Unkind Revisionism and 3-D Cinema of the 1950s

Never mind dialling M for Murder... how about dialling L for Lies?

Never mind dialling M for Murder... how about dialling L for Lies?

Wherever you see an article on the history of 3-D cinema, you’re bound to hear about how the fancy new digital systems make a laughing stock of the methods employed in the 1950s, which required audience members to don coloured-lensed cardboard specs.

Yes, few would deny that the new generation of digital 3-D systems is impressive, and yes, the method which used red/green or red/blue lenses (known as the anaglyph method) was widespread, because of its low cost, ease of deployment, and the fact that it allowed 3-D to be shown in any cinema. Yet anaglyphic 3-D was used in cinemas as recently as four years ago (‘The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl’), so let’s not just write it off as something that only happened in the “olden days”.

Furthermore – and most importantly – I can assure you that this wasn’t the only 3-D system used in the 1950s. Even though I hadn’t been born yet, I know this to be a fact, and get extremely irritated when uninformed journalists drone on about how terrible it was in the “bad old days”.

While most journalists leave speciality journalism such as financial writing to the niche writers, many unqualified hacks will blithely tackle the topic of movies. Allow me to remind those guilty parties that writing about the movies – and particularly about the specialised area of 3-D – is not for the standard-issue journo, who should rather stick to the day-to-day issues of whipping up fear and anxiety.

Wicked Lies or simply Convenient Exaggeration?

Jeffrey Katzenberg: 'Wicked Lies' or simply 'Convenient Exaggeration'?

Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks Animation, gleefully tells us how the current crop of 3-D films is a far cry from that of his father’s era. He, too, harps on about “those kind of goofy red and blue” specs.

“Let’s be honest,” he wails, “the 3-D was pretty terrible.”

He continues with the lame lament that “the technology was primitive, the film was blurry, people got head-aches and actually some of them got nauseous.” Well, either Katzenberg has a wildly distorted view of movie history, or he’s just making his predecessors look bad in order to boast about the industry’s new toys. (We love ya, Mr K, but you have to give those hardy pioneers credit!)

In the same way as certain unproven theories on global warming are trotted out as unchallengeable gospel by most journalists, so the “bad 3-D in the ’50s” myth is being passed on into popular culture by an uninformed press. The oldest news agency in the world (one of the three largest) also gets it wrong. Agence France-Presse (AFP) was quoted by newspapers in South Africa and around the world, and it’s that same old saw: in the 1950s, 3-D movies had to be seen through coloured specs, and the experience always gave you a headache – or possibly even made you nauseous.

Let’s deconstruct the lie, shall we? Firstly, many of us have seen movies in the anaglyph system without getting headaches or having to check into the nearest clinic. We aren’t all as physiologically frail as these reports would suggest.  Secondly, and this is what the revisionists neglect to mention: in the better 3-D cinemas of the ’50s, a superior 3-D system was also on the market, using two synchronised projectors and a polarised system which required the audience to wear specs with light grey-lenses, similar to those in use today.

I can attest to that fact, not only academically (as I know my movie history), but with the evidence of my own two eyes. I was fortunate enough, some years ago, to catch a special 3-D screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Dial M for Murder’ at the Studio Christine cinema in Paris. The film was exhibited in exactly the same way as a 1950s presentation – two synchronised 35mm projectors projecting through linear polarising filters. Audience members – just like those of the 1950s – were handed cardboard specs with grey polarising filters.

Paris's Studio Christine (somebody say Amen!), where the awful untruths that I had suspected were unequivocally laid to rest.

Paris's Studio Christine (somebody say Amen!), where the awful untruths that I had suspected were unequivocally laid to rest.

The result was impressive: rocky-steady, crisp, clear stereoscopic cinema. So fifty-odd years ago, the industry did indeed know a thing or two about 3-D! Granted, those setups required skilled projectionists, and, in the wrong hands, yes, it could have led to the headache (and conceivably even nausea) scenario. The point is that, without the luxury of today’s video technologies, those technical boffs of five decades ago made that proverbial silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And it looked mighty fine.

Most of today’s projectionists couldn’t even tie their own shoelaces without a diagram, so clearly, an easier-to-operate system was required. The current digital system makes it nigh-on-impossible to show 3-D films badly, although, having said that, I’ve been to some 3-D cinemas in South Africa where the black masking around the screen has been set incorrectly, and “broken the 3-D window” (i.e. spoiled the 3-D effect). To be fair, this may be more the fault of the theatre’s 3-D set-up teams than that of the projectionists.

The Real D digital 3-D system which is deployed throughout South Africa uses circular polarisation systems instead of linear polarisation. This allows one to tilt one’s head without losing the 3-D effect. Of course, why you’d want to tilt your head during the movie is anyone’s guess…

Obviously, the addition of multi-channel digital sound, along with the advance of filmmaking techniques and the wider, brighter screen that digital projection has afforded the format, has raised the 3-D cinema experience to new heights, but PLEASE, can we dispense with that nasty lie that the 3-D experience of days gone by was always a head-crushing nightmare?

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2 Responses to “Unkind Revisionism and 3-D Cinema of the 1950s”

  1. Topsoil Hockessin Says:

    Hey man , thanks 4 sharing but this article doesn’t format correctly when using Internet Explorer it is doubled up.

  2. active3d Says:

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Eeep, I had no idea it was behaving that way – or what to do about it, seeing as I didn’t create the page and have to use the blog mechanisms I’ve been given…

    Might I respectfully suggest using Mozilla Firefox? Internet Explorer seems to be lagging in the world of browsers these days. I actually use different browsers for different sites (yes, it *can* be a bit of a pain!).

    It’s a depressing thought, putting one’s work out there (and spending considerable time on pleasing layouts) in the knowledge that some browser somewhere is going to screw it all up…

    I hope that you will be able to read it properly sometime!

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