The threat to the I through 3D images

Ludger Helming-Jacoby

“Come on, you should go and see a film like that! It’s really great!” That is what older children might well tell their parents enthusiastically after going to see a 3D film. As teachers of older pupils we are also asked: “Have you been to see a 3D film? What do you think of it?”

Sight as activity of the I

Seeing is a highly active process: our eyes are constantly moving about as they take in the space around us and the objects in it. In subtle interplay of the muscles, our eyes keep fixing anew on things which means that the angle between the axes of the eyes are constantly changing depending on the distance of the object we are looking at. The axes cross at the point where the object is located, that is, in the one place where no double image is seen. The distance of this location also changes the focus and the lenses of the eye are variously adjusted. Objects are perceived as being at different distances through the process of fixation and focusing.

Fixation, the crossing of the visual axes, is a specific human ability and allows us to obtain an image in our I of something: “I turn my gaze on something.” When we look at something, it is like going out into the world with our will, our I is at the object we perceive, or more precisely, at the point at which we see in focus, where the gaze from the left and right eye meet.

In 3D films this connection between fixation and focusing is broken apart: in order to see a focused picture, the eyes have to adjust to the distance of the cinema screen; they “stare” at the screen at a constant distance just as they do when looking at a 2D film. The fixation, in contrast, keeps changing: in 3D cinema two slightly divergent images are projected on to the screen so that an unfocused double image is produced there. But the polarisation filters of the 3D glasses separate the double images so that the eyes are fed two divergent images. The closer something is intended to be, the greater the divergence of the two images, something that is also the case in normal spatial vision.

In order to bring the two different images which are seen through the 3D glasses together, the eyes have to fix on a point in front of the screen if an object in the film is to be seen close up; but if the object is in the distance, we have to “eye” a point behind the screen.


Räumliches sehen eines realen Objektes = Spatial vision of a real object | Distanz, auf die fixiert wird = Distance on which the eye fixes | Distanz, auf die fokussiert wird = Distance on which the eye focuses | Scheinbar räumliches Sehen eines Objektes auf einer 3D-Leinwand = Apparent spatial vision of an object on a 3D screen | Leinwand = Screen

The inner price of 3D

The enjoyment of 3D has its price. Twenty-five percent of the audience in 3D films complain about headaches, nausea or impaired vision, as the American opticians’ association reports. Viewers are drawn into a pseudo three-dimensionality – so that something which is still required of them in terms of their own activity in 2D, namely transforming the flat cinema image into an inner spatial picture (something that is done with such success that the impression actually never arises of looking at a flat surface), no longer happens in 3D films.

Fixation, that is, deliberate I-controlled visual activity, is forced to point towards spots in front of and behind the screen (see Fig. B). What effect does such perception, in which the visual activity of the I comes to nothing and in which spatial perception is deceived, have on our soul life? How do such images continue to work in the soul of the viewer?

It is generally true of watching films – this applies equally to 2D and 3D films – that visual activity is restricted when looking at a film, and not only because the eyes have to fix on the screen, which always remains at the same distance, for the whole of the film. The camera shots dictate the angle from which events are observed and the distance from which they are seen, viewers inwardly follow the camera movements, the panning and tracking towards or away from a person for example. And then the perspective changes abruptly after each cut; a film has 300-400 cuts and viewers inwardly have to adopt a new perspective with equal frequency. While sitting motionless in their cinema seats, they are apparently catapulted through space this way and that because of what they see on the screen, they become “visual puppets”. The rapid sequence of cuts and the associated changes in perspective and location are not consciously perceived by us adults. We have become used to them. But sensitive people and children, in particular, can become dizzy if there are rapid cuts and perspective changes – and all the more so in 3D films since the changes here appear to take place in three-dimensional space and therefore have an even more sever effect.

Moving images create passivity

In a lecture in Ilkley on 5 August 1923, Rudolf Steiner said about cinema: “In Hamlet, we still have to be actively involved in the matter, we still have to follow the spoken word. Today we have moved from the theatre to cinema: in the latter we no longer need to be active, a machine scrolls through the pictures and we can be quite passive. And that is how gradually that inner activity of human beings has been lost.” If, then, moving pictures in themselves already create inner passivity, we can ask ourselves whether the 3D format with its literally overwhelming impressions, with its technology, does not to a much greater extent override the I in its perceptions.

The importance of activity for human beings and their development is set out by Jacques Lusseyran in a moving essay: “The I needs certain conditions of growth. It is nourished exclusively by movements it performs itself. Movements which others do in its place are not just of no help but weaken it. […] All human beings are gifted with this power we call the I but it is not indissolubly connected with their body. It is always ready to make way for something else. It is virtually calling out to be flooded through objects, numbers, systems, immeasurable sensory pleasures and narcotics. […] Our I is easily perishable because it diminishes every time it becomes inactive. That is […] a law whose demands we feel more than ever today. When our I gives itself over to something other than itself, we directly become victims. Our pleasure may increase for a few moments because there is also pleasure in sleeping. But we will never again experience true joy.”

“True joy” – is that not what all of us are seeking? We will not find it in the cinema – it can arise when we create encounters with other human beings, with the world, ultimately with ourselves.

About the author: Taught English in Waldorf schools in Cologne and Lübeck for 27 years, retired since early 2011, works as a mentor and at teacher training seminars.

Note: Abridged and edited version of the essay “Gedanken zu 3D-Filmen” in: Ludger Helming-Jacoby, Der goldene Schlüssel – Anregungen für Klassenlehrerinnen und Klassenlehrer, Flensburg 2012. An extended version of this essay can be found online at

Illustrations (A) and (B) were taken with kind permission of M.S. Banks from David M. Hoffman et al: Vergence-accomodation conflicts hinder visual performance and cause visual fatigue, Journal of Vision (2008) 8 (3):33, 1-30.