By Nick Atkin

In 1977 audiences looked on in awe as Luke Skywalker barrelled down the Death Star trench run with two TIE fighters and Darth Vader bearing down on him as he attempted to save the planet Alderaan, home of the Rebel Alliance, from obliteration. 

Less than twenty years later, they were watching again, this time George Lucas’s special edition reboots with added and upgraded CGI effects. 

Fast forward another ten years and fans were being sold upgraded digital versions, and in September this year the saga was released on Blu-Ray with 3D theatre re-releases starting from February. 

Charting the technological history of the Star Wars saga demonstrates just how much cinema has changed in a little over three decades. 

Indeed, 3D films are becoming the norm, with no fewer than 28 currently showing in UK theatres. 

After more than 120 years of 35mm celluloid as the favoured projection format, the majority of global cinemas are going digital, with 35mm to be extinct in mainstream usage by 2015. 

Some fear this could be detrimental to independent cinema in the UK, especially after the Department for Culture, Media and Sport axed the Film Council. 

Since 2000, the Film Council invested £15million annually into successful British films like Gosford Park, This is England and The Last King of Scotland. 

But Markos Hadjioannou, Assistant Professor in Literature and Arts of the Moving Image at Duke University, North Carolina, believes the current 3D craze is a passing trend, just like the advent of sound, colour and the digital before it. 

He said: “It’s nothing different from any of the other moments in cinema’s technological history: every time some new technology came out, a long series of films was dedicated at exploiting its entertainment value.” 

Paul Ridd, a cinema programmer at Picturehouse and scout for their distribution arm, believes it could be beneficiary for cinema in the UK including independent films. 

He said: “It’s all about getting people back into cinemas. If 3D film can encourage them to see new films they can have a positive effect.” 

The introduction of 3D sped up the wholesale shift to digital as the dominant form of projection and enabled a premium price to be put on tickets when attendance was at an all time low. 

This made economical sense, with digital projection requiring less manpower and work hours on site and off than traditional 35mm, since there is no need for the expensive delivery of prints or for their time consuming preparation. 

The projectionist simply uploads the film from a tiny hard drive and they’re ready to go. 

At a point when people were not going to the cinema as much as they used to, cinemas could offer the promise of a new spectacle and charge more at the same time for the privilege of seeing it. 

While 3D has its benefits, it has its drawbacks too. Ridd said: “There are too many poor post-conversions for my liking.” 

For example, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender was converted to 3D after being filmed in regular digital resulting in low image quality. 

Re-releases such as The Lion King and the upcoming Star Wars and Titanic conversions face accusations of cashing-in. 

Dr Hadjiannou says: “It’s ridiculous. It shows that Hollywood is trying to make a quick buck to justify the expense that this technology has created. 

“As these films were initially created without 3D image in mind, a third dimension is not at all crucial – or even relevant – to their creative potential.” 

However, Dr Hadjioannou understands the reasoning and commercial success behind mainstream 3D films. 

He said: “Using 3D to create a visual effect that is simply entertaining is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, cinema is entertainment.” 

But can independent cinema still thrive, despite the increasing audience figures for 3D film? 

Dr Hadjiannou said: “People who are interested in the types of films that are using 3D at the moment would either go and watch indie films anyway or are not interested in non-mainstream cinema at all. 

Indeed, Ridd believes it has been a good year for UK independent cinema, with the success of word-of-mouth films Weekend and Dreams of a Life.
 

Ridd said: “These films are excellent and making money – an ideal combination.” 

There have also been interesting independent experiments from Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders this year in Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pina. 

Dr Hadjiannou said: “This suggests there is life in the new technology yet. It’s not just a flash in the pan.” 

As Ridd said: “It’s all about adapting to the technology.”

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written two books, one on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014) and the other on the history of the character Norman Bates (2015). His third book, on the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker, is due in 2017.