Stereoscopic Media


This article was updated on 17 Mar 2012, and is filed under Research Provocations.

Bella Honess Roe Research Provocation, 3D Documentary: This Time it’s Really Real!

2011 saw the release of two 3D documentaries into art house theatres: Werner Herzog’s Herzog’s lyrical and awe-filled film about the prehistoric Chauvet cave paintings in France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (pictured above) and Wim Wenders’ homage to German choreographer Pina Bausch, Pina.

The most recent advent of 3D in mainstream Hollywood cinema is widely regarded as driven more by commercial than creative factors – a strategic move by filmmakers and studio executives panicked by decreasing box office figures and revenue lost to home and new media entertainment and illegal downloading (Elsaeser, 2010).  Documentary film is also no stranger to 3D, but prior to Herzog and Wenders’ films last year, this was mostly limited to the IMAX format and concert movies.  These are formats and sub-genres of documentary that are as box-office-focused as Hollywood films and one can understand the move to 3D.  An already spectacular medium (IMAX) becomes even more so in 3D.  The concert movie is now even more able to emulate the ‘being there’ experience for U2 (U2 3D, 2007) or Justin Bieber (Never Say Never 3D, 2011) fans, both in terms of the tangibility of the performer(s) and sharing the experience with a large group of similarly-minded people.

It is somewhat curious, however, that art house documentary, a genre not usually motivated by box-office returns, nor dependent on spectacle or the experience of viewing en masse, has thumbed a ride on the 3D bandwagon.  The two questions that immediately came to mind regarding Pina and Cave of Forgotten Dreams are: ‘why 3D?’ and ‘what does 3D mean for documentary?’

Of course, even art house documentaries need to break even.  But, less tritely, one could also suggest that the subject matters of Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pina lend themselves particularly well to 3D representation.  Both films are about the substantive materiality of the physical.  3D affords us a visceral viewing experience of the dance in Pina and, as Miriam Ross (2011) notes, “reconfigure[s] the audience’s embodied position in relation to the body of the dancer.”  Not only are the members of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal given more ‘body’, but the immersive and projective capacities of 3D allow the viewer to share the space, if only illusorily, occupied by the dancers.  Similarly, in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 3D proposes to bring the audience in closer contact with the ancient cave paintings that are inaccessible to all but a very small and select group of mostly scientists.  Thom Powers, programmer of the Toronto International Documentary Festival declared 3D “essential in communicating the contoured surfaces [of the caves] on which the charcoal figures are drawn.” (Powers, n.d.)

These justifications perhaps adequately respond to the question of ‘why 3D?’  But the question remains as to the implications of this development for documentary film.  Miriam Ross (2011) has suggested that the use of 3D in dance films represents a “new form of realism” by bringing the viewer closer to the action.  In the context of documentary film, this is an interesting suggestion.  Documentary, so the claim goes, has long had a claim to the real by virtue of the relationship between the filmed image and reality as well as the contextual information that validates a film as authentically representing reality.  What is the implication, then, of a new, more real, version of realism promised by 3D?  Does 3D offer a documentary realism of embodied experience in addition to the visual realism familiar from conventional documentary?  If so, how do we square this with the notion that 3D cinema is as much, if not more, about spectacle and theatrical space as it is about immersion in the space of the real (Sandifer, 2011)?

Historically, developments in documentary style have been driven by technological developments in filmmaking.  From the lightweight 16mm cameras and portable sound packs that facilitated the evolution of Direct Cinema in the 1960s to the ubiquity of mobile technology and the Internet that has seen a move towards viral, interactive and user-generated content in the last decade.  We can wonder, then, at how 3D might change the style of documentary film, and in turn, the relationship between documentary film and reality.



Elsaesser, Thomas (2010) “The Dimension of Depth and Objects Rushing Towards Us”, eDIT Filmmaker’s Magazin.

Powers, Thom (no date) Entry on Cave of Forgotten Dreams at

Ross, Miriam (2011) “Spectacular Dimensions: 3D Dance Films”, Sense of Cinema 61.

Sandifer, Philip (2011) ‘Out of the Screen and Into the Theater: 3D Film as Demo’, Cinema Journal, 50:3, pp. 62 – 78


Bella Honess Roe is Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Surrey



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