The History of Modern Stereoscopic Cinema
Publication Year: 2012
In 2009, Avatar, a 3-D movie directed by James Cameron, became the most successful motion picture of all time, a technological breakthrough that has grossed more than $2.5 billion worldwide. Its seamless computer-generated imagery and live action stereo photography effectively defined the importance of 3-D to the future of cinema, as well as all other currently evolving digital displays. Though stereoscopic cinema began in the early nineteenth century and exploded in the 1950s in Hollywood, its present status as an enduring genre was confirmed by Avatar's success.
3-D Revolution: The History of Modern Stereoscopic Cinema traces the rise of modern 3-D technology from Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil (1952), which launched the 50s 3-D boom in Hollywood, to the rapidly-modernizing 3-D industry today. Ray Zone takes a comprehensive approach that not only examines the technology of the films, but also investigates the business, culture, and art of their production. Influencing new generations of filmmakers for decades, the evolution of 3-D cinema technology continues to fill our theaters with summer blockbusters and holiday megahits.
Published by: The University Press of Kentucky
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Prologue: The Epochs of 3-D
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With the introduction to my previous volume, Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838–1952, published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2007, I delineated four separate epochs during which 3-D movies evolved, both as a technology and a cinematic art. Th at book was a detailed look at what I characterized as the long novelty period for stereo cinema that lasted over a century, and it concluded with the events of 1952, when...
Part I: The Era of Convergence, 1952–1985
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Chapter 1: Bwana Devil
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“3-D Day Hits Hollywood in Blinding Flash” was the head line for a story in the February 16, 1953, issue of Life magazine. A two-page photo spread included shots of the stereoscopic frenzy in Hollywood. It pictured a 3-D camera under guard, a delight ed Jack Warner in 3-D glasses having a “stereo moment” watching dailies for House of Wax, Milton and Julian Gunzburg with a pad locked trunk containing the Natur al Vision camera, and a portrait of veteran stereoscopist John Norling....
Chapter 2: Dual-Band Cameras
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Within days of the release of Bwana Devil, Jack Warner purchased a license for the use of the Natural Vision camera and hired Lothrop Worth to operate it. Warner Bros.’s House of Wax (1953), a stereoscopic remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), was rushed into production....
Chapter 3: Converging in Time
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Th e 3-D movie boom of 1952–54 could be characterized as the second historical phase for stereoscopic cinema, an era of convergence—and not just because many of the dual-camera technologies of the time incorporated that optical feature into their stereo photography. It was also a brief stereo window in time in which the narrative canvas of classical Hollywood, 1.33 to 1 in aspect ratio, briefly converged with the amplification of depth before being exploded by CinemaScope into the wide-screen format (2.35 to 1) that subsequently became commonplace....
Chapter 4: Deep Black and White
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Th e screening of pristine black-and-white prints at the World 3-D Film Expo in September 2003 and 2006 in Hollywood provided an opportunity to reevaluate three film noirs of the 1950s and to consider their effectiveness as stereoscopic narratives within the genre. Th e shimmering black-and- white prints were given optimum presentation. It is quite possible that these 3-D films didn’t even look this good on their first presentation in the 1950s....
Chapter 5: 3-D Filmmakers and the Critics
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Richard Fleischer was the only motion picture director to helm 3-D films in both the 1950s and the 1980s. In a forty-six-year career in the movie business, Fleischer directed almost fifty feature films. He died on March 25, 2006, at the Motion Picture and Television Country House in Woodland Hills, California, at the age of eighty-nine. Over the course of his varied career as a film director, Fleischer worked in every conceivable genre, including...
Chapter 6: Wider, Not Deeper
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Why was the 3-D movie boom in Hollywood between 1952 and 1955 so short-lived? What were the leading factors in its demise? Th ere were a number of factors at play at the time with a convergence of entertainment technologies that were new to the motion picture landscape. Over fifty years later, with the digital 3-D cinema rollout commencing in 2005, many of the same business and technological dynamics would apply, especially with...
Chapter 7: Single-Strip 3-D Systems
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Single-strip 3-D film projection greatly simplified theatrical exhibition of stereoscopic motion pictures. It was this format that drove the first real wide release of 3-D movies that took place in North America in the 1980s. Friday the 13th Part III, from Paramount Pictures, was the first 3-D film to have a day-and-date wide release when it opened in over 700 theaters in North America on August 13, 1982. For this release, Paramount Pictures...
Chapter 8: The Porno Boys
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Erotic imagery has always had an enduring place in stereography. “Stereographs intended to be erotic or pornographic were produced almost as soon as views were commercialized,” noted William Darrah in his history of the stereo view card. “Th e subjects range from nudes in conventional artistic poses to what is today called hard-core pornography.” Darrah added, “Pornographic views were seldom, if ever, distributed by reputable publishers,”...
Chapter 9: 1980s 3-D Films
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Th e November 29, 1982, issue of Daily Variety featured a headline that almost seemed to be déjà vu from the 1950s: “3-D Pic Prod’n Boom Underway.” Friday the 13th Part III from Paramount Pictures, as the first Hollywood studio 3-D film release of the 1980s, had racked up big box office numbers in August, and hopes were high for stereoscopic cinema. “More than 60 film projects contemplating 3-D lensing have been publicly...
Chapter 10: 3-D at Home
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In the early 1940s, an ophthalmologist from Glendale, California, Orrie E. Ghrist, assembled a pair of 16mm movie cameras to photograph his own three-dimensional motion pictures. Ghrist had previously assembled a pair of 8mm cameras and projectors in 1936 for 3-D shooting, and he wrote that the 8mm assembly had been described in...
Part II: The Immersive Age, 1986–2005
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Chapter 11: 4-D and the Ride Film
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3-D attraction films in theme parks and special venues have been perennially popular with the public. Th e timeless appeal of the ride film and the stereoscopic experience were highly visible in 2003. Shrek 4-D, a digitally projected stereoscopic show, elaborating the narrative of the feature-length movie that preceded it, was playing to audiences in kinetic seats at the Universal Studios theme park in Hollywood. Th e 4-D elements included...
Chapter 12: Creating 3-D for Theme Parks
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One of the most prolific directors of 3-D films for theme parks is Los Angeles–based filmmaker Keith Melton. Along with a handful of other filmmakers and stereoscopic technicians like Murray Lerner, Peter Anderson, Ben Stassen, Steve Hines, Don Iwerks, and Max Penner of Paradise FX in Van Nuys, California, Melton’s work accounts for a great many theme park 3-D and 4-D attractions that have been repurposed for a variety of special venues around the world....
Chapter 13: The World of IMAX 3-D
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It was collaboration between the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and the IMAX Systems Corporation in 1982 that produced “the first experimental 65mm 3-D IMAX negatives for stereoscopic motion picture presentations.”1 The NFB had begun experimenting with 3-D in the early 1950s, working with Norman McLaren. For the 1951 Festival of Britain, McLaren created two imaginative 35mm dual-band 3-D animation films...
Chapter 14: A Large-Format 3-D Jouney
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“Audiences expect a 3-D movie to have things playing into their faces,” said director Keith Melton. “But with Journey of Man we were going for something a little more sophisticated.”1 Cirque du Soleil: Journey of Man, a Sony Pictures Classics’s large-format 3-D film, in release in September 2000, presented some of the most stunning 3-D images seen up to that point on the IMAX screen. With Reed Smoot, ASC, and John Hora, ASC, serving...
Chapter 15: Stereoscopic Outer Space
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At this moment, a space station orbits 220 miles above the earth at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour. An unprecedented partnership of sixteen nations, the International Space Station (ISS) is an engineering marvel that will be a permanent laboratory in outer space and the first step of a global effort to go to Mars. Space Station, the first IMAX 3-D film from space, documented the initial construction of the ISS with twenty-five astronaut...
Chapter 16: Big-Screen 3-D Dinosaurs
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In 1841 Sir Richard Owen in England coined the term dinosaur to describe fragments of bones and teeth that had been discovered two decades before.1 Th e public was first introduced to dinosaurs in the early 1850s, when several full-size replicas were constructed by Benjamin Hawkins under Owen’s direction on the grounds of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham....
Chapter 17: Large-Format Stereo Conversion
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By 2007, stereo conversion of fl at motion pictures to 3-D, with the use of digital postprocessing tools, became an increasingly viable proposition. Th e 2007 giant-screen motion picture Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs, for example, directed by Keith Melton, was originated on 15/70mm film as a large-format movie for the institutional and museum market for IMAX films. Melton is one of the most prolific of all 3-D directors and counts...
Chapter 18: Speeding into 3-D
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It’s challenging enough to photograph large-format 3-D, even when the subjects are standing still. But it is considerably more difficult when the subjects of the stereoscopic cinematography are traveling at speeds over 160 miles per hour....
Chapter 19: Riding on Digits
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By his own admission, Ben Stassen acknowledged that his nWave Pictures company has been a rebel in the large-format world. Stassen has always looked for, and found, ways to repurpose his large-format films. In a field dominated by nonfiction subject matter, nWave has produced overtly commercial giant screen films like...
Chapter 20: The Polar Express in IMAX 3-D
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The IMAX 3-D version of The Polar Express was a landmark for large-format stereoscopic cinema. Working with the IMAX Corporation and their 3-D specialist, Hugh Murray, who previously worked on stereo repurposing of Santa vs. the Snowman (2002) and Cyberworld (2000) for IMAX 3-D, the technicians at Sony Pictures Imageworks were given guidelines to create the second-eye view of scenes in Polar Express so that a true stereoscopic version of the film was generated....
Part III: Digital 3-D Cinema, 2005-2009
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Chapter 21: Two Anaglyph Movies
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Some people just don’t like anaglyph. Viewing the world through complementary- colored glasses, red and cyan, is just too much retinal bombardment for them. But the anaglyph continues to fascinate filmmakers and artists as a viable way to display stereographic imagery. Director Robert Rodriguez, creator of the popular Spy Kids movie franchise, was a case in point....
Chapter 22: Threshold of the Future
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In a visionary 1950 essay titled “The Third Dimension—Film of the Future?” cinema historian Ivor Montagu wrote about 3-D movies after visiting the Stereokino in Moscow and viewing an eighty-minute program made up of three motion pictures. The 3-D movies, consisting of a travelogue of the Crimea titled...
Chapter 23: Digital 3-D Cinema Begins
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November 4, 2005, was a historic day for stereoscopic motion pictures. With Chicken Little opening in 3-D in eighty-four digital cinema theaters across the United States, it was the day the RealD cinema platform, partnering with Disney and Dolby Labs, was effectively deployed in theatrical exhibition for 3-D using the Christie (CP-2000) 2K digital projector, a dual-stream server, and a triple-fl ashing z-screen serving up seventy-two...
Chapter 24: Meet the Robinsons
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Stereoscopic cinema entered a new era with the release of Meet the Robinsons in 3-D. On March 16, 2007, the first public screening of Meet the Robinsons was projected in Disney Digital 3-D at the El Capitan Th eater in Hollywood. It was a combination press and family/friends screening, with director Steve Anderson and producer Dorothy McKim in person introducing the film....
Chapter 25: Rebuilding the Z-axis
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Stereographic conversion of flat two-dimensional images is the holy grail of stereoscopy. Though the fundamental principles of such a procedure have been long established, the method and means of repurposing 2-D images to 3-D are still in the process of becoming a mature technology. It is an artistic and perceptual strategy that continues to elude automation. So sensitive...
Chapter 26: Digital Live Action 3-D
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The U2 3D movie, distributed by National Geographic Entertainment, which premiered January 19, 2008, at the Sundance Film Festival and went into release January 23 only on IMAX 3-D screens, was a landmark for the 3-D music film. Shot during the band’s Vertigo tour in 2006 in South America, the stereoscopic technology was assembled by 3ality Entertainment...
Chapter 27: Aliens and Superpowers
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Bolt 3D, a Disney/Pixar film released November 21, 2008, continued the trend of computer-generated (CG) stereoscopic animated features and was the first to be completed under the oversight of John Lasseter after Disney acquired Pixar in January 2006. Written by Chris Williams and Dan Fogelman, and codirected by Williams and Byron Howard, Bolt 3D told the...
Chapter 28: Immersed in Coraline
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Coraline, the stop-frame puppet-animated 3-D feature film from Laika Studio and directed by Henry Selick, expressed a new philosophy of stereoscopic storytelling for motion pictures. By virtue of its understated and dynamic 3-D, it was simply more immersive, and potentially more emotionally engaging, in nature. Based on the darkly fantastic children’s book...
Chapter 29: Two 3-D FIlms by Robert Zemeckis
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Stereoscopic cinema reached a new landmark November 16, 2007, when the Robert Zemeckis production of Beowulf opened in wide release in 3-D on 1,000 screens on three separate 3-D platforms: IMAX 3-D, RealD, and Dolby Digital 3-D. Th e performance-capture, computer-generated (CG) retelling of the Beowulf legend, from an epic poem dating from a.d. 700, was rated PG-13 and featured the voice and acting talents of Angelina Jolie,...
Chapter 30: Digital 3-D Horrors
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Characterized as “both an homage to and a re-imagining of the original 1968 film” by George Romero,1 the 2006 version of Night of the Living Dead in 3-D was directed by Jeff Broadstreet and written and edited by Robert Valding. Director of photography Andrew Parke made effective use of the Dimension-3 dual digital rig and beam splitter built by Dan Symmes, who served as stereographer on the film. Th is competently made reimagining...
Chapter 31: Perceptual Paradoxes
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Writing on Slate.com on April 2, 2009, in an article titled “Th e Problem with 3-D,” journalist Daniel Engber pulled no punches in slamming the incipient digital 3-D cinema revolution with a highly researched article. It addressed one of the classic perceptual paradoxes of stereoscopic viewing and projection: the issue of convergence and accommodation, or the fact...
Chapter 32: Cute and Fuzzy Dinosaurs
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The third installment in a series of computer-generated prehistoric adventures, Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, released July 1, 2009, was the first 3-D movie produced for stereoscopic digital cinemas by 20th Century Fox. Directed by Carlos Saldanha and Michael Thurmeir and featuring the voice talents of John Leguizamo, Ray Romano, and Queen Latifah,...
Chapter 33: An Interview with Rob Engle
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In 2004, Rob Engle, a visual effects artist and supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, was tasked with converting The Polar Express for stereoscopic release on IMAX 3-D. By 2009, Engle had supervised the stereo conversion of eight computer-generated 3-D feature films. In the following edited and condensed interview, which I conducted with Engle on May 21, 2010, in Studio City, California, he provided an overview of the technical challenges...
Chapter 34: Brave New 3-D World
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Opening as a multiplatform 3-D release December 15, 2009, on approximately 2,100 3-D screens and another 1,200 screens in 2-D in North America, James Cameron’s Avatar represented a watershed for stereoscopic cinema as well as the motion picture in general....
Epilogue: Now Is the Time
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Cinema has always reinvented itself. Th e “seventh art” has always been the most plastic of the visual arts, a protean engine for cultural invention, a myth continually refashioning itself with new technology. In the late nineteenth century, the cradle of the motion picture, development of the “animated photograph” or “living picture” was seen as only the first step toward a screen reality that would ultimately also include sound, color, and the third dimension....
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Page Count: 456
Publication Year: 2012