A journey of 3-D movies

The 1800s

In 1856, J. C. d’Almeida gave a demonstration at the Academie des Sciences in which two stereoscopic images (that is to say two views of the same scene, photographed from slightly differing points of view – usually around two and a half inches – representing the distance between a pair of human eyes) were projected in rapid succession as lantern slides coloured red and green, with the audience viewing the screen through spectacles fitted with red and green lenses. The green image could only be seen through the red lens and the red image only through the green one, effectively sending two slightly different images of the same scene to the brain of the viewer, where they would be combined to form a three-dimensional image.By the end of the century, moving pictures had arrived and 3D wasn’t very far behind. In 1897 a Mr. C. Grivolas adapted the anaglyph technique to movies by using a specially constructed camera that would expose 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. Once again, the audience would don red and blue lensed glasses only this time they would see a three dimensional moving picture – the effect must have been truly startling to Victorian eyes. And this would be almost exactly the way that 3D movies would be projected in the future.

The 1900s

The World’s first 3D feature film – given by film maker and inventor Harry K. Fairall, entitled The Power of Love. It opened at the Ambassador Hotel Theatre in Los Angeles on September 27th 1922. A few months later, during the Christmas holidays, William Van Doren Kelley, inventor of the Prizmacolor process, presented his ‘Plasticon’ anaglyphic short film Movies of the Future. This was shown at the Rivoli theatre in New York City. Kelley’s process used film coated on both sides, with the red image on one side and the green image on the reverse. The audience viewed the 3D image through spectacles that had a pair of red and green Cellophane lenses.

The 1930s and the 1940s

But the most interesting breakthrough did not come until 1932, when Edwin H. Land was granted a patent for ‘Polaroid’ filters. Land’s cheap and simple method for producing polarizing filters involved depositing crystals of a chemical called Herapathite as a thin film. This had the effect of creating a microscopic grill, through which would pass only those undulating light waves that were similarly aligned. And because Land’s filters worked on the principle of selecting the orientation of light waves rather than blocking certain colors, it would be possible to produce full-color 3D images. In June 1936 at the Haus der Technik, in Berlin a film is produced with this technology. The film was called Zum Greifen Nah –You Can Nearly Touch It.

The 1950s – The first 3D boom

In 1948, Two brothers, Raymond and Nigel Spottiswoode, highly regarded in the field of film making and experimentation, were commissioned to design and build a cinema of the future. In the short space of 14 months, they created what was to be called the Telecinema and produced five 3D shorts to be shown therein, two of which were cartoons created by noted Canadian animator Norman McLaren: Around is Around and Now is the time…to put on your glasses. The system used to photograph these films was designed and constructed by Leslie P. Dudley and consisted of two Newman Sinclair cameras mounted ‘face to face’ with angled mirrors placed in front of each lens in order to deflect the image of the scene being shot into each camera. Stereophonic sound would be added later, for showing in the Telecinema – which could indeed be described as the cinema of the future as it included, apart from stereo sound facilities, its own lenticular screen for 3D without glasses and newly designed equipment for TV projection. Bwana Devil opened on 26th November 1952 at Paramount, the film is based on true events which took place at the Tsavo River crossing, Kenya in 1898 during the the building, by the British, of the Uganda Railway, during which 140 workers were killed by lions (the same event was also the basis for the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness, which starred Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer). Theatres in Hollywood and Los Angeles and was a tremendous success. Presented in dual strip format, utilising interlocked projectors and polarising filters, Bwana Devil is considered to be the first colour 3D feature film presentation. All the major studios had 3D movies in production by this time, and the next couple of years saw the release of some really good 3D pictures such as House of Wax(1953),The Tingler (1959)13 Ghosts (1960)The House on Haunted Hill(1959) was the most successful movie at that time. The production of 3D movies began to peter out as the studios turned to the less troublesome CinemaScope as a means of coaxing the audiences back into the cinemas. By 1955 3D was finished and the wide screen was king. 3D might have been down, but it was not quite out. Several years later 3D would return – this time in widescreen, too! And some years after that a system called IMAX would be born; and when IMAX would eventually be combined with 3D we would be treated to 3D presentations that could only be described with one word: Awesome!

The 1980s

It was not until the 1980s that the various 3D systems would get to show what they could do, with the first half of the decade witnessing a mini 3D revival. A South Korea/US production, Starchaser consisted of conventional hand-drawn animation over computer generated frames. This Star Wars-inspired tale combined excellent animation with surprisingly good 3D. All of these systems, however, had the same irritating drawback: they were all designed to be 2.35:1 single strip systems, and a single strip of film projected through a polarizing filter and being viewed through another – the glasses – means huge light loss and a much dimmer picture. Another problem, particular to 35mm presentations, becomes apparent when the fact that the tiny, 2-perf high frames are enlarged to fill a commercial cinema screen that may be thirty feet wide or more, resulting in further degradation of the image.

65/70mm 3D and IMAX – and the Digital future…?

This fact was not lost on Dr. Richard Vetter, the co-designer, with colleague Carl W. Williams, of the excellent Dimension 150 lens, when he developed the StereoSpace system, in conjunction with United Artists. StereoSpace was a step back to the dual-rig method of acquiring a 3D image, but a step forward – and up – to 65mm film stock. Later veteran cinematographer Linwood G. Dunn and Film Effects of Hollywood developed a system they called Dynavision. This system was intended to combine the brightness and steadiness of 70mm projection. 3D production seemed to stall for the next few years, but a revolutionary new process was evolving – in Canada – that would lead directly to high definition 3D movies that we enjoy today: IMAX. The IMAX system was the brainchild of two filmmakers, Graeme Ferguson and Roman Kroiter.

20th Centuary:

Yet while IMAX were moving onwards and upwards in the area of large format 3D, the latter years of the 20th century saw the rapid development of a totally different technology, one that would eventually redefine the way films are made and presented. For good or ill the Digital Revolution was coming. The future for 3D in the cinema looks promising once again, thanks to digital technology. Digital projectors now being installed in screens throughout the world can project flat or stereoscopic movies with just the flick of a switch. 3D movies are starting to appear almost as regularly as they did in 1950s heyday – and even the new plastic glasses are cool. This digital revolution has brought cinema technology into our homes, allowing us to enjoy our favourite films with a clarity unmatched since movies began. As for 3D, now that Cameron, Spielberg, Rodriguez, Zemeckis and Lucas (Ghosts of the Abyss (2003); Spy Kids 3D (2003); Shark Boy and Lava Girl 3D (2005)The Polar Express (2004); Beowulf (2007) and this year’s much-anticipated Avatar) have all voiced their enthusiasm – and more importantly put their collective financial muscle behind research and production, it is reasonably certain that this time – this time – 3D will be here to stay.

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