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3-D Cinema and the limits of behaviour

A recent article in The Guardian asked the question: Is James Cameron’s 3D movie Avatar the shape of cinema to come? This has been going around in head for a while – along with many other questions of the role of technology in cinema – and the conclusion I’ve come to is that the answer is no – but the answer does not lie in the technology.

The film and television industries are technology driven. Although film critics and scholars have spent much of the past century trying to establish cinema as an art (a feat still not yet achieved in the United Kingdom), it is first and foremost a machine, and innovation – from sound to colour to digital – is primarily technological. This is also the case foe consumer electronics: first we are sold a television set, then we are sold a colour television set, then a stereo one, then a widescreen one, then a digital high-definition television set. Without such new features we would not need to purchase a new TV for several years, and the bottom would fall out of the consumer elevtronics market.The next big thing is 3-D home cinema, with 3-D TV’s set to hit homes next year. Techradar has a really interesting post about the efforts of Panasonic and Sony in bringing us the next stage of home cinema entertainment. See also the introduction to the Nvidia GeForce 3D Vision at

We should be sceptical of such claims for two reasons. First, 3-D home entertainment is all very well, but 3-D cinema is not yet firmly established – largely due to slower than expected roll-out of digital screens around the world. This is especially the case in Europe, and a presentation at the EDCF last year concluded that although it had not actually stalled, the uptake of digital screens was slowing in one of the world’s most important markets. James Cameron’s Avatar may thrust 3-D onto the evening news and the front page of newspapers for a short while, but at an estimated negative cost of $237 million hardly represents a long-term financial strategy for the film industry. Is there really going to be enough product to justify the cost of purchsing a new 3-D television when most films and all television are 2-D? Not at this early stage, and although it is a problem now the lack of content can be overcome in time. It is important ot remember that it took less than two years for the American film industry to convert to sound, and (once the slowdown in digital screens has been remedied) the change to 3-D will probably not be as rapid but will certaintly not be insurmountable in the long-term.

The second problem facing 3-D home entertainment is far more difficult to solve – and that problem is us, the home audience.Watching a film at the cinema and at home are two very different expereinces. There is an element of ceremony in going to the cinema – we get ready to go out, we queuing for a ticket, we buy food, if we are meeting friends or going on a date we may even get dressed up especially for the event. Such ceremony does not normally apply in watching television – we don’t get dressed up especially, we may watch with other people but we don’t socialise in the same way, we no longer even have to be in a particular place at a particular time to watch a programme. (Exceptions here may be major national or sporting events). Most importantly, the television – the box in the corner – is just one item in our homes competing for out attention amongst others. In our homes we have other people, books, magazines, newspapers, computers (it is now common to watch TV and use the internet at the same time), mobile phones, crosswords, food to be prepared. You wouldn’t read a newspaper in the cinema – and using a mobile phone in a cinema should be a capital offence. We do not simply watch television, andJeremy Tunstall (1983) distingusihed between three levels of attention in the relationship between viewer and television:

Primary: the viewer is focussed on the television to the exclusion of other stimuli.

Secondary: the viewer intermittenly attends to the television while also engaged in other activities.

Tertiary: the viewer is engaged in an another task and only momentarily attends to the television.

We typically only engage at a primary level for particular types of programmes – football matches, inaugurations, moon landings, etc. More often we will be watchin television and talking, cooking, reading, doing the Guardian crossword (badly), reading magazines, trying to work out the functions on a new digital camera, etc.

The assumption that 3-D home cinema makes is that the viewer will be engage with television at a primary level only, but this is rarely the case. This is a problem because although the old-style green-red 3-D glasses of the 1950s are no longer needed (they could not cope with the colours of modern films, TV programmes, videogames), some sort of glasses are required (e.g. liquid crystal shuttered glasses). This use of glasses – any glasses – seriously compromises 3-D home entertainment as they do not fit in whith human behaviour. You cannot do the Guardian crossword (badly) wearing liquid crystal shuttered glasses. You cannot keep an eye on the kids if you eyes are busy watching Avatar through 3-D glasses. 3-D glasses are incompatible with all those little private things we like to do when we are at home, and this is the major falling down point of 3-D home entertainment. The major problem is not the technological or economic limitations of 3-D, which can, with time and money, be overcome. The major problem is human behaviour, and if 3-D cannot fit seamlessly into the lives of human beings then human beings will not want 3-D. It does not matter how phenomenal 3-D cinema is if it cannot generate sales through ancillary markets (TV, DVD, Blu-Ray, the Internet), and if it does not fit into peoples’ lives then the limits of these markets will become very apparent.

Art and technology are human creations for human beings. If this is not kept as a first principle, we have art that is of no consequence and technology that is of no relevance.


Tunstall, J. (1983) The Media in Britain. London: Constable.