Stereoscopic Misadventures Re-emerge

The traditional 3D spectacles with red and cyan lenses. (Photo: Nalle Westman & Lea Mettovaara)

The traditional 3D spectacles with red and cyan lenses. (Photo: Nalle Westman & Lea Mettovaara)


The 3D craze sweeps the movie theaters again  like it did in the 1950s. The digital technology of today makes it easier for the theaters to adapt the 3D since the modern projectors can project flat or 3D movies. This time television is jumping on the bandwagon too. Only time will tell is this going to be another passing fad or something else.

The history of 3D films is almost as old as the history of the motion pictures itself. In the late 1890s British film pioneer William Friese-Greene filed a patent for a Stereoscopic movie process. The anaglyph technique exposed two reels of film simultaneously, through two lenses spaced as far apart as human eyes. The resulting prints were then projected simultaneously on to the same screen by two interlinked projectors, with one lens having a red filter and the other a blue one. The audience would don red and blue lensed spectacles to see a 3D moving picture. Later red and cyan became the standard because that combination produces less image ghosting than others.

A handful of experimental 3D movie presentations were given during the first decades of the early 20th century, but the 1920s saw the first 3D boom of the movie industry. The world’s first 3D feature film, a Harry K. Fairall production, The Power Of Love, opened in Los Angeles on September 1922 and only a couple of months later William Van Doren Kelley, inventor of the Prizmacolor process, presented his short film Movies Of The Future, in New York. Laurens Hammond and William F. Cassidy debuted their Teleview System also in late 1922. This form of projection rapidly alternated frames from two film reels. The alternating frame system would be reborn more than sixty years later. The Hammond & Cassidy vehicle, a space travel film called M.A.R.S. was the second feature length 3D movie in the world.

Others followed suit; in 1923 Frederick Eugene Ives and Jacob Leventhal produced a series of 3D shorts which were given a limited release by Educational Pictures and the Pathe Company and a French filmmaker Abel Gance experimented with 3D while shooting his widescreen epic, Napoleon. By the end of the 1920s the fad was withering and the Great Depression killed 3D almost entirely, but experimentation continued.

In 1929 the early version of color 3D camera was introduced and three years later Edwin H. Land invented the polarizing sheet and saw potential in using his polarized sheets for 3D projection. The first color presentation of polarised 3D projection was given, in June 1936, in Berlin. The film short was called Zum Greifen Nah,  and it was shot on two-color film stock. MGM film studios also experimented with some short subjects in the late 1930s-early 1940s.

Polaroid Corporation, made a fifteen-minute 3D short, titled New Dimensions, for the Chrysler Motors Exhibit at the New York Word’s Fair in 1939, depicting the assembly of a Plymouth motorcar. The Pennsylvania Railroad exhibit also had a 3D short at the Golden Gate Exposition of 1940 in San Francisco, before WWII put a stop to all that.

Meanwhile the Russians experimented with a method of 3D presentation that did not require the audience to wear glasses at all. The process, the parallax stereogram, is still used today in the production of  3D postcards,  3D magazine covers etc. The stereo photography had been around since the turn of the century, but Russian engineer Semyon Pavlovich Ivanov adapted the idea for the cinema.  Ivanov patented his method in 1935. The Russians produced two films for this system in 1940 before WWII interrupted their efforts. After the war the Russians went on to produce several more 3D movies. By 1955 there were 12 of these Ivanov model-3D cinemas  in the USSR, and though the system worked quite well, it required the audience to avoid unnecessary sideways movement of their heads as this would dispel the stereoscopic effect.

3D television set

The next frontier for 3D movies appears to be the home market. Television manufacturers have begun introducing 3D-ready HDTVs in 2010. (Photo: Nalle Westman & Lea Mettovaara)

The 1950s were the golden age of 3D filmmaking.  It all started on November 26th 1952, when a movie called Bwana Devil became the first 3D color feature film in the world. Soon all the major film studios were jumping on the bandwagon and dozens of 3D films saw release during this decade. For the most part, studios seemed to gravitate towards monster & horror movies when it came to 3D – like The House Of Wax starring Vincent Price, and  The Creature From The Black Lagoon, but also several big budget a-productions were shot in 3D too, like MGM musical Kiss Me Kate and Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder.

After the mid-1950s the 3D craze was waning and in the early 1960s it was practically over. Some obscure films were released – like several sexploitation films. In early 1960s, an ex-army engineer and photographic expert, Colonel Robert V. Bernier found a way to eliminate the need for dual-reel movies. His new technique, SpaceVision, worked by overlaying two stereoscopic images on a single reel. As long as reels were spliced properly during printing, viewers no longer needed to worry about syncing issues, which was the problem with the previous system; if one projector was slightly out of focus, or out of rack, the result was eye strain for the audience as their eyes tried in vain to correct the discrepancy. Unfortunately the first SpaceVision vehicle, an overlong science fiction film titled The Bubble, was so bad that it didn’t start a 3D renaissance among the moviegoers.

In the late 1970s – early 1980s there was a brief resurgence in 3D with a trashploitation theme. Films like Jaws 3D, Amityville 3D and Friday The 13th pt III made rounds in the theaters but this time the fad was much shorter than in the 1950s. The IMAX film Transitions became the first 3D movie to be paired with polarized lenses rather than the typical anaglyph glasses. With polarized lenses, an image is beamed towards the viewer and refracted through the glasses. Because each lens is polarized differently, the image received by each eye is slightly varied. When the brain receives these two similar but unique streams of visual data, it combines them into one 3D image.

The advent of digital film made 3D post-production work much simpler and 3D movies are starting to appear almost as regularly as they did in 1950s heyday. 3D has hit its third era of mainstream popularity, but is it going to stay? Only time will tell.

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