Why Real 3D Still Matters

by phil on Tuesday Nov 26, 2013 8:52 PM

2009 may stand as the golden year for real 3D films. Nearly all 3D films shown in theaters that year were filmed with stereoscopic cameras or rendered from original 3D animated assets. As soon as Hollywood caught wind of the money-making potential for extra 3D sales, the studio heads scrambled for ways to convert already-filmed 2D movies into 3D. This led to a boom in 3D conversion outfits, many of them with animators working overseas in Mumbai. And so began the era of real vs. fake 3D.

I started Real or Fake 3D in 2010, at a time when about half of 3D movies coming out were natively filmed with 3D cameras, and half were converted in post-production. At the time, I heard a torrent of complaints from moviegoers about headaches or annoying 3D effects (think wrenches and fists flying out of the screen). While some demanded their money back, most moviegoers continued to line up for 3D blockbusters like Avengers.

Since that time, 3D conversion technology has improved substantially. I now get emails about once a week about whether Transformers 2 or Gravity or some other converted 3D film is actually real. Inevitably, I'll look-up said movie or cross-reference the links these readers send me, and it turns out the movies are actually fake 3D, but the directors are adamant that their process is as good as the real thing.

Normally when I watch a fake 3D film, it is with a group, and I don't get to veto the decision, such as when I saw Thor and Star Trek: Into Darkness. Nearly every other real 3D film I've seen, I saw by myself or with just one or two other friends. Movies like Hugo and Cave of Forgotten Dreams were meant to be seen in 3D because the directors took the pain-staking effort to film them in 3D. Yes, the cameras are much more expensive. Yes, it takes a lot of time and effort to convert your whole production pipeline into 3D. But this is what makes the results of a well-done native 3D film all the more sweeter.

When it came time to watch Gravity, I looked up the movie on my own website, remembered that I had put it in the fake column, and so I made sure to buy the 2D movie tickets. The movie was awesome, and I immediately felt pangs of regrets seeing it in 2D. When Sandra Bullock's character is stuck to a retracting arm of the shuttle, and she is spun around, I really wanted to feel like I was in free-fall to Earth.

The next day, when I told a friend that I had seen Gravity, his first question was, "Did you see it in 3D?" Then a few days later, I got a tweet from another reader trying to correct Gravity's entry on Real or Fake 3D. He sent me a link to a series of behind-the-scenes clips, and I admit I was impressed. I could see how they would extrude the geometry and re-shape Sandra Bullock's body for 3D, and for a few days, I thought to myself, "What if I have it all wrong? What if conversions are as good as the real thing?"

Maybe conversions were in fact like the re-coloring of black-and-white movies. Without knowing that classics such as It's a Wonderful Life were re-colored, it may not bother you the first few times you see it. Now that I know they were re-colored, it's hard not to see the cheeks of James Stewart as an overly fluorescent pink, or his various co-stars' blond hair as unnecessarily platinum. But for most people it's fine. Maybe it's the same with 3D conversion. In the behind-the-scenes for Gravity, the artist moves these gray extruded 3D shapes representing the depth map inside the space capsule, and it doesn't look like too much information is lost when they simulate 3D. Maybe stereoscopic 3D isn't that crucial. As Anthony Lane of the New Yorker says, movies are already in 3D.

So I decided to watch Gravity again, this time in 3D, to see if it was any better. I stepped into an empty theater during a matinee showing, and prepared to leave with a blog post announcing my apostasy. I could imagine the headline, "Author of Real or Fake 3D Says 3D Conversions Are As Good As The Real Thing." Within that fantasy was a proud assertion of my honesty. Here I was, the purveyor of a site that makes money delineating real vs. fake 3D, announcing that the distinction no longer matters.

After having now seen Gravity in both 3D and 2D, my verdict is that real 3D still matters. The scenes that I expected to blow my mind didn't. I rarely felt a sense of free-fall, and it didn't seem at all like the wild ride I had when watching Avatar. The problem is that 3D conversions have to mute many of their effects lest the illusion is shattered or they induce headaches. The result is that converted 3D films are a little flat. Oftentimes they veer towards just being pop-up books with a few digital 3D visual effects, like flying wrenches bounding into your face. When Sandra Bullock's character swings around miles above Earth, I expected to feel the same way that I felt in Avatar when Jake jumps off a cliff while learning how to fly. But I didn't.

To truly get that immersive feel, to get that sense that all your surroundings have disappeared and you are a living breathing member of the set you are watching, the movie has to be shot natively in 3D. Gravity is probably the best converted 3D film, but even the best 3D converted film can't compete with the real thing. Will this change a few years from now? Perhaps. Until that time though, my site will still be relevant.


Thank you for the article, but I must say that if you compare the Avatar in IMAX and IMAX Gravity in, there really difference (for me) is not.

I saw Gravity in 3D in IMAX, and I think that is where it is designed to be seen, because the depth was perfect. Family members saw it on a regular screen and had the same complaints as you.

I also went in without any idea whether the movie was fake 3D or not (forgot to check the site, oops!), and it is always the first thing I check for. I noticed the trailer for Thor was clearly fake, but I couldn't for the life of me tell whether Gravity was real or fake! Maybe because so much of it was CG (I guess) those elements could have been added later in real 3D? but if it was fake, I am now a believer that it can be almost as good as the real thing if done well.

I saw Gravity in IMAX. For me the 3D was simply OK. It was obvious that it was a post-convert. While better than earlier conversions. It was still flat and lacked pop.

Thanks for the feedback guys. I'm sold on the idea that there isn't AS much depth information that needs to be simulated as I thought there was, but the proof is in the pudding, and maybe two years from now conversions will be across-the-board as good as the real thing. At least for now, they're good enough that the studios can convince most consumers it's a wash, and it's only now snobs like me who can tell or care about the difference.

Hi Phil - the only post-convert I enjoyed in theaters this year was Pacific Rim. And as you know, this was a hybrid.

Please keep up the list and work! I have a 100" 3D projector at home and post-converts look terrible. Knowing which movie is real is very helpful.

For the record. Man of Steel was awful in 3D.

i must say it is better to watch a 3D by not knowing whether it is real or post-converted, and then you know what you were looking for, and what you have got. to me, many of the fake 3Ds seem to be real, examples include jurassic park, titanic, the wizard of oz, the nightmare before christmas and so on. of course, you may feel something different when the entire movie is shot by a real 3D cam, but i must admit some fake 3Ds are really worth watching. however, there are disasters as well. for instance, i never felt i was watching RIPD in 3D, which is a shame. the worst example is possibly RA.one, where the movie is worthless, and the 3D is completely flat. you would be surprised to know that the entire movie seems to be coated with a white patch when you watch the blu-ray disc, and you would almost never feel that it was meant to be in 3D.

I definitely noticed wrong depth ordering in the real actor scenes. Especially the first time she gets out of her suit and floats about for a bit. Also right at the end you can see the edging reconstructions, so for now, real 3d matters.

I am an avid fan of 3D and fake 3D spoils it for me. The thing I always seem to notice during a fake 3D film is that when the camera focuses on someone in the foreground, the person in the background is out of focus, then they will focus on the person in the background putting the person in the foreground out of focus. This doesn't happen with real 3D (i have verified that on my GS-TD1) as it focuses on both people at the same time giving you the proper depth perception. Thanks for the info on your site as it helps me make decisions on whether or not to actually watch some in the cinema :)
Merry xmas all

I to am a real 3D purveyor. When all the movie studios began doing 3D movies just to get the extra charge for renting the glasses, I kinda knew they would take every opportunity to cheapen the process (conversion) to see if the public would go for it. And many of us did. If it wasn't for the conversion disaster movie "Clash of The Titans" many would still be duped into believing that fake 3D is as good as the real thing. And again many do. But not so many anymore.
Phil I always check your site for future movies that are in production. Especially if they are showing trailers of it being in "Real 3D". I look at it this way, if the 3D camera was invented, and improved technologically to produce images that are unique and different than ordinary cameras,why not use them. Yes as you stated they are expensive cameras; but how can a studio justify the cheap "B" grade movie "Piranha 3DD" that took the time and money to film this movie..Using 3D cameras. It's a shame how a studio can green light a $215 million dollar movie[The Lone Ranger 2013]and it becomes a HUGE flop, but not justify using 3D cameras with other "well" know franchises they know WILL make money.What I have learned from all of this is that "Conversion" is cheap, fools the public, and the studios get to laugh all the way to the bank.
Keep up the good work Phil,your website is needed for the foreseeable future.

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