Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has proved a profitable successor to Avatar in 3D cinemas around the world, and it’s fair to say that these films have proved to be many people’s first foray into the new world of 3D in cinemas.

Each of the major new enhancements to the medium of film have been met with enthusiasts and nay-sayers; the opposing corners being populated with fierce proponents and the general public are usually left in the middle wondering what all the fuss is about.

Following our conversation with The Observer, and our many articles and news items on this resurgence of 3D in cinemas, I spoke to my Dad about the notion of 3D and he emailed with his thoughts, and I wanted to share these with you.

My Dad is not a prolific cinema goer, but it was with him that we would travel up to London to see Star Wars or Superman in the late seventies and early eighties and I owe a lot of my love of film to him (he sat with me through Transfomers: The Movie – the cartoon original – so I do owe him…) He was always interested in the technology of cinema, and we poured over the Starburst magazines he bought, and would always seek out the Making-Of TV specials for movies which were out, and his take on the future of 3D is grounded in his love of films of all ages.

So, in a brazen flourish of nepotism I’ve decided to post what he wrote, as it helped me to think over my view of 3D and the future of cinema. Dave Lyus, take it away…

To paraphrase Hamlet – “To 3D or not to 3D – that is the question?”

With the recent release of ‘Avatar’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ the debate has been reignited. But is the history of cinema not littered with similar questions at the birth of any change?

Right at the beginning of moving pictures the thought was that it could be an educational idea but little more – that is until film makers stopped taking pictures of people sneezing and trains arriving at a station and constructed a story.

Cinema has always been about trickery – if it were not so, then it would not be viable. The brain and eyes are tricked into believing that showing 24 single pictures in a second can, by persistence of sight, translate into a smoothly moving image. In the early days under or over cranking the camera gave rise to events being speeded up or down. Georges Melies, perhaps the earliest special effects man, made people believe that a rocket could be sent to the moon. It was one thing reading Jules Verne’s latest book and bringing your own imagination into play but seeing a man on the moon was something completely different.

Early cinema was really an extension of the theatre – scenes were shot using just one viewpoint and actors gave a performance high on the sort of grand gesture seen in a theatre. Special effects have become the norm but they need to be seen as just part of the film even if they leave you gasping. In the 1920’s Buster Keaton was a master of special effects – in ‘Sherlock Junior’  he is being chased and escapes by jumping through an old lady selling items from a basket hung round her neck – that was not worked out for some time. Later, with much hard work, he played all the instruments in an orchestra – and you could see them all at the same time!

Here’s some of the astonishing work done by Keaton in Sherlock Jr. You can watch the entire film on Youtube here


At each step forward there have been detractors – perhaps none more so than when sound was introduced. People at the time were still amazed that the pictures moved and told a story but hearing the actors speak – this seemed a step too far. At the beginning it was indeed not too good. The cameras had to be swathed in huge amounts of soundproofing lest the sound of the film moving through the camera was picked up. This, of course, lessened the amount of movement possible with the camera at a time when the public was getting used to seeing scenes in terms of long, medium and close shots, the techniques for which were being developed.

Sound also brought an abrupt end to some careers – people expected their heroes and heroines to have voices to match and sometimes they just did not –  portrayed beautifully in ‘Singing in the Rain’  The actors tended to speak slowly so, it seemed, to allow the viewers to lip read. Also there was the situation where films which were being made as silents had sound added – sometimes this worked – but only sometimes. When Al Jolson in the ‘Jazz Singer’ famously said “You ain’t heard nothing yet” he was partly right – sound would soon develop into an integral part of cinema.

The coming of colour was, perhaps, less traumatic as hand tinted films had been around almost from the start – there were a few false starts but it soon became perfectly natural even if the colours were not always!

There have been a few other innovations which have not perhaps had the full scale recognition they expected. Cinerama was one of these. It was wonderful for travelogues and the like but rarely necessary to tell a dramatic story. We do of course have widescreen – although even this has drawbacks – I remember going to see ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ soon after it came out – when the film started the screen got wider and wider – very good except that we had not booked and finished up in the front row. We had to ask ‘What’s happening on your side of the screen?’ or watch it as if seeing a game of tennis sideways on!

And now (and not for the first time, having been introduced in some form since 1890, and new iterations spawning every thirty or so years) we have a resurgence in 3D films. Will this become the industry norm?  Views (pardon the pun) are divided. It will work for films designed from the start to make use of the effect. This will need careful thought to ensure (like nudity!) that it is integral to the plot. Just having the effect to show that it exists will soon relegate it back to the status of “well it was ok, but did not make a huge difference to story telling”.  Perhaps it has the biggest drawback of having to wear the glasses for a couple of hours – we will know it is a firmly established part of the cinema story when people can go to their opticians to order proper bespoke 3D glasses!

I am sure that if the early pioneers were able to come back they would marvel at the progress that has been made but they could also appreciate why so much effort has gone into making film the art that it is today.