I have been thinking a great deal about Stereoscopic 3D cinema over the last number of years. This in part because we have been doing some really interesting research into the craft, theory and production of 3D films at Emily Carr University of Art and Design where I work. I see the reemergence of 3D as the product of a large number of cultural and technological changes that have come into play over the last decade. [i]
These include: the miniaturization of screen real estate with the iPhone and iPad, which transforms the cinema into a distributed medium that is far less dependent on traditional theatres as venues for viewing; the general use of the Web for social media which further blurs the lines between online and offline life; the advent of HD internet-connected television technology for the home which brings high quality images into the living room; motion capture technology which makes it it far easier to integrate animation and live action into movie experiences; the development of lighter and simpler cameras for 3D film production, thus making the medium more accessible; the increasing sophistication and importance of the special effects industry which has basically transformed every aspect of moviemaking; and the development of game consoles like the Xbox Kinect, Playstation Move and Nintendo Wii which have contributed to the development of new interactive and embodied relationships between players, images and sounds.
Many of these technologies including gameplay are based on the use of simulated environments. Screen effects are produced through the use of digital compositing and seamless weaving of animation into every facet of production. (The Life of Pi is an excellent example of special effects and animation overwhelming traditional live action using 3D.)
Digital tools provide viewers with access to image-worlds that are more like visualizations than representations — data shaped into storytelling.[ii] This shift to data produced through the sophisticated use of computers, heightens the modern anxiety that humans have conferred too much power onto their technologies and have thereby lost some essential qualities of being mortal. The combination of powerful machines that can generate image-worlds (and not just images) and the humans who manipulate them has transformed storytelling in all forms of media expression.
[i] Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2000. Bolter and Grusin develop a superb analysis in this book of what I would describe as the archeological model of technological change. In this model, the transformative effect of new technologies always builds on history and heritage, as well as existing technologies.
[ii] See Lev Manovich, “What is Visualisation?" Visual Studies, 26:1 (2011) pp.36-49 for a fascinating historical overview on technology and visualization.