Is 3D Film Dead (Again)? The Roller Coaster History of 3D Films

3D films have actually been around for quite some time. But are we seeing yet another decline in its popularity of late?
Christopher McFadden

3D films are actually nothing new. They were first experimented with at the turn of the 1900s. 

As technology improved throughout the century, short bursts in popularity for 3D came and went. With the creation of IMAX and release of blockbusters like Avatar, it seemed 3D had finally 'come of age.'


But as ticket sales plummet, and audiences become more and more disillusioned with "fake" 3D films, are we about to see another hiatus for 3D? Or are we about to see the death of 3D forever?

Only time will tell. 

When was 3D film invented?

A three-dimensional stereoscopic film, or 3D film, is almost as old as regular 2D film. Just as 'regular film' was becoming popular in the later 1800s and early 1900s, some pioneers were experimenting with 3D-filmmaking.


Early pioneers include the British filmmaker William Friese-Greene who filed a patent for a 3D-film making process as early as the 1890s. His design was very rudimentary and very impractical as it turned out.

William's idea was to project two regular 2D films side by side. Viewers would experience a 3D effect by watching the movie through a stereoscope. Funnily enough, this idea never become popular. 

William was followed by another early pioneer, Frederic Eugene Ives, who filed his own patent in 1900. Frederic's patent was for a stereo camera rig that coupled two lenses together 4.45 centimeters apart. 

In Aster Theatre in New York City, Edwin S. Porter and William E. Waddell presented an interesting test in 1915. The audience was presented with three test reels of various scenes including real footage from Niagara Falls.

This was filmed in red-green anaglyph. Despite its apparent success the idea doesn't appear to have been explored.

A little later in 1922, the first widely accepted 3D film was premiered at the Ambassador Hotel Theatre in Los Angeles. The audience was treated to a film called The Power of Love and was the product of Harry K. Fairall and Robert F. Elder. 

This early 3D film consisted of a red/green anaglyph format with the audience wearing anaglyph glasses. Their effort goes down in history as both the earliest known film that utilized dual strip projection and the earliest known film in which anaglyph glasses were used.

Further incremental advances took place throughout the 1920s. These included a series of 3D short films from the French studio Pathe called "Stereoscopiks Series" was released in 1925. 

Just like today, audiences needed to wear special glasses to watch them. 

MGM studios experimented with a similar system around the same time by producing a series of films called "Audioscopiks". Whilst they were popular for a short time the production process created significant glare issues making it very impractical for feature-length movies.

This problem appeared to be solved during the 1930s, thanks to the work of Edwin H. Land (the founder of the Polaroid company). He developed a process that used polarised light and syncing images together (one for the left and one for the right eye).

Whilst this provided a much more reliable and visually impressive 3D making process studios were still skeptical of the technique. 3D films were, for now, shelved for the foreseeable future.

Who invented 3D movies and what was the first 3D movie?

As you have seen, that rather depends on your definition. Whilst the earliest patent for 3D film making was in the 1890s by William Friese-Greene, his invention would hardly be considered 'true' 3D films as we know them today.

If we are talking about using anaglyph glasses to watch a 3D film, then the title should go to  Harry K. Fairall and Robert F. Elder and their groundbreaking film, The Power of Love.

Whilst this wasn't in color, like modern 3D films, the basic principle is the same as today.  

If you consider 3D films to need to be in color then The House of Wax, released in 1953 deserves the title of the first 3D film.  It featured the late and great Vincent Price and was premiered in New York's Paramount Theatre. 

Released by Warner Brothers, the film was the very first major motion picture to be shot in 3D and was also one of the first horror films to actually be shot in color.

It was directed by Andre De Toth and was actually a remake of an earlier 1930s film, Mystery in the Wax Museum. Like earlier 3D films, the audience wore special 3D glasses that meant each film was only seen by one or other if the audiences intended eyes. 

The House of Wax is widely recognized as the film that actually launched Vincent Price's long and illustrious career in horror. It would also help launch the so-called "Golden Age" of 3D throughout over the next few years, which is marked by a literal explosion of 3D thrillers throughout the 1952 and 1954.

After this brief boom in early 3D, its popularity disappeared as quickly as it appeared, and by 1955 but was practically dead in the water (once again). 

3D would be put back in the box for another extended period. 

The Boom and Bust of 3D throughout the 20th Century

After the Golden Age of 3D in the early to mid-1950s, little time or capital was invested in the technique. In the early 1980s, something of a 3D revival occurred.

In 1981 a Western Comin' at Ya! was released. This proved to be pretty popular and sparked a second 3D craze throughout the early 1980s.

A few film production companies jumped on the bandwagon and began to release a series of 3D horror films. Notable examples were Friday the 13th Part III in 1982, Jaws 3-D in 1983 and Amityville 3-D in 1983. 

Like the earlier 'Golden Age' of the 1950s, this craze was also short-lived. The final nail in the coffin was the big-budget 3-D flop Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.

It failed to actually turn a profit and most studios once again abandoned the technology. 

With 3-D films once again being abandoned by movie theatres, a new kind of 3-D film began to appear. Theme parks began to show IMAX films as special attractions.

These were giant-size screen projection systems that could be found in most theme parks around the world. Examples included Captain EO (1986), Jim Henson’s Muppet Vision 3-D (1991), T2 3-D: Battle Across Time (1996).

Museums also began to have IMAX exhibitions with notable examples being James Cameron’s 2003 documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, which explored the underwater wreck of the RMS Titanic 

3D films IMAX
Source: Greg Peterson/Wikimedia Commons

The success of this documentary inspired several 3-D movies to be released within the next two years.  Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and the IMAX version of The Polar Express, set the stage for the 3-D craze of the 2000s and 2010s we see today.

This was achieved primarily through advancements in digital production and projection. This made 3D creation and projection much more cost effective whilst maintaining an impressive watching experience for moviegoers. 

The mid-2000s saw an explosion in 3D films as studios become more confident with the technology. Disney produced several successful films and other studios released a steady stream of computer animated films. 

But it was James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster Avatar that would cement 3D as an impressive and potentially lucrative media form once and for all. 3D would never again be seen simply as a gimmick. 

Studios would inject massive amounts of investment into the form. In many cases converting 2D into 3D formats, many auditoriums would either convert existing theatres to 3D or open up 3D specific ones. 

But it appears we entering a new decline of 3D films at present. Many audiences have become jaded with the slew of "fake" 3D films being churned out over the last decade or so. 

Ticket sales for 3D have been disappointing for some time. Unlike previous 3D crazes, the reason this time appears to be purely financial. 

3D ticket prices tend to attract a higher premium than 2D films and audiences are simply not prepared to pay for it anymore. Factor in the fact that many 3D films today are simply converted versions of 2D ones and audiences are just not impressed anymore. 

3D TVs are also becoming widely available nowadays which is also taking its toll. It's likely we are about to witness another hiatus for 3D over the next few years. 

But just how it will re-emerge in the future is anyone's guess. Could we see "true" 3D movie experiences in the future? Perhaps akin to the Holodecks or Star Trek? 

Only the future will tell.

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