Introduction to Ray Zone’s book

Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952

It was Christmas vacation in 1952. The snow was falling in Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, but I was warm and dry as I stood in the queue with Harvey, Morty, Jeffrey and Robby, waiting to see ourselves on closed-circuit color TV in the storefront RCA Exhibition Hall. We inched along, mingling with the holiday crowd, until we came into the field of view of the lens of the refrigerator-sized color camera and at last saw ourselves on a nearly circular color tube, in bright “living colors.”  Only there were too many living colors. The picture was out of alignment, or more properly, convergence. No such shortcoming could dim my enthusiasm, but when I got home to tell my mom how much I wanted a color TV, she wisely said:  “We’ll buy one once it’s perfected.”  It turns out we never had a color TV in our living room (but I bought her one years later). And neither did our Brooklyn neighbors, for it took more than twenty years and a fortune in research and development and marketing before RCA and its licensees achieved a fifty percent penetration for color TV sets. By that time the image quality had improved, but the system, named after a standards body empowered by The Radio Corporation of America, was mocked in engineering circles and NTSC came to be known as Never Twice the Same Color.

I thought of that day seemingly a lifetime ago, when my friends and I waited to catch a glimpse of ourselves, as I read the manuscript of Ray Zone’s technology history. I thought about the adoption of technology in my lifetime, and I think we all have something in common:  Practically all of us are using computers–an unfinished piece of business. An automobile with the characteristics of a PC would be classified as an unreliable and dangerous instrument. Fortunately, computer crashes are more frequent than car crashes. So what does it take for us to accept a new technology?

Rays Zone’s history digs at that question and intertwines the efforts of inventors who sought to create the motion picture with those who sought to create the stereoscopic motion picture (often the same inventor), and he makes the case that the development of stereoscopic technologies strongly influenced the movies. He makes the case with scores of examples, and what is so interesting about this is that other writers have not noticed this connection. The stereoscopic cinema, like early color television, is not held in high esteem. It is more frequently derided as an eye-straining fad than praised for its potential contribution to the art of the cinema. And this may explain why no one else has made Ray’s connection. That’s because writers like Ray, who have a measure of respect for the three-dimensional cinema, are few and far between. Most lack the vision.

I have spent most of my life as an inventor of stereoscopic moving image systems. Lately my work has taken me to the theatrical cinema, although it was more than twenty years ago that I made the basic invention that led to the latest renaissance in 3-D digital movies. I was aware of some of the history of the medium and I knew something about the men who put their time and energy–and to tell the truth in many cases, their life’s blood–into the invention of the cinema and stereoscopic displays. But Ray knows a lot more of the story.

It is a history replete with many false starts, and often of people working ceaselessly only to have their inventions die a stillbirth. It is a history that could not have made any sense in the moment, and can be seen to have a form only with the passage of time and the boon of hindsight. Ray has presented the facts of the early days of the parallel development of cinema and stereoscopic display technology, and to some extent left it to us to connect the dots. It is often difficult to say how one inventor influenced another. Were they aware of the work of their contemporaries?  How many of the many inventions described in this book got built?  And how many that got built actually worked?  Ray has comments about this and relies wherever possible on eyewitness reports, but these are often inexpert and contradictory, which is what one would expect in historical research.

In my view, the way to best trace the milestones is to connect the dots between actual products. Such an approach involves emphasizing devices that were offered in the marketplace with at least a modicum of commercial success–not because the ability to monetize an invention is necessarily a measure of its worth, but rather because it’s a measure of how many people saw it in use. That’s because the inventors are in the theaters along with the rest of the public, and a visual experience–like mine at the RCA Exhibition Hall–is more profound and influential than reading a paper or a patent.

This introducer is not out of things to say about Ray Zone’s book, but I am just about out of my allotment of words. As a professional inventor in this field it is only natural that I would feel that this book was meant for me, but I think it is a book that will be important for years to come to both enthusiasts and students of the technology of the cinema and stereoscopy.

Lenny Lipton, December 10, 2006, Laurel Canyon, California

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