Magic Murray

On a rainy day in February I drove way out on Tujunga Boulevard to Disney’s theme park cavernous construction facility.  It’s a place where they build props and stuff for the parks, and also test projection systems and rides.  The purpose of heading there was to see a 70mm print of one of the most important stereoscopic movies in history:  Murray Lerner’s Magic Journeys. It was in 1982 that Disney introduced a high production value stereoscopic movie to its theme parks. The movie, shot on 65mm (which is printed on 70mm), was shown in a dual-projection setup.  Not revolutionary technology — it is the same thing that was done for the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park in New York – a place I used to ride my bike in when I was a kid in Flushing. 

I met Murray Lerner and a bunch of other folks including Paul Ryan who was the cinematographer on the show.  The film was sponsored by Kodak who made film stock for the show with super accurate perforations to insure steadiness, Paul told me.  Paul was the cinematographer on a movie that I worked on in Spain.  I was the sound man, and he shot a movie about Salvador Dalí that eventually wound up on NPR.  That was in the early 1970s, so I have to say that both Paul and I are about 35 years older – and he looked great for a geezer.  Murray and I have known each other for years, and I’m not sure how we met.  Murray also shot a 3D movie for SeaWorld, Sea Dream, using Colonel Bernier’s over-and-under 35mm system which had excellent optics, also used for the hilarious dark comedy Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein.  You may know Murray from his documentary on Isaac Stern which was shot in China and won an Oscar. 

We were in a projection room with the two interlocked 70mm projectors right behind us grinding away.  The room was full of all kinds of interesting park leftovers.  There was a giant model of a pie in the room, with cars and other objects on top of it, and many things you might trip over in the dark like a man meandering to the bathroom in a strange hotel room in the middle of the night. This short film is an exercise in unrestrained parallax.  It’s an attempt to knock the sock off the audience even if they are wearing cowboy boots. But the movie wasn’t too hard to look at, and stunning in 70mm. 

The print is probably decades old, and a bit battered. The film stock or color timing harkened back to another era and I was so much younger then. I wonder what the film would look like if it were restored and somebody took the trouble to reset the zero parallax.  Nevertheless, it was impressive, and of historical importance because this is the film that inspired so many theme park and World’s Fair stereoscopic movies.  I think the medium was lying fallow until what is, on balance, an excellent example of the potential of the stereoscopic cinema was shown to millions of at the Disney parks.  It has a number of spectacular traveling matte shots and I am not sure anybody did traveling mattes in 3D before this.  The mattes work so well because of the large format that greatly suppressed matte lines.

Murray told amusing stories about the production of Magic Journeys, especially about the camera system.  Initially they were slated to use the Todd-AO rig, which became the United Artists rig that was designed by Dick Vetter.  Dick Vetter was an optical scientist who invented a system called Dimension 150, which was a single camera and projector Cinerama.  It used curvilinear distortion, or pre-distortion, to allow projection on the inside of the cylinder that formed the Cinerama screen.  I met Vetter on a couple of occasions, and I found him to be a helpful and generous man during my early efforts at the stereoscopic cinema.  However, Murray didn’t like the rig and he needed a new one that was developed by Steve Hines (now of HinesLab), who was from Kodak.  The Hines rig was used for many stereoscopic movies – theme park moves.  An excellent robust design, it could accommodate 65, 35mm cameras, and even 16mm and digital cameras.  It was a well calibrated instrument, and Steve is one of our most respected stereoscopic inventors, having come up with a number of ingenious devices over the years.

I should tell you that my first job in stereo was working for Marshall Naify of United Artists.  Marshall’s company owned the Todd-AO rig and Dr. Vetter worked for him.  Marshall was stereo blind and needed somebody to check out the photography that was done with the rig. He was a religious man who was deeply interested in ancient Egypt, and we had many conversations about the spirituality of the ancient world.  These conversations, which took place at Enrico’s in North Beach at the Naify family table, were more interesting than anything we had to say about 3D. 

I have a strong and unexpected connection to Magic Journeys. Michael Jackson worked on the follow up to Magic Journeys (Captain EO) and got a video copy of the film which he gave to Gary Evans of ViewMaster. Gary and I were working on various projects and Gary gave me a copy of the film and I formatted it into the above and below format I invented (I invented the electronic version of the above-and-below format now used by Avid, and also the side-by-side format used by various people for video compression.  He who first correctly defines the problem has an advantage with regard to priority.)

StereoGraphics Corp. and I created the electronic stereoscopic industry, and the dominant stereoscopic projection system used today for the theatrical cinema.  Along the way we developed a video system using the above-and-below format.  With it we could present flickerfree stereo images on a CRT monitor or projector with a tape machine as a source.  I had learned that our hardware was judged by the software – that is to say, what we played on the system.  The quality of Murray’s film dwarfed anything I could put on our monitors so I took Magic Journeys, properly formatted on tape, and demonstrated our system at trade shows using it.  I got caught by a big shot Disney engineer who had a public shit fit and excoriated me for my theft of valuable Disney copyrighted property.  He was right and I apologized.  However, his attempt to publicly humiliate me (I really didn’t need his help) was a bigger faux pas than mine.

But I drift as on a sea dream. I said goodbye to Murray when I realized that I had to pick up one of my son Noah from high school, but I regretted having to leave so soon.  As I drove out of the rain slicked parking lot I wondered about the fellowship of stereoscopic filmmakers – what it all meant and how we were all connected.  This, the longest technology evolution in the history of the cinema, has created a group of people who have a mission that goes beyond a desire to make a buck.  It’s a vision – a vision shared by many people.  And now there are hundreds of people in the Hollywood film community who share that vision.  This time it’s a keeper to a large extent because of what I suppose is my most important invention, the ZScreen.  Stereoscopic movies are here, and Murray is one of its pioneers.

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2 Responses to “Magic Murray”

  1. stanleykrute Says:

    Hi Lenny

    I just saw “Coraline”. How fabulous and wondrous !!! The 3D let us enter and inhabit a fantastic universe.

    Been a fan of 3D since the great Sawyer Viewmaster reels of my 50’s childhood. Never thought that anything as good as the RealD/ZScreen stuff would exist.

    Huge thanks to you for opening up this doorway into the future.

    — stan krute

  2. lennylipton Says:

    Stan,

    I think a lot of it is the texture that is revealed because of the stereopsis cue. I was so dazzled by the look of the film I found it hard to follow the story, although I had seen a lot of the film before completion.

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