Why it’s high time we started appreciating the art of 3D cinema

As Avatar 2: The Way of Water heads into cinemas, it's worth reconsidering the strange, polarising world of 3D, and what it can bring to the big screen.


Ben Schwartz


Ask the average filmgoer what they think of 3D at the cinema, and the answer is likely to fall somewhere between “it’s fine but doesn’t add much” to “I hate it and wish it would go away forever.” Thirteen years after James Cameron’s paradigm-shifting blockbuster Avatar — still the highest grossing film ever — the 3D wave has long since crested and broken, leaving a deeply uncertain legacy in its wake.

Among its many critics, 3D inspires an intense, almost fanatical antipathy. But to those who still enjoy them, 3D movies are poorly understood and unfairly maligned. When executed skillfully and utilised with intent, 3D adds a layer of aesthetic engagement and emotional affect not present in 2D films – but audiences, faced with a surplus of subpar 3D content, have understandably failed to appreciate its real value.

As Avatar: The Way of Water nears release, Cameron is betting that he can reignite interest in 3D movies, and initial signs are promising. The original Avatar was recently re-released into theaters, and it grossed an impressive 75 million dollars worldwide. Regardless of whether or not the next Avatar is another multibillion-dollar smash, the film is certain to spark a new round of debate on the merits of 3D movies. Now seems the appropriate time to examine them afresh and ask what exactly makes a 3D movie good.

When thinking of 3D, the first thought many will have is of seeing images pop out of the screen. The history of 3D movies is littered with countless flying tomahawks, glass shards, and severed body parts hurtling towards the viewer; the effect is fun but gimmicky. However, what truly defines a 3D film is interior depth — the effect of the film’s physical environment receding into the screen. It’s in the rendering of filmic space, and not in-your-face projectiles, where we find the format’s heart.

An incomplete list of noteworthy 3D films of the past thirteen years includes Avatar, Gravity, The Martian, Hugo, Prometheus, Life of Pi, The Hobbit Trilogy, The Jungle Book, Dredd, and The Walk. These films have two notable qualities in common. First, with the exception of Gravity, they were all natively shot as 3D. While the quality of 2D-to-3D conversions has improved greatly over the years, the language of 3D filmmaking remains fundamentally different to 2D. Even a well-converted 3D film will still exhibit direction and editing choices that belie its 2D origin, making for a suboptimal viewing experience.

The second and more important quality these films have in common is the primacy of the physical environment in relation to the overall story. 3D creates a sense of spatial immersion not present in 2D films, but this only matters when space is a key component of the story. And it’s here where the true value of 3D lies — in the magnification and personification of place.

The main character of Avatar isn’t the paralyzed Marine Jake Sully — it’s the planet Pandora itself. The chief antagonist of The Martian? The Martian landscape, which seeks to kill marooned astronaut Mark Watney at every opportunity. Setting is likewise paramount in Gravity (outer space), Hugo (railway station), Dredd (Mega-City One), etc. By accentuating the story’s setting, 3D imbues it with a weight and immediacy not present in 2D films. When deciding whether to see a movie in 3D, it’s useful to ask whether it meets this criteria. If it seems like the physical setting of the movie isn’t especially important to the story, there’s a good chance that 3D won’t add much to the viewing experience.

Returning to the question of 2D vs. 3D film grammar, the language of immersive filmmaking differs from traditional filmmaking in a number of ways. Most significantly is the elimination of the frame — or rather, the transformation of the frame into a rectangular volume of varying dimensions and depth. The screen becomes a kind of stage, or a diorama; in each shot, the foreground, middle ground, and background are vying for attention. Of course, staging in depth isn’t unique to 3D filmmaking, but with 3D there is an impetus to build depth into nearly every shot.

Furthermore, common techniques such as jittery handheld, zooms, or over-the-shoulder shots don’t work very well – 3D cinematography demands precise and steady composition, blocking, and camera movement. Likewise, 3D editing is slower and more contemplative, as it takes longer to absorb the visual information contained in a single shot. If you’ve ever seen a 3D conversion that left you cold (or nauseous), it’s probably because the 3D was an afterthought. Visual quality aside, native 3D capture is superior to conversion because the director is viewing a 3D monitor on set and thinking in depth — it’s built into the framework of the movie.

The very best 3D movies combine a heightened attention to place with a specific focus on immersive aesthetics. The Avatar movies tick both boxes, although if you’re firmly anti-3D, these arguments may not sway you. But for the 3D agnostic, Avatar: The Way of Water presents an opportunity to re-engage with the format’s preeminent living practitioner. It’s an open question whether Cameron’s return to Pandora will be a repeat success. Naysayers point to the original movie’s lack of ongoing cultural relevancy — who still cares about Avatar? It’s no coincidence that 3D movies are ephemeral phenomena; with projectors and used televisions the only options for 3D at home, viewers are typically left to watch inferior 2D versions of films that were designed for depth.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, his only 3D film, wasn’t widely seen in its native format until decades after its initial release; its reputation as minor Hitchcock was greatly enhanced when finally seen as intended. If 3D movies are to endure, it’s essential that they be seen in 3D (in theaters and at home), and valued as such.

Published 9 Dec 2022

Tags: Avatar James Cameron

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