Stereoscopic Media


This article was updated on 12 Apr 2013, and is filed under Research Provocations.

Scott Higgins Research Provocation: How does 3D tell stories?



One productive trend in 3D scholarship involves questioning the conventions of 2D spectatorship. Thomas Elsaesser suggests that 3D may “be retooling the semantics of embodied perception” as part of a “postpictorial spatial vision and in-depth sensation in the digital age (2013).” Likewise, in her provocation Miriam Ross suggests “one of the problems in fully understanding how we are constituted in this [3D] space is that the primacy of the screen or the sense of an originary plane of action is rarely left behind in discussion of 3D.” Stereoscopic reproduction might entail a fundamental rethinking of cinematic language and viewer activity. But I think we can also be served by asking more bounded and proximate questions about 3D and popular cinema. In particular, what aesthetic strategies are filmmakers using to integrate 3D into our standing conventions of making and viewing popular cinematic narratives? Cinema’s creative agents (spectators included) tend to be grounded in a 2D pictorial system, much the way agents in the studio-era were acclimated to monochrome, or those before 1926 to the absence of synch sound. A common path of technological development in popular cinema involves concerted efforts to fit the new into the standards of the old. Sound and Technicolor were both gauged against the standards of the silent and black-and-white cinemas that preceded them. Artists, and viewers, tend to repurpose and adapt existing schemata as they chart new routines. Thinking about 3D aesthetics as a response to the established functions of popular film form gives us a precise means of mapping its contributions. In broad terms, we might begin by asking how artists are using 3D to achieve emotionally engaging stories.

Stereographer Brian Gardner (Meet the Robinsons (2007), Coraline (2009), Hugo (2011), Life of Pi (2012) are a few of his credits) has been particularly articulate about the challenges of fitting 3D to the expressive demands of narrative. Gardner invented the “dynamic floating window” method for minimizing distracting violations of depth that occur when part of a figure is occluded by the edge of the film screen. He also encouraged the use of soft and rack focus for directing attention within stereoscopic space. His innovations have been tremendously important to helping 3D accord with fundamental schemata of 2D storytelling like shot/reverse-shot and the over-the-shoulder shot. In a presentation (presented on his behalf by Bernard Mendiburu ) to the Stereoscopic Displays and Applications conference in 2011, Gardner bulleted three strengths of the dynamic floating window technique:

1) Solution that’s “Invisible” to Audience
2) Supports StoryTELLING
3) Stereo Window as spatial grammar of movie-making (not a 3D artifact)
These characteristics should sound familiar to us as the backbones of popular cinematic form. Style must be unobtrusive and narratively centered. But most intriguing is #3. Gardner has taken a technological artifact (the frame or window) and repurposed it as an element of “spatial grammar.” His goal is to help the technology speak the emotional language of the Hollywood feature. In a remarkable article for Creative Cow, Gardner further suggests how dimensional volume can be coordinated with character psychology.

He explains his practice of “depth scoring” features, using graphs that represent a scene’s depth budget in relation to action:

“For example, when the 3D goes deep behind the screen, you get this large empty space, this feeling of the grandeur of God, the vastness of the possibilities. I generally like to put that right at the act one climax, as the character goes off to explore the new world, to convey that sense of adventure. That’s an example of what I mean by using 3D depth to underscore emotional dynamics.”
For Gardner, and this is well illustrated by emotional turning points in Coraline, Hugo, and Life of Pi which I discuss elsewhere, stereoscopic depth and roundness becomes an expressive register equivalent in function to lighting, scale, and camera-movement in 2D. Equivalent, but also distinctive. For even as deepening space underscores emotion, it also constitutes a new perceptual phenomenon. Like Technicolor, which also used “scoring” to coordinate technique to emotion, the new effect cannot be entirely reduced to what it shares with the old model. But by studying that point of contact, of functional equivalence, we can make real progress toward understanding the nature of contemporary 3D.



Elsaesser, Thomas (2013) ‘The “Return” of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Geneoglogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century’, Critical Inquiry 39:2. pp. 217-246.

Crafton, Donald (1999) The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gardner, Brian (2009) ‘Perception and the Art of 3D Storytelling’ Creative Cow Magazine,

Gardner, Brian (2011) ‘The Dynamic Floating Window: A New Creative Tool for 3D Movies” presented at Stereoscopic Displays and Applications XXII,

Higgins, Scott (2007) Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow, Austin, University of Texas Press.

Higgins, Scott (2013) ‘Pi Eyed’, Thinking Cinematically Blog,

Ross, Miriam (2012) ‘Research Provocation: Where is the Screen?’ Stereoscopic Media,

Smith, Ben (2011) ‘Tangled in the Floating Window’ 3D Adventures Blog,

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