In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 3D Cinema

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Background
  • Histories
  • Early Accounts
  • Academic Monographs
  • Edited Collections, Special Issues, Interviews, and Websites
  • Analyzing 3D before the Digital Era

Cinema and Media Studies 3D Cinema
Nick Jones
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0351


3D cinema uses binocular depth cues to create the impression of space and volume, a process normally requiring the display of two sets of aligned but slightly different images and the wearing of prostheses such as polarized glasses (a process adapted from the stereoscope, a 19th-century parlor toy). 3D film production has occurred throughout the history of cinema, with early experiments by the Lumière brothers and the release of 3D features as early as 1922 (The Power of Love, now lost). Nonetheless, as a production and exhibition practice it is relatively marginal, as is—to some extent—scholarship on the format. Early considerations by film theorists of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s establish the threads of many subsequent discussions around 3D. This includes the way it might appeal to either immersive realism or ostentatious spectacle (or, somehow, both), as well as how its use might prompt changes in film style. Because 3D never becomes an established, normalized element of media practice, these questions are never effectively answered, although their continuing exploration provides much insight regarding the format itself, the periods of its historical adoption, and even the meaning of cinema more generally. That is, 3D can reveal fierce disputes around acceptable film aesthetics, the desired relationship of viewers to screens, and whether cinema is or can ever be a replication of reality. These disputes play out in industrial commentary and audience reception as much as they do in scholarship. They flare up especially during widespread adoption of the format, which is generally agreed as occurring in three “waves”: the 1950s, when Hollywood studios invested heavily in the technology as part of a wider set of strategies to counter declines in cinema attendance (declines that were at least partly the result of the wide rollout of television at this time); the 1980s, when the VCR again threatened cinema box office; and the 21st century, when digital workflows enabled the much wider production and diffusion of 3D content, and 3D was conceived as a way to highlight theatrical exhibition in response to growing possibilities for online media consumption. This last “wave” has encouraged a wider array of cinema and media studies scholars to consider 3D, with the 2009 release of Avatar creating a flashpoint for the format. Today, 3D is crucial to the global circulation of mainstream digital blockbusters (and particularly the release of Hollywood films in China), and so is often linked to debates around digital effects; but the presence of 3D filmmaking in the avant-garde sector, and its connection with auteurs, has also prompted several scholars to consider how 3D exhibition reshapes audience perception of film texts (in the manner of an element of mise en scène). Given the contemporaneous rise of media archaeology as a method of analysis, investigations into the digital era also often look back to 3D cinema’s prehistory in the form of the stereoscope.

Theoretical Background

The stereoscope was a media device hugely popular in 19th-century United States and Europe. Resembling a set of binoculars, viewers would place a stereocard—a single card containing a pair of twinned images—into the apparatus, and be rewarded with a stereoscopic space, in effect a 3D photograph. The stereoscope is crucial to the genesis of 3D cinema, as well as much of the scholarship on 3D filmmaking and 3D media generally. The sources in this section—some of which are contemporaneous with the stereoscope’s creation and propagation in the 19th century, and some of which are theoretical accounts examining it much later—are all quite common reference points for academic work into 3D cinema, furnishing cinema and media studies scholars with a framework for thinking about the optical qualities and perceptual distinctiveness of stereoscopic content. Wheatstone 1879 is an account of the principles of binocular vision (upon which 3D relies) by the inventor of the stereoscope, while Brewster 1856 is a somewhat competing overview in which the author claims he was the stereoscope’s inventor, not Wheatstone. From the same period, Holmes 1980 (originally published in 1859) is a journalistic discussion of the aesthetic beauty of the apparatus, and a celebration of its apparent capacity to separate form from matter. Crary 1990 is a hugely influential treatise on the shifting contours of vision, and argues that the stereoscope reveals wider changes to optical knowledge and power that were being wrought by modernity. The more recent sources in this section bring together many of the insights and arguments of this earlier material to further analyze the content and form of stereoscopic media. Belisle 2013 connects histories of the stereoscope with the use of 3D in contemporary gallery art, Gurevitch 2013 argues for the consistently spectacular and commodified quality of stereoscopic media since their inception, and Colligan 2008 investigates the compositions and perceptual power of erotic stereocards.

  • Belisle, Brooke. “The Dimensional Image: Overlaps in Stereoscopic, Cinematic, and Digital Depth.” Film Criticism 37.3–1 (2013): 117–137.

    Discusses stereoscopes and other pre-cinematic optical toys, with particular reference to 19th-century scientist and stereophotographer Eadweard Muybridge and the work of contemporary digital video artists Sergio Prego and Camille Utterback.

  • Brewster, David. The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory, and Construction. London: John Murray, 1856.

    Covers the principles of binocular vision, the various different forms of stereoscope in production in the 1850s, and what the author considers to be the best ways to capture photographic material for a stereocard.

  • Colligan, Colette. “Stereograph.” Victorian Review 34.1 (2008): 75–82.

    DOI: 10.1353/vcr.2008.0006

    This short but detailed analysis of a hard-core erotic stereocard uses this object as a way of thinking about stereoscopic perception, obscenity, and the visual experience of space.

  • Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer. Cambridge, MA, and London: The MIT Press, 1990.

    While the scope of this book goes beyond the stereoscope, the material on stereoscopic optics, as well as the author’s wider claim that vision is dependent on discursive cultural and technological fields, have found extensive reference and application in subsequent scholarship on 3D cinema.

  • Gurevitch, Leon. “The Stereoscopic Attraction: Three-Dimensional Imaging and the Spectacular Paradigm 1850–2013.” Convergence 19.4 (2013): 396–405.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354856513494175

    Draws on historical considerations of the stereoscope in order to demonstrate the “attractional” nature of 3D media, and how spectacle remains central to the format in the digital era.

  • Holmes, Oliver Wendell. “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph.” In Classic Essays on Photography. Edited by Alan Trachtenberg, 71–82. New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1980.

    Published in The Atlantic in 1859, this essay praises the lifelikeness of the stereoscope and identifies some common compositions of stereoscopic photographers. The discussion of haptics and immersion is a touchstone for later academic readings of 3D cinema.

  • Wheatstone, Charles. The Scientific Papers of Sir Charles Wheatstone. London: Taylor & Francis/Physical Society of London, 1879.

    Wheatstone’s papers recount his various scientific investigations of the early 19th century; pp. 225–283 discuss optics and his creation of a stereoscope in order to discover why flat, painted scenes of nearby objects looked less realistic than paintings of distant scenes (the answer being that they lack binocular cues).

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