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Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids 3-D: game over and the 3-D resurgence.

Any extended discussion of the last ten years of film history would be incomplete without mention of the "return" of 3-D. While 3-D has moved further away from "novelty" and more toward "norm," its detractors have kept it from universal acceptance. Despite a recent uptick in scholarship on 3-D, most historians have completely omitted the significance of Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003), the first major theatrically-released 3-D film in almost twenty years, as a noteworthy turning point in the history of stereoscopic cinema. (1) In this article, I address the state of 3-D before Spy Kids 3-D, look at how Rodriguez used 3-D for his films Spy Kids 3-D and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (2005), as well as his "4-D" experiment, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (2011).

The first 3-D boom occurred in the early 1950s, as studios looked for new attractions to counter the popularity of television. Spectacles like Bwana Devil (1952) and This is Cinerama (1952) were both positioned to draw audiences back, ushering in the stereoscopic and widescreen eras, respectively, but only the latter became a mainstay in cinemas worldwide. Most of the 3-D films released during this era were derided by critics as "gimmicky," though some were fairly innovative, such as Kiss Me Kate (1953), one of the rare prestige pictures in 3-D. William Paul situates the film within the larger modernist theatre movement, breaking the proscenium. (2)

Of course, 3-D's history before the 1950s wave is less discussed, although it has a rich history, perhaps best detailed in Ray Zone's Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952, which examines the popularity of proto-cinematic stereoscopic devices through 3-D experiments leading up to the first wave. Film histories often forget that the Lumieres, for instance, were projecting 3-D films as early as 1902. Some of cinema's earliest theorists, such as Sergei Eisenstein and Rudolf Arnheim, devoted attention to the subject of 3-D. Eisenstein was favorable toward the possibilities of 3-D, but Arnheim, also a formalist, was less optimistic, as he was concerning most technological advances in cinema. Despite writing soon after the advent of sound and concurrently with the rise of three-strip Technicolor, he discusses stereoscopy in 1933 as though it were an inevitable technology and detrimental to the "seventh art," even though his comments on stereoscopy and widescreen were based primarily on novelty experiments (the various 3-D shorts made since the turn of the century) and anomalies (The Big Trail [1930, shot in Fox Grandeur's 2.10:1]). (3) Arnheim theorized on all of these technologies (sound, color, widescreen, and stereoscopy) together, causing an enigma for contemporary readers: if Arnheim considered all of these technologies as inevitable yet injurious to cinema, why has stereoscopy not been accepted by audiences and studios like the other three technologies?

Zone, perhaps the foremost 3-D historian, followed his aforementioned volume with one covering 1953-2009, entitled 3-D Revolution: The History of Modern Stereoscopic Cinema. Suffice it to say that one should consult the works of Zone (and others) for a more detailed history than space here will allow. Still, to understand Rodriguez's significance to the current stereoscopic revolution, a (very) brief history of 3-D in the 20-25 years before Spy Kids 3-D is in order. After the short-lived early 1950s boom (which only lasted from November 1952 to spring 1954) marked by a dual-camera system, 3-D revived again briefly with a single-camera system in the early 1980s, perhaps most memorably with films such as Friday the 13th Part III (1982), Jaws 3-D (1983), and Amityville 3-D (1983), all (conveniently) "three-quels," which Rodriguez mentions as part of his motivation for shooting his third Spy Kids film in 3-D. (4) This second wave of 3-D films fizzled out in 1983, leaving stereoscopy almost entirely absent in mainstream theatres until the release twenty years later of Spy Kids 3-D. Each of these three waves in 3-D production--the 1950s, 1980s, and the 21st century--was primarily as a countermeasure to a new technological challenge to 1 lolly wood and its desire to lure patrons back into theaters: television, home video, and digital technologies / piracy, respectively. But before addressing Spy Kids 3-D and its impact in reviving stereoscopic film, it may be necessary to remind ourselves in today's more 3-D-saturated media environment of where 3-D was just over a decade ago.

During this moribund period--at least in regards to theatrically released 3-D films--there were several notable advances in 3-D technology, even if it was reserved for theme park rides and large-format (e.g., IMAX) screens. (5) James Cameron's T2 3-D: Battle Across Time (1996) was an example of 3-D's popularity with theme park attractions, although it came with a hefty price tag--$60 million for the completed ride, with about half of the total for a film with a running time of only twelve minutes. Indeed, IMAX arguably primed audiences for stereoscopy's return to the multiplex. In 2003, the year of Spy Kids 3-D's release, eleven of the 42 IMAX films that year were in 3-D. (6) Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) was one such film that year, which utilized the Reality Camera System developed by him and his director of photography, Vincent Pace. The success of Titanic (1997) would allow Cameron to experiment more with 3-D, and he would not direct another feature film until Avatar (2009), helming another IMAX documentary in 3-D in the interim, Aliens of the Deep (2005). The Reality Camera System is equipped with an "active convergence," the process which allows more flexibility with the focal point in 3-D. For Rodriguez, this development was a key turning point in improving stereoscopic films, which would have only been possible with the turn to digital filmmaking that he championed.

Exact figures of 3-D releases are difficult to determine, especially since some films are released in 3-D internationally but not in the US (e.g., Noah [2014]), but by 2011, over 50 American films were being released theatrically in 3-D. The vast majority of American features are not in 3-D, but we are closer to what John Belton, one of the preeminent historians of motion picture technologies, describes as the transition "from novelty to norm." (7) Even if this is only a cycle (which I will question later) akin to previous 3-D fads, it has certainly lasted much longer. Furthermore, what has set this revival in 3-D apart from previous eras may be its acceptance and use as a tool by internationally renowned auteurs such as Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2010), Martin Scorsese (Hugo, 2011), Wim Wenders (Pina, 2011), Ang Lee (Life of Pi, 2012), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, 2013), and Jean-Luc Godard (Goodbye Language 3-D, 2014). But it was Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, released in 2003, which deserves much of the credit for bringing stereoscopic films back into mainstream theaters.

Historians (most notably Zone) have documented the history of 3-D, but those who have written on its recent resurgence have generally overlooked Rodriguez's place in the current 3-D revival. Despite the recent developments in 3-D scholarship, Rodriguez's position within the history has been disregarded. Rodriguez has rarely got the attention he deserves as a technological innovator, whether it be his early adoption and subsequent evangelization for digital filmmaking, 3-D, his hands-on approach to visual effects, the digital backlot a la Sin City (2005), or his attempt to revive the olfactory sense in cinema with "4-D." Zone's exhaustive, chronological account of three-dimensional cinema history since 1952, 3-D Revolution: The History of Modern Stereoscopic Cinema, at least covers Rodriguez and his first two 3-D films, yet he anachronistically examines both Spy Kids 3-D and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D after his chapter on The Polar Express (2004), thus belittling the role of Spy Kids 3-D, released the year prior to The Polar Express. Recently, leading film scholars, such as Thomas Elsaesser and Barbara Klinger, have tackled the subject of 3-D's significance today, again overlooking Rodriguez's role. Despite the title "The 'Return' of 3-D," Thomas Elsaesser neglects to mention Rodriguez at all, while a recent 3-D themed double issue of Film Criticism (Spring/Fall 2013) is guilty of the same. Thus, this article intends to rectify this imbalance by examining where Rodriguez stands in this history. My research question is: has Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over been neglected in histories of stereoscopy? Should it be considered a milestone along with The Polar Express and Disney's Chicken Little (2005) as a film that brought back 3-D? With his four 3-D efforts to date (Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For [2014]), I contend that only James Cameron (the IMAX films discussed below and Avatar) and Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express, Beowulf [2007], and A Christmas Carol [2009]) can claim to the status of "3-D auteur" as much as Rodriguez, yet he rarely garners as much attention.

I would now like to address Rodriguez's three stereoscopic films made primarily for children, addressing his motivations for making them in 3-D, the technological innovations in 3-D that he was able to implement for each film, and finally, the reflexive markers in each film. Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over was originally conceived not as an entry in the Spy Kids series, but as a sci-fi film for children simply called Game Over, which would also be set in a video game universe, like the eventual film. The decision to make it a Spy Kids film was basically due to characterization, since Rodriguez thought that using characters already developed in the two previous films would solve the problem of creating entirely new characters. In her discussion of 3-D in horror franchise sequels Friday the 13th Part III, The Final Destination (2009), and Final Destination 5 (2011), Caetlin Benson-Allott positions such films as metacinematic. She privileges the Friday the 13 th threequel over those from the aforementioned Jaws and Amityville Horror franchises "because it encourages its spectator to identify with herself as the enduring subject of the franchise" with "self-reflexive set pieces and stereoscopic gestures" that "engage the spectator as a franchise connoisseur." (8) Yet Rodriguez's decision to set the film within its video game world arguably feels like such a departure for its viewers that such pleasures that Benson-Allott appeals to are noticeably absent.

That Spy Kids 3-D was shot in digital (like Spy Kids 2 [2002], Once Upon a Time in Mexico [2003], and every subsequent Rodriguez film) is certainly emphasized even in the opening credits, with the unorthodox opening credit "A Robert Rodriguez Digital File." Spy Kids 3-D was not the first film he had considered shooting in 3-D; he envisioned shooting the second (vampire) half of From Dusk Till Daivn in 3-D, but the then limited technology with its larger cameras and lower optical quality meant that he had to forego it until the technology caught up to his trademark fast-paced shooting style. (9)

When asked why he wanted to bring back 3-D with this particular film, Rodriguez replied, "I thought doing a sci-fi movie for kids and setting it in a video game would be a great way to [bring stereo 3-D effect back to theaters]." (10) He saw it as an adventure," a genre [he] could redefine." (11) Blaming poor storytelling for 3-D's demise in earlier epochs, he cited House of Wax (1953) as the best 3-D film ever made, even stating that he knew that he and his team could surpass that film and become the new "best stereo movie ever made." (12) Digital technology and Rodriguez's early adoption of digital filmmaking made it an easier process for him because of the HD monitors and dual HD projector on the set, allowing them to see the 3-D effects while shooting, (13) and avoiding "shooting [3-D] blind" on film. (14) Rodriguez saturates his DVD commentary with 3-D terminology and concepts, revealing that Rodriguez did his stereoscopic homework (or learned on the job) while helming his 3-D debut.

Spy Kids 3-D made use of the polychromatic anaglyphic process and its accompanying red / cyan cardboard glasses that had been used since the adult film Sivingtail (1969), but not yet for a children's film. (15) The film begins with "GLASSES ON" instructions, presumably to view the 3-D opening credits and a prologue in which Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming) informs viewers to put on glasses when "a main character puts his on." Despite this, extradiegetic instructions "GLASSES ON" and "GLASSES OFF" still appear on screen. Outside of a nine-minute sequence early in the film and a three-minute sequence when Juni exits the video game world, the rest of the film is intended as a stereoscopic experience, including the final credits. The film climaxes as spy siblings Juni (Daryl Sabara), Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega), and their larger "family" put their glasses back on as they face giant robots in front of the State Capitol building on Austin's Congress Street.

Rodriguez also used the Reality Camera System, bringing in its co-inventor Pace to assist with the demands of shooting 3-D; Pace was subsequently credited with "additional 3-D photography," even though he was present for the duration of the shoot. (16) Pace would also develop a system for real-time viewing for the cast and crew so they could gauge the effectiveness of the stereoscopic footage. As production designer (a role he had only recently added to his long list of tasks), Rodriguez selectively reduced his color palette to those colors that worked well in anaglyph, favoring purple, yellow, and light orange over bright red, blue, and green. To fully take advantage of 3-D's potential, the film constantly exploits negative parallax, where elements seem to appear beyond the screen, generating the emergence effect for which 3-D is primarily known. Even though this is precisely why some have denigrated 3-D, Paul argues for an "aesthetics of emergence," since "by its insistence on the emergence effect, 3-D, the process that most closely approximated the reality of our binocular vision, made us think about how that reality is constituted." (17) More recently, Klinger justifies the use of negative parallax, in addition to its converse, positive parallax (when elements recede to the back of the screen), as a "constituent part of storytelling" that takes advantage of a deep focus aesthetic. (18) Zone compliments the action in Spy Kids 3-D for being set constantly in the stereo window, avoiding the common problems of "color fringing and ghosting" in anaglyphic 3-D. (19) In his final assessment, Zone calls it a "definite step forward for anaglyphic motion pictures," (20) a backhanded compliment all the more surprising considering that Rodriguez admits in the DVD commentary to prioritizing certain visuals for the theatrical release, in case they were unable to meet the deadline set by the release date. As a "digital file," he knew they could still make corrections to the "film" for the home release, or adapt it to any future form of 3-D.

Yet the commentary still reveals Rodriguez's dissatisfaction with 3-D's limitations at that time. He also expresses dissatisfaction with the popular 3-D software Maya, foreseeing a switch to Softimage XSI for it better models, rendering, and support. Furthermore, he does not neglect to mention that a polarized version of the film exists, conceding to the critics who advocated for a polarized version over the anaglyph, but that he was hindered in that there were no theaters--outside of large-format--who could release a polarized version. In this era before Blu-ray and HD DVDs, limitations in home video also persisted. He further reminds commentary listeners that NTSC and MPEG-2 compression curtail DVDs from offering the high-definition experience in the home, stating that viewing it in RGB high-definition allows more of the "full experience."

Despite (or because of?) the addition of the third dimension, the critical reception for Spy Kids 3-D was not as favorable as the first two Spy Kids films. The critical aggregator website Metacritic ( scored the film at a 57 (admittedly only three points below the "positive" benchmark and surprisingly higher than the scores both Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn received), but disappointing when compared to Spy Kids (71) and Spy Kids 2 (66). One of the most vocal critics of the film was Roger Ebert, who had given positive reviews to the "splendid" Spy Kids and "lesser but still entertaining" Spy Kids 2. He began his review thusly: "As a way of looking at a movie, 3-D sucks, always has, maybe always will.... The problems with 3-D are: (1) It is pointless except when sticking things in the audience's eyes; (2) It is distracting when not pointless; and (3) It dims the colors and makes the image indistinct." (21) He added that the brightness of the introductory, non-stereoscopic segment degenerated once the film exploited its 3-D element, looking darker and having a "dirty window" effect. While admitting that he enjoyed certain IMAX 3-D films, he apparently saw little use for 3-D for wide-release, feature-length, theatrical films, an opinion he steadfastly maintained until the release of Up six years later. Spy Kids 3-D was arguably more successful with audiences than critics, becoming the highest-grossing 3-D film in history with $111 million domestic tally. This topped the previous entry ($85 million), but just failing to match the $112 million total of the first film. (22) Still, while Hollywood sequels generally increase their budgets in order to exceed whatever elements made the first installment a success, the first three Spy Kids films stayed within the $35-38 million budget range, proving that a 3-D film could be made with little to no additional expense.

Yet Rodriguez's decision to shoot his third Spy Kids film in 3-D complements its narrative in a way that it would not have for the other Spy Kids films, as much of the film is set within the diegetic video game "Game Over," an alternate reality that can call for another mode of vision; or, as Zone claims, Rodriguez "uses the stereoscopic parameter as a seamless part of the narrative." (23) Moreover, children could wear their glasses home after watching the film, roleplaying within the Spy Kids universe. This was a marked change from the way 3-D had been handled before by studios, as an "afterthought" according to Rodriguez:

   It was almost as if a studio had said:
   "Oh, you're going to make that movie?
   Why don't you do it in 3D while you're
   at it? Kids love that 3D!" There was
   never any real point in the 3D, because it
   was never part of the story. Most people
   wrote off 3D in movies seeing a failure
   on all levels; but I thought I could make
   it work by doing something different, by
   pulling an audience into the movie with
   the characters. (24)

Rodriguez also comments on 3-D's self-reflexivity in the film, most memorably in the aforementioned final scene, which features all of the characters wearing their 3-D glasses. A jab at 3-D should also not be missed; when Juni leaves the alternate reality of the video game world, OSS (Organization of Super Spies) Head Donnagon Giggles (Mike Judge), warns him, "Those video games are killers on the eyes, huh kid?" as Juni and his grandfather (played by Ricardo Montalban) take off their 3-D glasses and rub their eyes, referencing those detractors of 3-D who complain of discomfort with the technology.

It was Bob Weinstein, head of Dimension Films (which has released most of Rodriguez's films), who informed Rodriguez of Spy Kids 3-D's success, asking him if he had another 3-D children's film in the works. (25) Rodriguez then chose to make a film "based on the stories and dreams" of his seven-year-old son Racer Max. Arriving almost two whole years after Spy Kids 3-D, Sharkboy and Lavagirl was released on June 10, 2005, still before the present "boom" in 3-D films. For this film, Rodriguez opted for a slightly different anaglyphic process, using a true-color anaglyph. (26)

"GLASSES ON" instructions are included again, but this time diegetically as the heroes enter the shark rocketship to Planet Drool, occurring at the 20-minute mark. In his DVD commentary, Rodriguez again expresses his disappointment that theaters were not yet equipped with digital projection, meaning that the 3-D will almost always look darker than it should when projected on film. He also reprimands exhibitors and projectionists who, as they had before with Spy Kids 3-D, ignored his special letter of instructions for projection bulbs to be used at their intended brightness, not the lower level exhibitors typically use as a cost-saving measure. Rodriguez reminds viewers and listeners that although they were subjected to using anaglyph glasses while watching the film, that was not how the film was intended to be seen, promising the full potential of shooting with the Reality Camera System when viewing the polarized version.

Advances in digital filmmaking and the proliferation of visual effects houses resulted in a simpler, more streamlined experience for Rodriguez and his crew shooting in 3-D. For instance, colors were less of a concern during production, as color correction was done on the original 2-D version of the film to avoid a "color correction nightmare," according to the film's visual effects producer, Keefe Boerner. This was essential when colors like cyan and red were already thematic colors for the film's heroes, (27) while Rodriguez felt that he no longer had to "sacrific[e] color." (28) Rodriguez claims to have also used the first SRPC-1 HD Video Processor available in the US from Sony, allowing them to freeze frames while viewing 3-D playback, a tool unavailable to them two years previous. (29) Armed with the new Sony HDC-950 camera, he could also place performers in more extreme space, exploiting 3-D's potential to greater effect. (30)

Despite these advancements in Rodriguez's early 3-D efforts, it would be presumptuous to insist that Rodriguez singlehandedly brought back 3-D, as both films were generally criticized as clumsy experiments aimed primarily for children. If anything more successful films like The Polar Express and Chicken Little arguably brought 3-D to a greater public awareness. Yet these films were not as intentional in their desire to see a revival in 3-D. The Polar Express notably played as a "flat" film in 3,000 theaters and in 3-D in only seventy IMAX theaters, (31) while the decision to make Chicken Little into a 3-D film was made late in production, only fourteen weeks before its release date of November 4 (almost five months after Sharkboy and Lavagirl's release). (32) It is not unreasonable to assume that the success of Rodriguez's 3-D films (especially when compared to their relatively small budgets), along with The Polar Express, may have inspired Disney to jump on the new 3-D bandwagon. But this is not to belittle Chicken Little's significance as the film that brought digital 3-D as a more permanent stereoscopic filmmaking mode. Disney heavily promoted the film and it eclipsed Spy Kids 3-D's box office record, signally a clarion call to the industry that 3-D could be a viable and lucrative addition to certain films.

This period also saw the rise of RealD, with its polarized, non-cardboard, yet still disposable glasses, as another significant breakthrough for 3-D's resurgence, eventually becoming the most popular 3-D technology. But the format was initially relegated to animation (e.g., Monster House [2006], Meet the Robinsons [2007]), which dominated the 3-D resurgence in the wake of Spy Kids 3-D and Sharkboy and Lavagirl to such an extent that Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) billed itself as the "first digital live-action 3-D movie" despite being five years late to the party. (33) Theaters still hesitant to install enough 3-D screens to meet audience demand (and this would continue until the blue monster that was Avatar) insured that Journey to the Center of the Earth was still released primarily in its 2-D version.

During this time, Rodriguez became a spokesperson for 3-D, while also serving as a whipping boy for everything that was wrong with how 3-D was then being used. Both he and Cameron heralded the coming of 3-D digital cinema at the 2005 ShoWest convention (the largest trade convention for theater owners, now CinemaCon), but Cameron would later disparage his chief 3-D rival and his anaglyphic films for "horrendous image quality" and that they "contributed to the 'ghetto-ization' of 3-D." (34)

With Rodriguez's penchant for trilogies (the "Mariachi" trilogy [1992-2003], From Dusk Till Dawn [1996-1999], and proposed for Machete and Sin City), Spy Kids: All the Time in the World was bit of a break, the fourth film in a series. Notwithstanding Rodriguez's "Welcome back to the final Spy Kids movie" as he opens the DVD commentary for Spy Kids 3-D, he had earlier expressed interest in making another Spy Kids sequel, but probably direct-to-DVD or as an animated release. (35) For this fourth film, Rodriguez wanted to add another dimension, billing the film as in "4-D" with "Aroma-Scope."

"4-D" was not a term invented by Rodriguez, as ride films at theme parks have often used the designation since the 1990s. The fourth dimension can be any extrasensory experience (such as vibrating seats, puffs of smoke, etc.), perhaps first memorably employed in mainstream theaters with Sensurround for Earthquake (1974) and its imitators, Sound 360 and Megasound. But it can also refer to the addition of some form of smelling technologies, which has intermittently appeared in the latter half of cinema's history. Perhaps the most notable attempt to incorporate smelling as an added attraction was John Waters's Polyester (1981), for which patrons were given "Odorama" scratch-and-sniff cards with their tickets so that they could smell the skunk, flatulence, gasoline, and dirty shoes of the diegesis. Rugrats Go Wild (2003), the final film in the Rugrats trilogy (1998-2003), had also used a scratch-and-sniff card similar to Polyester, an attempt that seems to have been forgotten by reviewers of Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. Yet attempts to appeal to the olfactory perception go back decades; Walt Disney had considered integrating smells into Fantasia (1940) before nixing the idea, while Michael Todd Jr.'s "Smell-O-Vision" released scents through the theater's ventilation system for Scent of Mystery (1960). (36) In a similar vein, William Castle became known for his various theatrical gimmicks, including "Percepto" (the buzzers installed in seats for The Tingler [1959]), a "fright break" included in Homicidal (1961), or the "Punishment Poll" for his two possible endings of Mr. Sardonicus (1961). Attempting to follow his revival of 3-D, Rodriguez proved himself the filmmaker closest to Castle today, wanting to add a new attraction to his next Spy Kids sequel.

Rodriguez recycled the scratch-and-sniff cards of Polyester and Rugrats Go Wild as well, perhaps because of its minimal costs. As in those films, numbers appear sporadically throughout Spy Kids: All the Time in the World that correspond to the number that the viewer is to scratch on the card, in order to catch a whiff of bacon, candy, dog flatulence, dirty diapers, or mucus, presumably to appeal to the olfactory sense. (37) But this ploy was perhaps a failed experiment, as Spy Kids: All the Time in the World arguably drew the worst reviews of any film in Rodriguez's corpus. A few critics labeled it as equivalent to a direct-to-DVD release, while even a mixed review like Mark Olsen's for the Los Angeles Times notes that "Rodriguez never gets too adventurous with the [Aroma-Scope] concept--food and bodily functions are the staples--and even seems to eventually give up on it, throwing three of the eight smells into a single moment." More common were pejorative reviews of the Aroma-Scope as ineffective and gimmicky. Entertainment Weekly's Keith Staskiewicz called it a "hokey element" and that all the scents mixed together to smell like a "blueberry Yankee Candle."

Like Sharkboy and Lavagirl before it, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World was markedly less successful than Rodriguez's previous films, both with audiences and with critics. Sharkboy and Lavagirl and Spy Kids: All the Time in the World have the lowest Metacritic metascores of any of his films (38 and 37, respectively). This box office totals mirrored the negative critical reception, as Sharkboy and Lavagirl barely topped $39 million, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World $38.5 million (although its tally was less than a million dollars short of besting Rugrats Go Wild to become the highest-grossing "smelling" film ever). Fortunately for Rodriguez and Dimension Films, the fourth Spy Kids entry's budget was the smallest yet at $28 million, so the film turned a profit, especially since its foreign gross surpassed its lackluster domestic take.

Rodriguez thought a new element was necessary since Spy Kids 2 and 3-D had their own innovations (digital and 3-D, respectively), which meant the fourth film had to go for 4-D. Wanting to revive Waters's "Odorama" for a family audience (also apparently forgetting Rugrats Go Wild), he was reassured that the "technology" had improved in 25 years and that it would not "smell like batteries" anymore and that the smells would no longer collide, (38) a claim that some critics would apparently dispute. According to Rodriguez, the card manufacturers make the cards further in advance (allowing the smells to "sit longer") and that the inclusion of more "activators" made the technology more advanced. (39) He also viewed it as essential to an increased desire for interactivity with today's audiences accustomed to gaming:

   That's what you want from an extra dimension.
   You want to be brought even
   closer to the movie. The Spy Kids movies
   are very empowering to children, and
   they feel very close to the characters
   and dream about being spies. Anything
   that draws them closer to that, as an
   experience, makes that identification
   bond more. (40)

Hence the need to smell selected diegetic elements.

Despite Rodriguez's criticism at the time of Spy Kids 3-D of studios incorporating 3-D as an afterthought, he was arguably just as guilty of this with Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. Actors were unaware that the film would revive a smelling technology, though he asserts it was always his intention and had clues to that effect written into the script: "The whole movie, they didn't know why they were smelling stuff so much till they got the announcement just before the movie came out that it would be in 4-D. That was funny." (41) (The news broke a little less than two months before the film's release.) Both the third and fourth dimensions were absent for the DVD release, while the Blu-ray release did include both 2-D and 3-D versions, with the use of "Aroma-Scope" entirely absent. (42) Indeed, the film itself seemed to have discarded 3-D's potential, as emergence effects rarely appear after the first act. But unlike Rodriguez's two previous 3-D films, glasses were to be worn for the film's entirety, further evidence that 3-D was no longer the novelty it had been in 2003 and 2005. Yet Zone favorably compares such films that include short 2-D sequence to contrast the stereoscopy (or, contrariwise, include a 3-D sequences within a mostly 2-D film such as Superman Returns [2006]) as akin to the use of volume by composers and musicians:

   Just as silence is a parameter
   of sound, flatness, or 2-D, is a
   parameter of depth. To fully
   exploit the expanded digital
   tool set for stereoscopic storytelling,
   the digital 3-D director
   can use this visual silence,
   flatness, contrapuntally over
   the course of the narrative.
   Then, when stereopsis begins
   to flower within the story, it
   can do so with the greatest
   possible dramatic impact. (43)

Spy Kids 3-D, on the other hand, was unlike later films that have been released in both 2-D and 3-D formats, as it was always intended to be seen in 3-D. Zone specifically references as proof that stereoscopic films dictate a "new grammar of cinematic storytelling" since such films that "incorporate] z-axis information within and in front of the screen can only work artistically in stereo." (44) Still, while many critics have derided those films who convert to stereo in post (e.g., Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland, both 2010,) Zone offers a contrarian voice as he apparently advocates stereo conversion as a valid option, as advanced retrofitting technology leaves most viewers unaware of the differences between those films originally shot in 3-D and those shot in 2-D that converted in post. Indeed, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World was one such post-converted film.

Rodriguez's association with 3-D even appears in his Machete Kills (2013), which includes a fun bit spoofing 3-D's exploitation era. As "Miss San Antonio" (Amber Head) straddles Machete (Danny Trejo), "PUT ON YOUR 3-D GLASSES" flashes on the screen, increasing in rapidity as she takes off her pageantry sash and starts to disrobe. The scene then merges into a blurry cyan/red image that recalls anaglyph 3-D as the viewer can subtly detect they are engaged in a sexual act. Rodriguez has been more candid in interviews in recent years, taking credit for 3-D's resurgence, and as this article has demonstrated, he indeed deserves more attention from scholars of stereoscopy. While Rodriguez was certainly not as instrumental in the development of current 3-D technologies as is the case with Cameron, Rodriguez still deserves to be mentioned alongside Cameron for helping revive 3-D in mainstream cinemas.

As outlined above, the added dimension of stereoscopy has certainly peaked at various stages in cinema's history. Writing in the early 1990s, William Paul called it an "aberration for mainstream moviemaking" albeit one "that the mainstream turns to in almost periodic fashion." (45) But I argue that this "failed technology of the past" (per Paul, emphasis his (46)) is no longer that; while the number of 3-D productions admittedly peaked in 2011, (47) it has finally moved from "novelty to norm," especially with the growth of 3-D in international markets and in the home (courtesy of 3-D televisions and Blu-ray discs). Furthermore, as Elsaesser points out, in the military, scientific, medical, and security realms, 3-D technologies never actually went away. (48) He adds,

   If one thinks of 3-D not as part of a cinema
   of attractions, not as startling you or
   throwing things at you from the depth of
   space, but as the vanguard of a new cinema
   of narrative integration, introducing
   the malleability, scalability, fluidity, or
   curvature of digital images into audiovisual
   space--doing away with horizons,
   suspending vanishing points, seamlessly
   varying distance, unchaining the camera
   and transporting the observer--then the
   aesthetic possibilities are by no means
   limited to telling a silly story, suitable
   only for kids hungry for superheroes,
   action toys, or sci-fi fantasies. (49)

Even if Rodriguez's 3-D efforts have thus far been "limited to telling a silly story," would films like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pina have arisen if not for Rodriguez?

While Harry Warner's pronouncement in 1953 that all films in two years would be in 3-D (50) (a prophecy that may never come to fruition), this third wave of 3-D filmmaking is not the fad of the early 1950s or early 1980s. Stereoscopic motion pictures are finally here to stay, and for that, Rodriguez deserves partial credit (or blame, depending on your perspective).

Caption: The Cortez family dons their glasses.

Caption: Promotional material for Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.

Caption: Original "Aroma-Scope" card for Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (2011). Author's collection.

Caption: Miss San Antonio straddles Machete in Machete Kills.

Works Cited

Aldama, Frederick Luis. The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez. Austin: U of Texas P, 2014. Print.

Anon. "Fantasy Filmmaker." Daily Variety (Sept 13, 2005): 30. Print.

Arnheim, Rudolf. Film as Art. Berkeley: U of California P, 1957. Print.

Belton, John. Widescreen Cinema. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992. Print.

Benson-Allott, Caetlin. "Old Tropes in New Dimensions: Stereoscopy and Franchise Spectatorship." Film Criticism 37/38 (Spring/Fall 2013): 12-29. Print.

Block, Bruce and Philip Mcnally. 3D Storytelling: How Stereoscopic 3D Works and How to Use It. Burlington, MA: Focal P, 2013. Print.

Ebert, Roger. "Newest 'Spy Kids' Lost in the 3-D Shuffle." Chicago Sun-Times, July 25, 2003: 35.

Ebert, Roger. "It moves! It speaks! It smells!" Roger Ebert's Journal. Aug 11, 2011. it_moves_it_speaks_it_smells.html.

Elsaesser, Thomas. "The 'Return' of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century." Critical Inquiry 39 (Winter 2013): 217-246. Print.

Figgins, Scott. "3D in Depth: Coraline, Hugo, and a Sustainable Aesthetic." Film History 24 (June 2012): 196-209. Print.

Fordham, Joe. "Cornin' at Ya!" Cinefex (Oct 2003): 27-39. Print.

Goldman, Michael. "Rodriguez and 3D Post: Better Anaglyphs and Revised Workflow." Millimeter 33 (June 2005): 29-34. Print.

Green, Abel. "Tri-Dimension Hectic Race: Don't Want to Get Left at the Post." Variety (Jan 28, 1953): 3,18. Print.

Klinger, Barbara. "Three-Dimensional Cinema: The New Normal." Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19.4 (2013): 423431. Print.

Lesnick, Silas. "Exclusive: Robert Rodriguez on Spy Kids: All the Time in the World." Nov 22, 2011.

LoPiccolo, Phil. "Moving in Stereo." Computer Graphics World (August 2003): 56. Print.

Minow, Nell. "Interview: Robert Rodriguez of 'Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D,'" columnists/moviemom/2011/08/ interview-robert-rodriguez-of-spykids-4d-all-the-time-in-the-world.html

Olsen, Mark. "All Smelly 'Spy Kids' Steals Is One's Time," Los Angeles Times) Aug 22, 2011): D3.

Paul, William. "The Aesthetics of Emergence." Film History 5 (Sept 1993): 321-355. Print.

--. "Breaking the Lourth Wall: 'Belascoism', Modernism, and a 3-D Kiss Me Kate." Film History 16.3 (2004): 229-242. Print.

Radish, Christine. "Director Robert Rodriguez Talks Spy Kids: All the Time in the World and Sin City 2." Collider,

Rich, Katey. "Does TJiis Graph Prove That 3-D Movies Are Over?" Cinema Blend, DoesGraph-Prove-3D-Movies-Over-39322.html.

Sloane, Judy. "Inside Hollywood." Film Review (July 2005): 26. Print.

Staskiewicz, Keith. "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D." Entertainment Weekly. Aug 21, 2011."20521734,00.html.

Zone, Ray. Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2007. Print.

--. 3D Revolution: The History of Modern Stereoscopic Cinema. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2012. Print.


(1) Although not a 3-D historian, Frederick Luis Aldama does briefly address Rodriguez's impact on 3-D's resurgence in The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez (Austin: U of Texas P, 2014).

(2) William Paul, "Breaking the Fourth Wall: 'Belascoism', Modernism, and a 3-D Kiss Me Kate," Film History 16:3 (2004): 229-242.

(3) See Rudolf Amheim, Film as Art (Berkeley: U of California P, 1957), 11-14, 58-65.

(4) Joe Fordham, "Cornin' at Ya!," Cinefex, Oct 2003, 28.

(5) See Ray Zone, 3-D Revolution: The History of Modern Stereoscopic Cinema (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2012), 143-233.

(6) Zone, 3-D Revolution, 180.

(7) John Belton, Widescreen Cinema (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992), 34-51.

(8) Caetlin Benson-Allott, "Old Tropes in New Dimensions: Stereoscopy and Franchise Spectatorship," Film Criticism 37/38 (Spr/Fall 2013), 13.

(9) Fordham, 28.

(10) Phil LoPiccolo, "Moving in Stereo," Computer Graphics World, August 2003, 56.

(11) LoPiccolo, 56.

(12) LoPiccolo, 56.

(13) LoPiccolo, 56.

(14) Fordham, 28.

(15) Zone, 3-D Revolution, 249. Zone notes, "One could be grateful to Robert Rodriguez for rescuing the polychromatic anaglyph motion picture from the shadowy precincts of the sex and horror genres" (250). It should be remembered that films released during the 1950s 3-D boom used polarizing glasses rather than anaglyph.

(16) Fordham, 30.

(17) William Paul, "The Aesthetics of Emergence," Film History 5 (Sep 1993), 335-336.

(18) Barbara Klinger, "Three-Dimensional Cinema: The New Normal," Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19:4 (2013), 426.

(19) Zone, 3-D Revolution, 249.

(20) Zone, 248.

(21) Roger Ebert, "Newest 'Spy Kids' Lost in the 3-D Shuffle," Chicago Sun-Times, July 25, 2003: 35.

(22) All box office figures taken from Box Office Mojo (

(23) Zone, 3-D Revolution, 250.

(24) Fordham, 28.

(25) Judy Sloane, "Inside Hollywood," Film Review, July 2005, 26.

(26) Zone, 3-D Revolution, 254-255.

(27) Michael Goldman, "Rodriguez and 3D Post: Better Anaglyphs and Revised Workflow," Millimeter 33 (June 2005), 34.

(28) Goldman, 29.

(29) Goldman, 30.

(30) Goldman, 29-30.

(31) Zone, 3-D Revolution, 262.

(32) Zone, 266.

(33) Zone, 3-D Revolution, 299.

(34) Zone, 3-D Revolution, 258. Cameron has often been critical of "cheapening the 3-D medium," despite the opening of this statement on recent 3-D horror films such as Piranha 3D (2010): "I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s, like Friday the 13th 3D. When movies go to the bottom of the barrel of their creativity and at the last gasp of their financial lifespan, they did a 3-D version to get the last few drops of blood out of the turnip" (quoted in Benson-Allott, 12). Cameron's dubious opinion toward the Friday the 13th franchise aside (hardly the "last gasp" of the franchise Friday the 13th Part III would be followed by seven more official sequels between 1984-2001), he does seem eager to criticize films whose 3-D is apparently not up to his standards, perhaps because these films do not have the astronomical budgets of Cameron's films.

(35) Anonymous, "Fantasy Filmmaker," Daily Variety, September 13, 2005, 30.

(36) Roger Ebert, "It moves! It speaks! It smells!," Roger Ebert's Journal, Aug 11, 2011.

(37) From this viewer's experience, part of the film's failure may be on exhibitors. When I purchased my ticket, I specifically asked for an Aroma-Scope card. I noticed that other patrons coming into the theater did not have their cards, so I let them know about the "4-D" experience and that they should return to the box office to receive their cards.

(38) Nell Minow, "Interview: Robert Rodriguez of 'Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D,'" 2011/08/interviewrobert-rodriguez-of-spy-kids-4d-all-the-time-in-the-world.html.

(39) Christine Radish, "Director Robert Rodriguez Talks Spy Kids: All the Time in the World and Sin City 2," Collider, robert-rodriguez-spy-kids-4-sincity-2-interview.

(40) Radish.

(41) Silas Lesnick, "Exclusive: Robert Rodriguez on Spy Kids: All the Time in the World,", Nov 22, 2011,

(42) Benson-Allott mentions that the video version of Friday the 13th Part III "bears traces of the platform its movie no longer occupies" and "encourages the spectator to imagine what its emergence effects might have looked and felt like, inspiring fantasies of a lost stereoscopic idyll" (21). Will future viewers of Spy Kids: All the Time in the World?

(43) Zone, 3-D Revolution, 294-296.

(44) Zone, 3-D Revolution, 262-263.

(45) Paul, "Aesthetics," 321.

(46) Paul, "Aesthetics," 332.

(47) For various charts tracing 3-D's rise (and wane), see Katey Rich, "Does This Graph Prove That 3-D Movies Are Over?," on Cinema Blend, Does-Graph-Prove-3D-MoviesOver-39322.html, accessed March 27, 2014. One graph on the site, posted by a Redditt contributor, includes over one hundred years of stereo films, vividly depicting the three "boom" periods in 3-D production.

(48) Elsaesser, 241-243.

(49) Elsaesser, 237.

(50) Abel Green, "Tri-Dimension Hectic Race: Don't Want to Get Left at the Post," Variety, Jan 28, 1953, 3, 18.


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Author:Ingle, Zachary
Publication:Post Script
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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