copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

The normativity of 3D: cinematic journeys, “imperial visuality” and unchained cameras

by Bruce Bennett

The last decade has seen a spectacular resurgence of 3D cinema, beginning with the release of Ghosts of the Abyss in 2003, James Cameron’s IMAX HD video documentary of an expedition to investigate the wreck of the Titanic.[1][open endnotes in new window] Although Cameron had previously produced Terminator 2-3D: The Battle Beyond Time (Cameron, Bruno, 1996), a 20-minute 70mm short that is the centrepiece of a Universal Studios theme park attraction,[2] Ghosts of the Abyss marked the onset of the film-maker’s total commitment to the direction, production and marketing of 3D films.[3] This culminated with the release of the science-fiction epic, Avatar, which was the first film ever to gross over $2bn, demonstrating the lucrative commercial potential of digital 3D cinema, as well as its technical sophistication and its capacity to visualize fantastic narrative worlds. Academic writing on the current wave of 3D cinema has tended to concentrate fetishistically upon the technological novelty of the format (see Sandifer, 2011). As a result, the dominant themes and the relationships between form and content within the films have typically been overlooked. In this article I examine one of the most notable aspects of the emerging aesthetic and narrative conventions of 3D cinema, the ways in which worlds are constructed by—and for—the stereoscopic cinematic gaze.

An eye-jabbing aesthetic: the emergent conventions of 3D cinema

In a 1996 promotional interview discussing Terminator 2-3D: The Battle Beyond Time, Cameron observed that the creative challenge of 3D cinema is the normative organic integration of narrative and stylistic effects. He explains,

“For me, the trick to doing 3D is not to have one kind of a gag where something’s coming straight at you after another. You have to tell a story, you have to have a narrative, and you have to stick to the normal cinematic style and then, once in a while if something should happen to come off the screen and into the audience, you try to integrate that in an organic way so [...] that the audience doesn’t feel like they’re just getting poked in the eye one time after another, even though the goal is to poke them in the eye one time after another” (The Making of T2-2D: Breaking the Screen Barrier).

The principle he outlines here is that of classical narrative, wherein stylistically excessive textual elements are subordinated to the film’s narrative mechanism so that they function primarily as integral components of the story-telling system, rather than registering as autonomous attractions. As Cameron implies, however, the application of “normal style” or stylistic coherence both masks and facilitates an assaultive, eye-jabbing aesthetics in which the unwitting spectator is subjected to repeated shocks. The spectatorial relations of 3D cinema are structured by an aggressive dynamic.

In terms of staging and composition, the current wave of digital 3D films is notably conventional, whether composed wholly or partly of CGI animation, stop-motion animation, or wholly or primarily live action, and they appear largely to follow Cameron’s normative prescription. There is a periodic tendency in these films to use “staging-in-depth” to emphasize the illusion of receding space, and a convention of using sequence shots and fewer cuts than might be expected in a contemporary action film, rather than fragmenting spaces through a combination of shots from different angles, camera distances, and with varying framings. To some extent a slower cutting rate may be an effect of the restrictions of current 3D technology, or perhaps of the physical limitations of the brain and eye[4] that putatively makes continual refocusing an eye-wateringly uncomfortable experience so that we feel as if we are repeatedly “taking it in the eye” (Clover, 1992, p. 202). Philip Sandifer, situating digital 3D films within an evolutionary historical trajectory, argues that a lower frequency of cuts constitutes a “regression” since a consequence of the supposed difficulties of rapid shot/reverse shot editing is that “a major source of semiotic codes for cinema is simply inaccessible to 3-D film”(Sandifer, 2011, p. 74). However, a slower rate of cutting is entirely consistent with the imperative of spatial coherence that underpins the editing conventions of classical cinema and, of course, doesn’t preclude the employment of non-classical semiotic regimes that are not dependent upon continuity editing and the assiduous employment of the “180-degree system.” In fact, almost all of the films discussed here do use shot/reverse-shot cutting patterns and observe continuity editing and staging conventions. But in any case, as André Bazin argued half a century ago in response to similar concerns that the editing patterns in Cinemascope films were destroying an essential element of cinema, the contention that editing is an intrinsic syntactical element of cinematic meaning rests on a restricted understanding of what constitutes film form:

“It is not true that cutting into shots and augmenting those shots with a whole range of optical effects are the necessary and fundamental elements of filmic expression [...] On the contrary, one can see that the evolution of film in the last fifteen years has tended towards the elimination of editing” (Bazin, Will Cinemascope Save the Film Industry?, 2002 (1953)).      

Furthermore, international cinema offers countless examples of textually and semantically rich non-classical style.

The paradoxical realism of 3D cinema

Ang Lee, who won the 2013 Best Director Academy Award for the magical realist 3D fantasy, Life of Pi (2012), suggests that the attraction of digital 3D rests in its capacity for the realistic depiction of space:

“We associate 3D with action and spectacular scenes or movement, but I think 3D should be used in drama because it gives volume, it gives you so much realism. I think that’s the advantage” (Mitchell, 2013). 

However, the “realism” offered by 3D cinema is of the same order as the realism of a 2D film in so far as the technically novel stylistic features of digital 3D connote reality as much as they capture it. Indeed, Lee’s film makes a virtue of the capacity of this new technology to render an exquisitely detailed, narratively plausible representation of an imagined, metaphorical reality since one of the film’s central themes is the disavowal of a traumatic personal history through story-telling.

As Bazin, one of the most influential theorists of cinematic realism, observed in an essay on the structuring fantasy of cinema, from the nineteenth century onwards the medium’s development was driven by an ideal of

“the cinema as a total and complete representation of reality [..,] the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, color, and relief” (Bazin, 2005 (1967), 20).

This “myth of total cinema” derives partly from the mechanical-photographic basis of cinema, which appears to promise objective documentation, but as Bazin asserts in his most well-known essay on Italian neo-realist film, the fantasy of pure objectivity is paradoxically self-defeating. A hypothetically perfect reproduction of reality would render itself immediately redundant as it would be indistinguishable from its referent:

“supposing total cinema was here and now technically possible, we would go back purely to reality” (Bazin, 2005 (1971), 26).”

In some respects, then, the pleasure of viewing an illusionistic work depends precisely upon the failure of the illusionistic mechanism, the visibility of the illusion and the perceptibility of a gap between representation and reality. For Bazin, since the medium’s historical development has been driven by the fantasy of an atomically perfect representation of reality,

“the ‘art’ of cinema lives off this contradiction” (Ibid.).

Thus, while he argues that, as with any other medium, cinematic realism is a product of aesthetic choices and formal conventions such that “realism can only be achieved in one way—through artifice,” at the same time the vain attempt to “capture” reality is crucial in order that cinema does not become pure artifice, disengaged from—and displacing—the real world (Ibid.). Consequently, technical innovations like digital 3D cinema that appear to offer greater realism function to maintain the contradiction at the core of cinema’s aesthetic organization. As Bazin suggests in a retort to those critics and film-makers who saw the films of the late silent cinema as the acme of the art-form,

“it would be absurd to resist every new technical development aiming to add to the realism of cinema, namely sound, color, and stereoscopy” (26).

Published in 1948, this essay makes reference to a history of stereoscopic cinema that extends from mid-nineteenth-century experiments with photography but predates the brief vogue for 3D films in the early 1950s. For historian Ray Zone, who proposes that “stereoscopic cinema can be divided into four general periods through which the “grammar” of stereographic narrative has evolved within the overall arena of cinema itself,” this describes the first phase of 3D cinema that runs from 1838 to 1952 (within which the inception of cinema circa December 28th 1895 is merely a novel development) (Zone, 2007, 1). Situating digital 3D cinema within this historical frame reminds us that, for all the progressive claims that might be made with regard to the transformative potential of new platforms and technological leaps, these claims articulate a well-established fantasy of total cinema that is neither new nor dependent upon a particular technical innovation. Thinking about digital 3D cinema is a means of thinking about the character of the medium and the attraction it holds for film-makers and viewers.

The mobility of 3D

A particularly striking and frequently observed stylistic feature of contemporary 3D cinema is the “unchained,” mobile camera, whether actual or “virtual” (Jones, 2007). This mobility is evident firstly in a tendency towards almost continual, restless camera movement with cameras tilting, panning, arcing, craning, tracking or zooming during a shot in order, inter alia, to retain or refresh the sense of three-dimensional space.[5] This effect is sometimes barely noticeable given that provisional, hand-held cinematography is such a common stylistic component of contemporary cinema from low-budget independent films to costly Hollywood blockbusters.[6] Thus, the mobility of the 3D camera extends rather than abandons certain formal conventions of mainstream cinema, while also marking the incorporation of certain compositional conventions from video games (such as the roaming point-of-view shot of first-person games). It also connotes both a compositional uncertainty and a visual curiosity, as if the camera operator or spectator is continually surprised and distracted by the effect of depth. A contemplative cinematic gaze is perpetually disrupted by sideways glances.

The second, more readily noticeable instance of camera mobility is the punctuation of 3D films with a vertiginous, penetrative travelling shot, sometimes functioning narratively as a subjective point-of-view shot. Avatar, for example, opens with an aerial view in which the virtual camera speeds though the clouds above a rainforest before crashing down into the tree canopy.  This shot’s significance is that it connotes the breaching of the screen from the opposite side. Allied with the shot that jabs the spectator in the eye, this plummeting shot suggests that objects can pass back and forth between reality and the diegetic space of the film, just as the protagonists travel between different media, spaces and historical moments.[7] Although this is a shot-type that exploits the potential of digital animation to free the camera further, it is not intrinsic to late twentieth and early twenty-first century cinema—the hyper-mobile camera was equally central to Dziga Vertov’s “kino-glaz” aesthetic,[8] while Vertov’s contemporary, F.W. Murnau, developed an expressive aesthetic of visual hyper-mobility exemplified by the “unchained camera technique” employed in Der Letzte Mann (1924).

The plummeting shot is indicative of a central fascination within 3D cinema with space and mise-en-scène. This is a medium-specific property of cinema more generally but it also marks the point at which the spectatorial experience of 3D cinema intersects with the narratively dispersed pleasures of navigating and exploring the virtual environments of a first-person video game. Bazin proposed that a defining distinction of cinematic drama from theatre is its orientation not around human actors but rather mise-en-scène. And this non-anthropocentric potential is foregrounded anew in 3D cinema in a tension between the intricate spectacle of space and the absorbing unfolding of successive narrative incidents. (Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. 1, 2005 (1967), p. 102). This is evident in the preoccupation with the investigation of narrative terrain that is common to many 3D documentaries and fictional feature films. The mobile cinematic eye that roams over the real and fantastic spaces depicted in these films is an adventurer’s eye that scans, maps, penetrates and, by implication, colonizes these unfamiliar, remote and inhospitable spaces from deep space to the ocean floor. 3D cinema’s cartographic visuality is motivated in part by ethnographic curiosity and archaeological desire. It is an explorer’s gaze.

Sound design in 3D cinema: mapping sonic space

The emergent aesthetic of digital 3D cinema is also structured by a particular configuration of audio-visual relations in which sound design serves to emphasize the spectator’s (or auditor’s) immersion in narrative space. It has always been the case that a film’s soundtrack can function to place the on-screen (and off-screen) action in diegetic space. For instance, different levels of volume and reverberation can work to position sound sources spatially in relation to the spectator, conveying a sense of the distance between the viewer and the sound-source as well as the dimensions of the space in which the sounds are generated. The omission and inclusion of particular sounds, and the use of relative volume to foreground certain sounds (such as dialogue) over others, direct our attention to narratively significant elements of the space. As Rick Altman observes of Hollywood cinema, the convention of the “continuous-level sound track” that was established in the 1930s effectively places the spectator in a consistent spatial position. Thus, while a film may cut rapidly between shots from various camera positions, apparently cannoning the spectator back and forth between viewpoints at varying distances from (and perspectives on) the focus of the action, in most cases the soundtrack does not match this scaling with sudden changes in volume and sound quality.  In fact, Altman argues, it is this maintenance of sonic continuity that makes the dynamic visual style of Hollywood films watchable. The soundtrack’s continuity reinforces the “invisibility” of the signs of construction by disguising or de-emphasizing the cuts and thereby offers the viewer the correlative pleasure of apparently uninterrupted scrutiny of the world that is presented to her by the film:  

“The image displaces us incessantly [...] Our voyeurism consists precisely in this mobility. Yet we flit about at our own peril, constantly risking dizziness. Just as we are about to lose our balance, however, the soundtrack reaches out its hand, offering continuity of scale as an effective stabilizer. Indeed, if we take the risk of flying about at all, it is certainly in large part because we know that our bodies are anchored by sound, and by the single, continuous experience that it offers” (Altman, 1992, 62).

In general, the classic Hollywood film soundtrack contributes to the pleasurable experience of narrative continuity and coherence by “holding the auditor at a fixed and thus stable distance from all sound sources” (Ibid.).  By contrast, a key feature of the sound design of digital 3D cinema is the emphasis on immersing the spectator in the narrative space, rather than holding her at a fixed distance from it.

Since the 1990s digital surround sound has become the standard platform for feature film releases as most film theatres, and, increasingly, many homes, are equipped with surround sound reproduction systems. This has meant that the classical audio-visual aesthetic described by Altman has gradually been replaced by a new norm that explores the spectacular and narrative potential of high-quality digital sound reproduced through multiple speakers. Mark Kerins argues that the audio-visual aesthetic of digital surround cinema is marked by a different relationship between sound and image from the audio-visual configuration evident in classical Hollywood films. Kerins describes the sound-scape of digital surround sound as an “ultrafield,” distinguishing it from the coherent sound-field of classical cinema, and what Michel Chion terms the “superfield” of multi-track Dolby Stereo cinema in which ambient noise and a complex mix of discrete sounds is used to generate “the sensation of a complete space” (Kerins, 2011, 86).  By contrast with conventional film sound, the surround-sound ultrafield disrupts continuity through its spectacular emphasis upon dynamic space by placing perceptible sounds all around the auditorium (or living room) as actors pass back and forth in front of the camera or helicopters and rockets roar over our heads. In exploiting the capacity of surround sound to produce a highly convincing illusion of three-dimensional space, filmmakers have sacrificed traditional sonic continuity for spatial accuracy. In practice, Kerins argues, this means that

“the ultrafield-based soundtrack changes its orientation every time the image track cuts, constantly reorienting itself to [the] viewpoint implied by the onscreen image. This creates the impression not of viewing the action from a distance but rather of being in the middle of the action and looking around quickly” (107).

In this respect the conventions of digital surround sound are radically different from those described by Altman since, rather than producing the impression that the spectator is listening to the action from a fixed point or distance, instead the surround-sound ultrafield pinballs the spectator continually around the diegetic space. Of course, these conventions, which “work to immerse the audience in the diegetic world of the film,” lend themselves very well to 3D cinema (130). Kerins observes that because 3D cinema appears to make “more active use of multi-channel sound to match this more enveloping visual environment,” this audio-visual aesthetic will tend to “heighten[...] the experience of diegetic immersion rather than fundamentally altering it” (193).

The comic horror film, Piranha 3D (Aja, 2010), which invokes exploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s, offers a pointedly clear example of the immersive potential of digital surround sound. A remake of Piranha (Dante, 1978), itself a reworking of Jaws (Spielberg, 1975), the film tells the story of the bloody chaos that follows after an earthquake opens up a crack in a lake bed in Arizona, allowing thousands of prehistoric piranha to flood into it from a vast underground cavern that had been sealed off below the lake for two million years. The lake is a destination for college students on Spring break, and much of the film is given over to spectacular depictions of frenzied, gruesome attacks on the holiday-makers. The film contains numerous scenes with underwater shots, and whenever the viewpoint moves underwater, the sound quality of the film changes entirely. The music becomes deeper and more urgent, prompting us to anticipate a violent attack. The diegetic sounds of music and voices from above the surface become muffled, while the rear surround speakers are filled with whining electronic noise, the sound of bubbling, lapping water, a swishing as weeds and other submerged objects whip past the mobile camera, and, accompanying these other sounds, the chattering of the piranhas’ teeth. It is a generic convention of horror cinema that it is “excessive” in its assiduous exploitation of cinematic and stylistic effects in order to provoke a visceral, shock-response in the viewer. This invites us to read such films as a self-reflexive commentary upon the medium’s affective potential. They show us in the clearest fashion some of the ways in which cinema can affect the audience. Characteristically, with Piranha 3D the potential of digital surround sound to heighten the sense of diegetic immersion, is foregrounded in a systematic and particularly literal manner. Watching a film about the thrilling hazard of immersion in a dangerous medium, the viewer is “immersed” narratively in the film’s fictional world and, in turn, is repeatedly immersed, along with the film’s protagonists, in the water that is the deadly site of all the film’s action.

As with the 3D film image, the immersive effect of surround sound rests partly on the illusion of movement through space as the spectator/auditor is continually repositioned:

“The ultrafield is the three-dimensional sonic environment of the diegetic world, continuously reoriented to match the camera’s perspective” (92). 

Vivian Sobchack puts this differently in an analysis of the promotional trailers produced to publicize Dolby Digital Surround Sound. Discussing the immersive and “emergent, moving, swelling” quality of sound in these short films, Sobchack observes that

“the more isolated sounds and effects move from place to place (and speaker to speaker) around the listener and the theatre but don’t so much ‘fill up’ the space continuously as ‘describe’ it in a kind of discontinuous ‘mapping.’” (Sobchack, 2005, 9)

In this way, 3D cinema’s restless cartographic visuality is enhanced by the dynamic cartographic ultrafield of digital surround sound (and vice versa).

The ethnographic gaze of 3D cinema

To return to Cameron’s observations, if the goal of 3D film-making is the organic integration, normalization or naturalization of a 3D aesthetic, a striking feature of many of these films is the restricted way in which the aesthetic and technical possibilities of 3D cinema are imagined in narratives of movement and exploration. Implicit in this exploratory optics is a particular conceptual and ideological perspective upon the world. An exoticizing, ethnographic gaze scrutinizes the world extending beyond the borders of the familiar and the known, emphasising and fetishizing the strangeness and difference of what falls within the stereoscopic frame. This emphasis upon cultural, spatial and historic difference implies a correlative desire to occupy, chart and understand. This uncanny oscillation of distance and proximity is redoubled and articulated precisely by the spatial illusion of 3D cinema in which physical space appears to recede away from the viewer while certain objects appear to emerge from those spatial depths to brush against the viewer’s body or to jab her in the eye. The ethnographic dimension of this illusory gaze lies both in the camera’s restless mobility as it roams through this receding narrative space, and—for many 3D films—in the motivating narrative frame of an exploratory expedition or journey.

What I want to do now is consider the way in which this ideology or world-view, obsessed with describing, constructing and marking off relations with exotic otherness, is articulated in both the thematics and the formal organization of contemporary 3D cinema through an examination of two recent narratives of discovery, the tense action film, Sanctum, which was co-produced by James Cameron and the auteurist documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams directed by Werner Herzog. Although generically distinct, both films explore the narrative and affective potential of digital stereoscopic cinema through accounts of pioneering expeditions of discovery into inaccessible and hitherto unrepresented spaces in related ways.  In this respect they offer a model for thinking about the ideological and semantic frames constituted by the emergent aesthetic and technical capacities of stereoscopic digital cinema. In particular, they allow us to see the way in which what Nicholas Mirzoeff terms an “imperial visuality” is reproduced repeatedly within the mobile frame of the 3D image.

Sanctum—the exploration of narrative space

Sanctum is based on the experiences of screenwriter /co-producer Andrew Wight, the producer of Cameron’s 3D documentaries, who was trapped in a cave in 1988 by a landslide while shooting a documentary about cave-diving. It tells the story of a disastrous expedition in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea in which an international group of cave-divers is trying to plot a navigable route to the Solomon Sea through a vast, unexplored cave system. When a tropical storm breaks, the cave is flooded and a rock-slide blocks the only exit, leaving some of the divers trapped underground, including hardened Australian expedition leader Frank McGuire, his truculent son Josh, and the expedition’s sponsor, billionaire U.S. playboy, Carl Hurley. Out of contact with the team on the surface, with no hope of rescue and with limited air and battery power for their lights, the group, led by McGuire, set out to find a route to the surface. During the course of the harrowing film, they are killed one by one through drowning, injury and decompression sickness as they work their way blindly through underwater caves and tight passages. After his girlfriend dies when she falls into a churning pool that Frank calls a “meat-grinder,” the desperate Hurley takes the last breathing apparatus, abandoning Frank and Josh. At the film’s conclusion Frank and Josh come upon the now deranged Hurley in another cave. Hurley wrestles with Frank, pushing him onto a stalagmite that wounds his former friend fatally and then escapes into the water. At Frank’s insistence, Josh drowns his injured father and then follows Carl into the water in search of a way out, with just a small oxygen bottle and a fluorescent glow stick. Josh passes under Hurley’s drowned body and after the air in the tank gives out, he resorts to breathing air bubbles trapped against the cave roof. Just as it seems he is about to drown, he notices rays of light cutting into the dark cave and swims to the surface where he is washed onto a palm-fringed beach.

The modestly expensive $30m film received little critical attention. However, as a mainstream thriller it is a good indication of the emerging conventions of 3D cinema than, for example, an “art film” like Pina, the acclaimed documentary about choreographer Pina Bausch by the New German cinema veteran Wim Wenders that was released in the same month.[9] Sanctum is shot largely on studio sets, water tanks, and locations in Australia, and tricked out with CG effects. The narrative is organized around a classic Oedipal trajectory: Josh, whose combative relationship with his father is established at the outset, blames Frank’s stubborness for one of the expedition’s divers’ death early on in the film. He is later horrified when, shortly after they have become trapped, his father compassionately drowns one of the team who suffers dreadful, bone-breaking injuries in a fall. Over the course of the film the two of them bond in adversity and Frank teaches Josh his late mother’s favourite poem, Coleridge’s fragment, “Kubla Khan,”[10] while they scale a treacherous shaft co-operating with each other as equals. Josh finally comes to identify with and displace his father when Frank instructs Josh to drown him and carry on, rather than stay, which would have meant that they both died. Thus, Josh takes on his father’s role as hyper-rational survivalist, abandoning Frank to save himself.

This depiction of conventional patriarchal masculinity has as its framework an equally familiar narrative of discovery. Sanctum offers an account of exploration as perilous colonialist adventure into unmapped and primitive or prehistoric terra incognita, which is justified by Carl Hurley in both existential and aesthetic terms—they are conducting the thrilling expedition for “no other reason than to explore”– and also nostalgic terms, since “there’s nowhere left on the planet to explore.” They are driven by a desire for knowledge and occupation. This epistephilic colonizing narrative drive provides a pretext for the restless, curious stereoscopic gaze. The way in which the desire for novel views structures both the narrative and the technical format is particularly evident in three scenes where our attention is drawn directly to the film’s spectacular landscapes. The first of these, a few minutes into the film, comes when Hurley flies his girlfriend Victoria and Josh to the site of the expedition, Esa-ala, which he describes as “the mother of all caves.”[11] After a brief, low-level helicopter flight across the thick rainforest, they rise over a ridge and the mouth of the huge cave shaft comes into view. “My God, it’s—,” says Victoria, speechless as they circle above the chasm. “Yeah, it is,” replies Carl laughing. As viewers, we are invited to agree.

The second scene comes shortly afterwards as Frank and fellow diver, Judes, squeeze through a narrow unexplored underwater passage to emerge in a vast underwater cavern. “My God. Would you look at that?” breathes Frank in awe, echoing Victoria’s words. The instruction to look is addressed to Judes, the other team members who are watching this dive through a camera mounted on a remotely controlled submersible (ominously named Virgil), and also the viewer who is shown a spectacular image of the two tiny divers suspended in the enormous volume. Similarly awed, Judes responds, “Look at it. It’s like a cathedral.” In an observation that also serves as a celebratory comment upon the representational revolution of 3D digital cinema, Frank says, “Since the beginning of time, no human being has ever seen this.”

These two self-reflexive scenes are separated by another that also draws our attention to the illusion of three-dimensional space. But it does so in a way that emphasizes the artificiality of these images in which the boundary between digital simulation and conventional photography is no longer visible. After Hurley, Josh and Victoria have arrived at the base camp in the jungle, a technician shows Victoria a cross-sectional map of the cave system on his computer. The caves are represented in a graphically simple fashion with the link between the caves and the sea marked by a dotted line captioned, “UNEXPLORED.”

When Victoria asks, “How far in have they got?” the technician then shows her a three-dimensional, animated image of the cave. The camera pushes into a close-up of the monitor, the computerized image of the cave filling the screen. With a seamless transition the camera then appears to enter the animated image of the cave, which has now become three-dimensional, and plunges through the intestinal cave system in an archetypal “endoscopic” point-of-view shot.

This scene has an expository function as it offers the viewer a spatially coherent map of the locations in which most of the subsequent—often highly kinetic and disorienting—action will take place. It also offers a teasing rehearsal of the cinematic experience we are about to have. “The 3D’s a bit of a problem,” the technician explains, in a comment that doubles as a self-reflexive joke about the critical scepticism regarding the technical efficacy of stereoscopic cinema, “and obviously it hasn’t rendered yet.” This brief sequence establishes the dramatic distance between these crude graphical representation of the caves and the awesome, photo-realist images of “caverns measureless to man” that we are about to see, as well as the aesthetic and technical proximity between game-space and the diegetic spaces of film.[12] However it also foregrounds the cartographic framework within which this landscape is constructed. This expedition (and this film) is concerned primarily with charting this space.

While a narrative concerned with cave-diving (with a consequent emphasis upon the navigation of dynamically irregular space) is particularly appropriate for the use of 3D technology, it is notable that the expedition is repeatedly, anachronistically coded as colonial or imperial adventure. Significantly, the scenario has been transferred overseas from Western Australia, the location of the events that inspired the film, to former Australian colony and commonwealth country, Papua New Guinea. This second country is represented in the film as an exotically primitive, unspoilt landscape.

At the opening of the film, when Josh meets Hurley and Victoria after they have disembarked from a sea-plane at a port town, the three of them pass by street traders and colourful, bustling market stalls to board the waiting helicopter. The primarily white protagonists barely interact with the locals, who have no narrative agency and no voice but are part of the film’s exotic scenography and appear to belong to an earlier historical moment. The only instance of direct communication between the team and a local comes when we see a white Australian member of the expedition berating a local man who is one of a team of fifty bearers carrying heavy equipment from the cave on foot. The expedition’s high-tech camp is located alongside a village comprised of traditional grass huts and animal pens, and the locals wear various combinations of grass skirts, t-shirts and shorts. To some extent, this ethnographic spectacle is treated ironically. There is a National Geographic film crew in the camp, and there is a passing acknowledgement of postcolonial anxiety as Hurley hums the theme from Wagner’s Die Walküre while flying the helicopter over the treetops, alluding to the knowing scene from Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979) when U.S. helicopters strafe a Vietnamese village while blasting the same piece of music from speakers mounted alongside their rocket launchers. Although the cocky playboy is attempting to make his passengers laugh, Hurley’s description of the landscape below them as “the last primeval wilderness,” is rather less ironic, representing an illiberal and archaic worldview in which certain areas of the world are regarded as prehistoric and uncivilized. As he explains to the others, “If we go down out here, even God won’t know where we are. Some mudman’ll be using our skull for a soup bowl.”  Hurley’s enthusiastic assertion that “Frank is like Columbus or Neil Armstrong” confirms this sense that the expedition is framed as a perilous, pioneering colonial adventure into uncharted territory.

This worldview is crystallized in one of the film’s most ambiguous details, the mute, mysterious figure of a pot-bellied, bearded old man who appears intermittently in the vicinity of the expedition team but has no obvious narrative function. Instead he seems to exist as a stubborn reminder of the silencing of these indigenous figures within this film and the historical silencing of such figures by the Orientalist discourses that underlie the film. Sporting a bone or quill through his nose, a headdress decorated with bones, his body smeared with mud or ashes and dressed in a loin cloth and jewellery he appears to embody and guarantee the pre-technological, natural status of the local landscape and culture. Dressed differently from those around him, he exists within a different historical frame in an Orientalized culture that is geographically non-specific and outside history.  A figure transplanted from a classic ethnographic documentary from the early twentieth century, his minatory presence as a witness is ambiguous but vaguely accusatory. He is first glimpsed in the background when Hurley’s helicopter lands in a clearing and then, shortly afterwards, playing chess in one of the expedition’s tents. He is glimpsed again tending a fire and cooking pot by the rim of the cave shaft when Hurley, Josh and Victoria descend. Finally, he is shown staring at the night sky in the driving rain while the calamitous storm breaks overhead. The man does not speak and is not seen after the team have been trapped underground—we see no further shots of the surface until the final scene when Josh emerges at the sea shore. But this figure functions as a stubbornly visible symptom of a history of colonial expansion and exploitation that has its echoes in the thrill-seeking global adventuring of the film’s wealthy protagonists. In the way that it integrates a narrative account of exploration with a spectacular depiction of narrative space, the film demonstrates the ideological structure of digital 3D cinema in a very clear and intermittently self-reflexive way.

Ethnography in three dimensions

In an historical account of cinema’s relation to anthropology, Fatimah Tobing Rony argues that the ethnographic film has traditionally fulfilled a dual function as scientific document and as public entertainment. It emerged within an explosion of Western representations of the colonized and as-yet unappropriated world beyond Europe and the United States:

“At the height of the age of imperialism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United States and Europe, there was a tremendous proliferation of new popular science entertainments and visualizing the ‘ethnographic,’ such as the dioramas and bone collections of the natural history museum, the exhibited ‘native villages’ of the world’s fair and the zoo, printed representations such as the postcard and stereograph of the carte de visite, popular science journals such as National Geographic, and, of course, photography and cinema” (Rony, 1996, p. 10).

Consequently, ethnographic cinema has an indistinct boundary that encompasses scientific documentation, documentary cinema, travelogues, “racial films,” fiction/actuality hybrids, and fiction films such as King Kong (Cooper, Schoedsack, 1933), which, Rony argues, is

“a pastiche film about the making of an ethnographic film and hence offers a meta-commentary on ‘seeing anthropology,’ one which [...] foreshadows the fear of the postcolonial Other as monster” (Rony, 1996, p. 15).

The classic ethnographic film is characterized by a tendency to reinforce a binary distinction between the Western viewer and an exoticized other both thematically and visually:

“The people depicted in an ‘ethnographic film’ are meant to be seen as exotic, as people who until only too recently were categorized by science as savage and Primitive, of an earlier evolutionary stage in the overall history of humankind: people without history, without writing, without civilisation, without technology, without archives. In other words, people considered ‘ethnographiable,’ in the bipolar schema articulated by Claude Lévi-Strauss, as opposed to people classified as ‘historifiable,’ the posited audience of the ethnographic film, those considered to have written archives and thus a history proper” (Rony, 1996, p. 7).

While there are numerous examples of digital 3D films with characters that are exoticized in just this way, such as John Carter and Avatar, which depict aliens as racialized, primitive others, the articulation of digital 3D cinema’s ethnographic gaze is also evident in its spectacular treatment of space (Bennett, 2014). The space through which the 3D camera moves is presented to the viewer as a novel, richly detailed visual field to scrutinize, navigate and consume. Implicit in the mobility of the camera that cranes over, arcs around, and probes the film’s diegetic space is a desire both to see more and to observe more intimately. Such an exploratory gaze is both actively inquiring and acquisitive, highlighting 3D cinema’s conflation of the tourist’s gaze with the film spectator’s gaze. As Giuliana Bruno argues, in a study of the depiction and mapping of space in the visual arts:

“As in all forms of journey, space is filmically consumed as a vast commodity. In film, architectural space becomes framed for view and offers itself for consumption as travelled space that is available for further travelling. Attracted to vistas, the spectator turns into a visitor. The film ‘viewer’ is a practitioner of viewing space—a tourist.” (Bruno, 2002, p. 62)

This transformation of the cinematic spectator into a tourist who consumes space is compounded by the 3D film image that invests diegetic space with an affective intensity in excess of its narrative function. However, the commodification of space in stereoscopic cinema is highlighted in a separate but direct way by the economics of distribution and exhibition of digital 3D films. Screening 3D films requires modifying cinema projectors and sometimes screens (depending upon the system used), which has driven up cinema ticket prices (Thompson, 2011)—or the use of a 3D TV. Thus, to watch a 3D film involves a more conscious expenditure; viewing 3D cinema is a practice of heightened consumption.

Situating cinema within an intermedial history of representations of urban and natural landscapes, Bruno proposes also that this touristic consumption of filmic space is structured as a specifically cinematic cartographic project:

“Film has absorbed the touristic drive to ascend to take in the larger ‘scape’ as well as the desire to dive down to ground level and explore private dwellings. In such a way—that is, in incorporating a multiplicity of viewpoints—cinema has reinvented the traveler’s charting of space” (Bruno, 2002, p. 84).

The plummeting, unchained stereoscopic camera offers the spectator just such a mosaic of multiple viewpoints. The prurient curiosity implicit in this dynamic gaze is frequently articulated through narratives of journeying and exploration. As a result, an acquisitive desire to inhabit and claim the fascinating spaces depicted within 3D films underscores and motivates the investigative touristic gaze. In this respect, the technological fantasy of immersion and transportation that underlies 3D film’s conceptualization demonstrates the close historical and ideological relation between stereoscopic cinema and other visual media employed in the depiction of terrain and space. Among the pleasures promised by the medium, films like Sanctum offer the spectator the opportunity to move through, colonize, and domesticate exotically remote spaces in the same way that, for example, the actualités of the Lumière brothers transported European viewers through Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. Bruno observes,

“In touring cities, exploring landscapes, and mapping world sites, early film also ‘discovered’ otherness, made it exotic, and often acted as an agent of an imperialist obsession. For cinema emerged at the height of historical imperialism”’ (Bruno, 2002, p. 77).

In its preoccupation with global travel, cartography and otherness, Sanctum reiterates this imperial obsession, demonstrating the way that 3D cinema more generally is dominated by structuring fantasies of occupation and consumption.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams—documentary space

If the critical response to Sanctum was unenthusiastic, the reception of the documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which went on general release a month later in March 2011, was largely positive. The film has typically been held as an example of the aesthetically and intellectually appropriate deployment of stereoscopic cinematography and also an example of Herzog’s idiosyncratic auteur cinema. As Barbara Klinger notes, for example,

“Identifying style as dictated by subject matter and environment, Herzog distinguished Cave as an organic deployment of the technology, offering a clear rationale for its use’ (Klinger, 2012, p. 38).

In this respect, Herzog’s film appears to follow Cameron’s classical principle of organic integration of style and narrative, although it is distinguished from a film like Sanctum by its insistent self-reflexive foregrounding of its status as cinematic representation. For example, while Cave of Forgotten Dreams also has a surround sound track, it seems used less as an illusion of real space or narrative continuity than as a way to intensify the images’ affective impact. The soundtrack’s most striking feature is the prominence of the accompanying music by Ernst Reijseger, who has scored four of Herzog’s films. The music recurs throughout the film, but in several sequences depicting a montage of cave walls, the film drops location sound from the sound-mix so that at some points all we hear for several minutes is the music, occasionally accompanied by the rhythmic thumping of a heartbeat or Herzog’s voice-over. The austere, evocative score uses cello, pipe organ and choir to produce a strikingly reverent mood. But the music’s complex form and its prominence in the sound design means that it competes for our attention with the image, rather than produces a seamless audio-visual combination.

The film depicts the 32,000-year-old paintings recently discovered inside the Chauvet cave in Southern France. It incorporates interviews with scientists working on the cave, including archaeologists, art historians, palaeontologists and geologists. The film also incorporates footage of the director and small film crew on location—an unreliable sign of self-reflexive transparency characteristic of Herzog’s documentaries. As with Sanctum, the film is concerned with the exploration of a cave system, although Herzog’s film is rather more self-conscious in its staging of the caves as a metaphor for cinema and in its reflections upon the function of visual representation. In fact, the cave—a spatial double of the camera obscura that constitutes the sound stage, film theatre and the analogue photographic apparatus—recurs as a motif in the recent wave of stereoscopic films. The dynamically irregular and complex topography of the cave exploits the haptic potential of 3D cinematography[13] as the mobile camera “feels” its way around the undulating walls and through low tunnels and tight passages. Whereas the Cinemascope frame lends itself to shots of vast expanses of landscape and huge sets, in contrast, the spatiality of 3D cinema is claustrophobic, dark and intimate. Furthermore, this emphasis upon interior space also makes a virtue of the lower illumination levels of the contemporary 3D image, which often occasion complaints about the format.[14]

The voice-over suggests, “The cave is like a frozen flash of a moment in time”—effectively a photographic trace—and that some of the cave paintings might be considered “almost a form of proto-cinema,” while others are “like frames in an animated film.” As Klinger observes, the film also implies a relation between the Chauvet caves and Plato’s cave, the allegorical space that Jean-Louis Baudry employs as a means of thinking about film spectatorship (Baudry, 1992, p. 310). Discussing the remains of fires within the Chauvet caves, archaeologist Jean-Michel Geneste speculates,

“the fires were necessary to look at the paintings and maybe to staging people around. When you look with the flame, with the moving light, you can imagine people dancing with the shadows.”

Herzog replies, “Like Astaire, Fred Astaire.” Illustrative footage of Astaire in Swing Time (Stevens, 1936) dancing in front of a trio of shadows is inserted while Geneste reflects that

“the image dancing with its own shadow is a very strong and old image of human representation, because the first representation was a wall, the white wall and the black shadow.”

For Sergei Eisenstein, in his discussion of stereoscopic cinema, this remains the material basis of the cinematic illusion, no matter how technologically advanced and “seemingly real”:

“we know very well that they are no more than pale shadows impressed by photo-chemical means on miles of gelatine strip which, in the shape of reels, is conveyed in cans from one end of the globe to another, everywhere amazing the spectators with the illusion of real life” (Eisenstein, 2004, p. 79).

Thus, the setting of the cave prompts reflections upon the ontology of the cinematic representation, the lingering shots of painted images an invitation to the spectator to reflect upon the transparency and muteness of the cinematic image.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams eschews the stylistic sleekness of contemporary commercial cinema, and indeed makes a feature of its limited means, the voice-over drawing our attention to the fact that the film was shot partially with a “tiny non-professional camera rig.” Nevertheless, it shares numerous significant features with Sanctum, the first of which is the unchained stereoscopic gaze. Much of the film is shot with hand-held cameras and lights in continual motion, although the camera movements are less consistently smooth than in the fiction film (in accordance with the conventions of documentary film and television). This mobility is evident in point-of-view travelling shots, following the scientists and film crew into and around the caves. The film opens with a virtuoso establishing shot in which the camera moves along the trellises of a vineyard before rising into the air and sailing above the Ardèche river gorge, climbing up a rock face and past the cave entrance, recalling the helicopter shots in the opening scene of Sanctum. [15]

The mobile camera is also strikingly evident in the probing, haptic shots—a mode of digitally mediated looking that Donna Haraway describes in another context as touching with “fingery eyes”—that feel their way across the surfaces of the cave walls and floor. Such shots, in combination with the continual movement of the hand-held lights, emphasize the irregular surface on which the paintings, scrapings and imprints are inscribed (Haraway, 2008, p. 5). The voice-over suggests that the ridged, pitted, undulating walls have “their own three-dimensional dynamic, their own movement, which was utilized by the artists.” Thus the mobile stereoscopic camera is a particularly suitable means of representing this movement. These irreducibly three-dimensional images are a precursor of 3D cinema, so by implication this cinematic technology is presented to us as the representational telos, a mimetic system that is an inevitable, “natural” and organic extrapolation from these early visual documents.

Another device common to both films is the use of digital animation to provide the spectator with a coherent map of the caves, visually confusing spaces that are difficult to light and shoot in a topographically clear way. Just as in Sanctum, Herzog’s film addresses this by an early sequence that demonstrates the layout of the caves. In this shot, which lays bare the immaterial composition of the digital image from mathematical data, the virtual camera moves through a three-dimensional computer-generated map composed of millions of dots that mark spatial co-ordinates, and is labelled with captions identifying key features of the cave. The motif of the digitally animated three-dimensional map crystalizes the cartographic project at the centre of both films. In addition, it crystallizes the cartographic potential of stereoscopic cinema, condensing into a single mobile image a motivating fantasy of the 3D film.

The focus of Herzog’s film is divided equally between the cave and the scientists who study, document, and map the cave. These individuals belong to the group of adventurers, explorers, inventors, scientists, mendicants and displaced people that populate the director’s body of work across a consistently blurred boundary between fiction and documentary. We are invited to regard the film as an authored text through such elements as the voice-over, written and delivered by Herzog, the director’s appearance onscreen, his audible presence as an off-screen interviewer, and the typically eccentric epilogue which shows albino crocodiles swimming in a nearby glass house, and asks whether we are any more capable of understanding the images than they are:

“Are we, today, possibly, the crocodiles who look back into an abyss of time when we see the paintings of Chauvet cave?”

What is emphasized in reading the film within this authorial frame is that this is a film that is similarly concerned with the transgressive passage into and exploration of remote, exotically strange and alien spaces. In this respect there is a clear continuity between Herzog’s documentary, subterranean adventure films Sanctum and Journey to the Center of the Earth, and outer-space science-fiction epics such as Avatar, John Carter and Prometheus (Scott, 2012).[16] At the same time, Herzog’s personal documentary also belongs to the tradition of the classic ethnographic film, in which newly “discovered” space is rendered as exotic and spectacular. As Eric Ames observes, a consistent feature of Herzog’s “documentaries” is the affective mythologization of landscape—wherein the films construct

“a cinematic terrain that is largely detached from the referential world and oriented toward the inner world, instead. Herzog’s ephemeral vistas open up a paradoxical space of imagined interiority, which is also a representation of the physical world that we inhabit” (Ames, 2009, p. 51).

Just as in a fiction film, the landscapes of Herzog’s documentaries function as expressive and allegorical narrative space.

In Herzog’s film, as in Sanctum, movement through diegetic space—the penetration of caves, the movement from light to darkness, from air to the medium of water, from exterior to interior—involves the passage across an interface or boundary into a wholly other space. Herzog observes of the discoverers of the Chauvet cave, “They descended into the unknown,” while the cave-divers are investigating equally exoticized, alien, or sacred spaces. Spatial movement in these films also involves a temporal and historical transition—the passage back through time to a prehistoric, a-historic, or “primeval” environment. This is signified by the figure in traditional dress in Sanctum, and it is treated with blank irony in Herzog’s film through the counterpart figure of “experimental archaeologist,” Wulf  Hein, who appears in prehistoric drag. Dressed in animal skins to demonstrate how the cave-painters might have looked, Hein plays the “Star-Spangled Banner” on an ivory flute modelled on fragments found in the cave. What distinguishes Herzog’s film from Sanctum is the scepticism with which it treats the desire for unlimited mobility that structures these narratives and underlies the fantasy of stereoscopic cinema. For example, the past’s inaccessibility is stressed at several points so that, as one of the archaeologists explains, “we will never reconstruct the past’;  as the director’s voice-over commentary observes, “we are locked in history and they were not,” restating again the binary distinction between the ethnographiable subject and the historifiable that constitutes the ethnographic gaze.

This historical immobility and restricted comprehensibility is reinforced in the film with another trope of Herzog’s documentaries (albeit a device that recurs in some of the director’s fiction films). An event or sublime element of the mise-en-scène is apparently unrepresentable on film and so is teasingly withheld. This motif signifies both the semantic, expressive limits of the medium and the potential, colonizing violence of a representational system that demands total visibility, total, undifferentiated exposure.[17] The Chauvet cave contains a stalactite bearing a drawing of a woman’s torso that is fused with or is perhaps being embraced by a bull-headed creature. But since the film crew is confined to a narrow metal catwalk to preserve the delicate cave floor, the reverse side of the stalactite remains hidden from view. This partial image of interspecies congress is a sign of 3D cinema’s limited capacity to transport us, make space newly visible and comprehensible, or reveal new perspectives.

Conclusion: imperial visuality in three dimensions

The striking similarities between these two films demonstrate the emergence of certain common thematic and stylistic features that extend from action films to “arthouse” documentaries. Of course, this is not to argue, as Eisenstein did in 1948, that

“the three-dimensional principle in the stereoscopic film fully and consecutively answers some inner urge, that it satisfies some inborn requirement of human nature” (Eisenstein, 2004, p. 78).

My intention here is not to make a case for the unrealized progressive potential of 3D cinema, nor to insist that 3D cinema is a commercial and aesthetic misjudgement, as Kristin Thompson and film critic Mark Kermode suggest (Kermode, 2010) (Thompson, 2011). Rather, my argument is that a close formal and thematic examination of contemporary 3D cinema reveals an insistent ideological substructure of contemporary cinema. The emergent thematic and stylistic features of 3D cinema discussed in this article are a consolidation and remediation of elements of 2D cinema, 3D cinema and other audio-visual media. The significance of 3D cinema here is in the way that it constitutes the material realization and reanimation of already existing fantasies. Thinking about 3D cinema involves thinking about a structural dimension of contemporary cinema (as it is situated within a complex media landscape) in a particularly clear way. In other words, 3D cinema is the material articulation of central fantasies of mainstream cinema: the capacity for unrestricted, imperial, heroic mobility and total visibility.

All of the films mentioned above were released in 2D as well as 3D formats. Importantly, the stylistic conventions of contemporary 3D film are shaped in part by the recognition that these films will be exhibited in both formats and probably watched most widely on 2D platforms. Thus, regardless of whether or not it comes to be adopted as a standard exhibition format,[18] the eye-jabbing aesthetic of stereoscopic cinema “that suddenly 'swallows us up' and draws us into the inside-the-screen-space we never saw before, or 'pierces' us with unprecedented force” is not radically distinct from the dominant aesthetic of contemporary 2D cinema (Eisenstein, 2004, p. 80).[19] The long take or sequence shot, the staging of action across several planes of depth (and the concomitant production design decisions), the restlessly mobile camera, and the plunging travelling shot that characterize 3D cinema are all evident in conventional films. But it is the combination of these formal and optical elements in conjunction within certain thematic and narrative frameworks that distinguishes 3D cinema.

What is evident from example after example of digital stereoscopic cinema is that, although this cutting-edge or revolutionary technology offers us dynamic, baroquely detailed and immersive images of novel and exotic worlds, at the same time it shows us very little that is radically new. The actual and imagined worlds constructed by these films are displayed from shifting and multiple visual perspectives, but almost always from the ideological and conceptual perspective of an “imperial visuality.” This is the term Nicholas Mirzoeff uses to describe the conceptualization and normalization of colonial power from the nineteenth century onwards through material practices of representation. For Mirzoeff, visuality involves representing the world in terms that reinforce the symbolic sovereignty of the visualizer or visualizing subject position. Mirzoeff explains,

“Despite its name, this process is not composed simply of visual perceptions in the physical sense, but is formed by a set of relations combining information, imagination, and insight into a rendition of physical and psychic space” (Mirzoeff, 2011, p. 3).

Visuality constitutes and describes power relations between observer and observed that are regulated through the variable distribution of the “right to look,” and these relations are reinforced discursively through material practices of representation and interpretation (such as the production and distribution of maps, prints, books, journals and newspapers, photographs and films). Struggles over ways of seeing the world are thus political struggles for agency and visibility so that, for example, in the modern period,

“the general strike creates countervisuality, a brief possibility of seeing things as they actually are, who is with you and who against” (Mirzoeff, 2011, p. 228).

Mirzoeff is not invoking a naïve dichotomy between realism and misrepresentation here, but rather he proposes that reality is a contested term to which different groups claim privileged access and interpretative rights.

“Imperial visuality” is a world-view that frames and reproduces reality in terms of the interests of the nineteenth-century colonial powers. As conceptualized by Mirzoeff,

“It understood history to be arranged within and across time, meaning that the ‘civilized’ were at the leading edge of time, while their ‘primitive’ counterparts, although always in the same moment, were understood as living in the past. This hierarchy ordered space and set boundaries to the limits of the possible, intending to make commerce the prime activity of humans within a sphere organized by Christianity and under the authority of civilization. Imperial visuality imagined a transhistorical genealogy of authority marked by a caesura of incommensurability between the ‘indigenous’ and the ‘civilized’” (Mirzoeff, 2011, p. 196).

Although Mirzoeff describes a historically specific mode of visuality, it is striking how closely he describes the conceptual, formal and narrative structure of the case studies discussed here. Both films depict spaces in which a literal and symbolic transhistorical encounter between primitive and civilized cultures is the dramatic focus of narratives concerned with the mapping and ordering of primeval, incoherent and dangerous natural space. In their accounts of scientific and touristic journeys through this bounded, domesticated space, the films narrate the consumption of commodified space. But in their spectacular, exoticizing representation of these spaces as stereoscopic images, the films also repeat this commodification of space for the spectator. The emergence of these narrative and aesthetic norms is premised upon the classical commercial aesthetic of invisible style as outlined by Cameron above, which prioritizes the organic or normalized integration of visual spectacle. What is evident from these case studies, and in all of the films mentioned above, is that this normalized aesthetic comprises a colonialist world-view whether it is deployed in documentaries or fantasy epics. Regardless of the ironic self-reflexivity that characterizes numerous 3D films, this normalizing aesthetic also functions to naturalize its reactionary visuality through repetition and redundancy. Not all digital 3D films necessarily reproduce this visuality, and of course there is no reason why, as 3D cameras and viewing platforms become cheaper and more widely available, that film-makers should not explore a wider range of narrative and non-narrative structures and thematic configurations, especially where they are freed from commercial constraints. However, what remains disappointing  and troubling about the current wave of digital stereoscopic cinema is the way in which, in spite of the most obvious capacity of the medium to take us on unexpected journeys[20] through time and space, these films leads us backwards again and again along well-trodden paths through spaces ordered around racialized, imperialist, and strictly gendered hierarchies.


1. Thank you to Imogen Tyler, Leon Gurevitch and the editors at Jump Cut for advice and feedback during the development of this article. [return to text]

2. A sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991), costing $60m this was, shot-for-shot, the most expensive film to date.

3. Cameron has directed two 3D IMAX documentaries, Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep (Cameron, Quale, 2005), the 3D epic Avatar, and also produced the 3D adventure film, Sanctum (Grierson, 2011). He also has a financial interest in the widespread adoption of 3D media. In addition to investing in the commercial development of equipment through his Cameron / Pace Group, such as the Fusion 3D camera system with which Avatar was shot, Cameron has also signed a deal with Samsung to produce 3D material for Samsung 3D TVs in South Korea (Yoo-chui, 2010).

4. See, for example, film editor Walter Murch’s scientistic insistence that the human brain has evolved in a way that makes watching 3D images physically uncomfortable (Ebert, 2011).

5. Two notable exceptions, which make extensive use of static camera set-ups, are Pina (Wenders, 2011) and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Miike, 2011)

6. As David Bordwell has observed,

“Camera movement became a mainstay of popular cinema with the coming of sound, seen not only in the flamboyant tracking or crane shot which often opened the movie but also in those subtle reframing left and right which kept the characters centered. Today’s camera movements are ostentatious extensions of the camera mobility generalized during the 1930s” (Bordwell, 2002, p. 20).

7. In this respect it articulates a fundamental spectatorial and technological fantasy of unimpeded, transgressive mobility, launching us backwards towards Christian Metz’s “primal scene” of cinema, the apocryphal 1896 screenings of the Lumière actualité showing a train pulling into La Ciotat station.

8. As Lorrie Palmer notes, Dziga Vertov’s “kino-glaz” aesthetic celebrated the mobile camera as a prosthetic augmentation of vision:

“I am a mechanical eye [...] I am in constant motion, I draw near, then away from objects, I crawl under, I climb onto them. I plunge and soar together with lunging and soaring bodies” (Palmer, 2012, p. 2).

9. Although Pina can be classified as an “art film" in its concentration upon contemporary dance, it nevertheless reproduces many of the emergent tropes of 3D cinema, including several “phantom ride” sequences on a cable car. Moreover, in its preoccupation with the choreographed movement of bodies through space and the correlative “choreography” of the mobile camera, it explores a central formal element of 3D film.

10. The poem is a motif in the film, its imagery of the opening stanza resonating in the film’s scenography of vast underground caves:

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”

11. The gendering of the cave draws our attention to the gendering of the 3D gaze both through the motif of the penetrative movement of the camera through narrative space, as well as its alignment with the perspective of the heroic male adventurer.

12. The technician is rather embarrassed when a wizard appears in one of the passages, as if we are being shown an adventure game.

13. Or, as Miriam Ross has it, the “hyper-haptic” qualities of the stereoscopic film image (Ross, 2012).

14. See Brown, 2012, for further reflections upon the significance of darkness in relation to 3D cinema.

15. The film is consistent in its concern with laying bare the mechanism so that later in the film we are shown the radio-controlled “Skybot” camera platform with which these aerial shots are achieved. 

16. Indeed, Prometheus opens with archaeologists discovering a cave in Skye containing paintings based on those seen in Herzog’s film. 

17. Other examples include the audio recording of the death of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend in Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005), which Herzog refuses to reproduce (although he includes film of himself and Treadwell’s former girlfriend listening to it), and footage of the inaccessible cave behind a waterfall in the rainforests of Guyana in The White Diamond (Herzog, 2004) (although the film includes footage of a camera operator lowered on a rope to shoot behind the curtain of water).

18. While there is speculation that Ultra-HD 4K TVs will displace HD 3D TVs, in Britain 3D TV sales constitute a growing area of the market:

“In terms of technology, more than a third of the TV market value in 2012 was from sales of 3D TVs, and sales of large screens of 43 inches or more increased 10% in the past 12 months"(Dowell, 2013).

19. It is important to note that the article refers to “native” 3D films—that is, films shot in 3D, rather than 2D films converted to 3D such as Titanic (Cameron, 1997), released in 2012 in 3D.

20. The first 3D film in a projected trilogy adapted from JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit is entitled The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Jackson, 2012).


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