Jonathan has been a 3D enthusiast, hobbyist, videographer and photographer since 2009 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, over 15 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 six basic facts about 3D in 2021.
1. 3D and VR Are not Always the Same Thing
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. There are some apps, games, and consumer cameras that enable recording in both 360 or 180 and 3D at the same time, but this is the exception.
VR devices can be used for traditional 3D content, but we'll get to that later. A video regarding this subject is found below.
2. 3D Is Depth Perception
One common summarization of 3D in the public consciousness is that it is defined as things coming at you or things leaping off the screen. This can be true, but it's a gross oversimplification.
3D is depth perception, nothing more. It is what you see every day, as long as you have two healthy, functioning eyes. Sometimes things 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.
3. 3D Conversions Aren't a Bad Thing
One 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. However, it's worth noting that no 3D movie conversion has ever been done completely automated but requires manual input by artists. (I know because I dabble in this myself.)
One thing that may have 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 most weren't. While not nearly as powerful as other conversions, most were accurate and an improvement nonetheless. Today, conversions of this caliber can be achieved very affordably.
Nowadays, though, the whole thing 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.
4. 3D Needs to Be 3D
On that note about conversions, it's worth emphasizing that at this point in history, there is no software in existence that is capable of converting media into 3D without any human intervention.
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. The automated 2D to 3D feature on your TV or that great cheap 2D to 3D software you see online is, for a fact, too good to be true, with no exceptions.
Outside of Blu-ray 3D, stereoscopic video is usually delivered with the left and right eye views squeezed into a single HD video, with side by side being the most common and over and under coming next. One thing to beware of is that some YouTube videos have been converted 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 from different perspectives.
5. 3D Tech Is Established, so Don't Wait for Glasses-Free
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 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 picture, were used back in the 3D craze of the 1950s all the way up to the present. Now, however, they're the most popular format used in movie theaters worldwide.
If you're waiting for that elusive glasses-free 3DTV that's always just around the corner, you may be in for a long wait. While such technology does exist on some cell phones and most notably the Nintendo 3DS, such screens are intended for one viewer at a time.
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 is probably older than you are and provides the best picture quality for the best price. Maybe sometime down the road, just maybe.
The videos below go more in-depth into the various major and obscure technologies used to bring 3D to your eyes over the decades.
6. 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 television shows never got off the ground, 3D movies are bigger than ever and a standard release format for most 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.
With almost every new 3D movie that comes to theaters, a Blu-ray 3D version comes out several months later, and these can be ordered affordably from Amazon. Unfortunately, due to the widespread shutdowns of 2020, and 3D being a format that makes most of its money in the theater, far fewer 3D versions of films were released that year, and films that were initially planned that way were shifted to 2D only streaming releases.
With the combination of multiple planned 3D movies in the near future and the reopening of areas around the world, 2021 may end up being a better year for 3D, but thankfully, new movies are not the sole source of recent 3D releases. Companies such as Warner Brothers and the 3D Film Archive have also 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.
Many are available now, and more are always in the works. Vudu also offers many 3D features and shorts for digital streaming, some of which are available nowhere else, but unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be being maintained, and their device compatibility will lead most users to give up.
While no new 3D flat-panel TVs have been introduced in the last few years, 3D projectors continue to be made. Standard HD 3D projectors can be bought very affordably, and brand new projectors have recently come to market that offer 4K, HDR, and 3D, similar to specialty theaters which are already showing it, such as Dolby Cinema and IMAX 3D with Laser, which uses dual 4K laser projectors.
Going back to VR, 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 also allows direct playback of Blu-ray 3D discs.
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: 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: 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: 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?