What Exactly Does 3-D Add to a Movie?

Monsters vs. Aliens
Photo: DreamWorks Animation

Over the weekend Monsters vs. Aliens destroyed the box-office to the tune of an estimated $58.2 million. As a result the New York Times ran a headline saying "3-D Helps Propel 'Monsters' Success". Inside the article Brooks Barnes mentions the $58 million but says "a deeper look at the numbers indicates that 3-D is the story." Barnes continues with this 'graph:

The movie opened on 7,000 screens, including Imax screens, of which only 2,100 were equipped with 3-D technology. About 56 percent of the movie's weekend total came from those limited 3-D screenings, according to Paramount, and they carried premium prices of up to $4 atop the standard admission. So about 30 percent of the screens delivered 56 percent of the gross, indicating that audiences sought out the format.

Next comes a quote from Anne Globe, the DreamWorks chief of marketing and consumer products saying, "We really feel this is proof of concept for this new style of 3-D."

This is where I am at a loss. Does this prove anything other than the fact audiences would rather see a movie made in 3-D in 3-D? Going even further, what exactly does 3-D add to a movie?

In my review of Monsters vs. Aliens I said the 3-D was "fantastic" but I added to that saying "I am still not sure I see the overall value." I enjoyed Monsters vs. Aliens for the entertainment value I got out of it. The 3-D factor carried no weight in my review. As a matter of fact I am more inclined to agree with Roger Ebert who said in his MvA review, "3-D is a distraction and an annoyance." Hard to argue with that considering something "cool" in 3-D immediately takes you out of the story and maybe it's just me, but those glasses are a theatrical nightmare. No matter where I am sitting I can see the aisle lighting reflected in my glasses and oftentimes have to put a hand up to deflect the glare.

Mick La Salle at the "San Francisco Chronicle" echoes my statements even though he disagrees with my overall opinion of the film saying, "The cool stuff - like 3-D and collapsing bridges - may get filmmakers halfway there, but to make it all the way home, they need the usual movie elements, like a good story and vivid characters."

Betsy Sharkey at the "Los Angeles Times" also feels Monsters vs. Aliens "doesn't need [the 3-D features] to work as a film." She continues saying, "[They] never feel like anything more than extras that have been thrown into the mix just because the filmmakers have the power tools to do it."

In an effort to present both sides, the only other review I saw commenting to any length on the 3-D in the film was Peter Howell's at the Toronto Star in which he said the 3-D "draws you in without smacking you in the face, apart from an opening paddleball wallop." If that is viewed as a successful comment I wonder what his follow-up will be read as when he says, "Viewers in traditional 2D – and there will be plenty of those – needn't feel stoppered by lack of an eye-popper." Once again I ask, What good is it serving?

So outside of dazzling the eye and possibly distracting the viewer from what may in fact be a lesser quality film what benefit do we get from seeing what has always been a flat format in 3-D?

An intriguing piece over at "TIME" by Richard Corliss is headlined saying "3D or Not 3D: That Is the Question". The article looks at all the hoopla surrounding all the 3-D films coming out this year and how Hollywood is abuzz with chatter saying 3-D is the next big thing. The biggest "hold up" moment of the article, though, is a link to a 1990 "TIME" article headlined "Grab Your Goggles, 3-D Is Back!" which is then followed by a link to TIME's top ten movie gimmicks (a top ten I should have done instead of this editorial).

If you read that 1990 piece from TIME you will see a lot of similar things being said about the format now, including chatter of 3-D on TV, something I think we can all agree has been a major disappointment every time it has been tried.

So you tell me, does 3-D add anything to a movie for you and, if so, what?

Upcoming 3-D films set for 2009 include Pixar's Up, Fox's Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Final Destination: Death Trip, Disney's A Christmas Carol and, of course, James Cameron's Avatar. I know Avatar is one that is on everyone's list of must see movies, but just how much does the 3-D factor weigh into that anticipation?

  • Seiko

    I am not a fan of 3-D, mainly because of the glasses. it is a distraction from the film. I'd rather sit and enjoy it, not feel like I'm on a 3-D amusement ride like Escape From Dino Island (non existing six flags ride).
    They should expand the movies released in I-Max (with the cool curved screens) and forget the stupid glasses.
    I will wait to see Final Destination Death Trip on DVD so I don't have to see in 3-D.

  • Chuck Bartowski

    Some good points, Brevet. 3-D can sometimes be a minor distraction (since instead of paying attention to what the characters are saying, you're instead just thinking "wooooooaaaahh" to the spectacular 3-D-ness of it all) but I easily get over it. I've never had the lighting glare problem... but I did have the 'foggy glasses' problem. There was a speck on my glasses and I brushed it off with my fingers but unfortunately, my hands were a bit greasy from some Rubio's nachos and it made the glasses even foggier and smudged (my own fault though for not thinking twice). And it was pretty darn hard to clean it off because it made the whole picture a blur.

    But ultimately, I LOVE THE 3-D, and here's why: I think it makes the action sequences way more thrilling. Because you're very much "inside" the action. I just think it makes everything more exhilarating and even makes you brace yourself from moment to moment. As for the sequences that don't involve such frenetic action, I was amazed when B.O.B. was super close-up to my eyes and I could observe the awe-inspiring beauty and wonder of the character's form. I thought it was truly amazing.

    I think 3-D should really only be with action flicks (action comedies, action thrillers), or with films that have incredible character detail and stunning cinematography and set design (which is why UP and A CHRISTMAS CAROL will probably be fine with me too).

    I like 3-D. It's quite a dazzling spectacle. I had a lot of fun with MONSTERS VS. ALIENS and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have had as much fun if it was just 2-D. And that might seem like a problem on the movie's part (story-wise), but I don't believe that seeing as how the film was completely created and MEANT to be seen in 3-D.

    But ultimately, yes, I'm pro-3-D. :]

  • The Jackal

    The birth or rebirth of 3D in modern cinema is very easily explainable. Since, box office totals have still yet to reach the fantastic peak which they reached in 2003; even 2007 which boasted 4 films grossing $300+ million (Transformers, Harry Potter 5, POC: At World's End & Shrek 4) couldn't add up to '03s total.

    So, while film studios boast about how amazing 3D is and how its the future of the medium, they are also charging twice as much for a 3D ticket. In this failing economy and what with all the rumors regarding actors, writers or directors strike, it makes sense for film studios to back this new format.

    Still, I'm not going to give up on 3D just yet. I'm waiting for James Cameron's Avatar to come out. While Mr. Cameron is certainly a big part of the system, he has always supported new technologies which revolutionize film and add greatly to the overall effect and success of his movies. Someone like JC believes that technology should be used to make films better. So, when I see filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron & Peter Jackson talking about a new technology revolutionizing the medium I pay attention.

    Cameron is currently refilming Titanic in 3D, which critics have claimed to be mind-boggling. George Lucas says the Original Star Wars Trilogy will be ready for its 3D premiere by 2011. Both Toy Story films are being prepared for 3D debuts. So, talk to me this December and I'll let you know what I think about 3D.

    Until then, I'll believe most studios are simply using 3D to get more of my money. The glasses aren't so bad...and boy did that Lionsgate sign sure look good in Bloody Valentine 3D.

  • Steve

    Kids sure love 3D

  • rattler76

    3D is mostly a gimmick. It doesn't add that much to a movie.
    Example: Titanic in 3D? really? Great iceberg scene and perhaps the idea that the water is actually coming towards you when the ship's filling up.
    But isn't it a romantic drama first? Is the hand on the steamy window going to be in 3D? Does that really make it better?

    How many movies did you get lost in when watching them?
    Because of the story, the acting, the way the director tells it. And all without 3D.

    For kid oriented animation yes, than visuals can be just as important as lets say story.
    There it might add something.

    I'm affraid there's gonna be a lot of movies being sold purely on 3D. A bit like it is with computergames where there's a race for the most impressive visuals with gameplay, story, length of the game and other things slowly falling to the background.

    Maybe it'll just take time, our kids probably won't know any better. We're just stuck in the transitional fase. We're guinnea pigs.
    Philips has actually developped a 3D TV, so no need for stupid glasses. That will actually help making 3D the norm. Just takes time before we all have one.

    For now I can still enjoy Wiley E. Coyote in good old flat 2D (and it doesn't get much flatter). 3D would just ruin the magic for me.

  • Ross

    I think 3D, like a host of other gimmicks, has its place in cinema. I don’t think its on par with color or sound (more movies in black and white and silent films please!) but that’s not to say under the right terms I don’t enjoy it. To me 3D is at its best when the movie is something like My Bloody Valentine 3D. On its own MBV3D is just the same old song and dance of a slasher movie everyone has seen a plethora of times. However, in 3D the campiness is turned way up and it moves the movie from stupid slasher to a fun experience where the best part is how bad the bad parts really are when they jump off of the screen at you.

    Something like Monsters Vs. Aliens or UP! does not need 3D. I don’t think it really brings anything to the table. Coraline was another movie where I felt that seeing it in 2D was superior to the 3D because if the story is strong and the characters are whole, the 3d is just a distraction.

    My one reservation is Avatar. I think Avatar will be the make or break for the technology because it’s the movie doing a lot of pioneering in the field. If this movie fails to really turn up the quality and effect I don’t see the technology really being financially viable (MvA head honcho says to produce the movie in 3D adds 15 million to the price tag).

  • http://en.community.dell.com/blogs/direct2dell/archive/2009/03/29/return-of-the-3d.aspx Laura P Thomas

    I had the opportunity to hear Robert Rodriguez and Henry Selick discuss making 3D movies at South By Southwest Film (SXSW) and agree with Henry that not every movie needs to be made in 3D: http://budurl.com/ro3d

    However, with people willing pay more for it, the expansion of digital projection and that fact that most of these animated movies already have the depth information needed to present them in 3D with no real extra cost, it's inevitable we'll see tons more. Let's just hope the directors continue to hone their ability to use it to tell the story instead of filling their films with gimmicks (although the paddle ball in MvA is a great homage to Vincent Price's "House of Wax").

    As for 3D in the home ... I recently watched part of Mr. Selick's "Coraline" on a 3D TV and thought it was as good as any movie experience - minus the crowd, sticky floors and talkers. I've also seen several PC games on 3D monitors and think there's a lot of exciting opportunity for 3D in the home still to come!

  • Patricia

    Let's hear it for great story telling, cinematography, and acting. I'm an old fashioned girl that way. I HATE GIMMICKS! And in that category I place not only 3-D but also stories told out of order (Memento), actors who either gain or lose extraordinary amounts of weight (too many to name), and characters who appear one way to the audience and another way to the lead (Shallow Hal, I'm talking about you.) All of these examples were used to cover up poor story telling and/or poor acting.

    But one small note about 3D. It only works if you have two functional eyes. That's how we obtain depth perception. I have one nearly blind eye so I'm not the audience for 3D.

  • Jitty

    @Chuck Bartowski:
    The question could have been:

    What Exactly Does Color Add to a Movie? Color, of course! As opposed to when color was introduced, the public now would find it an anomaly to see a movie produced in black and white.

    What Exactly Does 3-D Add to a Movie? Depth, of course! It leads to an increased sensation of not only depth but also of "presence," "visual impact," and "increased sharpness."

    The smudges, the slipping glasses, the reflections are all temporary distractions that will be left by the roadway with technological progress. 3-D will be here to stay, as was the case with color. It is not a gimmick; it is just that the technology has improved.

  • The Jackal

    @Jitty: Yes, but 3D's been done before. While it may be light years ahead of yester-year's version of the technology it's already been done before. While I agree this technology will be around for awhile, you should realize that it never really left.

  • Adnan


    That's a very silly comparison. Color can be used by filmmakers for artistic purposes, to say something about the story/characters.

    While the jump to 3D is inevitable, I seriously cannot see any purpose to it apart from using it as a technical gimmick.

  • Heath

    For the most part, many average films will be elevated by 3D's "ooohh" and "aaaah" factor. The 3D can be done well without it being the "star" of the film, just look at Coraline as a prime example. However, I think the opposite will be the norm, just look at Monsters v.s Aliens. Hopefully Pixar doesn't get all drunk with this 3D thing and that they incorporate it in a manner that it doesn't take away their trademark strengths (storytelling, heart, plot, characters..). I loved The Incredibles, Nemo, Wall-E, Toy Story, and they were all magnificent without the use of 3D.

  • junjun

    Give me a film in crystal clear digital projection and digital sound and I'm happily content with that. No more no less.

  • Tina

    I think people should get over themselves about glasses. As someone who wears glasses daily, you get used to them. And BECAUSE I wear glasses, when I see 3D films I wear the 3D GLASSES ON TOP of my glasses... I wear 2 sets of glasses. So get the hell over it, I say.

    Generally adds:
    1. Possibility of more interesting camera angles
    2. Cool factor (though this will probably go away as people get more jaded and see more and more 3D movies)
    3. Immersion (Most important one for me)

    I thought some of the scenes of MVA showed the possibility of really cool scenes in future 3D films... (I was like wow, if this were regular non-kid/stylized 3D this scene would look insane.) I actually thought MVA was really good with not putting too many "throwing/pointing" things at you scenes. (I was really sad though that the nerdy sci-fi references didn't work too well.) Beowulf was REALLY bad in that department. The part I really connected with is the space scene. After seeing BSG on my HDTV and seeing space scenes in 3D I am really excited to see any 3D, high resolution films set in space. Freaking. Beautiful.

    And someone was saying color can be used to say something about the characters. Well distance/depth can too. It's already been done! How many times have you seen another character in the background, usually out of focus and really far away symbolizing the distance between the character in the foreground and the character in the background. Prob. just enhanced in 3D.

  • Juan

    If you wear glasses (like me) then 3D is a horrible experience...its like going to the movies wearing a diving mask!

    glasses on glasses results in a blurred and uncomfortable viewing. peripheral vision is effected too (objects to the right and left of direct vision are blurred)...

    Unfortunately a large % of movie goers like me wear glasses...some don't mind watching a movie in a substandard way, but I suspect that the majority will...so with time, less sales of 3D tickets

    Will 3D replace all 2D cinema screens? No.

    Will 3D take a sizeable portion of the market? Yes -- for as long as this fad lasts

  • JD92

    I have that exact same problem, with my duel set of glasses on when an object is comeing waaaay out of the screen it becomes out of focus. I was thinking about giving contacts a try with it and see if that makes a difference.

  • Rod

    When people leave a theater and all they talk about is how cool it was to keep ducking stuff and that things look like they are coming at them, then what does that say about the film? It means that the story, characters, and plotting are not capable of delivering an immersive experience.

  • Tony Robertson

    I think there are just two camps of people. First those who like 3d and second those who can just take it or leave it or just hate it. Now I think that the problem is the 2nd group doesn't realize just how large the first group is and is have a hard time dealing with it. I don't see 3d totally taking over. I think you'll just see a lot of films in both format. 3d for those who like it, and 2d for those who don't. I think there will be dvd's in both formats at walmart or best buy. Not everyone is going to buy a 3d television, but a lot of people will, so both 3d and non 3d televisions will be sold. If you can't deal with that, then you have a very rude awakening ahead of you.

  • rattler76

    I wear glasses daily as well and find it quite annoying if I have to wear two at the same time. So no I wont get over it.

    Patricia makes a very good point.
    I have one eye that doesn't always point in exacty the same direction as the other giving trouble with depth perception. It's just a little bit (no trouble driving for instance) but it does make it quite straining when watching a 3D feature.

    How many people are affected by this? Looking at the amount of people with contacts or glasses and guessing quite a percentage of them will have trouble with 3D, then how big an audience will be lost? Or has 3D gotten so much better that less people will have trouble?

    Just forgetting for a moment that all over the world countless cinema's will have to convert. Untill that time, how does a 3D look in 2D?

  • Patricia

    Been giving this more thought. The news is full of financial cut backs in this difficult time. CBS is cutting their shows' budgets across the board. Is the time to be INCREASING ticket prices and asking theatre owners to retool their facilities?

    Come on folks, this is not the equivilant of going from silent to talkies or from black & white to color. And neither is this a cost neutral change. Sure there are people who will invest full tilt into this technology, just because they can. But movies like this one are made for world audiences. As Rod (#17) said, what is going to be the reaction of the vast majority of a world wide audience that sees it in 2D? Is the film going to hold up?

  • JM

    I effing hate the glasses. They muddy up the colors and just feel uber distracting sitting on my face with their papery edges tickling my nose the entire time. If I see "Monsters vs. Aliens," I'll see it like I saw "Beowulf"--in 2D. As a younger kid, I saw "Spy Kids 3D" quite a few times on DVD. Once or twice I watched in 3D with the glasses; but most times I infinitely preferred watching it in 2D. Of course, that movie sucked anyway, but that's beside the point.

  • Jon

    A film like Wall-E, Incredibles, and even Kung Fu Panda managed to deliver an immersive experience even without this whole 3D thing. Those films managed to hold up pretty well without 3D. I've seen MvA and had not been for the 3D, it would've been average at best. It doesn't speak well for a film that it can't hold up on it's own through it's story and content, and that it needed the 3D to elevate it.

  • Travis

    I read in an article that studios are asking theaters to tack on an upcharge of $5 for every 3D release (theaters are charging around $3 today). They want that $5 thing to be the norm. The hell with that! Like what an earlier poster said...Give me Digital Projection and Digital sound in 2D and I'm happy. 3D is just a pair of crutches, a way to make movies that can't stand on it's own feet storywise/characterwise tolerable.

  • Howard

    The movies that will benefit from 3D are those that don't have the usual movie elements that is seen in exemplary movies. They say 3D adds another dimension and and immersive experience? Let me translate that, what that really means is 3D is going to cover their movies' flaws.

  • ortiz

    3-D is all about spectacle, plain and simple. Why go through all the trouble of paying more at the box office just to be saddled with glasses? I enjoy 3-D as much as I like riding a rollercoaster: It's fun, it's different, but it is something that I experience very seldomly. Again, going through the trouble of going to an amusement park, paying a lot of cash fopr a visceral and somewhat hollow experience.

  • Damon

    3D works best in small doses which is why I tend to prefer going to Disney or Universal to see a film like this.

  • donut152

    I think my bloody valentine was extraordinary in realD... you guys are saying the wrong thing,, 3D's old terminology.. its now called realD or in other words Trucolour 3d.. 3d was used back in the day, when the glasses were made of flimsy colored paper glasses.. these days the movies are viewed through recyclable plastic shades and colour is in real high quality with no flicker, no need to hold your head upright and not seen through red and green dodgy lensing.. If your a glasses wearer and complain about not enjoying the RealD experience than go get laser eye surgery or something,, jeez.

    Seriously,, I'm encouraging action film makers to get involve in this new technology which sprung up in 2005. The whole Disney, pixar animation thing is good with RealD, but just doesn't cut it with the wow factor. I'm more happier to watch something like my bloody valentine 3D cause its such a different experience with showing a real person in 3d visuals.. I would love to see future films being made into a Imax RealD adoption like the new Star Trek film or Harry potter and the half-blood prince.. I'm just happy that the new final destination film will cure my addiction to 3 dimensional filming.

  • bee87124

    Can't stand 3-D. Reason being, I am blind in one eye and cannot see it anyway. All this 3-D crap is erritating me. I would love to go and see a movie that struck my attention from the commercial, but then, all of a sudden, in new 3-D. Really brings me down. This is really making me angry that all these movie people think this is great and all but there are more people out there like me and it is getting out of hand, that they are making movies for everyone but not thinking that there is a possibililty that a lot of people cannot watch those kind of movies.