Stereoscopic Media


This article was updated on 10 Oct 2013, and is filed under Research Provocations.

Jesko Jockenhövel Research Provocation: Digital 3D: Not one style, but many options



Increasingly under pressure in the US, 3D cinema is – in commercial terms – most successful abroad, especially in Asia. With 3D, Hollywood’s global approach has gone a step further. The domestic market has become almost marginal. 3D films are produced for a global market mostly in the form of Hollywood’s global product: the Blockbuster. In regard to viewer position the Blockbuster (as the 3D film) has always been paradoxical: massive scale in terms of technology and sensual involvement promise an overwhelming and immersive experience while patchy narratives and special effects can stage disruptive moments in the film experience. In this classic duality, immersion is contrasted with awareness of the textuality. This alleged opposition has quickly been applied to the aesthetic of 3D films and is actually part of a much broader discourse that goes back to theories of illusion and realism, for example to the theatre of the 18th century.

Just as theorist Francesco Algarotti has argued that if actors transcend the proscenium arch it would lead to a breakdown of the illusion (Huhtamo, 2013: 94), the same argument is applied to the use of the negative parallax in 3D films. This discourse has reappeared with digital 3D, but it is in fact a discourse that should be mainly restricted to analogue 3D and 3D that does not rely heavily on computer-generated images (CGI). Digital 3D films, that is visual effects-heavy 3D, implement two strategies, two aesthetic modes. First, a mode of central perspective, and second, a stereoscopic mode. Either classic linear perspective with very limited negative parallax is foregrounded, or sequences that stress haptic and immersive qualities with many depth planes, often in negative parallax, are incorporated. Both modes can coexist in a single film or filmmakers opt for a dominant mode. Both are rather coherent. I will elaborate on the historical and aesthetic framework both modes are grounded in, and, briefly, how in the context of 3D they depend on digital filmmaking to create a coherent impression.

The postulation of a restricted use of the negative parallax is based in an aesthetic tendency of the analogue stereo picture, which Jonathan Crary (1996: 130) has described as incoherent and having an innate disorder. This is not only due to the negative parallax but also to the cardboard effect, which results in receding planes and a lack of connection between fore-, middle- and background. Yet, today’s digital 3D, especially in the 3D blockbuster is embedded in a digital aesthetic that stresses coherence and a closed world. Sean Cubitt has described the digital aesthetic as “the world not as collocation of things but as a single object” (2004: 264). The worlds that are created are “encloses and enclosing worlds” (Cubitt, 2004: 246). Also, today’s digital aesthetic can be characterized as synthetic photorealism: “A colonization and domestication of the digital takes place, because the symbolic form of linear perspective reinstalls a familiar regime and order” (Maulko, 2012: 38).

Especially due to CGI and compositing it is easier to create a coherent environment, which then serves as an immersive surrounding. When using CGI it becomes possible to use multirigs and compositing. Thus, CGI can create complex visuals environments that do not differentiate any more between fore-, middle- and background. Rather, they are visual fields for the viewer to navigate. One example is the exposition of Hugo (2011), where smoke and snow create an impressive visual density. Another prime example can be found in Ridley Scotts Alien-Prequel Prometheus (2012) where one of the main characters, the android David, moves through a holographic map.

Yet, there are opposing forces at work, which result not in a single 3D film style but different applications and practices. The basis for these opposing forces can be found in David Trotters observation that “two visual systems, optical and haptic, inform stereoscopy” (2004: 41). The foreground of the picture, according to Trotter, is characterized by tangibility. These haptic impressions position the viewer differently than the optical model of perspective illusion and stress interactivity and immersion and thus a corporeal film experience. This mode, which creates an environment for viewers, is very close to Bukatman’s understanding of Douglas Trumbell’s effect sequences (2003: 94). These sequences do not foreground single objects, but rather create an environment: “Fictive and theatrical spaces are collapsed, as diegetic and cinematic spectators are, in a metaphorical sense, united” (Bukatman, 2003: 97). Digital 3D today, due to the possibilities of CGI, is rather effective in building this stereoscopic mode, which is a coherent, haptic environment instead of the incoherent aesthetic of analogue 3D.

Nevertheless, Trotter puts forward that this haptic system does not replace the optical system. The optical system is still in place and there are numerous examples in recent 3D films where a perspective view prevails.  I propose that it would be productive to speak of a stereoscopic mode and a mode of central perspective for the digital 3D film, instead of trying to identify a unifying aesthetic – just as there is no common style for all planar films, which can work with depth cues or not as opposing styles such as 1940’s depth-of-field and (haptic) intercultural cinema (Marks 2000) as well as postmodern cinema of the surface demonstrate. The dominant mode is dependent on several factors such as genre, creative vision, as well as technological mastery and resources, mediality, textuality and viewer expectations. While 3D has the possibility to create environments with immersive and interactive qualities, the actual application differs greatly. 3D, through a stereoscopic mode and a mode of central perspective, offers a variety of aesthetic options, but often falls victim to inert approaches by staying too close to a planar aesthetic and classical linear perspective.



Bukatman, Scott (2003) Matters of Gravity. Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century. Durham: Duke University Press.

Crary, Jonathan (1996) Techniken des Betrachters. Sehen und Moderne im 19. Jahrhundert. Dresden: Verlag der Kunst (German edition of Techniques of the Observer).

Cubitt, Sean (2004) The Cinema Effect. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Huhtamo, Erkki (2013) Illusions in Motion. Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Marks, Laura (200), The Skin of the Film. Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses, Durham, London: Duke University Press.

Maulko, Rüdiger (2012) ‘Mimesis und Anthropologie des Digitalen. Synthetischer Fotorealismus im Kino’ in Harro Segeberg (Hg.), Film im Zeitalter Neuer Medien II. Digitalität und Kino. Mediengeschichte des Films (Band 8). Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, pp. 29–54.

Trotter, David (2004) ‘Stereoscopy: Modernism and the “Haptic”’ in Critical Quarterly, 56, 4, pp. 38–58.

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