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The first stereoptic movies were shown in theaters in 1922 and used red and blue (anaglyph) glasses. The first public demonstration of the Polaroid projection of 3D movies was at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York in a promotional film for Chrysler.
In 1946, 90 million people a week went to the movies. Only a few years later, television had cut those attendance numbers almost in half. The studios were looking for ways to compete with this upstart industry. (Sound familiar?)
The first thing the studios did was to increase the number of Technicolor productions, because television was only black-and-white. They also began experimenting with various big screen processes. Cinerama had a wraparound screen and needed three cameras and three projectors. VistaVision used 70mm film at 30fps. Cinemascope used 35mm film projected through an anamorphic lens that stretched it sideways to fill a wide curved screen.
But in 1952 an independent producer named Arch Oboler brought Bwana Devil to the theaters. It was a pretty dreadful movie, telling the story of two lions that killed 130 people during the construction of an African railroad, but the novelty of 3D drew large audiences to the theaters and the major studios were quick to leap aboard. 3D films could be made with existing cameras and lenses and did not require a major refit of the theater, like Cinerama and Cinemascope did.
The very best of the 3D films of the 50s was Warner Bros’ House of Wax, starring Vincent Price. Warner Brothers also released Murders In The Rue Morgue, starring Karl Malden. The classic giant ant film Them! was also scheduled for 3D/color production, but the day before shooting was to start, Jack Warner cut it back to flat b/w. “Who’s going to want to see a movie about giant ants?” As it happened Them! was still the studio’s highest grossing film in 1954.
Universal Studios also produced several legendary films in 3D, including The Creature From The Black Lagoon, and It Came From Outer Space. But so many terrible movies were released in 3D that within a year, audiences started staying away from 3D movies as if they were poisonous. That’s why Kiss Me Kate and Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder were released flat, although filmed in 3D.
In subsequent years, there were occasional efforts to bring 3D back to movie theaters. In 1966 Arch Oboler made another 3D film, The Bubble. It was a science fiction film, only marginally better than Bwana Devil.
But the notable thing about The Bubble was that it used a much simpler 3-D projection process—the horribly named ‘Space-Vision 4D.’ (More commonly known as the “over and under” process.) The standard 35mm frame was divided horizontally. A single beam-splitter in front of the camera stacked the two separate eye images one above the other. Another beam-splitter, this one an even simpler prism device, was mounted in front of the projector and it overlapped the two images onto the silver screen.
Space-Vision’s singular strength was that it was an easy system for theater-owners to implement. Once you mounted and adjusted the beam-splitting prism in front of the projector, everything else was standard operating procedure. Pass out glasses to the customers and charge them an extra quarter. But although Space-Vision provided a stable widescreen 3D image with perfect synchronization, each eye was receiving only half the light, filtered through a Polaroid lens, so any film shown in this system felt dark.
In the 80’s, there was another brief revival of 3D movies, also using an over-and-under projection system, this time called ‘SuperVision’ and ‘WonderVision.’ These films were mostly second-rate efforts, like Comin’ At Ya and Treasure Of The Four Crowns, but audiences also had a chance to see a very young Molly Ringwald in Spacehunter, Adventures In The Forbidden Zone.
For the completists, I will also mention Amityville 3D, Jaws 3D, Friday The Thirteenth III-D and Nightmare On Elm Street, Freddy’s Dead which had the last ten minutes in anaglyph 3D. (That was the mention.)
In 1986, the Canadian exhibit at the Vancouver World’s Fair (Expo ‘86) included the first public showing of an IMAX film in 3D using Polaroid glasses. The IMAX HD system projected the extra-wide film at 48fps, the 3D system required two cameras and two projectors, so it was a major investment in a new technology. Also very expensive.
The film itself was a 40-minute history of the exploration and settlement of Canada. Because a standard IMAX screen is 8 stories tall it fills your entire field of vision, so there’s no ‘window’ effect. The water in the river looks like it’s lapping at your feet. The tree branches feel like they’re right overhead. Pretty impressive. An enhanced system was shown at Seville ‘92 World’s Fair in Seville, Spain.
IMAX 3D started showing up in various venues throughout the 90’s, mostly for travelogues and science documentaries—and one horrible survey of 3D history called Adventures in 3D, inexplicably hosted by Elvira.
Nevertheless, despite some dreadfully silly missteps suitable only for amusement park venues, by the end of the decade, IMAX 3D was fairly well established as an ‘event’ venue, presenting a number of excellent semi-documentary adventures. One of the first and best was about the early days of commercial mail flights in South America. Other films took us down to the ocean floor, or on a visit to a fictional space station of the future, and even a James Cameron return to the grave of the Titanic, Ghosts Of The Abyss. My favorite, however, was Walking On The Moon, a remarkable adventure produced by Tom Hanks. The IMAX 3D experience created a genuine sense of being on the surface of the moon. It was as near to a first-hand experience of the cold beauty of Luna’s desolate airless terrain as most of us will ever know.
The first feature film produced in IMAX 3D was The Polar Express, released in November of 2004. Despite some initially lukewarm reviews, The Polar Express filled IMAX 3D theaters everywhere and came back for a second run in 3D the following year.
Meanwhile, on another front, the major studios were pushing theater owners to switch to digital projection, and not just because it guaranteed a superior image. A print of a 35mm film can cost upwards of $2000 per print. Multiply that by the number of theaters you release the film to, usually 1200 to 1600 screens, and your movie has to earn several million dollars just to pay for the physical act of distribution. Plus film prints wear out, get scratched, break, get dirty, and fade. They also jitter, especially as the sprocket holes get stretched. After a few dozen trips through the projector, a film print visibly degrades—but a digital copy remains pristine forever. So switching to digital projection saves the cost of a print, guarantees bright stable images and a consistent viewing experience for audiences, and also reduces the opportunity for pirates to steal a print and make bootleg DVDs.
Because most current digital projectors are inherently 3D-capable, a modern digitally equipped theater is also 3D-ready. 3D films have shown up in popular venues all over the country, sometimes with improved Polaroid glasses (circular polarization), occasionally with shutter glasses, but more recently with Dolby 3D.
The advantage of Dolby 3D is that it does not use polarized light, so it does not require a silver screen to preserve image polarization, nor does it use shutter-glasses that require batteries and recharging. The Dolby 3D process uses different wavelengths of red, blue, and green for the left and right eye images. The digital projectors can be precisely tuned to project only the specific wavelengths for each eye-image. The eye can’t tell the difference and the viewer does not perceive any color differences between the left-eye and right-eye images.
(And this leads me to wonder if the same system would work on home TVs and monitors. Can they be tuned as precisely? I don’t see why not. But personally, I find the Dolby 3D glasses much less comfortable than the lighter weight polarized glasses.)
Most of the 3D movies of the past decade have been CGI animated films. The Polar Express, Chicken Little, Beowulf, Meet The Robinsons, Monster House, Monsters V. Aliens, Bolt, Ice Age 3D, Up, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, A Christmas Carol, and the reissues of Toy Story and Toy Story 2.
In principle, CGI films are relatively easy to produce in 3D, you just render the source material twice, once for each eye. (Actually, my friends who work in 3D tell me that nothing is as easy as it is ‘in principle.’ There are issues in CGI that don’t occur in live action photography.)
The good news is that almost all of the 3D films released in the past ten years have been successful at the box office. Although the number of theaters equipped to show 3D is still limited, audiences actively seek out the 3D venues, preferring them to the 2D screenings. As much as 40% of a film’s earnings come from the theaters showing the film in 3D. There’s no question that 3D is a hit with the audience.
There are two reasons for this. First, modern digital 3D is a mature technology. The images are bright, stable, and perfectly synchronized, so the opportunities for eyestrain and headaches are much less than in the past. Second, the studios are not rushing to flood the market with cheap gimmicky films. They are (mostly) reserving the 3D process for event films like Avatar.
Part of this is that shooting in 3D can add as much as 25% to the budget of a live-action film, even more if the film is heavy on digital special effects—which most films are these days. Digital 3D cameras are expensive to rent and trained crews are in high demand. This is bleeding edge technology again. So we aren’t likely to see a quicky remake of Robot Monster (1953), the worst 3D movie ever made. (Imagine a guy in a gorilla suit wearing a diving helmet, pretending to be an alien Ro-Man with a Calcinator death ray—in 3D. Right up there with Plan Nine From Outer Space on the list of films so bad they’re legendary.)
At the time of this writing, there are a lot of new films scheduled for production in 3D, over a billion dollar’s worth, with more in the planning stages. Most of them are intended as summer blockbusters. This very heavy investment in 3D production is being matched by the investment of theater owners in 3D-capable digital projection systems.
So it’s very likely that this iteration of 3D movies will not be the same kind of short-lived fad that we have seen in the past, but is in fact the next step toward ever more immersive theatrical experiences.
The big question for the consumer electronics industry is whether or not the 3D experience can migrate successfully from the movie theater to the living room.
I’ll get into that next time.