Even James Cameron Downplays 3D

As a follow-up to yesterday’s poll about the fading fortunes of 3D video, it appears that even famed 3D enthusiast James Cameron is now willing to admit that the format has lost some of its luster.

Hardly all that long ago at all, Cameron – whose ‘Avatar‘ was a prime motivator in the modern 3D revival – was so gung-ho on the format that he predicted that 3D would soon supplant 2D the way that color television replaced black & white. He believed that all video media, from feature films to the evening news, would eventually be shot and displayed in 3D.

Does he still expect that to happen? According to an article in Rolling Stone, Cameron recently criticized Hollywood for releasing a glut of 3D movies, and cited both ‘Iron Man 3’ and ‘Man of Steel’ as blockbusters that shouldn’t have been converted to 3D.

“If you spend $150 million on visual effects, the film is already going to [look] spectacular [and] perfect.”

To be fair to Cameron, in saying this he made a distinction between movies natively photographed in 3D and those converted after-the-fact. This is consistent with the director’s long-standing criticism of post-conversion 3D as an inferior process and a gimmick. He has repeatedly encouraged other directors to integrate 3D into their productions as early as possible.

Ironically, he said this during a talk with fellow filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, whose ‘Gravity‘ was a post-conversion acclaimed for the quality of its 3D.

I might argue that post-conversion 3D has its place, and can be very effective when used properly. Rather than draw a dogmatic line in the sand between native 3D photography and post-conversion, I’d say that the real differentiator is how much or how well the director plans for 3D. Tim Burton shot his ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ in 2D, but had stereographers on set to advise him on how to best frame the action to maximize 3D impact. As Cameron is well aware, 3D requires a different cinematic language than 2D. Stylistic techniques that work (or at least are tolerable) in 2D such as shaky-cam and quick-cut editing don’t work in 3D, which requires a slower tempo and steadier frames so that viewers’ brains can process the 3D effect. Even Michael Bay toned down his typically spastic editing style when he made ‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon‘ in 3D. (That film was about half native 3D photography and half post-conversion.)

Unfortunately, far too many movies today have 3D imposed upon them by a mandate from the studio, not by any artistic desire on the part of the filmmakers. As a result, we wind up with 3D movies like ‘Star Trek into Darkness‘, for which director J.J. Abrams clearly gave little to no thought about 3D during production. The movie has far too much shaking camerawork, tight close-ups and rapid-fire editing to work effectively in 3D.

That’s the sort of thing that’s really killing viewer interest in 3D, in my opinion. Box office returns for 3D screenings have steadily fallen over the past couple of years, because 3D just isn’t special or necessary very often anymore. When even James Cameron is forced to admit that Hollywood makes too damn many 3D movies for its own good, Hollywood would be wise to listen.


  1. Chris B

    I’m not sure is Pacific Rim was shot with 3D in mind, but I had a headache after seeing it in theatres. I found I enjoyed much more as a 2D presentation at home on Blu-Ray.

  2. The big difference with GRAVITY as opposed to other post-conversions is that Cauron wanted the film to be in native 3D, but couldn’t do it the way he wanted because of technology limitations…he still designed and shot the movie knowing it would be post-converted, and they spent a ton of time (several years I believe) working on that post-conversion.

  3. Completely agree.
    Post conversion 3D is hit and miss (mostly miss).
    We abandoned 3D ages ago. My GF started to flat out refused to wear the glasses after a few 3D movies, because it washes out the color so much. So we quit 3D all together.
    Added bonus, all the noisy obnoxious kids seems favour 3D..

  4. Avatar was a great film (for me) when seen at the theater in 3D. Gravity is a film that benefitted by being 3D, by adding depth to the perception of space, even family movies such as Hugo took on a superior look in 3D. I actually agreed with Cameron at the time. With declining movie ticket sales, a terrific 3D film becomes a completely different experience than watching that same movie at home, streaming on Netflix. It’s an event. I do have 3D at home. I like it. When friends watch a 3D movie even at my house, it’s more of an event, and the focus is absolutely on the movie. I’d agree that sometimes we actually feel exhausted after watching a movie. That’s OK. It shouldn’t be intended to be the rule, but the superior exception.

    I think it would be our loss if 3D goes away. Too much potential.

  5. Agree with Cameron, I had my problems with IM3 that had nothing to do with the 3D, but Man of Steel had way too damn much shaky cam to have been bearable. I’m not sure if the movie would have been better without 3D but the constant camera (not really since everything but the actors was CGI) movement really made it hard to enjoy the last 20 minutes of that movie.

  6. Timcharger

    Wrong, Josh. This is wrong:

    “When even James Cameron is forced to admit that Hollywood makes too damn many 3D movies for its own good, Hollywood would be wise to listen.”

    Let me fix it for you:

    “When even James Cameron is forced to admit that Hollywood makes too damn many (BAD) 3D movies for its own good, Hollywood would be wise to listen.”

    If more movies were shot with 3D in mind and not hastily post-converted, Cameron WOULDN”T downplay 3D.

    • Josh Zyber

      Cameron says in the interview that movies like Man of Steel and Iron Man 3 didn’t need to be in 3D at all, because they were perfectly fine eye candy in 2D.

      • Timcharger

        But that is not to say he is downplaying 3D.

        Since Man of Steel and Iron Man 3 DIDN’T properly use techniques to frame 3D shots,
        they didn’t need to be post-converted to 3D.

        They are perfectly fine 2D-eye-candy, but they aren’t good 3D-eye-candy.

        A director who utilizes 3D technology better could make them 3D-eye-candy.

  7. Timcharger

    Josh, I came across a 3 year old blog article that you wrote about how
    you couldn’t see pop-out 3D effects at home (able to in the theater).

    Was that resolved? A different 3D projector, new 3DHDTV, eating
    more vitamins, etc. fixed that for you?

    • David Mueller

      I was just talking to someone about that yesterday. They are a 3D enthusiast, and they were saying that the ‘pop out’ effect is the difference in 3D formats. Like, the Real 3D (or whichever it was) makes images seem to pop out at you, where the other format seems to make them recede away from you, from the screen.

      I’d never heard that before. Has anyone else?

      • Timcharger

        The entire dinner party fell deathly silent when Timmy asked out loud:
        Why does our host Josh wear an eye patch?

        Timmy didn’t get the memo to never, never, never ever ask about the
        eye patch (why Josh couldn’t see 3d pop-out effects).


        Seriously Josh, I don’t mean any offense. You mentioned in the previous
        poll blog that you installed a new 3d projector cuz your old one sucked
        at 3d. Is that how you solved your inability to see the pop-out 3d effects.
        Or is that that-which-we-don’t-talk-about-again?

        • Josh Zyber

          Tim, I wasn’t ignoring this question. I just wasn’t online much over the weekend. I installed a new projector for 3D because my JVC suffers terrible crosstalk artifacts in 3D. DLP is the only display technology that’s immune to that problem.

          As far as the pop-out conundrum, there’s not much change in that. I still almost never notice anything that breaks the plane of the screen. If I find some time, I might write a follow-up post about some testing I did to determine why that’s the case. (Results were inconclusive.)

          • Timcharger

            Wait, so like for example, in Despicable Me, when the minions do their antics at the closing titles and things come flying out of the screen…

            you CAN’T see that in your home theater (both projector and HDTV)?

            But you CAN see the effects at the movie theater?

            Your words:
            “I still almost never notice anything that breaks the plane of the screen.”

            “ALMOST NEVER” you wrote, so SOMETIMES you DO see pop-out effects at home??


            You should do the subtitle test. Are the subtitles blurry or do they stand out a little from the plane of the screen?

          • Josh Zyber

            I can elaborate more on this later, but I ran some 3D test patterns which show some objects protruding slightly in front of the screen. However, what it looks like is another window just a little bit in front of the previous window. There’s still an artificial plane that no objects cross, whereas background depth behind the screen extends toward infinity.

            The beginning of Monsters vs. Aliens has a character knock a paddle-ball straight toward the camera. I would expect that to stretch out far into the room, practically reaching my head. But it’s blocked by that second window, killing the illusion that the action takes place in a genuine 3D space.

  8. PaulB

    Gravity may have been ‘conversion’ but it is essentially a CG movie so it is only the minority amount live action bits that needed 3d aspects added. And even that was shot with 3d in mind.

  9. Cameron downplayed 3D way back in August 2013, largely as a reaction to poorly converted 2D movies that the filmmakers didn’t want to make in 3D in the first place. I think he is still very keen on well made 3D features though and you can bet that all his Avatar sequels will be made in 3D.

    To be honest the “3D is dead” vibe doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in the Far East either which is a HUGE market.

  10. Larry Stalmah

    Josh, it seems you hit a nerve among your avid readers who love 3D. I personally love it myself. My first satisfactory experience with it was in seeing Avatar and I think Cameron also did an excellent job in the post-production conversion of Titanic, also seen in the theater. The problem with home 3D, in my opinion, is the active 3D technology. It appears to have too much crosstalk.

    I have two 4K TVs in my home, one passive and one brand new active. I definitely prefer the passive at the moment (it’s absolutely gorgeous in 3D and I fell in love with the format with 75 movies now) and half the resolution of passive (especially in 4K) doesn’t bother me one bit. I’ve been tweaking my active TV endlessly to get rid of the crosstalk. Hopefully, with Sony’s help, I’ll do that or I’ll replace it because it’s that important to me. With 4K, maybe we’ll see a rebirth, I certainly hope so. It does seem to look tremendous. I think it almost looks better in the home than in the theater. I’m sold on the format and just as it seems to be fading away, darnit! I, for one, hope it never does.

  11. Deaditelord

    Lol. Agreed CSM. Set phasers on kill! (Whoops, sorry wrong series.)

    Seriously though, as a 3D supporter this sucks. Guess I hope for a 3D version I can import like I do for other Disney films.

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