematographer. What format will tell the best story? Personally I don’t think “The Deerhunter”, “The Godfather”, or “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” would have been better films or made you feel more emotion in 3d. Even with the technology we have now, I would argue “No Country for Old Men” would not have been a better film in 3d.

    I am excited about the possibility of shooting, say a 3d IMAX film with a very creative director in the future. I think that could be really cool. But I think 3d will lend itself to the story and the creative possibilities. Can I even imagine “That Evening Sun” filmed in 3d (or digitally for that matter)? Not at all, and this is why I come back to the idea that 3d and 2d are two different experiences in the cinema. And I think both are relevant. I hope we can continue to make films for the cinema that are thought provoking and emotional. Films that touch us as humans. I recently saw a foreign film, “Revanche”, that was an incredible film, full of tension and beautiful cinematography. I would hate to see films like that disappear from the cinema.

    I guess I’m still into cinema as an art form. It is important to make money with films too of course, so that we can make more films. But I’d like to think you can do both. Let’s get back to choosing a format WITH the cinematographer to tell a great story. If I shoot a 3d film I’m going to hope there’s an opportunity to shove a stick in the audience’s eyes. And if 3d becomes the only format for cinema, I hope someone will shove a stick in my eyes.

  12. Al Thompson

    Thank you John, for another fascinating and thought provoking article.

    It made me think me of something that the architect Jacques Herzog (of Herzog and de Meuron who designed the Olympics Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing) said recently about computer aided design. He said that “we have the most advanced technology, so it would be stupid not to use it… Technology is very important as a tool, but technology in itself doesn’t do anything, doesn’t create anything. Computers cannot do anything without the assistance of the human brain. I always give the same example: When you go into old cathedrals, they are extremely physical, and they follow the laws of craftsmanship, but they transport something we cannot explain, which is what makes great buildings, and that hasn’t changed at all.”

    I think this holds for film making as well. The development of technology is important, it can open possibilities, but, as a number of other comments have noted, the quality of the storytelling is the main thing, the thing that makes a great film, the thing that can transport us, and that is something that won’t change as technologies change.

    Thank you again, John, for these constantly thought provoking essays.

  13. Bill Taylor ASC

    Thank you John! I think your attitude is exactly right. I suspect we’ll find there are as many approaches to shooting stereoscopic as there are to traditional photogaphy; just as Cardiff and his contemporaries showed that Technicolor did not have to be overlit and restricted in color palette.

    You’ve probably seen the same footage I have of Cameron shooting hand held with the Pace rig counterbalanced from overhead with bungee cords. So much like the Technicolor camera-on-a-swing rig on “Red Shoes”! If the DP has an idea, the grips will find a way, no matter the size of the camera. Eventually the camera manufacturers will catch up.

    The current critical punching bag, “Last Airbender”, takes it on the chin for post-processed 3D. The critics gripe about “fake 3D” or that the stereo effects are “barely noticeable”. Hmm. Would that be like the “fake” multi-track sound, assembled from many hundreds of mono tracks, that accompany every movie released today? Unpleasant or ineffective 3D can originate from any source if it’s done in a rush or messed with without regard for the film-maker’s intent.

    I have seen some terrific post-processed 3D, but it was shot specifically to be converted. For example, Hoyt Yeatman’s “G Force” used 2D film photography of the live action backgrounds, dimensionalized and composited with the 3D animated lead characters. Thus they overcame the problems involved in trying to shoot hundreds of shots at guinea pig eye level with a big stereo rig.

    Ironically the main critical complaint (dingy, washed-out 4 foot-lambert images) has nothing to do with “fake” 3D.

    I too would like to see an intimate drama in wide screen “real” 3D (if it was really projected as wide, rather than short!). The 2.40 ratio is a natural for stereo. Wonder if smaller anamorphic zooms would fit on the larger 3Ality rig.

  14. Ray Zone

    Thank you, John, for another wonderful blog about stereoscopic cinema. Your cogent commentary is highly informed and reflects a very balanced view about cinematic technology and its artistic impact upon narrative.

    The fact remains, however, that cinema itself has now undergone a permanent sea change with the addition of z-axis visual grammar or “3 Space” as director Hoyt Yeatman (G Force 3D: 2009) has characterized it. This evolution was predicted by Sergei Eisenstein in 1949 when he wrote “To doubt that stereoscopic cinema has its to-morrow is as naive as doubting whether there will be tomorrows at all.”

    And, on a business level, it is a certain fact that any new motion picture that is produced “flat” (and in 2D only) will do less business because of it, particularly in all the “aftermarkets” for content as stereographic displays increasingly proliferate for 3DTV, internet, handheld devices or new, emerging electronic platforms.

    I’m sorry your next production will be 2D. And, while I understand the difficulties of shooting with any two camera 3D “rig,” I also think about the heroic McGillivray Freeman Films team taking an IMAX 3D camera to the top of Everest to film the sequel to their wonderful documentary of 1998 for which they took an IMAX 2D camera to the summit, every bit of it an unwieldy beast as heavy as a 3-strip Technicolor camera. For that matter, I even think of Frank Hurley who in 1916 ventured out onto the frozen wastes of Antarctica with a large format 8 x 10 glass plate negative camera as well as a 16mm camera for the Shackleton Expedition.

    While we’re on the subject of the future, I would like to venture a couple of stereographic prognostications that some of your blog readers might find provocative. First, to answer the rhetorical question posed under section one of your blog: Yes. All of the rigs depicted, from the largest to the smallest, will be used in the near future of stereo filmmaking. (Some people actually are still listening to Edison Cylinder recordings).

    But, soon, perhaps within 5 years, a new form of “image field” recording will appear. (Please notice I avoided use of the term “capture.”) This will be disruptive technology. It will constitute a powerful new tool for stereography. Imagine a device used in concert with a single lens/sensor that records all of the parallax information in the visual field in front of the lens. This device will provide stereoscopic metadata which can be used to create scalable parallax for the image recorded by the lens/sensor. As a matter of fact, Hoyt Yeatman is developing (and patenting) such a device as I write.

    Scalable parallax for motion picture images will be a very useful, even essential, tool for delivery of 3D movies to all available platforms for stereographic displays, from the IMAX 3D screen to movie screens on cel phones. Parallax values will be scaled up for small displays and down for giant screens as part of a digital workflow for different deliverables.

    And, as if that isn’t sufficiently provocative, consider this: Projection is going to go away. That’s right. Projection through a lens (or two lenses with stereoscopic applications) will eventually become obsolete. I don’t know when, but I know it is coming.

    To see the future of cinema go down to the corner of Hollywood and Highland, look at any electronic billboard, or check out the digital video playing on the side of the Regal Cinema on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles. Light Emitting Diodes (LED) are robust and very bright. It’s only a matter of increasing the resolution and perfecting a form of stereoscopic delivery before we see this as an effective platform for 3D movies. Certainly the key issue of brightness for 3D seems to be readily addressed with LEDs.

    One thing is certain. Cinema itself will endure. The fundamental human need for narrative is timeless, every bit as essential as the need for food, warmth, clothing and shelter. Now, at last, our stories can, as a matter of common fact, be told on the z-axis.

    — R3DZ

  15. Raul Davalos

    Thanks, John, for another wonderful essay that brings up much to think about. The interest in 3-D today is largely the same as it was in the 50’s, is it not? Box office. This time, however, it seems like its sticking around. The fact that the broadcast sports field is already selling 3-D TV events and screens is quite an indication that we should be keeping those glasses and not tossing them.

    When digital film editing starting creeping in to my world as I knew it in the early 90’s I had made a conscious decision to not run towards the technology. I would let it creep towards me. I refused to take many of the courses available those days for the myriad of available systems: D-Vision, Editdroid, CMX 6000, Ediflex, Montage, that eventually would become largely obsolete. When a project came to me who’s producers and director wanted to edit digitally with a specific system then I would dive in. Sure enough a couple of years later I edited my first MOW on a Lightworks. Subsequently it has been largely Avid.

    Similarly, the 3-D phenomenon will run its course through multiple systems and applications and eventually it will settle down into its own calm waters.

    What I find fascinating is that the true nature of both cinematography and film editing (read: storytelling) is not at stake. As we know, many brilliant films have been edited on Moviolas with tape and paperclips. Beautiful and classic films have been shot in black and white and in color, using a 4:3 format, or 1.85:1, or even 2.39:1. Ultimately it doesn’t matter for the story telling but for it’s aesthetic and artistic merits.

    People are hungry for a good story told well. Just as most people don’t care what font is being used in their new favorite novel, Garamond? Palatino?, no one is interested that a particular film was edited on an Avid or a Moviola.

    The pendulum does swing close to the extremes when a new technology appears, wild colors on the sets and costumes when color became the norm, expansive sets and vistas when Cinemascope and Vistavision were introduced, cuisinart editing when digital systems were introduced and I suppose we’ll have to stand many spears and other items being hurled at us before we settle down to a more naturalistic approach for 3-D as Herzog proposes. Yes, I would love to see Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” or Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Accidental Tourist” in 3-D if used in this naturalistic style. Then, once again, it will be about a beautiful story well told.

  16. Howard A. Rodman

    Thanks, John, for the lucid and non-dogmatic exploration.

    Most 3-D I’ve seen has felt like the early stereophonic LPs, designed to impress: hard left/hard right pans, with an exaggerated sense of width substituting for a more realistic (and involving) sense of space. The ability to hear ‘into’ a piece of music seems rarely enhanced by a pumped-up stereo mix.

    Monophonic recordings of, say, Dinu Lipatti playing Chopin have the ability to haunt – as do black-and-white nitrate prints of Feuillade’s Fantômas serial. I don’t know that we’d say the same for RCA’s “Sounds in Space” and Capitol’s “A Study in Stereo”…

    …and I’m certain we won’t be haunted, in any but the worst of ways, by “Vuvuzela 3-D!” coming this fall to a screen far-too-near.

  17. juan namnun

    yet to see a 3-d movie(been filmed on 3-d or been “upgrade” to 3-d in post) that looked better with the 3-d glasses than in its 2-d counterparts( well maybe “toy story 3” will) i guess 3-d will remain a cornerstone for animated film, but for life action…we just have to go to the master for an answer.when film began (im talking the Lumiere s firsts shorts with argument) there were a thought (soon fading) that theater as its days counted; decades past and yet theaters were still going strong even if in a really different form, but still the engaging audiences (and making really good works of art) somethings even trespassing the boundaries and cinema(Harold Pinter the Nobel prize winner wrote wonderfully for both; “the french lieutenant woman ” and many more) but mostly the great master Ingmar Bergman once said: -film is my mistress; theater is my true love- that remarks could very well be used to end the argument film vs theater( as it been used) and even more; upon my consideration on the 2-d vs 3-d commercially argument…true love conquers all; lest wait to see what gets to be more loved.

  18. Mark Van Horne

    Years ago, I was screening some film dailies shot by Allen Daviau, ASC, when another cinematographer stopped by and asked which type of stock Allen was shooting. The guy couldn’t understand why his material didn’t look very good. He reasoned that if he switched to the same emulsion, he could get the same glossy look that Allen had achieved.

    Of course Allen was filming on a beautiful set, under controlled lighting on a stage, with a full crew and a hair and makeup department, charged with spraying every stray hair and covering every zit with pancake on their otherwise handsome actors. Not to mention Allen had about 20 years more lighting experience than the other cinematographer.

    The guy proudly announced he was averaging 120 setups a day, which was remarkable since he was working with novice actors and a student crew on practical locations. So OF COURSE, the difference had to be the type of stock.

    Similarly, I am sure that there will be producers who are convinced that if they shoot in 3D, any 3D, they can match the box office grosses of “Avatar”.

    I’ve had the opportunity to assist a great many “independent” (low budget) productions over the years and the successful ones are those that focus on the story, instead of the equipment. One reason so many digitally produced movies are released straight to video, is because if they can’t afford film, they frequently can’t afford a great script either.

    So in answer to your rhetorical question, “which picture represents the future of American filmmaking”, I would answer that they ALL represent the future. There will be great and terrible films shot with all manner of cameras, but as you astutely commented, they are all just tools.

    Great article, by the way.

  19. Frank Love

    Hello again John, the ‘3D’ phenomena to me is more of a curiosity, and that much like the IMAX and ‘IMAX’ movies of today, people don’t really know what they are walking into, shot in ‘3D’? post converted into ‘3D’? It’s playing to a lack of information given to the public. Cameron I feel has been the most offensive proponent trying to not only make everything from here on in ‘3D’, but also convert films of yore into a faux-D and creating false frames for 48fps and 96fps rates.

    You mention the development of stereoscopic vision in younger children. Here’s an article I think we all should read. How can we perpetrate something like this upon the masses. We go down this road and we will have wide-spread vision issues in an entire generation until ‘3D’ is no longer stereoscopic but can be holographic where what we’re watching is a literal 3D image.

    How can we ignore this?



  20. Ruairí O'Brien

    The argument from the studios comes down to “if you like pictures, you’re going to love sculpture!”

    I don’t buy it. I’m not saying 3D has no place, but I would hate if it were the dominant form.

  21. Richard Walden

    Maybe because the movie business is largely about hyperbole that, like lemmings, so many in the business jump on the newest tech bandwagon. The zoom lens is a great tool but initially the hype was it would eliminate the need for a dolly and a dolly grip as well as the need for prime lenses . Then Steadicam came along and it was going to eliminate the need for that same dolly and grip. Then HD came along and was going to eliminate the need for the 2nd. Assistant camera because there was no film loading issue and the need for lighting, since the cameras’ saw in the dark! The manufacturing representatives from Sony & Panasonic in particular also told the camera operators that they would have to get used to looking at a B&W image in the viewfinder because it was really better than color. That was really annoying and it still is now that we have entered 3D hypeland. We now have these same reps telling us how to shoot movies, when all they really want to do is sell hardware. Something they readily admitted at a 3D seminar, aka sales pitch, I recently attended. It seems to me that now more than ever the technology tail is trying to wag the creative dog.

  22. Christopher Michael Lamendola

    I am at a crossroads in my life. I have worked in the film laboratory business for 13 years in every position imaginable. My longest spot was in the film dailies department. I got to color time some very memorable footage in my time but have seen film dailies dissappear over the last 7-8 years. Now with the dawn of, what seems like, everything 3-D I have been left with a bit of confusion as of where to look next. With negative footage dropping and digital theatre numbers increasing one has to wonder what will become of the film labs. I am not one to sit around waiting so my interest has been jump started with what maybe the end of an industry. In your opinion, do you believe that 35mm motion picture film will become a thing of the past completely once the newest cinematographers become dominant in our business? Will the industry actually shrink? And do you think that studio executives will be the ones with the final say in the future?


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