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Millions of people stood in line for hours to see the three-dimensional theater in the Chrysler Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair 1939-’40. Eager viewers donned cardboard glasses to see stop motion animation set to bouncy music, of real car parts magically flying around in the air, seemingly right in front of the dazzled audience, before neatly assembling themselves into a Chrysler sedan. It was one of the biggest hits of the future-oriented fair. In fact, it was so popular that unlike most other fair exhibitors, who discreetly cut back their budgets for the 1940 “repeat” edition, Chrysler more than doubled down, reshooting their short 3D film in full color.
The Fair opened before war broke out in Europe; by the time it closed, it was clear to most Americans that the magic of the future was going to have to wait a few years. But arrive it did, with highways, cars, suburbs, nylon stockings, and television. And by the dawn of the Fifties, stereoscopic movies, slides, and comic books were ready to join them, in a brief, spectacular, three-dimensional false dawn. That wave lasted only three years, 1952 through 1954, but to this day, whenever a more modern movie like Back to the Future (1985) wants to evoke the pop culture of the Fifties, the designers have someone don a pair of 3D eyeglasses.
At the beginning of the boom, Paramount executive Bill Thomas exclaimed, “They’ll wear toilet seats around their necks if you give them what they want to see!” Slyly drawn newspaper ads coyly suggested “Jane Russell in 3D. Need We Say More?” Even top filmmakers like Hitchcock learned the new techniques. Yet, less than three years later, Variety would lament that 3D stood for “dead, dead, dead”. What happened?
Like Cinerama and Cinemascope, the intention was to give you something at the movies that television couldn’t compete with—the movies’ number one survival problem.
All 3D movies are trick films. The trick? Being able to mix left and right eye images together, and then separate them again, so our eyes and minds can fuse them into our own rounded, three-dimensional illusion of reality.
A century ago, some early experimenters did it with electromechanical means. They had specially equipped rows of theater seats, with nickelodeon-like viewing eyepieces, which had rapidly spinning shutters synchronized with the projected image. It allowed you to see exclusively one eye’s view, then only the other one, presented so smoothly and quickly that they blended together. It worked perfectly, and today a jazzed-up form of “active shutter technology” is one of the primary methods of delivering 3D television.
But theaters—and viewers—weren’t willing to put themselves to that much expense and trouble. Instead, a simple technology was able to bring some 3D to audiences of a few, rare films: Anaglyph 3D—better known to most people as “red and green”—showed a superimposed image of the two on the screen, and required a pair of “glasses” with colored plastic lenses. It worked, simply and cheaply, though for black and white films only. Back then that wasn’t much of a limitation.
Like all glasses for 3D movies, they reduce the amount of light that meets the eyes. They wouldn’t work if they didn’t. In a perfect 3D world, you’d want the left and right eye images to be completely separate, without obvious “ghosting” of the image you don’t want. That requires heavy filtering which makes the images much dimmer. With 3D comic books, it was tolerable. With 3D movies, where effectively you can’t turn up the brightness, there’s an unavoidable tradeoff.
Once almost all the biggest movies were in color (Technicolor, usually), red and green glasses weren’t going to cut it anymore. The very best 3D viewing technology of 20th century moviegoing used polarized lenses at the projector and on the cardboard frames worn by millions of fairgoers. Inexpensive, mass-produced polarized materials were introduced by Edwin Land (where the company name Polaroid came from).
The first 3D features to attract attention were cheaply made, with obvious tricks that would quickly become cliches: Bwana Devil, It Came From Outer Space, The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Most were anaglyph and black and white. When the major studios finally placed their bets, they went for color and polarized, the quality route.
Contrary to legend, the films weren’t all junk. There were quality works, like Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, Inferno, musicals like Kiss Me Kate and Miss Sadie Thompson. Even some of the more comically lurid ones like House of Wax are hokey, but skillful commercial entertainment. In I, The Jury, Mike Hammer joined the depth squad.
The craze for 3D movies wasn’t solely American, of course. The Soviets were exploring 3D in theory as far back as we were, and enjoyed a similar boom in things like children’s stop motion puppet films. Mexico also made the plunge, back in their golden age when they were the artistic and commercial powerhouse of Latin American cinema.
The 3D boom was real, but it wasn’t enough to stave off TV’s effect on the nation’s box offices, and it had some problems of its own that made the widescreen processes as a simpler way of offering a theatrical experience that was better than staying at home.
Eastman Kodak did all they could to help filmmakers keep using 3D, for the utterly sensible reason that it used twice as much film per picture. As time went on, the bad reputation of the worst of the cheapies began catching up with projection problems, as the fresh film prints and meticulous care of first-run movie palaces yielded to the realities of months of use, wear, splices, and aged machinery in thousands of smaller neighborhood theaters.
As 3D gradually disappeared again, it left some evidence it had been here: Viewmaster slides remained popular. Industrial stereoscopic photography retained its usefulness, especially in aerial surveillance. An early form of 3D television was pioneered by the Atomic Energy Commission to make remote manipulation of dangerous materials more accurate. But theatrically, it basically slumbered for nearly twenty years. With the exception of a couple of experimental short films, and special venues like Disneyland, the equipment was put into storage.
There’d be a continuing series of mini-revivals. At the turn of the Seventies, there was a brief vogue for porno movies in 3D. Well, okay, not really porno; The Stewardesses and its cheap and cheerful ripoffs, like The Supersonic Supergirls, were then classified as nudies; no sexual activity, no full-frontal nudity, but “plots” that always seemed to return us to young women changing clothes, sunbathing and showering. Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, directed by Paul Morrissey, not Warhol, was one of the most watchable of the allegedly underground movies that were manufactured in his “Factory” on Manhattan’s 14th Street.
In the Seventies, Hollywood’s baby boomers were sentimental about the movie magic they remembered from childhood, whether it took the form of special visual effects or rare, now obsolete processes like VistaVision and Cinerama. 3D began to be talked up again. Revival houses like the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood began bringing back restored copies of classics like Dial M for Murder. The Tiffany, known throughout the local film industry for its technical expertise, was rented out for private screenings of 3D tests for films like The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
In a slight echo of the Fifties boom, by the turn of the Eighties studios were looking for gimmicks that set them apart from home viewing of cable and VHS. Coming At Ya! was a low-budget success in 1981, leading to more 3D films of the Reagan era, including the biggest bet the studios would place on it during that era, Universal’s Jaws 3-D. Theme parks were now using polarized glasses more often, for exhibits like Francis Coppola’s Captain EO in 1986.
At the turn of the 21st century, when movies began to be made and presented digitally, instead of photographically, it was suddenly a lot easier and cheaper to make them in 3D than it had been. There were no huge reels of film that had to be in perfect sync, no splices to misalign things, just a few buttons to push.
Good 3D has always required perfect alignment, and by 2005 its fate fell into alignment. Studio chiefs like Jeffrey Katzenberg backed the process, and top filmmakers used it, often brilliantly, making the most elaborate 3D films in history. Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Jackson are among them, although Christopher Nolan is a famous holdout. Ang Lee and James Cameron stand out as 3D’s strongest advocates. When Cameron’s Avatar opened in 2009, critics hailed it as “The Jazz Singer of 3D”, referring, of course, to the sound movie that started a revolution in filmmaking.
This has led to the biggest, longest sustained wave of 3D ever. It’s still largely tied to theatrical exhibition, though, and right now the fate of theaters is still hanging in Covid’s balance. So far, three types of feature films have proven to still pull audiences into theaters: children’s films, big spectacles, and date movies. The first two categories have been strong markets for 3D, and they aren’t going away any time soon.
What about TV? Digital HDTV made it practical for the first time, but regrettably, so far it’s followed the boom-and-bust cycle of 3D’s earlier theatrical career, before it reached a threshold that would keep it around. It’s still available, especially on video projectors. We bought a 3D flatscreen back in 2012, and it works great. Blu-ray discs of Rio, Kung Fu Panda, Gravity, and The Three Musketeers are family favorites. The TV also has a setting for synthetic 3D, which works remarkably well on many films, whether it’s walking into a lunar excavation to encounter the monolith in 2001, or noting the contours of a hilly battlefield in Paths of Glory, or for that matter, of Inger Stevens’ exercise routines in A Guide for the Married Man.
What could bring back 3D TV? The future, contrary to Kirsten Gillibrand, isn’t intersectional, but autostereoscopic—meaning, glasses-free viewing. I have a mobile phone and a camera with autostereoscopic screens; you just look at them, and they’re in 3D. The lifelike sight always amazes people. I’ve seen these screens as large as a small picture frame, but above that size, quality control is tougher and costs rise. It’s likely that it won’t take forever to see improvements. VR headsets, and virtual reality generally, are simpatico technologies that will drive market support for new display tech.
Did someone mention holography, 3D’s nerdy, gifted Sixties cousin? That’s a whole different story and a different post. Suffice it to say that even after sixty years of SF speculation, and endless fortunes created due to products using consumer-priced lasers, there’s still no such thing as honest-to-goodness holographic cinema.
In 1975, I bought an early Fifties Stereo Realist camera out of the dusty window of a New York pawn shop. It took 3D pictures on regular 35mm slide film, back in the days when the sharpest of middle-and-upper-middle class family photographers shot slides, not prints. For about a decade, it went with me everywhere; to the banners of the Bicentennial, to the street barricades after the NYC blackout. From Hollywood Boulevard’s premiere of Alien, to street policing in Leningrad.
A Fifties 3D slide projector, adjusted to show life-sized images, enables moments of frozen history, where disco and the USSR still hold sway. A man of nearly seventy can walk up to a lifelike shadow that was me at age 23, holding out a hand to the unknown future. I can reach back now and almost touch the past.Published in