A deeper understanding of depth: Studying digital 3-D cinema

by Dr Nick Jones

10 Jul 2015

A glance at this summer’s blockbusters suggests that 3-D exhibitions are here to stay. Ant-Man, Terminator: GenisysMad Max: Fury Road and many others have all been released both in a 2-D (or planar) version and in a slightly more costly 3-D version. Art house directors like Wim Wenders (Pina) and Jean-Luc Godard (Adieu au language) have also produced work using digital 3-D technology. Yet for all the prevalence of stereoscopic cinematic entertainment, its place within contemporary visual culture is only vaguely understood. My forthcoming three-year Postdoctoral Fellowship, generously financed by the British Academy, will seek to redress this.

Stereoscopic 3-D works by presenting slightly different images to the left and right eyes; these marginally offset views then produce a seemingly three-dimensional object when viewed in the correct fashion (i.e. show the left eye a picture of the left-eye-view of a cube, and the right eye the right-eye-view, and we will perceive a single volumetric shape pointing towards and receding away from us, not two similar pictures). Because of this, 3-D images cannot accurately be called images at all. 3-D media is instead a kind of ethereal visual illusion created by our own viewing activity: if we are not wearing the right polarised glasses and not paying attention to the screen in the correct way, the illusion of 3-D is not produced. As a discipline designed to further our understanding of imagistic, planar cinema, Film Studies therefore needs new tools in order to describe, evaluate and critique 3-D.

In my project Contemporary 3-D Cinema: Space in the Digital Age, I will attempt to provide these tools by exploring the particular kind of space produced by 3-D, and how this space has been used by filmmakers. Avatar, the first major digital 3-D film (and the highest grossing film of all time, not adjusted for inflation), is instructive in this regard. It uses digital special effects to generate Pandora, an immensely detailed, explicitly wondrous and quasi-mystical environment. 3-D technology then augments both the depth and the spectacle of this place. Exactly how 3-D does this needs to be better and more critically understood than simple appeals to verisimilitude or visual wonder. The stereoscopic, digital environment of Pandora is both more ‘realistic’ or ‘lifelike’ – thanks to the additional depth dimension – and more (literally) incredible – thanks to it being an insubstantial, intangible place.

Symbolic form

In a landmark piece of work that is now nearly a hundred years old, Erwin Panofsky described the painting tool of perspective – in which mathematical calculation aids a painter in producing a coherent articulation of deep space – as a ‘symbolic form’ (1927/1991). That is, perspective is a far-from neutral tool of representation in which we can discern the broader ideologies of its era. In the case of the rise of perspective during the Renaissance, these ideologies include rationalisation, commodification, and the mathematical calculation of spaces and objects.

Such concepts have hardly gone away, and digital 3-D in the twenty-first century relies upon a similar translation of real, lived space into a mathematically ordered double of itself. But digital 3-D also speaks to the more general digitisation of lived space in recent years, the tendency for life to be lived through screens and in online environments. It also points to the increasing prevalence of spatialised digital representations in everything from gaming and manufacturing to surveillance and mapping.

Application of the texts and ideas of the so-called ‘spatial turn’ will help the project reveal what is distinctive about the spaces of digital 3-D. Writers like Henri Lefebvre (1974/1991) and Doreen Massey (2005) have usefully explored our attitudes to space in an age of urbanisation, neocapitalism and globalisation; digital theorists like Lev Manovich (2001) have also investigated how contemporary technologies can alter our perceptions of space. At a time when enormous amounts of data are routinely collected and collated, and reality is often something that is either ‘virtual’ or ‘augmented’, it is vital to understand how widespread digital 3-D screenings take part in what renowned film scholar Thomas Elsaesser has called ‘an emerging set of new default values’ around media, space and time (228). In short, we need to comprehend how digital 3-D might function as a ‘symbolic form’ for the twenty-first century.

Digital 3-D is undeniably a marketing tool, prodding us to spend a little more on our cinema tickets so that we can make the most of our Friday night at the movies. But it is also an expression of a broader cultural shift away from images, and their distanced contemplation, and towards spaces, and our sensuous envelopment within them. It is therefore imperative to grasp what logics lie at the heart of digital 3-D’s representations of space, and how these join up with other technologies of data capture and visualisation.

Nick Jones received his PhD from Queen Mary University of London in 2013 and is the author of Hollywood Action Films and Spatial Theory (2015). His work on contemporary cinema has been featured in the journals New CinemasAnimation and New Review of Film and Television Studies, and he will be starting his new life as a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in September 2015.


Elsaesser, Thomas. 2013. ‘The “Return” of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century’. Critical Inquiry 39.2 (Winter): 217–46.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1974/1991. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. London and Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Massey, Doreen. 2005. For Space. London: SAGE.

Panofsky, Erwin. 1927/1991. Perspective as Symbolic Form. New York: Zone.

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