James Cameron Says 3-D Will Phase Out 2-D

It should come as no surprise that James Cameron thinks that 3-D is swell. As you may have heard, his last movie was 3-D, and made about $752 bajillion at the box office, the majority of which came from people going back to see it 2, 3, 4, or 37 times in 3-D. So you can imagine that he’s pretty keen on the technology. Now, he’s even claiming that 3-D will eventually phase out 2-D as the default standard format for movies, TV shows, and other video content. He predicts that this will happen in less than 25 years, perhaps even as soon as, “in a couple of years.”

Cameron likens the transition to that of silent movies giving way to Talkies, or black & white to color. It’s an inevitability, to his thinking.

Do I believe him? At the moment, I’m inclined to say no. For as much as 3-D is the fad du jour, there are a great many viewers who find it gimmicky and annoying, and are irritated by the need to wear dorky 3-D glasses for the effect to work. 3-D is hot right now, but the backlash is already growing. Its popularity has gone through waves in prior decades, and has burned out after a few years each time.

Yes, the technology is better now, and this current wave has lasted longer than most previously. But I don’t believe that the technology was ever the significant impediment to 3-D’s lasting success. People just got tired of it after a while, and probably will again.

Personally, I’m of mixed feelings about this. I kind of like 3-D, at least when it’s done well. (Which, admittedly, isn’t often.) Do I think that every movie needs to be 3-D? Not especially. Thus far, it seems to be most effective for animation and action movie blockbusters, but less suited towards standard dramas and comedies.

However, I can’t help worrying that this mindset is too stuck in the past, when it should be looking forward to the future. Lest we forget, prior generations were also resistant to Talkies at first (“Who needs sound? It’s just a gimmick!), or color, or many other filmmaking innovations. Back in 1953, the renowned French film theorist Andr√© Bazin wrote an essay arguing that CinemaScope was only useful for “spectacular” films like Westerns and biblical epics, but detrimental to other genres. He simply could not conceive of a use for widescreen photography in any sort of emotionally complex drama. Filmmakers, on the other hand, had their own ideas that soon proved him wrong.

With a little creativity, our own generation of filmmakers (perhaps even Cameron himself) may just find a way to adapt 3-D to all sorts of film genres beyond the typical action and sci-fi epics. I really do believe that there are artistically meaningful uses for 3-D that modern movies have barely begun to experiment with. We may just need one brilliant innovator to make the breakthrough that will show everyone else how it should be done.

Is James Cameron that prophet? I don’t know. The 3-D effects in ‘Avatar’ were pretty effective, I suppose. I appreciated that he used the process more to emphasize depth than the usual gimmicky “Comin’ at Ya!” gags. Still, honestly, I don’t think that 3-D really added anything meaningful to that movie, other than a good excuse to draw audiences to see it in theaters rather than wait for video. Rewatching ‘Avatar’ on Blu-ray, my feelings about the movie in 2-D were exactly the same as my feelings about it in 3-D. The things that worked for me theatrically (Cameron’s dazzling vision of the alien world) still worked just as well in two dimensions. And the things that didn’t work for me the first time (the story, the characters) were still every bit as bad.

I’m still waiting for the movie that will prove to me that 3-D is an essential filmmaking tool. I haven’t seen that yet, not even in ‘Avatar’. In the meantime, I also fear that my hesitancy will leave me behind the curve. I really don’t want to sound like some crotchety old man, muttering under my breath about these darn kids and their newfangled toys.


  1. Jane Morgan

    3D everything could happen within 25 years. That’s long enough for the technology tax to drop to zero. And glasses-free 3D in the home is only 10 years away. Even sooner for portables.

    Think about the state of the internet 10 years ago. Think about the state of the internet in 25 years.

    • Josh Zyber

      The technology may be ready, but will there be an artistic need for it? That’s what I’m not sure about. Is 3-D really the new Sound or Color?

  2. Tim H.

    Of course it’s possible, there’s no doubt in my mind about that. At this point, it’s not something I long for. The 3D aspect of 3D movies today, even in avatar, feels more like a gimick to me. It gives an roller coaster experience to the film. It’s cool the first few times, but after that it loses its appeal. It’s just my opinion and preferences, but I enjoy a movie for its story, score, acting, etc., not because I want to see something leap off the screen at me.

  3. besch64

    Roger Ebert nailed this one on the head with that article he wrote. I agree with him completely.

    3-d is cool as an experience in movies that just look awesome, such as Avatar and Up and Coraline.

    But in a drama or comedy? Well, honestly, fuck that. There’s absolutely no way Doubt would have been improved in any way if it was in 3-d. Just no way.

  4. Does anyone else look at that picture of Jeffrey Katzenberg and think he looks like just another awful, arrogant, corporate nightmare?

    The guy ran Disney Animation for eons. I can’t see how he could see the movies he oversees now as anything more than obvious, cliche-riddled linchpins for McDonalds marketing campaigns.

  5. Jane Morgan

    If a drama or comedy in 3D could feel like live theater… That could be a beautiful thing.

  6. I love hi-def because I get closer to what the director intended, but 3-D at this stage is still an industry gimmick, just as it was in the 1950’s. 3-D glasses are to movies what condoms are to sex.

    Frank Zappa had proposed watching movies in holographic form (kind of a souped-up version of what was shown in the ‘Star Wars’ films) about twenty years ago, which would be cooler than 3-D because you wouldn’t have to wear glasses.

  7. As long as it’s popping out, I’ll continue to not see it.

    I like 3-D that pops in, where it looks more like theater, or like looking through a window. It’s more realistic, doesn’t screw up the framing and it allows directors to continue shooting the way they already do.

    That goofy pop-out 3-D just takes me out of the experience. I can’t stress enough how bad ‘Avatar’ looked when there were live people that weren’t fully in the frame. An over the shoulder shot looks great in 2-D, but when it’s popping out of the screen, I’m left wondering why a shoulder and half of a head are floating in mid air.

    • Do your eyes not crop the edges of your vision too, or do you see a full 360 degrees in all directions at all times?

      Quit looking at the edge of the frame.

  8. jgslima

    For me, the key point is wheter we, when enjoying a film, should “watch” or “experience” the story. I see 3D trying to increase the movie experience, but for at least a lot of movies I don’t think we actually need to live the store instead of just watching it. Drama movies for instance.
    Another way of thinking about this is, if there would be a way of watching a movie with devices that created a virtual reality, putting you really inside the movie, would this be better to enjoy the movie story? Again, at least for a lot of movies, I think what counts is to watch the piece, not to live it.
    On the other side, the same words might be said about the surround speakers, that increases the movie immersion. But, I don’t know why, but in this case I liked it the first day I knew it.

  9. Turd Furgeson

    James Cameron is a Hollywood hack with no foresight.

    To all-
    When video resolution (the only thing that matters in the long run) gets to a certain point, the resulting image depth will make 3D obsolete. Eventually, people will have monitors on their walls with [something like] aquarium videos that will fool others into thinking it’s real. Wake up. 3D is simply a temporary gimmick, currently functioning as a corporate fundraiser and serving as entertainment for those who don’t care about the quality of storytelling. And eventually that audience will get bored with it, and the rich will stop getting so rich from the over-inflated ticket prices.