The history of 3D media

by Dr Nick Jones

1 Jun 2018

This blog is part of our Summer Showcase series, celebrating our free festival of ideas for curious minds.

3D cinema may not be unanimously popular, but it is here to stay. My project Contemporary 3D Cinema: Space in the Digital Age analyses the visual spaces produced by 3D, and looks in detail at the format’s history and aesthetics to explores 3D’s widespread contemporary presence.

Digital 3D cinema is often dismissed as a gimmick, but this overlooks its cultural importance and aesthetic possibilities. I describe how 3D is crucial to understanding today’s wider landscape of digital technologies – including pervasive digital surveillance and the phenomenon of big data – but also assess the peculiar aesthetic effects 3D can produce. In this way, I hope to reveal the importance of 3D not only to digital cinema, but to our understanding of the nature of images and vision today.

The history of 3D media

Interactive timeline

Avatar and its ilk may align 3D with entertainment, but they are traces of a broader shift in image-capture towards spatialisation, one which is key to contemporary surveillance practices. Digital technology does not capture a frozen, marginal historical perspective like the photograph or printed document did before it; rather, it generates 3D, interactive, and implicitly surveillant simulations.

The alternative 3D films listed in the timeline above are not alone: 3D documentaries Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) and Pina (2011) used 3D to depict bodies and spaces like sculptures in ways amenable to arthouse acclaim, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (2014) experimented thrillingly with the nature of stereoscopic media, and Gaspar Noe’s Love (2015) employed 3D to think about intimacy, longing, and mediation. The expansion of 3D into documentaries and dramatic works are a testament to the potential for the future of 3D cinema.

Dr Nick Jones is a Lecturer in Film, Television and Digital Culture and the University of York.

His exhibit Contemporary 3D Cinema: Space in the Digital Age was part of the British Academy's Summer Showcase 2018.

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