Stereoscopic Media


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

Lisa Purse Research Provocation, Towards a (genuine) appreciation of Digital 3-D as a narrative form


Stereoscopic design signals Hugo’s socially isolated state during the early moments of Hugo (Scorsese, 2011)


At the recent 3D Creative Summit at the BFI in London, a recurrent theme amongst the practitioners I saw speak was that narrative is what drives the detail of their stereoscopic design decisions. Robert Neuman (Disney Animation Studios; stereoscopic supervisor on films including Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and Bolt (2008)) was one of several speakers emphasising that their depth scripting was motivated by story and the need to communicate the ‘emotional beats’ of a scene, while Phil ‘Captain 3D’ McNally (Dreamworks Animation; stereoscopic supervisor on films including The Croods (2013) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010)) set out some of the ways he manifests ‘stereo intensity’ in order to enhance the emotional intensity of particular screen moments. Such comments aren’t out of step with the pragmatic task that all mainstream filmmakers are engaged in: to decide how best to tell their story through audio-visual means. But they do throw into relief the extent to which narrative has occupied a rather more tortuous position in cultural commentators’ responses to Digital 3-D. Some of the more famous examples include Roger Ebert worrying that Digital 3-D is contributing to a progressive loss of ‘the instinctive feeling for story and quality’ amongst filmmakers and executives (2010: para 1), and  Mark Kermode suggesting that narrative paucity is a marker of the process by which Digital 3-D films ‘drag all of us back to the fairground’ with their spectacle and visual ‘gimmickry’ (2010: para 5 and 18).

I detect a cultural bias in ongoing press concerns that Digital 3-D is all spectacle and no narrative trousers (to adapt an idiom), an anxiety perhaps predicated on vaguely recalled B-movie stereoscopic fare from earlier decades, but also rooted in older cultural distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture which are harder to shift, and which frequently shape quality judgements on popular cinema. For clearer evidence of such cultural bias (which seems particularly entrenched in relation to stereoscopic cinema and the oft-repeated dominant narrative of its history), consider the basis of enthusiastic press responses to Wim Wenders’ Pina (2011) and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), such as A. O. Scott’s declaration that those ‘who dismiss the format as the industrial gimmick (and excuse for price gouging) that it frequently is may need to reconsider now that a handful of certified auteurs have given it a try’ (2011: para 1), or the Washington Times’ exclamation that ‘it’s about time the technology reached the hands of an artist’ (Hornaday 2011: para 1). In these contemporary statements, as at other points in its history, 3-D is rhetorically situated at a distance from notions of filmmaking artistry and a film canon. But in addition, these statements characterise Digital 3-D’s commercial deployments as the ‘primitive’ forerunners of the more ‘civilised,’ more ‘artistic’ art cinema manifestations now (to follow the logic) emerging. The underlying presumption seems to be that sophisticated creative expression is simply not possible in mainstream Digital 3-D movies. The effect of such bias – one might call it prejudice – is to minimize discussion of and enquiry into Digital 3-D in its predominant manifestation: as a narrative cinema. As David Bordwell and D.N. Rodowick in their different ways have pointed out, despite a range of technological and aesthetic shifts over the last few decades, including the advent and proliferation of digital imaging, cinema ‘persists … as a narrative form and a psychological experience’ (Rodowick 2007: 184-5, see also Bordwell (2006: 9)). Amongst cultural commentators, the commonplace rhetorical stereotyping of mainstream 3-D as ‘lunging knives and fantastical storylines’ (Felperin 2011: para 1) shuts down developed consideration of stereoscopic effects’ contribution to film narration, and in doing so refuses to acknowledge the sophisticated, creative approaches to stereoscopic design often evident in the textual detail of Digital 3-D films.

Digital 3-D cinema, like its stereoscopic forbears, has a striking capacity to situate the spectator in a tangible fictional space, and to invite the spectator to experience that space in particular ways and to varying degrees of consciousness. Filmmakers can ‘design in’ space-dependent sensations – such as expansiveness or claustrophobia – or shift between different articulations of space or volume to provoke a corporeal response in the spectator. These are exciting possibilities that demand and are beginning to receive analytical scrutiny. But Digital 3-D cinema also situates its spectator within a narrative framework, inviting engagement with screen action and emotion, with the detail of characters’ narrative trajectories, and with the narrative themes that underpin them. In order to develop a more rounded understanding of how Digital 3-D as narrative cinema can and does make meaning, we need to consider each Digital 3-D film’s stereoscopic aspects in relation to its other elements – narrative, mise-en-scène, framing, composition, characterisation and performance and so on; to sustain in practice, that is, the necessarily ‘holistic character of all interpretative work’ (Wilson 1986: 203). In Digital Imaging and Popular Cinema I explored the ‘intricate ways in which digital deployments contribute to and often extend or intensify the workings of audio-visual narration, narrative design, characterization, staging and performance’, but also pointed out ‘the impossibility of discussing the connotative impact of a digital element in isolation from a film’s wider epistemic structures’ (Purse 2013: 154). Just as I argued there that we need to approach digital imaging elements ‘as part of the cinematic whole’ (ibid), I want to argue here that we need to do the same with Digital 3-D elements. This still means recognizing the specificity of stereoscopic effects and their affective and connotative potential, but doing so within an interpretative framework that analyses the interplay of all cinematic elements in the production of meaning. Such an approach promises a fuller sense of the enhanced possibilities Digital 3-D might offer for film narration, and, one hopes, may also encourage a better appreciation for the stereoscopic artistry on show in many of Digital 3-D’s mainstream manifestations.



Bordwell, David (2006), The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Ebert, Roger (2010), ‘Why I Hate 3-D (And You Should Too)’, The Daily Beast blog, NewsWeek (9 May), accessed 23 August 2011 at

Felperin, Leslie (2011), ‘Pina’ (Berlinale International Film Festival review), Variety (13 February), accessed 2 February 2012 at

Hornaday, Ann (2011), ‘Hidden wonders revealed from 30,000 years ago’, The Washington Times (6 May), accessed 2 February 2012 at,1180693/critic-review.html#reviewNum1.

Kermode, Mark (2010), ‘No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you – 3D really is a con’, The Observer (11 April), accessed 24 January 2012 at

Purse, Lisa (2013), Digital Imaging in Popular Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Rodowick, D.N. (2007), The Virtual Life of Film, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Scott, A. O. (2011), ‘3-D Tribute to Artistic Impulse’, The New York Times (22 December), accessed 2 February 2012 at

Wilson, George M. (1986), Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View, Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press.


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