3D films are becoming more ubiquitous as increasing numbers of
Hollywood top dogs jump on the bandwagon. But film directors who
think they’re on top of their game with 3D technology might have
their work cut out for them — at least in terms of the emotional
impact. While the immersive experience might still be there, a recent study by psychologists at Utah University reveals
that — despite the technological leap — 3D films actually incite
the same emotional responses as their 2D counterparts.
Psychologists as well as neuroscientists have long used film
clips to evoke and analyse human emotional responses. As visual
technologies evolve, what psychologists at Utah University
specifically wanted to uncover was whether emotional responses
differed between participants viewing 2D or 3D film.
Taking 408 undergraduates as their subjects, the team rigged
each participant to a series of electrodes to measure physiological
responses such as heart rate and sweat production. This test
enabled researchers to detect subtle changes in perspiration,
allowing them to measure emotional intensity and physical responses
to different scenes. Film clips specifically targeting emotions
such as fear, sadness, amusement, and thrill/excitement were chosen
to suss out participant reactions.
Among the films cherry-picked for the experiment were those
available in both 2D and 3D versions, notably, feature films:
My Bloody Valentine, Despicable Me,
Tangled and The Polar Express. Contrary to
popular belief, and most probably to the disappointment of punters
in the showbiz industry, the psychologists discovered that the only
film to elicit a smidgen of heightened electrodermal response in 3D
format was The Polar Express by director Robert Zemecknis
— himself an ardent advocate of 3D film production.
This finding, however, is not a cause for immediate celebration.
Researchers note in PLOS ONE that 3D film could well
produce “a more vivid, lifelike experience”. However, they also
conclude that all the film clips shown to their subjects produced
the predicted emotional response. Disappointingly, “in nearly
all cases 3D technology did not enhance the viewing experience.”
They even attribute The Polar Express‘s ability to incite
a heightened physiological response to “chance”, arguing that the
3D effects used were of higher quality, more varied, and lasted a
longer time than the briefer effects in extracts from other
So is this bad news overall for those advocating the more
expensive 3D ware, and good news for filmmakers still standing by
Currently, 3D technology divides up the ranks of Hollywood filmmakers. Directors such as
James Cameron, who popularised 3D techniques with Avatar,
and other big players such as George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven
Spielberg, and Robert Zemecknis staunchly support the technology.
In the opposing camp are film giants such as Michael Bay,
Christopher Nolan and Louis Leterrier.
The researchers suggest that their subjects responded more to
the “content and novelty of film” than the actual visual
technology. They conclude that future studies could vary the age of
their participant remit, as well as test “newer, and more realistic
visual stimuli as a means of improving the science of emotion
Since the inception of cinema, the film viewing experience has
been all about being sucked temporarily into another world. But
until another study crops up to counteract the psychologists at
Utah, critics of 3D film tech might be having the last laugh.