I staggered off the Air France flight from Los Angeles to Charles de Gaulle Airport and I fell into the arms of Bernard Benoliel and Laurent Mannoni of the Cinémathèque Française and into their waiting taxicab. Off we went through the streets of Paris – a grand blur – having had only a few hours of sleep in the past day,. I’d like to be a really good traveler, but there is nothing I can do to hide the terror – or maybe, as Kurtz said, the horror. Flying in a metal cylinder at 36,000 feet requires surrendering complete control to the pilot and the guys who designed the airplane – which is not necessarily easy to do, especially if you think about all the things that could possibly go wrong. The bright side is that death would be instantaneous. And the security measures at the airport are aggravating and not adequate, as has been lately demonstrated. But sitting there in the airplane, even if you’re in Business Class, leaves you feeling one-down because the guys in front of you are in First Class where it’s really comfortable. (But of course there is the ultra-secret first class-plus that the first class passengers envy.) Business Class is a lot better than sitting in the cattle car. At least the seats aren’t chipped and everything works, more or less.
The first thing Bernard and Laurent and I did in Paris was to get something to eat. That’s after I dropped my stuff off at the hotel in the area called the Porte de Bercy, which is right near the Frank Gehry-designed Cinémathèque Française. I had been invited to speak at the Cinémathèque during a 3-D film festival they were having at the end of December and the beginning of January. Even though I could only be in Paris for a few days, the Cinémathèque Française is the premier cinematheque and museum for cinema in the world. It reflects the French’s abiding passion for the cinema as an art form, as well as a reasonable claim they can make for having invented it, or at least made a major contribution to it through the work of the Lumières and others.
After a meal at a restaurant in the Bibliothèque Nationale plaza, we went to the Mk2 cinema to see Avatar. The Bibliothèque Nationale consists of four skyscrapers. Each building is L-shaped, with a massive plaza in their middle. They’re across the Seine from the Cinémathèque, so it’s just a short walk across a spectacularly curved wooden bridge and through a park. It’s all fun, but less fun when it’s the coldest weather that France (and in fact probably all of Europe) has had all year. You have to like snow and you have to like cold, neither of which I do, although I was brought up in the cold and the snow and went to school in the cold and the snow. After 45 years in California, I’m a weakling. They say the blood thins after having been in a warm climate for a while so don’t cut me or it all might run out.
The Mk2 cinema has red bench-like seating. The 3D system they are using is XpanD with shuttering eyewear, with which I am familiar since I led the design team that created CrystalEyes, the first successful shuttering eyewear product – can it be? – more than 20 years ago. The projection was good. The movie was good. I nodded off every now and then, because I’m only mortal, and the eyewear kept falling off my head. They just didn’t fit right. But the image quality was fine, and I thought the picture was super. I was transported to another planet. It was the picture of my dreams. It’s the kind of picture I would have made as a 15-year-old boy back in the 1950s, when I read science fiction by writers like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. This is my favorite kind of science fiction, planet exploration, and I knew what to expect since I had been over at Cameron’s studio, talking to him about the film and watching what he was doing for the past couple of years at the invitation of Chuck Comisky, who did the first pass of stereo composition on the picture.
This was the 16th of December, and Avatar opened on that Wednesday in France, rather than on a Friday as it would in the United States. I was so groggy that I cannot remember if the film was in French, or in English with subtitles. It didn’t seem to matter. The whole thing floated in a cloud, in a dream, on the planet Pandora. And why not? Everybody should get a chance to go to Pandora at least once in a lifetime.
The following day I got to give my talk. The Cinémathèque had asked me to give a personal account of my life as an inventor of stereoscopic displays. So the talk was centered initially on my career, and then I discussed the current stereoscopic cinema, with a brief discourse on the technology, and then I discussed – or actually more probably raised some questions about – the aesthetics of the stereoscopic cinema. It was fun, because the French (at least the people who show up at the Cinémathèque) are absolutely passionate about cinema and ask a lot of good questions – some of which I was able to answer, in English. I had the benefit of a great translator, the erudite Pierre Hodgson who knows a great deal about cinema.
The next day I took a tour of the galleries in the Cinémathèque. They were having an amazing show of pre-cinema concentrating on slide projection. Dating back about 400 years ago, people traveled through Europe with magic lanterns doing shows that were the clear precursor of cinema. They would project their slides and tell their stories. Often the projectors and slides allowed for dissolves and various optical effects. The themes reflect exactly what is of interest in today’s cinema. These were narrative tales, the fantastic (often involving skeletons and monsters), and also the erotic. The collection is commemorated in a fabulous book (which is of course in French) by Laurent Mannoni and Donata Pesenti Cajmpagnoni, called Lanterne Magique et Film Peint. It’s a beautiful book that reproduces many slides and discusses both the technology and the aesthetics of this pre-cinema era. It simply has to be translated into English. And the great exhibit occupying a floor of the Cinémathèque hopefully will one day come to Los Angeles where this is a built-in audience here if there is to be one found in any city on earth.
I spent a morning at the exhibit fascinated. I was brought back to an era that I resonated with, because as a boy I built projectors. From the time I was 11 or 12 years old, I built slide projectors that were made in shoeboxes with 40- or 60-watt lamps. I would line the inside of the shoebox with aluminum foil and poke the lamp through a hole. It was easy to wire sockets and put together lights. I don’t know who taught me how to do any of this, but I do know that I knew how to do these kinds of electrical and optical hookups. As I said, I’m not sure what the inspiration was. The best thing my parents did was to leave me alone.
Something else I should relate is that my father got me a 16mm movie projector when I was eight years old. It was a simple machine that projected 25 or 50 foot cut down version of features — mostly westerns were available. I played with that machine until I wore it out.
After my father died my mom had to work and I was left alone at home a lot after school; so I conducted my own outlaw inventing business in my room in our little apartment in East New York in Brooklyn. For lenses for my projectors I used magnifying glasses, which were good enough, but I needed a tube in which to mount the lens. This is where a lot of the family toilet paper disappeared, because I would unravel the toilet paper to get to that cardboard tube – not a popular activity with my mother. I built a number of these projectors. They’re called “postcard projectors,” because they project opaque images. I was able to make drawings on paper; then I put them into the little holder in the projector or taped them in place, and I could project on a wall. The pictures weren’t big, just a couple of feet across in a darkened room – that was fun.
I also, for reasons I cannot explain, favored rear-screen projection. I would make my own screen that was transparent by smearing butter on a piece of writing paper, or I would use tracing paper. Sometimes I would use two projectors – one for the background and one for the foreground. A typical motif for me was a science fiction scene, for example a starry background from the surface of a planet with a spaceship that flew across – the background being one projector, and the spaceship being another. How this evolved I’m not sure. Perhaps I was trying to replicate what I had seen at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. The Hayden Planetarium was accessible to me, because at the age of 12 I traveled around New York City and for a nickel I could take the subway and go anywhere – for example the Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium. In fact, the subway stop was and still is in the basement of the Museum. The Planetarium used the same kind of projection idea – multiple projectors with objects moving around on this big domed screen.
Therefore, to say that I resonated with what I saw at the Cinémathèque is no exaggeration. Take the projection device on display by Reynaud, which used the same idea of projecting a background and a foreground with two projectors. In Reyanud’s device the foreground used what for all the world looks like film. Reynaud used a band with little square frames, maybe an inch-and-a-half or two inches wide, on which he drew the successive images for an animation – which in the case of what was on display was a day at the beach, with a puppy dog running around and people getting out of their cabana and going into the water for a swim. It was the most charming projection conceivable – just lovely, enthralling and a clear precursor not only of the photographic cinema but of cell animation in particular.
After the exhibit floor I went up to the 17th floor of one of the Bibliothèque Nationale buildings where the Cinémathèque has its museum warehouse. I am not an expert on cinematheques or motion picture museums, but they may have the largest collection of important motion picture apparatus in the world. Roaming through the collection I thought I had died and gone to heaven. There were a number of early stereoscopic cameras, most of which I had never heard of, and a number of interesting cinema inventions and one-offs. Sound machines, projectors – it’s a vast collection, and in good shape. The picture reproduced here is of me touching Georges Méliès’s first camera. I’m not an expert on that era, but Méliès is one of the pivotal figures in the history of the cinema, and voila — here was the first camera he used.