Why 3D Doesn't Work

Roger Ebert has been somewhat of a whipping boy for fans of video games, but he is an incredibly intelligent guy, and a critic who deserves our respect. So when he speaks out against 3D, and has arguably the greatest film editor arguing in his corner, maybe it's time to listen.

As we head towards a 3D future, with the 3DS and the PlayStation 3 in particular, the problems with 3D become increasingly important. This concept that 3D is an important feature we must pay a premium for is an idea that has become infused with video gaming - and not everyone agrees with the sentiment.

Least of all Walter Murch, an esteemed Film Editor whose work on movies like Apocalypse Now and Cold Mountain has earned him four academy awards. He claims that 3D, as it exists today, is problematic. The issue is that our eyes - and brains - simply can't cope with the effect over long periods of time. As he explains in a letter sent directly to Roger Ebert.

The biggest problem with 3D, though, is the "convergence/focus" issue. A couple of the other issues — darkness and "smallness" — are at least theoretically solvable. But the deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen — say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what.

But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focussed and converged at the same point.

Murch accepts that 3D works, from a technical standpoint, but the work we have to do causes an inordinate amount of strain.

We can do this. 3D films would not work if we couldn't. But it is like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, difficult. So the "CPU" of our perceptual brain has to work extra hard, which is why after 20 minutes or so many people get headaches. They are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared them for. This is a deep problem, which no amount of technical tweaking can fix. Nothing will fix it short of producing true "holographic" images.

With the 3DS months from release, and Nintendo stressing that they don't want children playing for extended periods, will we start to see an increasing amount of problems with the 3D effect? Time will tell, but there is a growing opposition to 3D and an indication from consumers that not everyone wants this tech to become ubiquitous. We've had no problems with it personally, but know plenty of people that struggle - and this may prevent the tech from properly hitting the mainstream.

Why 3D doesn't work and never will. Case closed. [Chicago Sun-Times]


    Who cares about 3D films, 3D games is where it's at. L4D in 3D is gore-tastic.

    It has been proven that 3D has no medical problem for us at all, but of course there will always be people that it doesn't work for just as there are people who can't listen in stereo, but who cares if you like it great if you don't great. I have a problem listening to the findings of a person who believes we have evolved over 600 million years. If this person is so learned then they would be aware that scientists now are leaning towards a god made world than an accidental one so let's not worry about focus on a film but maybe focus on reality. Get your facts right about the big things and then well listen to you about the little things!

      'scientists now are leaning towards a god made world than an accidental one'

      As far as I am aware, scientists can be religious, but that doesn't make religion scientific. Just because some scientists might want to believe in a form of creationism (ostensibly not the fairy tale in the Bible), does not make your statement correct. I'm yet to see conclusive evidence either way (particularly with respect to the conventional notions of a Christian God).

      @ Martin:

      I'm a scientist and neither I, nor any other scientists I know are 'leaning towards' anything involving God in science. Sure, scientists have religion and believe in God (personally I'm deist), but we don't apply non-scientific concepts to science, that's just silly!

      I can't find a single scientific paper that 'leans towards a God made world'.

    "All living things with eyes have always focussed[sic] and converged at the same point"

    I think this point is irrelevant. Convergence has no real meaning with regards to your eyes. It's a by-product of having to set depth in relation to a fixed position (the screen). The mechanism of focusing near and far on 3d is no different to it's analogue in the real world.

    The whole evolutionary argument seems bunk to me.

    I do own a 3d kit and a projector so I have had some experience in this.

    I think the key point is that 3d is no substitute for great film making or game designing.

    Convert to creationism, evolution doesn't exist! No problem! Herp.

    Nah, it will be alright, if 3D becomes a necessary feature in society, survivability in the eyes of natural selection may depend on it (i.e. You might be less likely to get laid if you can't sit through a 3D movie with some girl), so if we keep on watching it and it doesn't have a negative impact (such as death) on us, we'll probably get used to it in a few 100 generations if we get some decent mutations in genes which control vision (though I doubt humanity will survive that long).

    Anyway, despite my hypothesising,I personally don't really care for 3D imaging, hologram technology is already taking off, we'll think 3D is as archaic as beta-max in 20 years!

    3D is fine with me but I get bored of it and start to take the glasses off to see the difference, I think iMax has the best 3D

    Great article Mark.

    I appreciate learning why 3D is difficult to absorb, why it sometimes results in adverse physiological effects.

    You could argue that 3D doesn't work with old guys' brains and never will.
    3D is a strain on some people. Some people can't handle hand-held documentary style cameras on the big screen. Some people (my mum) can't handle surround sound at all. Some people can't ride a roller coaster. In any form of entertainment, there are people who will enjoy it, and those that won't.

    I'm lucky, I never get headaches, or feel eyestrain, and when done well 3D is far more immersive for me, and makes me care more in tense sequences and 'chase' sequences -particularly in any scenes that have cliffs, long drops or danger. The danger feels more tangibly real than in 2D. I usually switch off during the 'car chase' segment of a film, but in 3D I get white-knuckled.

    I remember arguments in the late 70s early 80s that colour didn't really add much to films (there were still a few B&W releases back then, but they were just about gone, and lamentation was everywhere) and that all it did was add extra distraction, and that colour just added an extra unwanted dimension to the film, when the story should be what keeps you believing.

    The technical arguments about limitationsof 3D are fair, but there are just as many problems with making 24fps cinema. In any 'film' you have to pan painfully slowly because of the slow frame rate, you can't get the tonality range in a cinema because of the required ambient lighting, and the projectors aren't bright enough to even vaguely simulate the real world when it come to things like having the sun blast in through a window etc.

    Cinema has a truckload of technical restraints and is a pale imitation of the colour, tone and sound we can perceive in real life.

    But cinema developed technique to work around the limitations, and to even make them seem like 'features'. We are conditioned to see film grain as *adding* to the experience rather than detracting from it, the required slow-pans have become part of the language and 'elegance' of film vs video. The lack of (in the early days) lenses and fast film stocks that could give a deep depth of field led to blurred out backgrounds to lead the audience's eye to the interest points, and to things like rack-focus pulls etc.

    The same could happen with 3D, it has limitations and requires artists that can work with it, and exploit it and find the best ways to use it.

    To say it doesn't work and never will is ostrich living at its worst. It is fair to say that it may not catch on with viewers, or that its popularity may fade. It is fair to say that some people don't enjoy the experience, and that some directors really make a hash of it. But the same can be said of the cinema experience itself. I hope 3D hangs around long enough for artists to learn and develop its language, and that someone makes something that truly moves us, in a way that couldn't be done as well in 2D. There are new things to discover in a new way of working, and I always find that exciting.

    This kind of criticism of 3D technology is utterly ridiculous.

    It's the equivalent of saying "I hate surround sound, and I don't get any real benefit from it since I'm hard of hearing and it's too loud!"

    I mean seriously!

    You're against 3D? You're akin to people who didn't want talking pictures, or who thought color was going to be a problem.

    It's new(ish) tech, so there's always going to be hype and a higher cost alongside it, and no one's forcing you to jump on the band-wagon.

    The current iteration of 3D viewing may not be the final solution, but it's the strongest yet and appears to be trending towards ubiquity.

    I'm astounded by the number of people who are so dissatisfied with the 3D on offer, that they'd rather pack it all back into the box and send it back to the factory, saying "No thanks, I'll stick with my black and white TV for now... that's all I need to watch 'I Love Lucy' re-runs."

    Just as mobile phones got smaller, and the internet has become something you can carry around in your back pocket... so to, 3D glasses will improve, and other solutions will present themselves.


    I've never understood why people hate 3D with such a feverish passion. Sure, the idea that greedy corporations are using it as an excuse to milk more money out of cinema-goers is a valid argument (doubly-so if it was the "fake" 3D that "The Last Airbender" used). But there's also a lot of vile directed at the technology itself, with people making claims of illness and headaches. Some of this is probably legit, but I suspect a large percent is a psychosomatic effect: you hear that 3D gives you a headache, you think this will happen, and you get a headache. I've been 3D gaming on my PC for months, never once felt sick no matter how long I play.

      I odon't hate 3D but I like it less after finding cinema excursion to a kids film costing $85, to me the whole 3D craze seems to be a way to inflate the grosses on movies without adding a whole lot too them.

      Still the investment is there in such a big way at the moment that eventually 3D films will really sell it.

      As for 3DS it's a brilliant idea for no other reason that it completely knocked the wind out of Sony's sales re: their 3D gaming obsession. It's also shown Nintendo in the rare (and probably temporary) situation as the tech leader (a situation it hasn't enjoyed since the N64)

      Also it's like they're finally releasing some good handheld games for the first time since the GBA, the DS years were a total waste of touch screen crapulence and awful non-games

    Make 3D the same price as 2D and I will consider it. However, very few movies are worth paying the extra money simply because it is 3D. Besides I am one of those people who seem to get headaches watching a 3D movie too long.

    When I watcher Avatar in 3d I spent 10-15mins looking at how odd it looked to have different flat 3d images showing, then ignored the 3d effect for the rest of the movie without even thinking about it.

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