Beyond cheap thrills: 3D cinema today, the parallax debates and the ‘Pop-Out’ | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 24, Issue 47
  • ISSN: 0845-4450
  • E-ISSN: 2048-6928



One of the most debated aspects of contemporary 3D cinema is its use of the illusion of depth that extends from the screen into the audience’s space. This is known in technical terms as negative parallax and by audiences as the ‘pop-out’. Critics often equate negative parallax with low-budget 1950s 3D films, such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), wherein the amphibious claw of the title monster as it reaches for the viewer seems to exploit 3D technology for cheap thrills and quick profits. In discussions today about how 3D should be used, commentators wish for a more mature and artistic 3D cinema; this cinema would mine the depth behind the screen, using, in technical terms, positive parallax. This article investigates negative parallax in live-action films of the last two years to question the typical terms by which it is appraised within the parallax debates. I argue that negative parallax’s dismissal as gimmickry has obscured the vital functions it serves in film. The objects that appear to enter the theatre’s space help to identify essential aspects of a film’s style and genre, as well as its relationship to other media that play a role in adaptation. While, because of its hypervisuality – it breaks the fourth wall – the pop-out seems anomalous in relation to the invisible style usually associated with classical Hollywood film, it has significant ties to cinematic techniques that have previously been deployed for the purposes of visual emphasis. My goal is to suspend aesthetic arguments about negative parallax to shed light on the textual roles this key element of the 3D style and experience plays in a variety of films, including superhero blockbusters, horror and fantasy films, comedies, and art-house documentaries, while situating it in the context of past visually arresting techniques used in mainstream cinema.


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