Almost two decades after the latest incarnation of the craze for 3D arose, its list of crimes is well known: price hikes, strained eyes, dimmer colours, ghostly double-images, juddering horizontal movement, and a proclivity for pokey-proddy visual gimmicks.

But it needn’t be this way. And who knows? Perhaps this time, it won’t. With the arrival of Avatar: The Way of Water this December, audiences will be actively shepherded towards 3D screenings for the first time since the release of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in 2013: arguably the last live-action film for which those vaguely Michael Caine-esque glasses, and the illusion of depth they unlocked, were pushed as an unmissable part of the experience.

Avatar’s director James Cameron has always been one of the technology’s staunchest backers. Recently, he told attendees at CinemaCon, the annual convention for cinema owners, that his new film featured ‘the most immersive 3D available’, which would ‘push the limits’ of the medium ‘even further’ than the original Avatar, released in 2009 – which remains, by a margin of around £40 million, the highest-grossing film ever released.

The history of 3D films is cyclical, and it’s no coincidence that the first commercial boom came in the 1950s, when studios were again looking for ways to push back against the rise of television.

There’s a prevailing belief that 3D films were always tacky, but that wasn’t the case. The first batch included a spectacular MGM musical, Kiss Me Kate, as well as works from pantheon auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Douglas Sirk. (The popular image of mid-century crowds kitted out in cardboard goggles is also bogus: overwhelmingly, the 1950s’ 3D films used the same polarised lens technology as today’s.)

The fad burned out then for much the same reasons it did in the early 2010s: exhibiting it correctly took skill, and when you didn’t, the experience ranged from drab to excruciating. Many of 3D’s more notorious drawbacks, from eye strain and headaches to gloomier, blurrier images, only arise when a projector isn’t properly calibrated. The light level hasn’t been turned high enough, say, or the two images required to produce an illusion of depth are very slightly misaligned.

But even in the 1950s, when up to three projectionists could be employed to run a single 3D screening (one for each projector and one for the stereo sound), such errors became increasingly common – and the goggles themselves, which were the only part of the process the audience directly encountered, got a bad name by association. When the CinemaScope format was launched in 1953, 20th Century Fox billed it as ‘the modern miracle you see without glasses’, and as widescreen flourished, 3D withered in tandem.

Following the release of Avatar, these problems were even more pronounced as studios rushed to post-convert existing unreleased films into 3D in order to feed the explosion in consumer demand. This entailed digitally stretching the existing 2D image over a plane of virtual lumps and bumps, which moved around in order to approximate the objects pictured on top.

The technique has since been refined, but in the early days, the results were often insultingly ugly and crude. Customers steadily cottoned on to the con it was, and enthusiasm for the format went into decline.

Yet when films are actually conceived with three dimensions in mind – when they’re shot and edited in ways that take into account the technology’s strengths and limitations - the results can be wondrous. Avatar, obviously. Gravity too, of course, but also Hugo, Life of Pi, The Walk, Dredd, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the many dance films from Pina to Step Up, the gonzo sublimity of Jackass 3D. If Avatar: The Way of Water washes in some more of these, bring on the comeback.

The Daily Telegraph

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