The popular myth of the coming of the sound cinema is that The Jazz Singer was the decisive film.  It may have been an important moment, but if you read The Speed of Sound by Scott Eyman you will see that the story is more nuanced.  Today we have a candidate for the 3-D Jazz SingerAvatar. 

Lately I’ve attended several conferences where there were panel discussions and speakers who made the Jazz Singer/Avatar connection and that taken with the same notion articulated in the press has made me aware that Avatar – possibly because of its enormous financial success – is being hailed as the Jazz Singer of 3-D.  It has called attention to the stereoscopic medium like no other film, but in terms of its technical accomplishments (which are considerable), it’s not a trailblazer.  The quality of the image is wonderful and it’s comfortable to look at – at least when it’s well projected.  (I’ve seen it four times and once or twice it was well projected.)  

However, the work that was done by two stereographers, Rob Engle (Sony Pictures ImageWorks, and Phil McNally (first at Disney then at DreamWorks) predates Avatar by years and set the standard for stereoscopic image quality and comfort with films like The Polar Express and Meet the Robinsons.  They set the bar high, fortunately for the medium.  All subsequent 3-D movies, CG or live action, ought to live up to that level of accomplishment, and Avatar does. Rob and Phil’s aesthetic defies the ‘punch them in the face’ effects of early IMAX and theme parks and has informed this generation of filmmakers, including Mr. Cameron. 

Cameron, after coming off of his two undersea documentaries for IMAX, must have been sensitive to the many complaints that were made because portions of them those films were hard to look at. Part of the problem was that Cameron had a side-by-side rig with a fixed interaxial too large by far, and that rig also used toe-in.  When shooting with toe-in and wide angle up close there will be, upon projection (if there is no rectification in post) asymmetrical trapezoidal distortion so that homologous points can have significant vertical offset, especially at the corners of the images.  Attempting to fuse these kinds of images is like drinking a scalding cup of coffee. 

So Cameron toned down the stereo in Avatar; following the first rule of stereoscopic filmmaking: do no harm. It isn’t Avatar that has set the bar high; it’s that Avatar has created awareness.  But everyone who’s making a 3-D movie, whether it’s created with live-action cinematography, or CG animation, or motion capture, owes a lot to Rob and Phil because they came up with a way to make 3-D movies deep and comfortable and just plain beautiful.


  1. treehaus1 Says:

    Hi Lenny,
    Thank you for expressing what a lot of people are beginning to sense also here in Europe: Avatar, despite it’s success, was not the ultimate (stereo 3D) film.
    Yes. McNally’s “How To Train Your Dragon” wins my Best Stereography award. So far. The stereo/talkies comparison is quite useful to guage where we are right now, I find. Should we broaden the comparison between The Jazz Singer and Avatar?: 2 films about ethnic cross-dressing? Maybe “Birth of a Nation” is the better fit to Avatar in terms of theme: heroic nationalist war.

    I way prefer Murnau’s 1927 “Sunrise” to The Jazz Singer. A lot of those early talkies were artistically inferior to their silent contemporaries, and I think that can be said of some of the stereo features coming out right now. A stereo Milestone comparable to Fritz Lang’s 1930 sound-film “M” has not yet been made, in my opinion. What do you think, Lenny?


    • lennylipton Says:


      The comparisons between the introduction of sound and 3-D are fascinating and I’ll write about it soon.

    • Lenny Lipton Says:

      Dear Simon, We can learn from the past but I am not so sure the executives in charge of the studios have thought through their strategy with regard to 3-D and digital projection. Money not esthetics drive the movie business. The drive to digital distribution, with 3-D as the killer application, has not been thought through. When sound was introduced nearly half the cinemas went out of business becasue of the cost of “wiring for sound”. Do the studios want to drive half the theaters in the counbtry out of busness becuase of the cost of digtial 3-D projection?

  2. robengle Says:

    Lenny, I am genuinely honored to have our team’s work included in this post. I feel we were very fortunate to have worked on “The Polar Express” and to have had our little part in history.

    That said, I watch the film now and find myself occasionally wince at the mistakes we made on the way (of course there are moments of amazement and inspiration too). The techniques and tools available to us now, developed by numerous people in the field, including Phil and myself, have raised the bar to a much higher level than we were able to achieve in our “little experiment” that was “Polar Express 3D.” Your guidance played no small part in the rapid evolution of the 3D CG cinema over the past 6 years.

    • Lenny Lipton Says:

      Rob, I am bemused by the part I have played in what is happening to our beloved medium, so I know where you are coming from. But esthtics and technology aside, it’s the public, voting every thime they buy a ticket that has made it happen, in the end.

  3. disruptechie Says:

    The introduction of sound tracks to cinema created an event based association of the visual and auditory senses. By contrast, the addition of stereo depth perception is an enhancement of the visual sense only, more comparable to the introduction of stereophonic or surround sound in theaters than to the introduction of sound in the first place.

    The silent cinema was not really silent, but the musical accompaniment was supplemental rather than integral. Audiences had live performances as a benchmark, and when the actors started to speak and sing on screen, and the action produced the sounds one would expect, a major perceptual threshold was crossed.

    This was disruptive technology at it’s finest, remaking an industry at all levels. There was no going back.

    Could S3D achieve similar disruption? Current 2D cinema seems complete unto itself, whereas cinema without a soundtrack was incomplete, even in its heyday. S3D will have to define and cross a major perceptual threshold that makes 2D cinema seem incomplete by comparison. And the people who can make that happen are the creative S3D stylists whose work we have yet to experience.

    So the difference between the introduction of soundtracks to cinema, on the one hand, and the leap from flat to z depth, on the other, is a difference owing to creative implementation. Soundtracks needed no creative skill in order to become popular; it was enough at first that they simply existed. S3D needs great interpretive skill in order to prove itself more than a gimmick; it is not enough that it simply exists.


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