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What James Cameron and ‘Avatar’ Did (and Didn’t Do) for 3D Filmmaking

With the groundbreaking 2009 film, Cameron sought to revolutionize an industry. But if the intervening years have taught us anything, it’s that the technology wasn’t as inevitable as he thought.

20th Century Fox/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Part of James Cameron’s particular megalomaniacal charm is that he can make even the most technocratic declaration sound like a humanitarian manifesto. Maybe it’s the legacy of The Terminator; the idea of a calculating android convincingly hidden in the skin of a human being. Or maybe it’s because after five decades as Hollywood’s reigning spectacle maker, the once and future King of the World sincerely believes he’s reconciled the great divide between biology and technology. Not for himself, of course, but for the good of all mankind.

“For me, it’s absolutely inevitable that entertainment will be 3D,” Cameron told the BBC when asked about the long-term evolution of his artform. “It’ll all be 3D eventually because that’s how we see the world.”

Cameron made this claim nearly a decade ago, when Fox executives were still lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills after the release of Avatar, a movie whose unprecedented success represented a kind of proof of concept for its maker’s prophecy. Avatar 2 and 3 were supposedly just over the horizon at that point as well, but delays led to the kind of push-backs that stoke expectations and anxieties to an unbearable degree. Because Cameron’s is an iron will, it was just a matter of time before he got back on track (also, $3 billion worth of ticket buyers can’t be wrong). But circa 2022, the question of 3D’s dominance is hardly a settled issue one way or the other. It’s a thin line between a paradigm shift and a downward spiral, and in addition to all the other things riding on the The Way of Water, the ultimate direction of 3D makes for a major industry talking point.

The history of 3D cinema is almost as long as that of moving pictures: the first stereoscope, offering left-and-right-eye views of a single scene or backdrop, dates back to the mid-19th century. But in terms of exhibition, it’s primarily been associated with carny-style gimmickry—a special attraction thrust at moviegoers every few decades or so. In the glory days of the 1950s, the format was promoted as a novelty: a rejection of the passive comforts of television yoked to subversive or spooky subject matter. A quick survey of influential 3D titles of the 1950s and ’60s encompasses mostly B-movies, including House of Wax and Revenge of the Creature; the titles suggest a certain reticence on the part of producers to risk elaborate (and expensive) dual-camera shooting practices on more adult or prestigious genres. (The technique also flourished in experimental and avant-garde realms where the style was more important than the content.) Synchronized exhibition proved costly and difficult, however, and by the mid-’80s, 3D had migrated almost exclusively to lame-duck sequels—i.e., 1983’s Jaws 3D, which at least delivered on the promise of hurtling shark chunks directly into the faces of paying customers.

In the ’90s, IMAX cornered the market on 3D documentaries, which were typically aimed at families and shown in specialized theaters. There was also an uptick in 3D-style theme park attractions, the splashiest of which was surely 1996’s multimedia, partially live-action T2-3D: Battle Across Time. Budgeted at $24 million and hosted at Universal Studios in Orlando, T2-3D was made with the blessing of Cameron, who at the time was diving to the bottom of the ocean and having his soup spiked with PCP by someone on the Titanic crew. In these stage spectaculars, 3D was still being used in a primal, jack-in-the-box-sort of way—to tease the audience with the idea that props or characters were jumping out of the screen at them.

In the 2000s, the highest-profile director to utilize 3D consistently was Robert Zemeckis, a self-styled problem solver like Cameron whose relationship to filmmaking technology was not-so-subtly aggressive. After getting an Oscar for Forrest Gump, Zemeckis seemed set on finding ways to bend the medium to his will regardless of whether the stories themselves demanded such flourish. In movies like The Polar Express and Beowulf, Zemeckis strove to use 3D imagery inventively, especially when it came to motion-capture performances, but for the most part the movies ended up stranded on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. They were slick and dazzling, but also hollow and soulless—a condition that Cameron sought to rectify through Avatar’s metaphysical gamesmanship.

The easy joke to make about Avatar is that it’s the most two-dimensional 3D movie ever made; that its characters, plotting, and messaging are hopelessly flat (or else borrowed: you could digitally replace Giovanni Ribisi’s evil-CEO performance with Paul Reiser from Aliens and have a slightly better movie). Turn that criticism inside-out, however, and you have to (as ever) hand it to Cameron for following his filmmaking instincts the way he did: the dramaturgy is just a pretense for the immersive visuals. The tension between cliché and genius—and analog and digital—has been part of Cameron’s filmmaking vocabulary since Terminator 2, with its symbolic showdown between the hardbodied Arnold Schwarzenegger and the liquid-metal T-1000, whose endless malleability mocked a star known for granite-like impassivity. Cameron was sentimental enough to let Arnold win that battle, even as T2 signaled the dominance of CGI once and for all. Ditto Titanic, which boldly juxtaposed practical and virtual effects alongside genuine documentary footage—a mish-mash that ended up feeling romantically old-school for Boomers and stunningly fresh for millennials.

With Avatar, Cameron was working in the realm of myth, revising the space-marines setup of Aliens so that the verdant, pastoral planet their soldiers touched down on was closer to Genesis than Hell. No less than T2, though, the film was also an allegory for itself, positing a near(ish) future in which mediation is everything and lived experience and entertainment could be fused together on a molecular level. The depiction of military service as a kind of plug-and-play purgatory indivisible from video-game playing was heady enough for PhDs, and visceral-slash-visionary enough for the masses, withholding any sense of technophobic judgment a la the Terminator films in order to exalt in a spirit of experimentation. When Sam Worthington’s Jake tries out his giant, bioengineered Na’vi body for the first time, it’s easy to perceive Cameron’s own enthusiasm for the motion-capture camera systems he helped develop. As arguably the first director of the first rank to make a 3D feature—and working from the same place of defiant, my-way-or-the-highway control freakery that had always defined his career—Cameron took the opportunity to show off his kineticism like never before. No wonder the film’s catchphrase was the visionary Na’vi credo “I see you.” In Cameron’s hands, every photorealistic Pandoran vista was a simulacrum worth the proverbial thousand words—and then some. (The film won an Oscar for its cinematography—the first such award for a movie shot in 3D.)

Rewatching Avatar now, its best moments still have a weightless, stratospheric kick, and you can understand why insiders and observers would have bet on a wide-scale 3D revolution. The early 2010s featured wildly profitable 3D releases encompassing fairy-tale adaptations (Alice in Wonderland), Pixar crowd-pleasers (Toy Story 3), and keynote MCU entries (Captain America: the First Avenger). For a brief moment, polarized glasses were basically mandatory for any summertime theater outing. But less than a year later, Slate published a piece by Daniel Engber titled “Who Killed 3D?” which speculated dismally on the state of the art, trying to reconcile the world-historical hype around Avatar with the starker commercial reality facing its descendants.

Engber’s thesis was that the major culprits in the downturn of 3D ticket sales were greedy theater chains and greedier studios, and that the two parties’ seemingly synergistic convergence around a costly new phenomenon was doomed by a lack of perspective. Given the massive expenses incurred by multiplexes and independent exhibitors to upgrade their projectors and screens to accommodate the pileup of post-Avatar influx of 3D productions, a little bit of gouging could be expected. But by 2010, the theater premiums were approaching an inflation of $4 per 3D ticket, and audiences stopped biting. Meanwhile, studios kept churning out 3D movies of wildly varying aesthetic quality, including a deluge of “post-converted” titles that aficionados—including Cameron—recognized as shoddy on sight. “Now, you’ve got people quickly converting movies from 2D to 3D, which is not what we did,” Cameron told Deadline in 2010. “They’re expecting the same result, when in fact they will probably work against the adoption of 3D because they’ll be putting out an inferior product.”

Leaving aside that Cameron considers pretty much anything without his name on it an inferior product, his analysis bears up to scrutiny. A turning point was the choice by Warner Bros. to rapidly—and expediently—post-convert the majority of their big-budget titles for 2010, including Clash of the Titans. For the low, low price of approximately $50,000 per minute of footage, the Mumbai-based post-production firm Prime Focus tinkered with Louis Leterrier’s Olympian crowd-pleaser until it was transformed into one of the dingiest, ugliest movies of its era—the artistic inverse of Avatar in that its blocky, awkward 3D served less as an invitation than an alienation. “It was famously rushed and famously horrible,” Leterrier told The Huffington Post in 2013. “It was absolutely horrible, the 3D. Nothing was working, it was just a gimmick to steal money from the audience. I’m a good boy and I rolled with the punches and everything, but it’s not my movie”.

In retrospect, Leterrier’s comments are commendable: the honesty of a studio hand whose hands were tied. The auteurs who tried 3D fared better, including Martin Scorsese with Hugo, Ang Lee with Life of Pi, and especially Alfonso Cuarón with

Gravity, in which the Mexican director’s signature long-take style felt even more sculptural and voluptuous. (Cameron recently cited Ridley Scott’s Prometheus as another example of a film whose director knew what they were doing.) And yet, with the exception of Gravity and maybe Werner Herzog’s anthropological documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 3D was not essential to their style or impact the way it had been to Avatar. Nor was it really essential to the movies of the MCU, which, with a few exceptions, were the work of sturdy, left-to-right craftsmen. (One worthily gonzo footnote to the shortlist of auteur 3D movies would be Francis Ford Coppola’s little-seen—or screened—2011 experimental horror film Twixt, which treated 3D simultaneously as a throwback and a joke. Coppola’s gag was to flash a pair of giant 3D glasses on-screen whenever he wanted the audience to put on their own specs; an affectionate nod to old-school schlockmeisters like William Castle.)

The most recent Hollywood film to do something remarkable with 3D was probably Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, which was, like Avatar and Terminator 2, an action film that doubled as a meta commentary, with Lee pitting a middle-aged Will Smith against his CGI clone in the pitiless clarity of 120 FPS. Lee is one of the few mainstream directors who can match Cameron’s adventurousness and exactitude, but his selection of material for showcasing technical experimentation has been wobbly at best—Gemini Man was somehow too weird and too generic to recoup its $140 million budget at the American box office. It was also one of the last pre-COVID mega-releases, and a case can be made that interpreting box office data—including the effect of 3D on profitability for distributors and exhibitors—has been a mug’s game ever since. But it’s telling that of the non-Marvel blockbusters to meet or surpass commercial expectations during the pandemic, two of the biggest and most carefully crafted—Tenet and Top Gun: Maverick—made a point of forgoing 3D altogether.

For his part, Cameron is still bullish on 3D, and not just in terms of the Avatar franchise; he even says that 3D TVs can make a comeback if designed correctly. He’s convinced that the techniques he’s pioneering for The Way of Water represent the way of the future. That’s a healthy amount of bluster, but underneath it all, Cameron has made an interesting and levelheaded point: that it’s only after the cycles of novelty and disappointment have worn off that the durability (and possibilities) of the format can be gauged accurately. “I liken it to color,” Cameron said in September. “When color films first came out, it was a big deal. People would go to see movies because they were in color. I think around the time of Avatar, people used to go to see movies because they were in 3D … I think it had an impact on how films were presented that’s now just sort of accepted and part of the zeitgeist and how it’s done.” When it comes to 3D in a post-pandemic moviegoing climate, time will tell. As far as James Cameron saying “I told you so,” well, that’s the definition of inevitable.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.