08 January 2009

3D or 3-D: the big question

There is a great confusion within the 3-D stereoscopic industry regarding the correct use of the term '3-D'. So what is it: 3D, 3-D, 3-Dimensional or StereoVisionScope-o-Rama? And should we actually still be putting the '3-D' label on a 3-D film poster?

Jaws 3-D Film Poster

Before computer graphics existed, right up to the 1980's, the term '3D' referred to both Stereoscopic imagery and Stop-Motion work and sometimes even multi-planing 2D imagery. The two didn't get confused because Animation and Live-action were in completely different leagues. For example, the Disney short 'Old Mill' (1937), was billed as a '3-D cartoon'. By that they meant multi-planing. The Fleischer studio went further and introduced multiplaning of cells on top of a real set: the 'Tabletop 3D Background Process' in 'Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves' (1937). Both processes were billed as 3D and 3-D, but neither was Stereoscopic.

Still of Popeye in the Tabletop 3D process

At the same time, since 1920 shorts and films have been released stereoscopically in theatres, billing themselves as '3D', '3-D', '3-Dimension' and 'Third Dimension', depending on the whim of the PR department.

Poster for Audioscopiks (1935)

There have been numerous creative terms used as well, such as 'DimensionScope', 'FreddyVision', 'Future Dimension' and 'HorrorScope' (it is a long list) and this tradition continues to today, with terms such as 'Fusion 3-D'. In 3-D, little changes over the years...

Since the 1980's, in general, '3D' is used to describe '3D CGI', so simply computer generated imagery, while '3-D' most often refers to Stereoscopic imagery.

Ultimate 1980's 3-D film fodder

One way of avoiding confusion is to employ the word 'Stereoscopic' whenever you write '3-D', or 'Stereo 3-D' for short (an abbreviation coined by James Cameron). Personally, I find the shortest abbreviation of 'S3D' or 'S-3D' (coined by Neil Schneider of MTBS3D) ugly and even confusing so I'd never use that.

On a side note, interestingly, techniques such as Pulfrich and Chromadepth should not be be called '3-D' at all, as they are not based on two unique images combined to form a single volumetric image, but rather play on the brain's laziness or confusion to create the illusion of depth (certainly not volume).

And then I have had Italians talk to me about '3D Lenses', which will be a literal translation from Italian. I am sure the Spanish use a similar term.

Still, 'Stereoscopic 3-D' is the international standard term and my advice is to keep using '3-D' in stead of '3D' when talking about two-eye imagery.

1950's 2D animated 3-D with Bugs Bunny

With modern day advertising and PR press releases, what strikes me as odd is the paradox of what Stereoscopic 3-D is made out to be and supposed to become, according to the over-quoted Katzenberg, Schklair and Cameron, and how it is marketed time and again. The famous ‘3-D’ logo on film posters should say enough of what 3-D is to producers and distributors: a marketing tool.

If 3-D is supposed to be the new standard and all films are supposed to be shot in 3-D, then why put the 3-D logo on the poster? And if people can choose between seeing a film in 2-D or in 3-D how can that be justified in artistic terms? Is the film shot for 3-D presentation or does the 3-D not really matter? Because do we offer cinema-goers the option of seeing films in black&white or silent, and is the fact that a film is shot in colour and with sound advertised on film posters? No, of course not, because that would be silly, right? Yet this practice is par for the course with 3-D.

My Bloody Valentine: 'modern' 3-D
with classic subject matter

Worryingly, punters are indeed already opting to see the 2-D version of 3-D films at their local cinema and have started lambasting plans for shooting upcoming films in 3-D in film forums because of indifference towards the artistic merits of eye-poking 3-D shots, the $2 surcharge for 3-D cinema tickets and an aversion to wearing 3-D glasses.

So I suggest this statement: that 3-D is not so much an evolution of cinema in the line of sound, colour, 3-D, as different medium, somewhere inbetween film and theatre. But that is a different discussion altogether. Actually, click here for that discussion...


3D Stereoscopic Film and Animation Blog