The rise, fall and impact of Britain’s contribution to 3D cinema.

The ways in which art is created, produced, distributed, marketed, preserved and supported are shifting — in some instances transformed — in relation to the transition to a digital society. I have scouted the roots of 3D cinema, the production, distribution and exhibition, in a time of current debate and uncertainty (of increased ticket prices, the upgrading projecting technology, and 3D glasses) with the aim aid one’s understanding of the sweeping, generalized historical narrative of the 3D experience in cinema.

With general cinema attendance falling and the film industry in flux, focus has somewhat shifted towards the “cinema experience” in order to get people away from their TV. As consumer technology is advancing at a rate faster than computer processing power, where we see the release of 3D home television sets and HD cable that rubs against the shoulder of the cinema screen, film producers, distributers, and cinema owners are forced to find new strategies to have that ‘premium’ service that cinema has since it’s birth- in order for the trip to the cinema to be that bit more than the usual intake of media in the home. The guinea pig for that glittering experience shift this time, the unrelenting 3D film.

Most of the academic coverage of 3D technologies of the 1950s is mapped by Douglas Gomery defining the period of 1953–54 as ‘a brief, contentious, and expensive technological cul-de-sac’

Having perused the history of three-dimensional imaging, right from it’s birth by David Brewster in 1844 with the stereoscope which has been adapted and morphed into the three-dimensional technologies of today, its clear that 3D has been trying to make a sustainable break-through into the mainstream film industry. Over it’s life-time of development, it came and went as newer technologies were developed, each time better than the one that came before.

David Bordwell, in a foreword to Douglas Gomery’s, Shared Pleasures -an “American” piece- he speculates on the effects of new processes on production, for example British cinematographers experiencing ““acute difficulties … when coming to terms with American technical innovations such as Eastman- color, CinemaScope and VistaVision” 3D does not appear in this list of new technologies. Through research it’s clear that stereoscopic films has strong associations with being a “British” technology. An important element of the history of film in Britain. “[T]he British contributions to stereo-vision movies have too long been overlooked.” states Hayes.

“Two years later [in 1953] stereoscopy, or 3D, was to become a hysterical gimmick in the commercial cinema, before being abandoned. But at the Festival Exhibition packed audiences saw the system demonstrated in excellent working conditions.”

As part of the 1951 Festival of Britain, showcasing the country’s achievements in science, technology and the arts, The ‘Festival Exhibition’ mentioned by George Perry in this extract was the projections of the “Telekinema”, a purpose built cinema on London’s South Bank Exhibition site, in which the NFT Theatre of BFI now resides. The projection of four stereoscopic films during this event proved the origin of the technological advancements, so far as, playing to 458,694 people in 1,220 sold-out performances, suggesting this technology’s possible commercial success.

The popularity (and perceived 3-D effect) of the Telekinema films. Kinematograph Weekly supplement, The Ideal Kinema (17 May 1951).

Then Bwana Devil arrived. A one dimensional thumping jungle adventure B-movie, exhibited in 1952 claimed modest success. JR Eyerman’s image (above) augured the intense 3D craze that preluded a bizarre time in American movie history between 1952 and ’54.

Since The Power of Love (1922) (which didn’t prove a success) significant improvements had been made in polarised stereoscopic cinematography. The Power of Love used the red and green anaglyph system and also gave an option for the ending of the film to the audience — to look through the red or the green frame individually on the spectacle — to see a miserable or jovial end.

As 3-D TV sets were being introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2009, Reuters interviewed two leading ophthalmologists. “There are a lot of people walking around with very minor eye problems — for example, a muscle imbalance — which under normal circumstances the brain deals with naturally,” said Dr. Michael Rosenberg, a professor at Northwestern University. 3-D provides an unfamiliar visual experience, and “that translates into greater mental effort, making it easier to get a headache.”

Dr. Deborah Friedman, a professor of ophthalmology and neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said that in normal vision, each eye sees things at a slightly different angle. “When that gets processed in the brain, that creates the perception of depth. The illusions that you see in three dimensions in the movies is not calibrated the same way that your eyes and your brain are.”

In a recently published article, Consumer Reports says about 15 percent of the moviegoing audience experiences headache and eyestrain during 3-D movies. However, in the mid 1980s another breakthrough had been released to the world, this time eliminating the eye fatigue that was common among the previous methods, IMAX which had, for another time became the benchmark. As the race to achieve the next technological advancement of the relentless 3D business hottens up, the number of companies racing is increasing.

Most common, and James Cameron’s 3D of choice, is RealD. This uses a single projector onto a silver screen projecting right-eye frames and left-eye frames, switching between them 144 times per second. It has the lightest and most comfortable glasses and emphasizes depth in 3D. Dolby 3D uses a single projector onto a white screen. It’s newer and according to some has less issues with ghosting and truer colours. IMAX 3D has the largest screens for the viewing of 3D. It uses dual-projection and according to Brian Bonnick, IMAX’s chief technology officer: “IMAX 3D glasses are unique and use the most expensive polarizing materials that have a higher signal to noise ratio to reduce 3D ghosting.” There’s also a company called Xpand which partnered with the Venice and Cannes film festivals. Xpand uses active 3D glasses with left and right lenses that open and close — the glasses are battery powered and heavy and also expensive. Xpand produces universal glasses that also work with 3D TVs.

A study led by L Mark Carrier, of California State University harvested some interesting results. It found that 3D movies do not offer an advantage over their 2D counterparts in terms of the ability to recall a film’s details, no more immersive and do not allow viewers to experience more intense emotional reactions. However, the study did suggest that watching films in 3D increased the risk of eyestrain, headache, or trouble with vision by three times.

Speculating at APA, Carrier says “All other things being equal, I would say you’re increasing your chances of having some discomfort, there aren’t going to be any benefits in terms of understanding the movie better or making the movie more meaningful, as far as we can tell”

For a bit of perspective, during the war years, and post-war austerity of the 1940s, cinema going reached a peak at over 1.64 billion admissions in 1946. Contrast 1946s’ cinema-going numbers with last years; 2012 of 172.4m at the box office. Despite the initial interest, and the curiosity factor, 3D movie audience figures are falling. 3D ticket sales are down 4% from 2011 to 2012 despite a record number of 47 films released in the format.

Given there are a host of great uses of 3D — Martin Scorsese, Hugo, and Death of A Samurai, which harnessed the technology and has been woven into the process as a storytelling device. However, an ill-fated inclination among the majority of 3D movies released is to convert already shot 2D movies into a 3D image. Movies like Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender are all examples of post 3D converted movies. this has a detremental effect on 3D as a filmmaking technique, as the quality of films which are released in 3D are not suited to the form in the same way. Here, I conclude lies it’s biggest problem. A disrespect towards the audience’s intelligence.

Nic Knowland, a respected director of photography has seen cinema trends and fads come and go, but never one for which he’s had so little enthusiasm as 3D; “From the cinematographer’s perspective it may offer production value and scale to certain kinds of film. But for many movies it offers only distraction and some fairly uncomfortable viewing experiences for the audience. I haven’t yet encountered a director of photography who’s genuinely enthusiastic about it.”

Roger Ebert, film critic and journalist; “3-D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension. Hollywood’s current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience. For some, it is an annoying distraction. For others, it creates nausea and headaches. For moviegoers in the PG-13 and R ranges, it only rarely provides an experience worth paying a premium for.”

Oliver Stapleton, who has shot Hollywood movies such as The Cider House Rules and The Proposal has this to say about 3-D; “3D is antithetical to storytelling, where immersion in character is the goal. It constantly reminds you you’re watching a screen. 2D doesn’t reveal the smoke and mirrors of filmmaking in the same way. My goal as a cinematographer is to make the stitches in the cloth invisible. 3D says ‘Look at me, I’m a picture!’, 2-D simply says ‘Once upon a time…’.

“That 3-D was even tried on a significant scale demonstrated how desperate exhibitors of the early 1950s were for something new … . By mid-1954 it was clear that with all the expense involved with special attachments to projectors and glasses issued to patrons, the added revenues from 3-D never proved worth the investment.” Douglas Gomery.

It’s interesting to note, the investment in 3D technology has been enormus — not only the equipment needed in order to shoot the movies, there’s also the installation of the 3D projection systems that have been installed in cinemas from Falls Creek to Fyfe. These structural changes may mean that 3D is entrenched and TBTF.

RealD CEO Michael Lewis told The Daily Telegraph that 3D is ‘not about spears coming out of the screen at you anymore’. However I feel that’s a slight wander off the path. I feel a shared continuity between the wishes of a 1950s audience and a modern one. Those wonderful junctures of ‘ooohs and ahs’ as the audience exclaims an instinctual ode of participation with the film.

A method invented by Dean Goodhill in 1999 called MaxiVision48, using existing film technology, shoots at a higher frame rate of 48 per second. A heightened frame rate which “provides a picture of startling clarity” and functions “like a window into three dimensions” offers an interesting alternative to existing forms of the elusive 3D experience — one that the conglomerate may sink their teeth into. Not to mention laser projection, hyper projection and 4K.

In Hollywood’s marketing terms, they need to offer a premium experience that cannot be had at the home. An experience which draws one to the cinema screen. With the arrival of HD cable, home digital projectors, and Blu-ray discs the gap between the cinema theatre and home experience narrowed. The spike in 3D commotion in recent years with Avatar and similar releases widened it again, but with home 3D TVs, the gap may be set for another narrow.

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