A Scientific Explanation Of Why 3D Gives People Headaches

When you hear an artist talk about his work, it’s hard to not also fall in love with that work. The artist’s love and enthusiasm is contagious and even the ugliest piece of art explained meaningfully and non-pretentiously can seem beautiful. One art form we never hear about is the brutal art of editing a film, which can easily turn into cleaning up someone else’s mess. Walter Murch, Academy Award winning editor and sound designer, is one such artist who makes beautiful work that you only love more when listening to him talk about it, and he has a few things to say about 3D and how it just does not work with our brains.

The Apocalypse Now editor wrote a letter to Roger Ebert after reading his review of the latest 3D exploit The Green Hornet and means to scientifically explain why it is most people will get headaches after about 20 minutes.

The biggest problem with 3D, though, is the "convergence/focus" issue. A couple of the other issues -- darkness and "smallness" -- are at least theoretically solvable. But the deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen -- say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what.But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focused and converged at the same point.

This may not convince those of you who haven’t had headache problems, I have not either, but should you find yourself in a less than optimal seat in the theater for a 3D film, rest assured you will be rubbing your temples just like everyone else.

Regardless of Murch’s theory, which is probably right, I still believe that 3D has a place in our world. Is it being criminally overused at the expense of story? Absolutely. But films like Toy Story 3 and How To Train Your Dragon, and hell, even the non-animated Tron: Legacy were made more fun despite the simple darkening and discomfort of the glasses.

To read the whole letter, head on over to Ebert’s article at the Chicago Sun Times and scope it out. It’s an interesting read and you can get an idea of just how amazing Murch is by watching the brief videos they’ve posted.