The World 3D Film Expo II was recently held at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. For me that’s a few minutes drive down Laurel Canyon Boulevard, a left turn on Hollywood Boulevard and I am. If I had traveled from out of town to the Expo I might have tried to make every screening, but I live in the same town so I am not quit that committed.
My interest in these movies is as a technologist and analyst of the stereoscopic motion picture medium. I am trying to learn from the past so that the lessons divined can be applied to designing better stereoscopic systems for the cinema. I have seen some of the movies with family members–my wife Julie and with my three kids–Noah, Jonah and Anna. So far I’ve seen Those Redheads from Seattle (passable), half of Taza, Son of Cochise (Rock Hudson as an native American, in 2-D or 3-D, is mind boggling) Russian shorts (grim), The Mad Magician (corny fun), a Three Stooges short (stupid fun, but the boys were getting long in the tooth), 3-D British shorts, and Miss Sadie Thompson.
My boys, although they knew it was silly, enjoyed The Mad Magician the most and my son Jonah is doing Vincent Price imitations. In the film, every time someone is marked for death, Price makes a hammy “I’m going to kill the sucker” expression and my kids loved that. They thought that stereo added to the story and without any prompting from me (they are 10 and 12 years old) they formed the hypothesis that 3-D is useful only if it helps tell the story. Magician is in black and white and I wondered if color would have advanced the story. I don’t think so. Miss Sadie Thompson, a moral tale about a hypocrite who falls for a fallen woman, left my family wondering why it was in 3-D because nothing came off the screen.
I observed that most of the audience in the theater sat in the back rows or the balcony. That’s because they are a knowledgeable group and they know that errors in photography are less painful at the back of the house. Retinal disparity is a function of screen parallax and distance and it is retinal disparity that counts when it comes to attempting to fuse stereoscopic images. It became evident to me that a major hypothesis I had held about the stereoscopic cinema in the fifties needed to be modified as a result of these screenings. The projection was excellent, and that was not a given in the fifties when every theater had two film projectors for changeover. That fact made it possible to modify the projectors with relatively simple hardware so that they would run in stereo.
True, the potential for stereoscopic projection was there in every theater in the world but that potential turned sour. The studios made, by one count, something like fifty 3-D movies in 1952 and ’53, many of which were not released in stereo because, by the time they were completed, it had become clear that people didn’t like going to see 3-D movies. They didn’t like cardboard glasses, and they didn’t looked seeing movies that hurt their eyes. The projection gets its share of the blame; although it was possible to lash two projectors together, it wasn’t easy to do a good job of it. Carbon arc brightness had to match, so did the lenses’ focal lengths, the fame line controls had to be adjusted, and the list goes on, including, the fact that synchronization wasn’t enough–the projector shutters had to be in phase.
All of the projection issues were addressed and solved for the presentations at the Egyptian. Indeed, the projectionists monitored the films and made corrections for mistakes made in production. In this way the projection factor was ruled out of the equation and what was left to observe in its unfiltered form were mistakes in the camera rigs and creative choices in photography. Many of the films suffered form frameline drift and when this happens the images are offset in the vertical and difficult to fuse. I attribute this frameline shift not to a camera problem but rather to the recentration of the lenses. The lenses weren’t properly matched. The optical centers of the lenses ought to pass though their geometric centers but that doesn’t always happen and isn’t important for planar photography. For stereo, it is. So when the cinematographer switched lenses, he may have inadvertently caused frameline drift–or that which appeared to be frameline drift.
Another problem that emerged has to do with what I call parallax budget. There is so much parallax one can comfortably view in a projected image and the cinematographers consistently squandered the budget. Some did a better job than others, but the most typical mistake was to set the zero parallax point too far in front of the central characters. This leads to increased divergence of the background points and an image that is tough to watch. That’s why the audience of aficionados knew to sit in the back rows. It’s less painful there.
Another problem I saw in some of the films was created by out of phase camera shutters. I had no idea that it happened, but from time to time it did and the result is hard to describe but disturbing all the same.
So I have modified my views about why the 3-D cinema failed in the fifties. Yes, the projection was probably terrible or at best inconsistent. The system wasn’t a really commercial product. Yes, the cardboard glasses aren’t terribly comfortable. But what I hadn’t understood was how inconsistent and poor so much of the photography was.
My own view of what makes a movie stereo-worthy differs from my family’s view. I think most movies are candidates as long as the technology is there and as long as the studios and exhibitors are using what I’ll call real products. The first rule of 3-D cinematography is to do no harm. Something they can’t claim to have been able to achieve that I the fifties.