Three Dimensional imagination

By: Ned Casey
By: Ned Casey

3D movies have been around for years but the attempt at creating realistic imagery has been around for centuries.

A recent trip to the movie theater to see Bolt offered an opportunity to consider one of the more kitschy special effects in movie history: 3D. Early experiments in stereoscopic films were made as early as 1915 but stereoscopic photographs had been around for decades. Images of the Eiffel Tower , the pyramids of and other less salutary subjects could be viewed through a stereoscope providing a three dimensional effect


Stereoscope image of the Eiffel Tower


Although not quite at the gimmick stage these experiments died off until being resurrected during Hollywood ’s TV scare of the fifties. Fearing that television would keep too many paying customers out of theaters studio heads rolled out one “innovation” after another. Wide screen, Super WideScreen, Cinerama, and, of course, 3D. The first major release color stereoscopic motion picture was the immortal Bwana Devil released in 1952. One notable sidebar to this event was the film’s writer/director Arch Oboler who had a successful career as a radio drama writer specializing in horror fiction. His series Lights Out has been a landmark for fans of the horror genre since the thirties.



Bwana Devil poster.                            Audience at opening night of Bwana Devil.


In 1953 a series of 3D pictures were made, mostly forgettable plots based in fantasy or horror. The House of Wax, released that year, cemented Vincent Price in the public’s mind as a staple of the horror genre. Previously he had worked as a character actor (and not a bad one at that) in a string of A and B pictures (most notably a feckless cad in the classic 1944 Otto Preminger film Laura). House of Wax made full use of the type of shots that would punctuate most 3D films: objects and people seeming to jump out of the screen at the viewer. This made for some quirky narrative elements. The story would scream to a halt while someone walked into the shot and began shooting a paddle ball out into the audience. It looked cool even if it had no relation to the plot.


House of Wax poster.                         An unresolved still from House of Wax; without the glasses.       

These films used a double strip technique which required two projectors. The problem for producers was that this often required a break in the film to allow projectionists to load the next two reels. To address this problem the script writers often built in an intermission. By the 60s this problem had been overcome with a single strip system. Although 3D never really died out it has had several waves of popularity. The current films made in 3D, especially animated films such as Bolt benefit from the digital revolution by not having to actually shoot anything. Production of the 3D images is much easier with software based systems.

Attempts to interest viewers by use of realistic effects and other unusual techniques are found in art forms much older than cinema. Ancient Greek artists created murals in houses to “open up” rooms by showing open windows and doors to outdoor spaces or other rooms. The development of perspective as an adjunct to constructing realistic compositions allowed artists in the renaissance and baroque periods to create images that appeared amazingly life-like. Painters in later centuries developed this technique to a highly polished degree creating effects that became known as trompe-l’oeil (trick the eye). These paintings often depicted surfaces such as a table of desktop covered with items that looked as if they could be plucked off the canvas. They often had people gesturing with arms and hands that seemed to project off the surface of the painting.

Trompe l'oeil painting by Edward Collier

Such techniques were not only limited to gimmicks and lesser artists. Da Vinci and Hans Holbein the Younger both used an effect called anamorphosis which played on the viewer’s location in respect to the image or relied on special viewing apparatus (the 17th century version of 3D glasses) to see hidden parts of a painting. The illusion behind anamorphosis would come back into use in the 20th century when filmmakers used anamorphic lenses to expand images shot on film to create wide-screen movies.


The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger and a detail of the anamorphic element from the bottom of the painting seen with the aid of an angled mirror.

 Everything old is new again.


More on 3D techniques and their antecedents next time.

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