When 3D Doesn’t Work

Whether you’re a hardcore two-dimension traditionalist or a 3D defender, you have to admit that 3D filming techniques still aren’t quite there yet. With the help of Mr. Josh Zyber and a few friends, I’ve created a list that I think sums up the most glaring issues with 3D filmmaking.

I saw ‘Drive Angry’ over the weekend. While it was a mostly-fun exploitation film, it really brought to light some of the big problems I have with the 3D format. Unlike other movies such as ‘Avatar‘ or ‘Clash of the Titans‘, which only hit on a few of these points, ‘Drive Angry’ managed to combine most of them into one poorly shot film – as least for 3D viewing.

What filmmakers need to realize is that 3D and 2D are completely different beasts. If you shoot a 3D movie with the same camera angles and techniques as a 2D movie, it’s going to be filled with elements that take the audience right out of the film. This may not be a big deal for the likes of ‘Drive Angry’, but if a movie outside of the action genre decides to go 3D, these problems could mean the difference between the audience being engrossed in the film or disconnected from it the whole time.

I call them problems because they’re precisely that. They’re huge flaws in an otherwise decent experience, and they need to be corrected if 3D is to move forward as the new standard. Surely, some of this can be fixed with improved to technology, but a lot of it comes down to simply thinking out how to shoot the movie.

Objects in the Foreground: Directors love those cool shots where we look through a fence to see two characters talking, or where a flower pot is in the direct foreground while the action goes on behind. It’s great in 2D, but it’s just plain distracting when moved to 3D. My eyes focus on what’s in the foreground and ignore what’s happening in the back.

Out of Focus Subjects: Same thing here. When the main subject of a shot walks into focus in a traditional movie, it’s no big deal. When they’re out of focus in a 3D movie, I don’t immediately see them, leading to confusion. I shouldn’t have to put in effort to see what’s going on in a film.

Lens Flare / Glare: Light shining on a piece of metal seems to separate a bit from the object it’s coming off of, and moves too far to the foreground. The same thing goes for lens flare. It draws my attention even when I should be looking elsewhere.

Reflections on Windows: Watching action happening in the reflection of a window can really work in a 2D film, but it doesn’t in 3D. Instead of looking at the window, our eyes look through the window just like we do in real life.

Shots of the Sun: This can be very cool in 2D, but just doesn’t work in 3D. For whatever reason, the sun just seems too bright, and we react accordingly. I personally squint when this happens, and it takes me right out of the film.

White Screen: I normally love it when a director switches things up and fades to white, but not in 3D. A completely white or even mainly-white picture allows you to see the theater screen itself, which completely ruins the 3D effect. It’s even worse if your theater’s screen is in less than perfect condition.

Explosions: I haven’t pinned down which explosions work and which don’t. I want to believe that it’s the practical effects that work and the digital don’t, but I don’t have any data to back this up. Either way, several of the explosions in ‘Drive Angry’ popped out too far and just looked awful.

Bodies of Water: Josh brought this one up to me. Large bodies of water absolutely do not work with 3D shooting. There’s just too much going on for the cameras to register the motion properly. I think this is probably what’s going on with explosions.

Cross Fades / Overlays: Fading from one scene to another is a big no-no in 3D. The same goes with one image on top of the other, like the scene in ‘Drive Angry’ where Nicholas Cage is driving (angrily) and thinking about his daughter. Since there’s no clear focus, my eyes switch between the two images and can’t seem to put it together. The overlay is supposed to represent his memories, but instead it just ends up creating around 20 seconds of film that’s practically unwatchable.

Drawing Attention to the Edge of the Frame: I noticed this one when watching ‘Avatar’, and directors are still doing it. If something pops out of the screen near the edge, things get ugly fast. The audience becomes aware of the screen’s edge and gets pulled completely out of the movie.

Anything Popping Out of the Screen: This is a big one. Almost anything that comes further forward from the screen looks bad and ruins the effect. Having an axe fly at the audience is cheap and ineffective. For 3D to really work, it needs to be like a window. We should look in at the picture through the window of the screen, just like we’ve been doing for the last hundred years or so.


  1. Some of these will be HARD to implement without some technology improvements or digital tinkering in post-editing.

    Out of Focus Subjects – Cameras usually have a fixed focal distance (no clue what its called – I’m a hobbiest, not a professional). There is an infinity focus setting on most digital cameras, but this usually has the effect of you loosing sharpness. Not exactly sure if you can do an infinity focus optically, the cameras may be applying some fancy digital tinkering, which may explain why you loose details.

    Lens Flare / Glare: Granted, a majority of this is nowadays digitally added, but it is a bear sometimes. Yes, I know how to avoid it, but avoiding it sometimes means I have to light the scene differently or rethink my shot. This is fine for something shot on a stage, but is not always possible if shot on location, or shooting documentaries.

    Explosions: This is simply a matter of rethinking your composition. To get bigger and badder explosions, filmmakers have gotten to where they put the explosion in the foreground. To have a successful explosion in a 3D movie, you would have to back out a bit, to make sure that you don’t have smoke-plumes coming off the screen. Of course, this would affect how the movie looks on a 2D screen.

    Cross Fades: What do you prefer – wipes or fade-to-black or hard cuts?
    I am with you on the overlay thing, though.

    Bodies of Water: Large bodies of water can look just fine if you pay attention to your camera angle. I have some 2D to 3D conversions I have done of stuff I shot that look just fine. It also worked in the third Narnia movie. It did NOT work in Last Airbender.

    Anything Popping Out of the Screen: Normally, I would agree. The exception is stuff such as foilage that is at the edge of the screen. It was also quite effective in a few documentaries I have seen. If it extends out of the screen, it SHOULD be at the edges of the frame, and shouldn’t extend too far, otherwise you start getting a double image. But PLEASE do not stick another sword out into the audience.

  2. BMH

    Movie-goers seem to have different expectations for what 3D should add in a movie theater. If the 3d affect it too subtle, then most people don’t want to pay or deal with it.

    The current and established technique allows for the projection of one flat foreground and one flat background. The more complex these two images, the more the viewer is being signaled that the imagery is flat.

    A sword or axe coming out of the screen fakes depth using 3d projection while at the same time, 3d projection shows how flat the backgrounds are on Pandora in Avatar.

    I think there is room for gimmicky 3D in movies like Final Destination. I also think that Beowulf is a good showcase for how to make the most of 3D, as opposed to say Up. (Beowulf is not available in 3D, but the scene compositions are representative of a two plane diorama, rather than vanishing point perspective)

    I recommend anyone interested in when 3D does work, check out the extras on the Dial M for Murder dvd. Hitchcock tightly framed several scenes, and had a single simple object such as a phone or pair of scissors projected in the foreground in order to accentuate the dramatic tension of the action or dialogue occurring off screen.

  3. motorheadache

    A good example of “things popping out at the screen” is the 3D Pirates of the Caribbean trailer I saw. In the bit where Jack Sparrow has his head against a door and a sword comes running through, in 3D the sword looks really phony: almost like it’s a cartoony cgi sword, even though it is probably an actual prop sword being used.

    I didn’t really like the way that movie looked in 3D at all, really. In fact, while I guess I enjoyed seeing Tron: Legacy in 3D, all of the upcoming summer films I can think of I’d rather see standard 2D versions of.

  4. that1guypictures

    Having watched nearly every film in 3D available, it is my opinion that there is both great, mediocre and bad cinematography…be it 2D or 3D. Choosing to film in 3D means mastering that craft and making different creative decisions. As major players enter the realm of 3D, the experience will improve. I’m looking forward to Speilberg and Scorcese’s works Tintin & Hugo Cabret. As with any new technology the experience improves after the technology becomes more commonplace. I agree with you on all points except for the fade to white and the Sun. I have never seen those issues either in my RealD or IMAX theaters, not on my Panasonic 3D plasma.

  5. I disagree with just about all points except the last two. For the most part, 3d should just be an extension, added depth to a movie you’re already filming. While some of those things you listed may be a little hard to get used to, they’re perfectly natural, and you experience the same problems when those scenarios happen in real life. All the refraction / reflection in real life looks quite weird if you actually focus on it, so the movies are actually reflecting that accurately. For the most part, watching a 3d movie is just like looking out an open window in real life, other than the motion of the moving cameras.

  6. 3D Lover

    The only point of 3D, the whole expectation of most of the nation, IS to see stuff fly out of the screen in your face.

    Don’t you hear everyone complain about how stupid 3D movies are now and what a ripoff they are? It’s because they go and just see added depth and think what the hell? Where are the cool effects in my face.

    [Post edited to remove personal attack. -JZ]

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