Defying Gravity: The Evolution of 3D
The Three Waves of 3D
Published: Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 24, 2013 11:10
Over the past decade, leading movie studios across the country have tried to turn 3D from a niche technology to a staple of the moviegoing experience, as high-profile movies like Avatar, Hugo, and Gravity vie for audiences’ eyeballs and dollars. But we’ve seen this movie before: the history of 3D dates all the way back to 1915, when the technology was first tested, and it’s always been touted as the Next Big Thing. But will 3D ever be adopted as a cinematic standard? The future is uncertain, but the past suggests a rocky road ahead.
The 1950s: Dial 3 For 3D
3D, like many other cinematic innovations, did not grow out of an artistic need but a commercial one. In the early 1950s, with the rise of television threatening cinema’s hold on the masses, studios were willing to try anything to get people into theaters. 3D was the most high-profile example. Hoping to dazzle viewers with an experience they couldn’t get at home, studios unveiled a 3D technology based around dual film strips and requiring an accompanying pair of cardboard glasses to be viewed properly.
Most of the 3D offerings of the 1950s weren’t exactly highbrow fare. The most famous is the 1953 horror film House of Wax, starring Vincent Price. The movie is more notable for its technical feats than its artistic quality—in addition to being one of the first 3D features, it also brought stereo sound to the movies. “It comes off the screen right at you!” the movie’s poster excitedly exclaimed, and indeed it did. House of Wax is a telling example of the format’s most frequent use, eliciting not-so-subtle jumps and scares from the audience. The movie was a huge hit, launching Price’s career in schlocky genre films and sending the studios scrambling for more 3D movies, like It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Such fantastical genre movies were the backbone of 3D, but the format also tried to ingratiate itself into genres like the musical and the western.
As 1953 wore on, 3D faded as quickly as it had arisen. The cumbersome projection process, which was often incorrectly carried out and brought with it complaints of eyestrain and headaches, suggested that the technology wasn’t ready for prime time. But that didn’t stop Warner Bros. from giving its biggest director a 3D assignment.
Adapting an obscure British play, Alfred Hitchcock was pressed into using 3D technology for his 1954 classic Dial M for Murder. It’s easy to imagine how in the hands of a lesser director, the movie could have descended into conventional use of 3D, with knives flying at the audience and lurching villains appearing to generate easy scares. But the Master of Suspense chose a different tack with his one foray into 3D. A story of adultery and murder set in a single apartment, Dial M used the technology to generate a sense of spacial dynamics akin to that of the stage. Using 3D in a restrained and subtle manner, Hitchcock showed how the technology harnessed real potential beyond being a simple gimmick.
But the experiment was short-lived, and 3D didn’t take off like the studios hoped. Hitchcock himself had predicted its failure. “It’s a nine-day wonder, and I came in on the ninth day,” he later said of his experiment with 3D. Stereo sound and widescreen, two other innovations designed to draw audiences away from TV, stuck around for the long haul, but by 1954 it seemed that 3D would be consigned to the dust bin of history. Or would it? – S.K.
The 1980s: Back To The Future
Prior to the 1980s, 3D film enjoyed very limited success. Its returns were fleeting, because the technology behind such production was incredibly premature and crude. The medium was largely a gimmick, and was very rarely taken as an artistic choice so much as a special billing to get patrons into theaters. Films like 1969’s soft-core sex film The Stewardess reigned supreme on the 3D market—the novelty of 3D was gone, and in its place was a market for what namely proved to be unimaginative B-movies. Furthermore, watching a 3D film was becoming an increasing headache, since the supposed three-dimensional images of this technology did little to account for the geometry of the eye.
Movies like Jaws 3-D (1983) demonstrated the clear problems with the 3D medium entering the ’80s. The technology acted merely as a disguise for an aging series, to bring audiences into a film that otherwise had little appeal to young people, or any people for that matter. When the 3D aspect of films started to serve not only as a prominent, appealing element to them, but rather as the exclusive source of a film’s marketability, the technology itself became a gimmick, and while interest in 3D kept the medium in theaters, it no longer could attract credible directors and artists to stand behind it.
The IMAX Corporation revitalized the technological aspect of 3D filmmaking by creating theaters with wider screens and higher resolution projectors. IMAX created documentary-style films that were distributed through its own venues that operated outside of traditional theater settings. Focusing on the visuals, and caring substantially less about the marketing, IMAX developed a wildly improved method of filming for 3D that accounted for the eye’s perception of depth and tempered the fatigue of 3D on the eyes. This involved a relatively complex system of color filtration.