The Many Deaths of 3D: A History of Cinema’s Problem Child

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Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist about the future of film exhibition, close your eyes and think back to 2009, the year 3D came back in a big way.

James Cameron’s Avatar is simultaneously one of the most culturally insignificant films ever made and the door knock that ushered in the modern era of digital and 3D filmmaking. There are few films that can claim to have changed the medium itself, but Avatar certainly makes the cut. Avatar did something no movie had really done before: it popularized 3D as a format that actually serves the story and doesn’t feel like a gimmick.

And yet, unlike sound or widescreen, 3D’s presence in cinemas has been and remains a historically unhappy marriage. Despite the enthusiasm for Avatar, the number of 3D screenings has markedly declined over the last half-decade, enacting, once again, the ebb and flow that characterizes the history of 3D: a sea of fad-following cash-grabs, and a couple of exceptional islands (e.g. Gravity) that prove the fight isn’t entirely lost.

If discourse about “why 3D is just a fad” feels somewhat amorphous to you, or if you’re interested in why the trajectory of 3D post-Avatar is actually a tale practically as old as cinema itself, there’s a handy video essay to break it all down for you.

You can watch “The Life and Death of 3D” here:

Who made this?

This video essay was put together by the Texas-based Royal Ocean Film Society, which is run by Andrew Saladino. You can browse their back catalog of videos on their Vimeo account here. If Vimeo isn’t your velocity, you may give them a comply with on YouTube here.

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