Yes Indeedy, Producers Are Greedy And Needy For 3-D

Two articles in one day about the push to make 3-D the Future of Movies, one in the Wall Street Journal, the other just in Time.

I will confess to being on the side of the skeptics, like Leonard Maltin (briefly quoted in the WSJ article), who point out that every time 3-D comes around, producers and executives announce that it’s going to change everything, and it never, ever does. True, 3-D is more advanced now than it used to be, but having to wear glasses is still a major turn-off (particularly for people who are nearsighted and already need glasses to see the screen). Jack Warner was so certain that 3-D would be the new version of sound, something that would completely change the medium of film, that he shut down the Warner Brothers cartoon department in 1953; he’d decided that all films would probably be made in 3-D and that it was too expensive to make 3-D cartoons. He re-opened the cartoon studio a few months later when 3-D imploded.

Of course they also said that sound would never take over, but if the studios had been trying to launch sound for over 50 years, only to find every time that the public didn’t care whether a movie had sound or not, then I might also be skeptical of an announcement that now sound would take over because of an improvement in recording techniques.

And while I promise not to illustrate every post with a strip from the newly-discovered Peanuts archive, I just can’t resist this one from 1971, because it’s so darn relevant here:


I’ll admit, though, that I have a slight bias against 3-D because one of the things I love about movies is their kinship to painting; directors used to study their favourite painters and imitate their work on film in terms of composition and shadows and light. That’s already starting to get lost, and with 3-D the visual look of movies will be… already is, actually… kind of ugly. But again, you could say the same things about silent vs. sound. (And you’d be right: silent movies may not have been “better” than sound, but they were a unique art form, and it was sad to see them go, even though the popularity of sound made that inevitable. If 3-D takes over eventually, the loss of 2-D as a unique art form will also be sad.)

The advantages of 3-D movies, as described in the articles, have less to do with the technology and more to do with the fact that these movies are booked for high-cost, limited-run engagements. They are, in other words, a modern version of the “roadshow” movie, those big-budget ’50s and ’60s movies like Ben-Hur or The Sound of Music where studios would book movies into relatively few theatres, at high ticket prices and with an intermission, and make lots of money by making moviegoing into a high-end entertainment like live theatre. This practice died out in the late ’60s, and even at its height it depended on the prosperity of the ’50s and ’60s (charging huge ticket prices in the ’30s or ’70s would not have worked).

Anyway, here is the one cartoon that Warner Brothers made in 3-D, though it hasn’t actually been seen in genuine 3-D since 1954. (And the only thing to indicate that it was in 3-D is the opening gag with the WB shield.)


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