The 3-D craze all started in 1952 with Arch
Oboler's 1952 BWANA DEVIL. Although never really became a theatrical standard, it
has also never completely disappeared.
None of the 1950's fad movie gimmicks made quite the splash
that 3-D did, nor faded as quickly. In its first year or so, the film industry hanchos
predicted that all filming would quickly convert to 3-D, just as talkies replaced silent
films only 23 years before.
BWANA DEVIL, hit the big towns with ballyhoo posters showing
lions leaping out of the screen, and promising an experience that wasn't just a movie, but
participatory reality. LIFE magazine carried surreal photos of hundreds of viewers
laughing and cringing, all wearing similar 3-D glasses that looked like sunglasses. Press
coverage of the initial audience enthusiasm was so good that the fad snowballed into a
craze that confused and frustrated studios, exhibitors, and audiences for years to come.
This led directly to the surfeit of bizarrely-named film processes or formats, each touted
as the ultimate in cinematic amazement: CinemaScope, VistaVision, SuperScope, Technirama,
Mention 3-D now and you'll probably hear a lot of talk about
eyestrain, those miserable glasses, and blurry effects that don't work. Screenings
constantly happened where some of the audience oohed and ahhed in approval while the rest
could be heard mumbling, 'I don't see any 3-D, what's going on?' It wasn't always that
way. 3-D demands precise projection, the kind that wasn't always the case in the '50's,
and today is almost extinct. In modern 3-D systems and in the original NaturalVision, 3-D
is breathtaking when screenings go well.
Photographing the 3-D scenes was fairly
straightforward. For viewing, Polaroid filters were placed in front of each projection
lens. The light from the left projector, Polaroid-screened on the vertical axis, would
bounce off the screen and through a matching-axis Polariod filter over the viewer's left
eye. With the Polariod filter over the right eye rotated 90 degrees, the image reaching
each eye from two overlapping projected images stayed completely separated.
In test screenings and original theatrical runs in major
cities, with NaturalVision experts personally tweaking the projectors, 3-D got
enthusiastic reviews and the kind of reception that sold stock in optical companies. Show
Biz was convinced that Hollywood would have to be retooled from the floor up to accommodate
this next step in movie evolution. Warner Brothers, perhaps wanting to benefit from early
adoption the same way it had scooped the talkie craze, jumped on the bandwagon from the
get-go. For better or for worse, 3-D was launched.
3-D was tough sledding for the industry, both technically
and economically. The laws of optics decreed that filming, lab work and exhibition all
would have to be refined to higher standards for 3-D to go over with audiences.
Appreciation of the format went from high to nil when 3-D screenings with mismatched color
or focus or a hundred other problems ruined the effect.
Technically Hollywood was certainly up to the challenge; its
engineers and camera machinists welcomed the opportunity to show how well they could grind
precisely matched lenses, how reliable their cameras could be. From all reports, most 3-D
shooting went smoothly because the production teams prepared well. Hollywood labs also did
amazing work, preparing what were in essence two movies, a left and right eye version,
that matched perfectly cut for cut and color for color.
Exhibition is where it all broke down; projection in 1953
was of a high standard, but it just wasn't possible to make every booking of a 3-D film,
in every town, mistake-proof. Many an owner who refitted his theater felt cheated when
shows were cancelled because of film problems, or audiences were furious because of
Modern attempts to re-launch the fascination with 3-D have
met with mixed results, even though the systems have apparently been perfected to
eliminate the difficulties showing NaturalVision. The modern systems are of the
single-film variety. One of the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels was 3-D, as was JAWS 3-D, a
gimmick opportunity if there ever was one.
In the 90's 3-D has found its place not in films but in
film-based amusement park rides and short special-venue film systems like IMAX and the
startling CAPTAIN EO. These 'special curiosity' venues seem the perfect place for 3-D, the
movie miracle that never quite found its place in movieland.