Jonathan has been a 3D enthusiast, videographer and photographer for over a decade and keeps abreast of all things related to stereo 3D.
What Happened to 3D Movies?
When it comes to movies, there aren't many things that are more divisive than the use of 3D (except for the Star Wars prequels and sequels). Those who love it love it. Those who hate it hate it. There's plenty of misinformation and assumptions to be found.
But now, 17 years after the current iteration of 3D made its comeback, how are things faring, how can you use it, and what is it all about? Here are four topics on the state of 3D.
1. 3D Myths
One common summarization of 3D in the public consciousness is that it is defined as things coming at you or leaping off the screen. This can be true, but it's a gross oversimplification.
3D Is Just About Objects Leaping at You
3D is depth perception, nothing more. It is what you see every day, as long as you have two healthy, functioning eyes. Sometimes objects are close up, but more often than not, they're far away, and stereo vision is always subconsciously used to enhance clarity and our perception of shape and distance.
As such, being both mundane and beautiful at the same time, it can't be arbitrarily asserted that 3D is only suited to certain genres like animated or action films. Actually, 3D's intricacies can be even better appreciated in slower sequences.
3D Conversions Are Lower Quality
Another myth that has been perpetuated and still has a foothold among some is that 3D is only worth watching if it's filmed in that way from the beginning with a twin-lens camera, and that 3D conversions are somehow lower quality. However, it's worth noting that no major 3D movie conversion has been done fully automated but requires manual input by artists (I know because I dabble in this myself).
One thing that contributed to conversion's bad rep was that in the early era of digital 3D when 3D movies were starting to get mainstream after the success of Avatar, a number of films that were never planned to be released in 3D had a last-minute conversion. Due to limited time to complete them and lower budgets, they were usually on the subtle side. That doesn't mean they were bad because while a few early conversions were, most weren't. While not nearly as powerful as today's conversions, most were accurate and an improvement nonetheless.
Nowadays, though, the whole argument is irrelevant. Not only are most 3D films planned on being converted from the very beginning, but the methods and quality have leaped to the extent that the conversions of today, which make up most 3D movies, look just as good or often better than one filmed that way, giving the filmmakers more creative control.
A striking example of this would be The Amazing Spider-Man, which was filmed natively in 3D and yet had very weak depth. Its sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, however, was a conversion but had strong depth.
2. 3D Technology
Anaglyph 3D, the kind where you wear red and blue glasses, has always been a compromise that degraded the picture quality and lessened the potential effect. However, what many don't realize is that the two major quality 3D viewing methods used today have been in place since almost the very beginning.
Shutter and Polarized Glasses
Shutter glasses, which flicker the left and right views in sync with electronic eyewear, were first used almost a century ago and resurged for home consumer use in the 1980s with the invention of LCDs. They have been on the market ever since.
Polarized glasses, which are simpler and allow a brighter, full-color picture, were used back in the 3D craze of the 1950s all the way up to the present and are now the most popular format used in movie theaters worldwide.
If you're waiting for that elusive glasses-free 3D-TV that's always just around the corner, you may be in for a long wait. While such technology does exist on some cell phones, tablets and most notably the Nintendo 3DS, such screens are intended for one viewer at a time because the 3D effect is easily lost when the viewer moves from their position. Even some glasses-free devices and demo TVs that claim to allow movement often degrade the picture by using the original 3D video to generate multiple views, which almost always creates shallower depth and blatant errors.
Working with a bigger screen with multiple viewers and viewing angles that wouldn't overwhelm an average consumer is something that a whole other article could be written about. Suffice it to say, don't hold your breath. The technology used today provides the best picture quality for the best price, and when the latest 3D TVs were released in 2016, previous issues such as lower resolution and brightness were solved by the use of 4K and HDR.
If you want to watch 3D, you'll need a 3D movie on Blu-ray, a 3D video game with everything set up properly, a 3D stream from the internet, or 3D content you record yourself with a 3D camera or camcorder. Blu-ray 3D discs contain the highest quality commercially available films, and to play them you will need an appropriate disc player.
On the streaming front and on certain 3D cameras and camcorders, stereoscopic video is usually delivered with the left and right eye views squeezed into a single HD video, with side by side or SBS being the most common and over and under coming next, meaning that the resolution of these two formats is cut in half.
One thing to beware of is that some YouTube videos have been converted by some content creators to so-called 3D by simply duplicating the same video side by side for viewing on a VR device. Please note, however, that the resulting video will still be flat, as 3D images are slightly different than each other, as if viewed from different perspectives.
In other words, side by side format is an effective way to deliver true 3D video, but watching any video that way will not make it 3D.
3. 3D Isn't Dead
One favorite headline seen every year since its latest rebirth is that 3D is dead. While it's true that the concept of 3D broadcast television never got off the ground, 3D movies are a standard release format for most theatrical tentpole films that filmmakers don't think twice about. Actually, 3D movies have been released on home video non-stop since the beginning of home video itself, starting with field sequential VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD for use with shutter glasses. Since then, it has remained a steady but niche market for decades without letup.
This continued into the HD era. With almost every new 3D movie that came to theaters, a Blu-ray 3D version came out several months later. Straight up until 2020, 3D was at its peak and readily available to its fans worldwide, even if it wasn't being marketed to the common public like it had been a decade previously.
Unfortunately, due to the widespread shutdowns that year, and 3D being a format that makes most of its money in the theater, most films were shifted to 2D only streaming releases, even if the 3D version had already been completed. For the most part, 3D stopped cold that year.
The latter half of 2021, however, finally brought 3D back to theaters in most areas, and the release of multiple delayed 3D films back to back, leading up to the return of the billion-dollar box office with December 2021's Spider-man: No Way Home, showed that 3D was back to stay.
However, two things were missing.
IMAX and Disc Releases
IMAX, which had offered 3D showings of many blockbusters right up until before the pandemic with Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, suddenly stopped offering 3D in the USA and in many other countries. Now customers had to choose between 3D in a regular theater or 2D in IMAX.
Thankfully, there are a number of premium standard theaters that offer 3D as well as good seating, sound and brightness, which IMAX was often just a guarantee of. The only thing missing from the experience would be the exclusive taller aspect ratio seen at IMAX, but this is often included on 3D Blu-ray anyway when such becomes available, such as for Marvel films. Thankfully, in spring of 2022, IMAX 3D returned to the US with multiple blockbusters being released in the format as theater attendance rose.
Going back to the subject of 3D Blu-ray, the other thing that suddenly went missing in 2021 was the release of many recent films on disc. After early 2020's Onward, Disney suddenly stopped releasing their movies and Pixar's movies on Blu-ray 3D, and the same thing happened to many other films. What many had taken for granted and was readily available just the year before had suddenly become a guessing game. Most non-Sony Marvel movies have continued to be released so far but now only in Japan, requiring many users to spend exorbitant amounts to import.
Disney and Warner Brothers
For the most part, Warner Brothers is the only major US studio that realizes the simple fact that monetizing their already existing theatrical 3D content on Blu-ray is better than not monetizing it at all, even if the audience for such is smaller, and they continued to release their popular 3D movies in the US on Blu-ray, such as films from the MonsterVerse and the DC Extended Universe.
Disney would theoretically stand to profit even more from such a move, as they not only have a much larger and more popular 3D film library, but they also own a complete direct-to-consumer pipeline with Disney Movie Club for physical releases and Disney Plus for streaming, allowing them to keep all profits for themselves. Unfortunately, they have so far ignored this logic, as well as much consumer outreach to this effect via social media, forums and email.
4. 3D Lives On
However, new movies are not the sole source of recent 3D releases. Companies such as Warner Brothers and the 3D Film Archive have undertaken restorations of vintage 3D movies that were filmed that way with early 3D film camera rigs, restoring these historical and technological treasures and preserving them, sometimes looking better than they ever have.
Small studio Variety Films continues to produce original 3D films on Blu-ray, while small Australian distributer Random Space Media periodically offers unexpected recent films that had been previously unavailable, such as Jumanji: The Next Level and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Unfortunately, such availability has truly been random and they are subject to the whims of the major studios about whether they will work with them on a given release or not.
3D Digital Streaming
On the streaming front, Vudu offers many 3D features and shorts for digital streaming, some of which are available nowhere else, but unfortunately their device compatibility can be confusing. Glasses-free 3D tablets have also recently come to market such as the ProMa King and Leia's Lume Pad, both of which offer many major Hollywood films to rent and watch in 3D.
While no new 3D flat-panel TVs have been introduced recently, 3D projectors continue to be made. Standard 720p HD 3D projectors can be bought very affordably, followed by full HD models, and many brand new projectors have recently come to market that offer the latest specs of 4K, HDR, and 3D. Many fans of 3D and home theater in general have decided to replace their main TV with a projector, in the process finding that it not only offers a better experience but is also much easier to manage and move than a cumbersome, fragile flat-panel screen.
In fact, some of the latest short-throw laser projectors, which allow easy plug and play positioning and very bright image are being branded as laser TVs, possibly to reduce the hesitancy of some to adopt a projector. Just bear in mind that there are many, many projectors being sold that outright lie about the brightness levels and resolution, some offering 10,000 lumens or 4K while having nothing of the sort. To ensure the accuracy of specifications, always go with trusted projector brands such as BenQ, Optima, Epson, ViewSonic and others.
Virtual Reality and 3D
With the recent VR (virtual reality) trend came some confusion. Most of today's VR devices require a smartphone to be put inside them, with half of the screen showing an image for your left eye and the other half for your right eye. However, what is on those screens can differ. 360° content enables you to look all around you in any direction, but most content is flat, 2D.
On the other hand, any smartphone (preferably with at least (1080p resolution) can be used as a 3D personal cinema for videos in side-by-side format. Just view videos from YouTube or movies from your own collection (legally, of course) through a VR headset. PlayStation's VR headset can also allow direct playback of Blu-ray 3D discs.
With multiple Avatar sequels planned by 3D proponent James Cameron, an enormous and ever growing library of 3D titles from all eras and genres as well as dazzling technologies such as 8K, high refresh rates and continued general improvements in autostereo displays, the future of 3D can be bright indeed.
The videos below explore some of the vintage 3D content being restored, as well as more recent devices.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: You note "Nowadays, if you want a 3D television, the feature is often only available on pricier high end 4K HDR TVs"- in 2019 I'm pretty sure this is inaccurate. Do you have an example of a new TV that features 3D?
Answer: You are correct, no new models support 3D. If you buy one used, like I did recently, your most recent options are 4K.
Question: Are 3D TVs still being made?
Answer: Yes and no. Yes, in that new 3D projectors continue to be made every year, the latest ones with 4K and HDR, and 4K 3D Blu-ray players as well as Blu-ray 3D movies continue to be made and sold. No, in that traditional flat panel TVs with 3D functionality have been discontinued by most manufacturers.
Question: I have a 3D TV which my wife and I love. You mentioned that 3D Blu-rays are still sold overseas. Is the quality the same as in the U.S.?
Answer: Yes! The quality is identical to what you'd get here. Most Blu-ray 3Ds can be bought from amazon.co.uk fairly cheap, sometimes cheaper than the US would've charged even when you include import fees and shipping. Just always check that the 3D disc is Region A or Region Free/0. The notable exception would be Ratatouille which is sometimes advertised as Region Free when it is Region B locked, but if you buy a Region Free disc player, even that doesn't matter.
Question: With no new 3D TVs on the horizon as manufacturers push 4K, won’t new 3D home video titles soon dry up completely? The only thing keeping them alive is theatrical releases until a manufacturer introduces a new generation of 4K TVs with 3D to differentiate them from the marketplace. Is there any hope of this coming?
Answer: You answered your own question. First, theatrical releases keeping 3D alive is still very much a big business, even in the United States, and this is besides the strong base of those who regularly import new titles on Blu-ray 3D. As for new 3D TVs being made, if you count projectors, 3D TVs have never stopped being made, including new 4K HDR ones.
Question: I’m a filmmaker and I wonder if you can please recommend two or three 3D conversion companies that do quality conversions but at a more economical price than LA based post houses. I used one in Germany some years ago but they went bankrupt. Do you know any offshore 3D conversion companies that do quality work at a low cost? Much thanks for your help!
Answer: Here is a company that it isn't clear where they're located or their prices, but they are likely cheaper:
Here's one from India that claims to be affordable:
Question: What are your thoughts on 3D digital copies?
Answer: So far I'm only aware of two 3D digital copy providers for premium content. Vudu offers half-resolution side by side 3D movies, but the prices are too high making it more logical to buy a better quality 3D Blu-ray. They also disabled 3D playback ability on all but a few older devices, making even people with modern 3D projectors or 3D phones unable to watch them, and no new 3D movies have been added in a couple of years, meaning they probably abandoned it. The other 3D streaming provider would be for the Red Hydrogen One 3D phone, but again, there are no recent movies and the prices are exorbitant. There was a smart TV app called 3D Crave that enabled rentals of some 3D movies and shorts, but they were bought by Rokit, who have a 3D streaming service for their 3D phones. They announced some time ago that they would soon come to an agreement to rent major Hollywood 3D movies alongside their independent 3D content, but that looks to have fallen through.
Jonathan Sabin (author) from USA on May 02, 2019:
I didn't forget, I didn't even know! That's awesome!
Kaizar on May 01, 2019:
You forgot that the New Nintendo 3DS XL allows you to stream 120 refresh rate 3D videos in its Web Browser while you have any game suspended, so you can enjoy 3D videos like YouTube.
Jonathan Sabin (author) from USA on January 11, 2018:
Yes, I have seen LG's conversion demo on YouTube and it was the same as every other one out there. What you're describing is the holy Grail of all things 3D, and it would blow the industry open if available. Even today's twin lens 3D cameras can't calculate completely accurate depth maps from a 3D image. Maybe you are in the twilight zone lol . . . Or the future! (which would be awesome)
jmisbell on January 11, 2018:
Well, its more than that because you can actually see the ball come at you when thrown toward the screen. AND I am not one to easily be conned. I am a natural septic. and have been in electronics/RADAR/ RadioAstronomy/ Seismology andTS military electronics all my life. Have you seen the LG 60" 3D picture in person. They may not still sell the one I have as I got it about 5 years ago. Maybe from the Twilight Zone.
Jonathan Sabin (author) from USA on January 10, 2018:
In answer to your question, yes an automated 3D conversion will look blurry without glasses and clear with. However that doesn't mean it's really 3D. What they do is simply push the entire picture back into the screen and/or warp it a little.
For instance: If I take a photograph and move it back a little, maybe even bend or curve it, it will have dimensionality to it, but there will still be no separation between elements, a person and the wall behind them.
Another example: I can take a black and white image and make the whole thing look green. Yes, technically now it is 'color', but it's without regard for the content.
Automated 3D features are similar. They don't typically degrade the picture. They may even add a little 'life' to it, and some enjoy that. But what I'm saying is that it doesn't hold a candle to manual 3D conversion.
Thanks for your thoughts.
jmisbell on January 10, 2018:
I have an LG 60" Plasma TV that was advertised as having 3D capability with shutter glasses. It was inexpensive and actually cheaper than the non-3D version. I bought it with NO expectation of 3D being usable since almost no 3D programing is available.
But I was very surprised to find it worked on ALL programming. I am an Electronics Engineer with 43 years of programming experience in 13 languages and and I can't imagine how a software algorithm could be developed, and placed as firmware into my TV, to convert flat TV into 3D but they have done it somehow. I am not imagining it. When converted it gives a blurry picture without the glasses and a REAL 3D picture with them. Depth is fully realized. It is most noticeable at a distance of 8 feet or less and on live subjects like sports. But it also is effective on movies. At 12 feet and beyond the effect is lost. I think its magic because in my mind there is NO WAY it can be done without the information for TWO views being recorded in the initial recording. What am I missing here?