Interest in 3-D images precedes cinema and is ongoing today, but as a commercial venture 3-D film production has waxed and waned several times.  But is it possible for 3-D filmmaking to be sustainable as a commercial venture?  Rather than trying to assert what will happen, I explore some common objections, suggesting that the key to sustainable 3-D might be the animated feature film.

One argument against sustainability holds that a film needs a reason integral to the subject matter for the 3-D.  Werner Herzog chose the format for Cave of Forgotten Dreams in order to capture the way cave paintings made use of the rock shapes, for example.  But do we ask whether films employing sound, color, or widescreen have particular reasons behind them?  Some certainly do, but we don’t require it. Rick Mitchell argues that because the best 3-D film processes are too expensive for most theatres to install, 3-D production will remain centered on the less satisfying processes and therefore fizzle out.  This is akin to saying that television will never catch on because its screen is smaller than the cinema.

Some challenges to sustainable 3-D have recently been overcome.  3-D TVs now make it possible to view movies in 3-D at home, and 3-D TVs that do not require glasses will be available as well.  The games industry is producing 3-D games, and this increases the demand for 3-D in general.  As yet, there is no solution for people who get headaches from 3-D.  But this is unlikely to prevent 3-D from gaining ground.  Video games employing first person perspective trigger simulation sickness in some people – but this has not stopped the games industry from releasing more sickness-inducing games, because they sell well.

Arguments for 3-D note that it adds a dimension of realism, but stereoscopic technology is too limited to do more than gesture at a lived spatial experience.  J. P. Telotte has argued that 3-D films imply physical contact through an illusion of depth, and these moments “pointedly work to violate our space, only to leave us sensing something amiss, something unaccounted for.” Thus, live-action 3-D production has been centered primarily in the less realistic genres: science fiction, thrillers, horror, fantasy, and animation.  This is also what makes 3-D a crowd-pleaser: it is not the everyday realism of seeing in three dimensions that we do every day.  It’s something that pretends to be like it, but offers a different sensation.

Currently, 3-D films fail to meet the reigning standards of photorealism and audiences seem to respond best when 3-D is used for fantasy.  By sidestepping the questions of realism and purpose behind the effect, animated films provide 3-D images that are simply fun. As a mode of film not commonly closely associated with realism, 3-D animated films may be the key to developing a sustainable commercial audience.


Mitchell, Rick.  “The Tragedy of 3-D Cinema.  Film History.  Vol. 16 No. 3, 2004. 208-215.

Newman, Jared.  “What Happened to Glasses-Free 3D TV? Does the bursting of the 3D TV hype bubble spell doom for a glasses-free version?” TIME, January 16, 2013.

Solomon, Jeff.  “Are You Sick of Games?” Looneygames Vol 1, No. 3, 1998.

Telotte, J. P.  “Making Tele-Contact: 3-D Film and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Extrapolation 45.3 (2004): 294-304.

Kara Lynn Andersen is an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY. Her research explores the intersections of live-action, animation, and video games, She has guest edited a special edition of ‘Animation Journal’, “Animation on the Fly”, focusing on video game animation and has an article on European horror video games forthcoming in ‘Transnational Horror across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies.”