The Thing About 3D

And I realized this whilst watching Coraline, which I thought was very well done in general, is that it will always give people headaches as long as directors forget that every time they cut to a new scene, they’re actively making their audiences’ eyes refocus. In real life, your eyes are not required to do nearly as much refocusing as they have to watching a 3D movie. And of course, they’re not required to refocus at all watching a traditional 2D film. Coraline’s 3D was very well done (i.e., it was not obnoxiously front and center all the time), but even with stop-motion animation’s native awareness of three-dimensional space, there were several cuts that had my corneas straining to catch up.

Either directors will have to find a new way to cut films that doesn’t fatigue the eyes so much, or I expect 3D is likely yet again to have its novelty wear out. All I have to say is I dread what’s going to happen to people’s eyeballs when a cut-happy director like Michael Bay gets hold of 3D. But then, if it’s a Michael Bay film they’ve bought in for a headache anyway.

61 Comments on “The Thing About 3D”

  1. I did not know that about 3D. I can’t stand to watch it because not only does it give me a headache those glasses are always too small and tight making my skin near my eyes sweaty. I like the effect of 3D but not enough to suffer through all that.

  2. I can’t stand 3D movies — the glasses never work with my eyeglasses, and one of my eyes likes to drift to the side, meaning I always end up with a headache. The last one I saw (Journey to the Center of the Earth) I watched three quarters of it with one of my eyes closed.

  3. I worked for nearly 5 years with a company that did 2D-3D video conversion and support for autostereoscopic (glasses-free) 3D displays. Anything could be converted, but very few videos were really effective for any length of time – and we’re talking minutes here, not hours. A shot had to be at least 3 seconds long to give the brain and eye muscles enough time to adapt, and as John said, eye muscle fatigue would build pretty quickly.

    It worked well for scientific applications, some games, novelty phones, and for short-form entertainment or trade displays, but feature-length 3D is just too much like hard work.

  4. ITA. I loved the 3D presentation in Coraline, thought it really added to the film, but if and when I see it again, I’ll opt for the regular version. I had a headache for several hours following the film and decided that, like rollercoasters, I’m too old for that sh*t.

  5. You heard it here first: 3D still fucking blows, and probably always will. Sometime tomorrow, we’re going to see Coraline in glorious 2D, so we can actually enjoy the story and avoid seeing the Annoying Headachy Version.

  6. 3D doesn’t work for me. Due to alternating ambliopia I don’t even see the real world in 3D. 3D movies simply don’t do anything but cause me eyestrain.

    I’m looking forward to seeing Coraline in a nice flat version.

  7. Like Tapetum in #6, I see the world in 2D all the time anyway. In my case, it’s an eye injury. (Nifty fact: when your mom says, “Be careful, you’ll shoot your eye out,” she’s not joking). But even with just one good eye, I get remarkable headaches watching 3D movies. I blame the glasses, but that’s just because I’m not sure what really causes it.

  8. love the shot of alex from clockwork orange there. Almost makes me wonder if i shoud know who that is being that i am only twenty one.

  9. I don’t get headaches with the recent wave of 3D movies, but something I’ve noticed is that the whole “things coming out of the screen” doesn’t seem to work for me anymore. Everything looks all nice and 3D as far as “depth” goes, but nothing much manages to come past the plane of the screen. The last 3D movies I saw were during the 80s revival, so maybe it’s always been like that and my memory is faulty. Does that happen to anyone else, or is it just poor me?

  10. Thanks for the tips- I will hie myself to a nice 2D theatre tomorrow to see it- a decision made much easier by the distance to a 3D location.

  11. This has always been a problem with 3D, but don’t look to Michael Bay to figure it out. James Cameron’s already going there with Avatar. I don’t have the technical info about what he’s using, but from what I’ve heard (from a VERY knowledgeable source) is that the technique and equipment he’s using will NOT make the eye refocus. Avatar sounds like it’s going to be hella groundbreaking.

  12. The other reason you get a headache is the conflicting signals – to watch a 3D film, you have to focus your eyes at infinity, and process the two parallel viewpoints as if they were closer. I you do what comes naturally and focus closer on one element, both foveas see blurred stuff.

    I saw Coraline in classic 2d, and it was excellent, and resisted throwing things at the camera until well into the credits.

    The other thing that is tricky is that big swooping crane shots or zooms are going to vary the effective eye spacing for you, which is going to be bound to feel weird either way.

  13. Albert Einstein popularized an idea (with a twist) already old hat when H. G. Wells wrote “The Time Machine.” The world is at least 4-D. Minkowski space has 3 dimensions of space and one of time. 19th century pseudoscientists tried to unify the occult and 4 geometric dimensions. Lovecraft gave it a grotesque spin. Kaluza–Klein theory (or KK theory, for short, first published in 1921 as proposed by Theodor Kaluza who extended general relativity to a five-dimensional spacetime) is a model that seeks to unify the two fundamental forces of gravitation and electromagnetism; and Einstein thought it was cool. Now the String Theory folks have been saying for 30 years that the universe is really 10-D or 11-D. Except the Holographic Universe theorists who say that the apparent 3-D universe is really a hologram projected from a 2-D surface, and they may be on the threshold of detecting proof.

    “From now on”, said Minkowski, “space of itself and time of itself will sink into mere shadows and only a kind of union between them will survive.”

    How many dimensions does Coraline have again? I’m confused… and I think “reality” is giving me a headache.


  14. 3D cuts are nothing compared to the horror that are 3D dissolves; the dreadful IMAX T-Rex film made heavy use of dissolves that required you to focus on close and distant scenes at the same time.

    I ended up walking out of the cinema – a rare decision for me.

  15. I, too, am stereo-blind, and get whopping headaches when I try to watch 3D movies (and, of course, I don’t see the 3D-ness, just as in real life. It just looks weird). I’m selfishly hoping the novelty of 3D movies wears out. I’ll stick to the regular 2D versions until then.

  16. Interesting. Pretty much everyone else I know who saw the 3D version absolutely loved it. (Sample size > 50)

    The glasses are nicer than the old ones, and work well with regular glasses. The 3D adds a sense of depth, but isn’t used for “stuff coming at you” effects. Selick wanted it done in 3D to highlight the stopmotion animation.

    Alas, this is all from friends. My town will have 3D capability “in time for the Jonas Brothers 3D”. And they’re proud of that.

  17. John,
    So 80 miles worth of gasoline did not dissuade you, how was the drive? Hopefully the lower price of gas allowed for a decent size popcorn/sourbears?

  18. Coraline in 3-D was great and the effect was well used. However, unlike most folks, I get headaches from the glasses being too tight. I have a big head (no jokes please) and the glasses put a lot of pressure on the sides of my head.

  19. John,

    Did Athena get a headache also (implied by using “people”)? I would think your older, less flexible lens would put a greater workout on the eye muscles than Athena’s young supple lens. If Athena was fine, maybe you should get an eye exam.

  20. This might be a touch off topic but…

    Why are we having another 3D fling at the moment? You could even watch TV in 3D after the Super Bowl. (well, you could have, I didn’t since I’m not much on gimmicks or network TV in general)

    Any one know why now?

  21. Ironically, Athena was less enthused about seeing it in 3D than I was; she doesn’t like the process much. But she liked it fine. I didn’t ask her if she had a headaches, however, so I can’t say.

  22. All this from a film company called Focus (in which the “o” is out of focus). I rather enjoyed the 3D effects though I did have to work occasionally to focus properly. The glasses fit over my regular glasses just fine and I took them home with me instead of giving them back via the recycle bin.

    I also enjoyed the cool 3D effect with the paper jumping mice at the end, after the credits, though it was hard to focus at first.

  23. [In 3-D movies] “every time they cut to a new scene, they’re actively making their audiences’ eyes refocus.”
    Huh? When you watch a movie, 3D or not, your eyes are focussed on the actual location of the screen. The position of the screen, which is where your eyes are focussed, does not change regardless of where the illusory 3-D places the virtual image.
    If you sit close to the screen, your eyes are focussed close even if the image shown is a distant landscape. If you sit far from the screen, your eyes are focussed far even if the image on the screen is a close-up. This is true for both 3-D and non-3-D films.
    Now, I suppose you may get a headache because there’s a conflicting signal here; the place your eyes are focussed on is not the same place that your brain says the object is. (and if you’re not in exactly the right spot in the theatre, the parallax measurement of distance, another way your brain computes 3-D, is in yet another position).

  24. I thought the 3D in “Bolt” worked pretty well. Not too much eye poking gimickry. But when we left the theater and I asked Sam how he liked the movie, he said “It was pretty good. It could have been flat.” As opposed to “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, for example.

  25. There must be something wrong with me – I love 3D and get no problems at all watching it. No headaches, no eyestrain, no nothing. (As they might say.) I’m shortsighted and wear glasses and have no problems with the old style glasses (cardboard with coloured cellophane) or the big dark glasses they use now, which are even better. I just re-watched Spy Kids 3D last weekend at home and I’m hoping to see Bolt in the cinema in a couple of weeks. 3D is AWESOME! I’d rather see 3D presentations than IMAX – I really don’t want a close-up of the pores in an actor’s skin, thankyouverymuch.

  26. I’ve always maintained that 3D movies are a fad. Give it a few years and we’ll be back to boring old 2D, much to my eye muscle’s delight.

  27. For those of us with only one working eye – well, 3d is a waste of time and a headache to boot. If it were just me (I’ve had this all my life), I wouldn’t say anything.

    However, I now know a number of people — not generally older folk either — with only one working eye. And for THEM, I will say that the theaters need to release movies in Both 2d and 3d Formats.

    Lack of depth perception really isn’t a handicap if you know how to compensate…we do everything, including sail. But going to 3d movies? Eh.

    PS High 5/Fist Bump Jamie @ 25

  28. Meanwhile, I’m rather grateful that a film that was hardly a guaranteed commercial success — there are parts of the source material that are genuinely fraking scary, and Henry Selick isn’t exactly a box-office magnet — had a solid opening weekend, regardless of the number of dimensions it was projected in.

  29. It didn’t give me a headache and the glasses were like sunglasses that fit over my regular glasses. I thought it was wonderful…stunning. I don’t know if it would have been quite as stunning in 2D, but people should get a chance to see it either way since so many people have trouble with 3D.

    I’d like to get Maddie Gaiman, Athena and my granddaughter Rialla together…they’d rule the world in no time flat. Teh cute…it burns!!!!

  30. I was going to take the kids to see Coraline, but they got in their heads that instead they wanted to contribute to Steve Martin’s ability to acquire more modern art. (Which is the only reason I can think of for him to do that movie.)

    That’s 100 minutes of my life I’m never getting back.

    Sigh. Maybe next week.

  31. The other solution to this problem (besides going back to 2D) would be to just make the damn cuts longer. Heck, do something like Rope in 3D — all (apparently) one cut. Voila, no jarring refocusing! Which I wouldn’t mind in general, come to think of it. I like movies with cut-heavy action sequences, say, just fine, but when no cut in the entire movie is longer than 5 seconds, I get whiplash. (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I’m looking at you.)

  32. The two best uses of 3-D in film I’ve ever seen were The Polar Express (IMAX 3D) and Space Station (IMAX 3D). Is is any surprise that both of these were optimized for IMAX 3D? The larger screen allows you to look around — in 3D — and play. More like regular seeing than straight stare ahead at the film.

    Dr. Phil

  33. Can’t watch 3D. I have stigmatisms in both eyes and they are different, so all I end up seeing is one eye blue and fuzzy while the other is orange and nothing is all that 3 dimensional. I get so distracte dby the mechanism that is supposed to make it work that I stop payng attention to the movie.

  34. I can’t stand ‘3D’ movies. IMAX ones don’t fool my brain enough for the thing to stay in focus; my brain keeps figuring out it’s being fooled, and everything goes out of focus for a few minutes. Quite irritating. I’ve finally decided to not bother with ‘3D’ movies anymore. If it’s not available in 2D, I’m extremely unlikely to see it. Fortunately, Coraline was available here in Seattle in 2D at multiple theatres (though not my favorite theatres), so I was able to enjoy it just fine.

    Besides, it’s not _really_ 3D unless it’s a play. Pseudo 3D = teh bleh.

  35. Oh, also in cinema for me this weekend was ‘Chocolate’ and ‘Push.’ Chocolate is the latest Thai martial arts flick from the guy responsible for Ong Bak. This one is about an autistic girl who is a martial arts savant, who winds up going around collecting money for her sick mother from people who owe her, with much ass-kicking ensuing. Some really fantastic martial arts here – I’ve read the actress was in training for three years for this role, and I can believe it.

    Push is waaay better than it’s being given credit for. Way better than Heroes is these days, that’s for damned sure. Dakota Fanning is especially impressive here. Strange, two Dakota Fanning movies released on the same day (she does the voice of Coraline).

  36. Hmm, didn’t realize that Coraline was going to be in 3D as well as 2D. I’ll probably see the movie next week. The Other Mother looks a lot nicer than she does in the original illustrations .. not sure if I like that or not. We’ll see.

    BTW, I was going through papers last week and came across a copy of Sage magazine .. yep, you know the issue, the one where I f**ked up the order of the pages. Hadn’t seen it in almost two decades and then just the other day a friend handed me a stack of books to read. Your first book was one of them … excellent story. Of course now I’ll have to see if the others are available on kindle. If not, traditional paperbacks it’ll be. Cheers!

  37. The technical term for what your eyes have to do between cuts in a 3D movie is reconverge. They had been essentially pointing at one “depth” and have to point at another “depth”. You can be forgiven for calling it focus because in the real world convergence and focus are always tied together. In a 3D film focus stays at the screen and convergence moves around. It might be one of the headache reasons. And for all of you that saw the superbowl 3D stuff, the 3D is Theaters is MUCH better. Check it out.

  38. Until they can figure out a way to do 3D sans the glasses (holographic movie, anyone?) , I’ll continue to pass on it.

  39. “… something I’ve noticed is that the whole “things coming out of the screen” doesn’t seem to work for me anymore. Everything looks all nice and 3D as far as “depth” goes, but nothing much manages to come past the plane of the screen.”

    That’s very much on purpose, of course – see Katzenberg’s comments in this interview (which also mentions how they’re addressing the eyestrain issue and a lot more about why at least some studio moguls absolutely love 3D):

    From the article: “One of the things is that, having worked in 3-D for many years going back to the Disney theme park years, 3-D was always about breaking the proscenium. It was always about holding things out there in front of your face and trying to surprise you. It was a gimmick, it was a trick and it was used as a theme park attraction. I did “Captain Eeo,” I did “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience,” I did “Muppet 3-D,” I did “Shrek 4-D.” Now we’re doing the opposite of that. There’s not a single instant, not one single time in which we break the proscenium. Why? The moment you do that, you have…you’ve broken the connection in storytelling because now you’re self-conscious about the fact that you’re watching 3-D and that’s what you’re thinking about as opposed to getting lost in the story.”

  40. There is also the irritating problem of depth of field. In “real life” we are at liberty to focus on any part of whatever is in our field of vision, but in a movie that is handicapped by the fact that camera lenses do not render everything sharp from one inch to infinity. The eye will occasionally, unconsciously, try to focus on something in the background of such a film that is very much NOT SHARP. And it gives you eyestrain unless you can pay very close attention.

  41. Saw it with a whole group of 30s-50s year old academics with no problems or complaints from anybody about eye-strain, headaches, or problems with the 3D, so results may vary. Glasses went on fine over my 7 7/8 hat size head and glasses.

  42. I’m a great believer in 3D and have been taking slides since about 1960, using a few of my 6 35 mm stereo cameras. I also have a complete projection system but have had stolen my best slides (activity @ Kennedy Space Center, air shows, scenery, people, etc.)
    Though I’ve seen rather few 3D movies (my first was “Bwana Devil” in 1955,) I love ‘m and get no eye strain or headaches, as a result.
    They depend on polarized light and, therefore, can’t be used with regular TV. Maybe someone will improve on that but I’m not counting on it.
    I have friends in Saline, MI, who have a 10 foot screen that is suitable for all kinds of 3D and flat projection, including slides & movies, along with a fabulous 7.1 “stereo” sound system.

  43. Penh @10: …but something I’ve noticed is that the whole “things coming out of the screen” doesn’t seem to work for me anymore. Everything looks all nice and 3D as far as “depth” goes, but nothing much manages to come past the plane of the screen.

    There were a few scenes in Coraline where things came “out” of the screen — the needle sewing a button, the hands when Other Father is playing the piano. In general, I don’t think they were trying for that kind of 3D effect, probably because of the intrusiveness Observer mentioned in comment 45.

    Some movies do go for that type of 3D effect (My Bloody Valentine 3D, Journey to the Center of the Earth) because it’s expected of them.

  44. Count me as a believer when 3-D is used as part of the story (Coraline) versus a gimmick (pretty much every 3-D horror movie ever made).

    No headache for me or my four cohorts (ages 12-50) and while it wasn’t as dramatic as Dorothy landing in Oz must have been back in ’39; using 3-D to differentiate the other world from the “real” world sure worked for the story.

    I’m also very glad that Coraline did so well in its first weekend. Hopefully that is a sign that the movie will do well enough to keep Laika in business and result in more great stop-action movies (probably all in 3-D) being made.

  45. Thanks amk@ 42

    Good article with Jeffrey K, but when you said “they can help keep theatres alive and let them charge more for the glasses.” I should have realized that it was going to be a “money” thing. I’m not always cynical but it’s always about the money isn’t it.

  46. I haven’t seen Coraline yet, will this weekend, but I did see the 3D version of Beowulf. That movie had some pretty fast cuts and action sequences and I don’t remember getting eye strain. In fact, I thought it was done rather well. I lamented the fact that all the human models looked like they were part of the same wire frame but overall the movie was pretty good.

    3D will have its issues for awhile but the industry will work out the kinks in the next five years I think.

  47. Speaking of 3D, anyone highly anticipating James Cameron’s Avatar???

    I’m thinking that he’ll get it done right.

  48. @ Jeff S

    I don’t think being able to charge an extra couple of quid makes 3D all about money when you consider how much more it takes to do in the first place. I don’t know much about cost increases for the actual filming process, but I do know that it costs £70K just to convert a screen (or probably more accurately, the projector) here in the UK to show the modern 3D. Consequently, it’s only in the bigger cities that you can see it. I reckon it’ll be a while before 3D becomes a cheap process across the industry as a whole.

    A good friend has some weird, rare neurological condition which means she can only see out of one eye at a time (and doesn’t she have a lot of fun at the optician – “Can you just TRY to look through both eyes for me?” “Oh, THAT must be what I’ve been doing wrong all these years!”) and consequently has no binocular vision. She doesn’t bang on all the time about what a stupid idea it is or how unfair. We just don’t see 3D movies together – it’s no big deal. There will always be 2D versions of 3D films so she’s never going to miss out.

  49. tt @ #55 – I would say that Selick “got it done right” with Coraline.

    It was interesting that since Coraline was a 3-D movie, all of the trailers we saw were for 3-D films. This included, Up, 9, Ice Age 3, and Monsters vs. Aliens. Unfortunately, no Avatar trailer was shown.

    All of the trailers were pretty interesting. Up, is already a no-brainer as every Pixar movie has been excellent, Ice Age 3 was less a trailer and more a short “Scrat” film that was pretty funny, “9” was new to me and had a great look – Tim Burton meets sci-fi, and Monsters vs. Aliens was another pretty funny trailer.

  50. I don’t get headaches from the 3D but it does trigger my vertigo and then I get great urges to barf during the films. Just not worth the extra admission cost.

  51. Laz @56

    You’re right, it isn’t always about the cash flow and I agree some of it has to count toward breaking even on some items.
    Sometimes I just end up wearing crankypants for a couple a days at a time.

    I don’t have monocular vision or get headaches or any other issues with 3D itself, it’s just not my cup of tea.

  52. I basically like the 3D effects…but I hate being required to pay an extra $2 for glasses (that are by the way made in China and probably for a few cents). My family of five had to do this to see “Monsters vs Aliens”. Then they want to to place them in a recycle bin so they can wrap them up and resell them again. They already charge through the roof for a regular movies admission. It’s just a way to get more money out of you. I already had three pair of the exact glasses from a previous movie, but still had to pay for all five. Will not go back when this is required again.

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