Stereoscopic Media


This article was updated on 27 May 2012, and is filed under Research Provocations.

Keith M. Johnston Research Provocation, What is the Future of Stereoscopic Media Studies?

Given the number of established and emerging scholars engaging with stereoscopic media at recent SCMS and 3D Storytelling conferences, I find myself moved to ask what direction this new field is currently moving in, what limits and opportunities that direction might offer, and what other areas stereoscopic media studies may wish to engage within. This also links up with a connected question (one that will be commonplace to scholars already working in this field): is there a future to stereoscopic media? Will there still be something to study?

That question is apt because, based on the (admittedly partial) evidence provided by SCMS and a small number of articles that are starting to appear, the focus of stereoscopic media studies remains the present post-Avatar digital 3-D production situation. Within this, we might want to identify two strands:

  1. A media industries strand – an interest in the companies and individuals who are producing stereoscopic media, big and small (Miriam Ross’ work on the Columbian filmmaker Santiago Caicedo is an example of the latter)
  2. A content strand – the traditional film studies domain of narrative and textual analysis, considering what the addition of 3-D does to film style, and whether there are particular narratives (possibly constrained by genre) that are currently dominating the 3-D media environment (the dominance of sport and live arts events in much 3-D television, for example)

However, what is gratifying (not least for my own work as a film and media historian who is interested in media technology) is the move to historicise this moment, and complicate the current industry attempt to divorce ‘new’ digital 3-D from its analogue twin-camera ancestor. While this can also be split into the same categories as above, this historical focus necessarily expands into areas of stereoscopic media not currently covered: the Victorian stereograph, stereoscopic photography in military reconnaissance, and the other national contexts of production – German 3-D of the 1930s, Russian 3-D of the 1940s, and the British 3-D experiments of the 1950s (a potent experimental period where over 20 short films were produced across a range of genres that usefully historicise current interests in 3-D documentary, travelogue, ballet, sports and animation).

From this point, then, what future paths might stereoscopic media studies take? Mirroring, and expanding out from those listed above, I see four specific strands that need further thought and development:

  1. Media industries – work needs to consider the full range of industries that are involved in stereoscopic media production, and to try and get access to industrial actors who can speak to the present and future. This could follow the work of Ray Zone, and speak to stereoscopic creative practitioners – stereographers, producers, etc. – but the voices of 3-D distributors and exhibitors might also be a useful addition to our current knowledge. Also, how is stereoscopic media being financed? Are the main players the technology companies trying to sell us stereoscopic television sets, or the companies funding stereoscopic camera research and production?
  2. Stereoscopic media analysis and language – while academic work has started to describe and detail the 3-D experience and 3-D content, that work necessarily relies on existing film studies language and theory. Yet given 3-D scholars often note that stereoscopic media tend to ‘add’ 3-D to a 2-D production – or ‘convert’ 2-D to 3-D – should we be wary of ‘adding’ 3-D description to existing 2-D scholarly techniques? Simply put, do we need a new language to talk about, write about, and engage with 3-D? Does talk of negative and positive parallax aid or hinder our attempts to describe and talk about the 3-D aesthetic?
  3. History and archives – linked to both of the above, is the imperative to watch and be aware of pre-existing stereoscopic activity. Whether that is the German 3-D films of the 1930s, the British short films of the 1950s, the 1953-55 American features, or even the 3-D Doctor Who TV special from 1993, stereoscopic media scholars need to work with relevant archives to research and promote these different historical narratives, but also to campaign for the restoration and release of such material in digitised formats. Given the Hollywood studios are (according to the 3-D Film Preservation Fund) reluctant to release ‘old’ 3-D on Blu-Ray because it clashes with the ‘newness’ of current 3-D, it might be even more important to get examples from other national cinema contexts out into the world
  4. Audiences – the stereoscopic media audience is almost entirely absent from current discussions. While scholars have tended to make broad claims about how audiences behave when faced with 3-D imagery, or have used box office data to try and suggest audience behaviour and engagement, we simply don’t know enough about what audiences do with stereoscopic media.

That is, obviously, not the full scope of where stereoscopic media studies could go and sets up an artificial division between four categories that are, necessarily, going to overlap. More interaction with 3-D creatives and producers will help us develop language and stereoscopic reading skills; more awareness and availability of stereoscopic media history will aid current producers and allow us to compare language across time periods; understanding how audiences engage with 3-D relates back to how stereoscopic media is produced, but also complicates our own responses, as viewers of these films, television programmes, photographs, comics etc.

This model isn’t perfect – it doesn’t really engage with video gaming, for example (seen by many as the heir apparent of stereoscopic media, even if the industry itself seems reticent) but it sets out some broad avenues for where we could – and should – be going, if we are serious about establishing and developing stereoscopic media studies.

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