Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Cinema in Depth-From Hollywood to Super-8 3-D

Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Cinema in Depth-From Hollywood to Super-8 3-D

Article excerpt

Tracing the past of stereoscopic cinematography and some of the new directions in which it would appear to be heading

The basic idea in a stereoscopic movie is to simulate the depth sense we get from having two eyes. An image taken with the right lens must be presented to the right eye and with the left lens to the left eye. While it's a relatively simple matter to do this for individuals looking through stereoscopes, the problem becomes one of formidable complexity for audience presentations. A number of solutions have been attempted, but the best method I know of was first suggested by a British worker, John Anderton, in 1891 -namely, the system employing polarized light.

In its modern form, first demonstrated by Land in 1935, sheet polarizers are placed over the projection lenses and these sheet polarizers, or filters, are used in spectacles worn by every member of the audience. The axes of polarization of the projector filters and the spectacle viewers are aligned to allow one image to pass through, say, the right filter of the spectacles, and so on. In projection the images are superimposed on the screen, and the filters in the spectacles sort out the appropriate images. In this way a right image is presented to the right eye, and a left image to the left eye.

The first commercial application of the polarized light process was by John Norling, who made films for the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Prior to this, Norling and his associates had been involved in stereoscopic films using the anaglyph or green-red filter method in a series of shorts made for MGM in the mid-20s. Anaglyphs produce eyestrain for most people because of what psychologists term "retinal rivalry" produced by one eye seeing a red image and the other a green image. Moreover, this form of presentation is good mainly for monochrome, while the polarized light method uses neutral grey filters which allow for full color.

The next major projection of stereo films took place a decade later at the Festival of Britain in 1950, under the direction of Spottiswoode. Animated films by MacLaren and the National Film Board of Canada, and a live action film shot with a rig designed by Dudley, were shown. While Norling's camera was made up of two side-by-side mounted 35mm machines, Dudley devised a rig in which both cameras look into two mirrors set at approximately 45-degree angles. In this way, bulky studio cameras could have an interaxial distance (distance between the lenses) that approximated the human interocular distance (about 65mm).

Then the Gunzburg brothers, Milton and Julian-a script writer and an eye surgeon-put together a rig made up of two Mitchell cameras after the fashion of Dudley's device. I suppose that they hoped to cash in on the fame of the Festival of Britain, and on declining theater attendance blamed on TV. The Gunzburgs finally persuaded independent producer Arch Obler, of "LIGHTS OUT" radio fame, to make a stereoscopic film, "BWANA DEVIL", which opened in December of 1952. The rest, as they say, is history. The box office success of "BWANA DEVIL" had to be accounted for in terms of stereo, and only stereo, since the film had nothing else going for it.

Industry decision-makers thought history was repeating itself-and they didn't want to get caught with their pants down, as they had at the end of the silent era. The instantaneous stereo craze created a technological revolution, and once again the studios were virtually unprepared.

During a six-month period the studios made about 150 films. In the first six months of 1953 about 50 films were shot in 3-D. Clearly the conversion to stereo was in progress. One of the reasons usually offered to explain the rapid cooling off of the stereo film-the boom lasted but six months-is that the films were of low quality, and exploitation films at that. Hollywood has always made exploitation films-exploiting stars, or fads or gimmicks-and it was to be expected that three-dimensional films would be handled in the worst possible taste. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.