The sudden explosion of 3D movies in the 21st century is not a revolution, a game-changer, or whatever else it's supposed to be. It's simply a return to Midcentury preferences, which favored as complete of a sensory immersion as possible at the movies.
By the '80s, audiences had undergone a change of mindset -- sensory immersion was felt to be obvious gimmickry that took you out of the moment. You wanted to listen in on the movie, and behold the movie -- from somewhat of a distance, as with any form of popular art -- not to escape into it physically as though it were a two-hour amusement park ride.
Along with 3D, there's been an explosion in IMAX, not only in blowing up ordinary films to the mammoth size of the IMAX screens, but also shooting more and more of the original on IMAX film itself, which is a much larger format than the standard 35mm film. How does this tie in with the general resurgence of Midcentury aesthetics in the Millennial era?
Well, the mammoth size of the screen is easy enough to understand. Folks in cocooning times are not very excitable, and the falling crime rates that go along with cocooning leave them cushion-brained from reading the daily news. They prefer vegging out in front of one kind of idiot box or another -- today, the internet and TV; in the Midcentury, radio and TV. Movie studios felt they had to really "wow" them at the theaters in order to lure them out of their domestic cocoons.
Remember, that was the era of the drive-in restaurant, church, and yes, movie theater. If they didn't even want to leave their cars when they ventured away from home, they would really need a spectacle to get their butts in the movie theater seats.
By contrast, the fun-loving folks of the '80s already had their motor going in daily life that they didn't need the movie projector and speakers to shock them awake like a heart defibrillator. And the rising crime rates put them in a higher state of arousal in everyday life. They didn't need to get woken up by melodramatic acting, bombastic musical scores, or gory details.
But now we're back to Midcentury levels of cocooning and falling crime rates, so audiences need to get whacked over the head to feel like the trip to the theater was worth it. You can't get your eardrums blown out at home!
There's something more going on than the sheer size of the screen, though. The size of the image as it is captured on film itself is much larger than usual. The standard since forever has been film that is 35mm wide and 4 perforations high, so that the image occupies a frame that is 20.3 mm by 15.2 mm, with an area of 309 mm squared. The film used for IMAX cameras, however, gives a frame that is 69.6 mm by 48.5 mm, with an area of 3376 mm squared -- or nearly 11 times as large of area as the 35mm image.
What does this larger image size on the film get you? A much higher resolution when it is projected. IMAX was originally used for nature and other documentary approaches that sought to deliver the most lifelike picture possible. It is like shooting a movie on "medium-format" film used in still photography (in this case, near the 6x7 size for 120 film). There, too, the larger image size on film gives much higher resolution than the standard 35mm format (the kind of film you used to buy when you used to shoot on film yourself).
It's not hard to see how the far greater resolution and more lifelike picture ties in with the rest of the whole "movie as sensory immersion in another world" phenomenon.
So, was there a counterpart in the Midcentury? My research wouldn't amount to much if there wasn't. And there was: 70mm film. It mostly went under the names Todd-AO or Super/Ultra Panavision 70, depending on whose cameras were used, but the image size on film was the same -- 48.5 mm by 22.1 mm, or 1072 mm squared. That's more than 3 times the area of standard 35mm film, although below the mammoth size of IMAX images.
And its marketing appeal was the same as that of IMAX today -- a more lifelike resolution that you were never going to get from watching TV in your home. Or even from watching standard movies. The 70mm format produced such Midcentury spectacles as South Pacific, Cleopatra, The Sound of Music (on Todd-AO), Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (on either Super or Ultra Panavision 70).
In fact, the first two major hits for Todd-AO -- Oklahoma! and Around the World in Eighty Days -- were also shot in a higher frame rate than usual, at 30 frames per second instead of 24. Note the parallel to today where Peter Jackson is trying to push 48 frames per second because it looks more lifelike than 24.
Yet the more it looks like real life, the less it looks like a movie. And, sure, if it doesn't look real at all, it won't look like much of a movie either. Somehow the degree of realism has been snuggled into a happy middle spot -- fairly realistic, but not too realistic -- since movies have had spoken dialog. A 35mm 4-perf frame, and 24 frames per second. Once you move far enough away from that optimum, it gets into the realm of virtual reality and escapism rather than stylized reality with a clear distinction of roles between performers and spectators.
I'm worried how Christopher Nolan's upcoming movie Interstellar will look, given that he's shooting more of it on IMAX than anything else he's done, including The Dark Knight Rises, which already had over an hour of IMAX-filmed scenes.
The lenses on IMAX cameras are spherical, not anamorphic, so they don't give you that sublime shallow focus that good ol' Panavision does. Oddly enough, in still photography shooting on a larger film format gives a shallower depth-of-field. Evidently, though, this effect is swamped out by the loss of the anamorphic lens when shooting on IMAX, since it gives deeper rather than shallower focus.
In my review of The Dark Knight Rises, I noted how confusing the melee scenes were because they were filmed in IMAX rather than Panavision -- too many of the crowd members' faces and bodies were in decent focus, and Bane and Batman were not singled out from the rest to be shown in focus. You didn't know where to look, and the melee looked jumbled rather than striking.
And that was with ace cinematographer Wally Pfister at the helm -- you can imagine where things will go when filmed-on-IMAX becomes as ubiquitous as 3D, and every tentpole project will try to outdo the others in how much of their movie can be shown in an overly realistic resolution.
On a broader social note, we can foresee the end of the cocooning phase of our society within the next probably 5 to 10 years. The last time around, the peak of sensory immersion and virtual reality hit between roughly 1955 and '64, a decade defined by shifting the gears from cocooning to connecting (and as a result of the more outgoing climate, a steady rise in the crime rate). So if you aren't a fan of IMAX, rest assured that it won't last that much longer. In the meantime, you'll just have to hope that they don't abuse it... but with Hollywood I wouldn't get your hopes up.