Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 and Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory at York University, Canada

The tragedy of 3-D cinema by Rick Mitchell

In this article, Rick Mitchell goes through the trajectory of 3-D cinema through the ages and labels the medium as a historical failure. He charts the history of 3-D through the studio system in the U.S and focuses on each studio’s hits and misses. Mitchell looks to a 50th celebration of the Introduction of CineScope and Cinerama to maintain that there was a 3rd technical upheaval, which was the emergence of 3-D cinema.

The article begins with a remembering of the technology that 1st allowed for real depth in cinematic images to appear. This dates back to 1915 with the emergence of the anaglyph system – which provided a stereoscopic 3-D effect when viewed with glasses – one eye red, the other cyan. 

Then in the 30s, Dr. Edwin Land began to apply light polarizing filters to 3-D projection. This system created a better image contrast and was adaptable to colour as the original anaglyph system was not. The last incarnation was the development of the 3-D camera in 1951 or 52. This saw the first American sound feature intended for 3-D projection (Bwana Devil, Arch Oboler).

Because 3-D was more practical for most theatres than Cinerama, the 50s saw an explosion of productions in 3-D. Most of which Mitchell critiques as being absolute failures. He questions what it was about 3-D that made the films so unpopular and pushes past the notion that it was merely due to the annoyance of the glasses to explore what he sees as the actual failures of the mode. Another problem he cited was the poor projection, noting that if the film was screened anywhere but a first-run movie palace, it was likely the projectionist didn’t care enough to give it their best.

He then looks to 3-D Expo which happened in Hollywood in 2003 to provide more substantial clues as to why 3-D failed to catch on. Here he states that most of the films were just bad films – an emphasis on “in-your-face gimmicks”, early examples of items being poked, thrown, etc. into audience’s eyes. They tended to be very talky and slow paced because it was cheaper than having a lot of shot set ups, and most of them were shot with big bulky camera equipment.

He says even though the results were so absurd, this didn’t stop filmmakers from doing it. Bwana Devil, followed this model and was, in the opinion of critics and audiences a bad film, but because of the novelty of the mode, many flocked to see it, which set up the model for others to follow in its path – resulting in more poorly made films, lasting through to the 80s. He also attributes this to the production system in the 50s, where all of the 5 big companies were putting out films as fast as they could in order to capitalize off of them. Within this system as well, films were being made into 3-D late in the game, therefore there was no conception of how to film for 3-D specifically.

Mitchell then goes through the various production companies and what films they produced. He slates most of the films as being particularly bad, singling Warner Bros. out for the best 3-D films. And finally, states that the successes were those films which thought of themselves as 3-D films, meaning that the depth was worked into the writing, plot, and mainly composition.

Briefly, I’ll account for some of the key points within his look through the studios’ 3-D productions. Warner Bros. he states, understood they needed to make quality films in order to keep customers, therefore they created the least expensive 3-D film (The Phantom of Rue Morgue, 1954), which had a higher level of production and more 3-D specific compositions than the other studios. Warner forced Hitchcock to shoot Dial M For Murder (1954), although it played mainly in 2-D until it was released in 1979, to be come one of the best known films in t3-D format. Their shooting style emphasized depth and was later mimicked for a sex-oriented 3-D film called Prison Girls (1979).

Universal was mostly a B movie studio and mainly made black and white 3-D features directed by Jack Arnold. Arnold employed dramatic use of depth in staging and didn’t make use gimmicks that didn’t come naturally from the staging. Paramount made 6 3-D features which Mitchell believes seemed to have not changed their style or composition to suit the mode. They did however make a 3-D documentary called Cease Fire! RKO made 5 3-D films and were mostly a B studio, therefore most of their films ended up being screened flat. Mitchell notes that the studio wasn’t thinking about composition for the most part, and were more concerned with gimmicks. The example of Jane Russell in 3-D is one example of this. MGM made Kiss Me Kate (1953), which came out of their B musical unit. By the time the film got around to being released, the excitement over 3-D had passed and therefore it was mostly screened flat. Mitchell argues that Fox made the best 3-D feature of all time, which he considers to be Inferno (1953).

He then goes on to look at the independent film companies which he notes made one of the worst movies ever made (Robot Monster, 1953), one of the first tough noir-influenced Westerns (Hannah Lee), as well as The Maze (1953) which because it was directed by William Cameron Menzies, deserves much acclaim according to Mitchell. Several of the low-budget producers from United Artists produced films in 3-D but most were not screened as such. One of the examples he gives is I, The Jury (1953). Mitchell finally mentions Columbia which he says made the most 3-D films that gave 3-D a bad name. With the exception of three, their films were an hour of dull talk and five to ten minutes of gimmicks. The exceptions were: Gun Fury (1953), Miss Sadie Thomson (1953) – which was their only A 3-D film, and The Mad Magician (1954) which he states as being the most watchable of the last of the 1950s 3-D films.

By the Summer of 1954 3-D was considered dead, many did not even know that some of the more quality films (Inferno, Arena and I, The Jury) were actually shot in 3-D and the form continued to be associated with exploitation films and gimmicks. Mitchell then ends his article with the doubt that 3-D could ever be revived because of the projector set ups in contemporary 35mm theatres.


1) The writer has an obvious interest in 3-D filmmaking but hasn’t really explained what it is he’s interested in. What are the redeeming qualities of 3-D filmmaking practices? Can it transcend the gimmicky thrill ride nature? What are the possibilities of new ways of seeing?
2) Can 3-D practices be used as a pedagogical tool? What type of learning does it facilitate? Or are we still passive viewers?
3)  Are there certain narratives that are still linked to 3-D or are we moving away from old forms?

Mon, November 30 2009 » Futurecinema_2009