James Cameron loves 3D films and he thinks you should too. From his early foray into the format with 2003’s Ghosts of the Abyss to the 2009 mega-blockbuster Avatar, Cameron has pushed the boundaries of 3D technology and riled against movies whose 3D he deems inferior and even harmful to consumer acceptance. Until Avatar’s release set worldwide box office records, 3D films were most associated with paper glasses with red and green lenses, and the sort of story that featured lame excuses to point things “at” the audience. Following the success of Avatar, 3D has seen a resurgence thanks mostly to James Cameron’s film.
Cameron believes that the biggest hurdle to truly widespread 3D viewing is convincing movie theaters to upgrade their projectors; often, the current structure makes it so that only one or two movies can be shown in 3D at one time, cutting down the length a movie can stay in theaters. Thanks to films like Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland that pull in a large number of 3D movie-goers to pay the three-to-five dollar surcharge, theater chains have begun to adapt. There are, however, downsides to the 3D format, downsides that Cameron has attempted to both downplay and address. Apart from the bulky glasses required to see the proper effect, 3D films have another eye-straining problem: they’re often dimmer than their 2D counterparts. Cameron hopes that by filming the upcoming Avatar 2 at a higher frame rate and by simply urging theater chains to project the film at a higher brightness, the dim appearance will be gone.
Another reason the 3D format comes under fire from critics is easy enough to deduce: the 3D, and the movies themselves, are just not very good. Shortly after the release of Avatar, studios scurried to make their movies 3D through a process called post-conversion. Where movies filmed with 3D cameras can achieve a life-like appearance, movies that have undergone post-conversion often look like paper cutouts moving around a mostly-flat diorama. Post-conversion can be done well, but it requires more time and a careful hand. The best argument for post-conversion will likely come in 2012, when James Cameron re-releases his 1999 hit Titanic in post-converted 3D.
For now, 3D films, both those filmed in the format and those post-converted to it, struggle to break even at the box office, a significant departure from the 2009 glory days. Although the future of the format, saddled as it is with dimly-projected post-converted baggage, is rocky; there is little question that the man who will save it is James Cameron.