Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Brief History of 3-D, Pt. 1 (and why it's not "dying" no matter how many times anyone tries to kill it)

It's a complicated issue for me.  So complicated, in fact, that I had to split it into more than one column just to try and explain it.  But it's one of my biggest pet-cause issues as a Movie Activist--One that has made me, and all others like me, shunned, hated, persecuted, conspired against, and scapegoat-blamed for almost every moviegoer complaint under the sun for the last six years.
Yes.  I am the Movie Activist, and I am an unrepentant 3DTV owner.  

I've lost count of how many times I've seen the "obituary" for the format published early, the minute any disgruntled tech/movie columnist tries to vent his frustrations at a summer movie season, or any starry-eyed tech analyst expresses his true abiding love for 4K UHD before it's even saturated shelves yet...The latest one came from headlines (last March) over Samsung's announcement that they were tossing away all their R&D on 3DTV production to jump on the UHD express train, and the new "Smart living room" functionality of TV with other devices.  Apparently, the blindly optimistic throwing away of babies with bathwater is tech-newsworthy.
The obituary before that came in 2013, when ESPN folded its attempt at a satellite broadcast-3DTV channel--Particularly after it became clear that the difficulty in setting up properly focused stereoscopic camera angles worked well for stage shows and news events that stayed in one stationary place, like UK Sky's coverage of Prince William's royal wedding, but didn't work quite as well for anything as fast-moving back and forth as a college-bowl football game.  Which made future content difficult, and reruns were frequent.
Each time, whether blind optimism or technical obstacles, it was a shadowy mass of "customers who clearly hated it/didn't care" that got slapped with the blame, by tech columns that didn't even want to look any more closely.  If it happens often enough, you get used to the feeling.
According to analysts, home 3D's been "dead" since the day it came out six years ago.  And yet the "death of 3-D" seems to be in the same position as the "Death of Blu-ray"--Everyone seems to know it except the customers.

Which obituaries are immediately followed by what's meant to be the Clincher of the argument:  "Well, it flopped in the 50's and 80's, didn't it?"  Ah.  Well, as they say, thereby hangs a tale.
One of the reasons 21st-cty. 3D has already survived longer than the 50's and 80's combined is probably due to the fact that the problems that plagued 50's and 80's 3D don't EXIST anymore.  But to appreciate that, you have to go back to the beginning.

Bob Furmanek, of the restoration 3-D Film Archive, is the current reigning authority on the history of 3-D film.  His Archive has already restored many 50's 3D films previously thought lost for a return on Blu-ray 3D, and the Archive's site should be the first stop for anyone looking for the details--I wouldn't even presume to tread the ground he walks on:
But just to cover some of the ground territory in layman's terms:
1) "Everyone in the 50's wore those crazy red-green glasses!"--Uh, no.  Starting with "Bwana Devil" in 1952, all "Natural-Vision" 3-D films were pretty much in the style they are at theaters today, with polarized-filter sunglasses.  You're probably thinking of that iconic B/W Life Magazine cover, that a lot of pop artists added color to during the 80's, when we were all getting cutesy about what our parents' 50's must have been like. 
Polarized 3-D could only be shown with proper projection on a special reflective screen, so color-filtered "anaglyph" 3D could only be used in venues where those weren't available--Small-town theaters, revivals, TV showings in the 70's and 80's, and all those print-comic books where the images leapt off the page.  Any one of those is probably what any of our Baby-Boom age or after remembers.
2) "All those kitschy flying-saucers and monsters were in 3-D!"  Well, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Cat Women of the Moon and "It Came From Outer Space" were, if that's any consolation.  But of more than fifty films produced by big studios and small B-producers, less than a dozen even qualified as sci-fi.  Westerns and noir were popular subjects in the 50's, war and locale-adventure were always B-movie staples, and even a few major-studio musicals tried to exploit the exploration of Space.  Only teens went to see flying saucers or monsters, but it was their respectable mass-market parents with taste that 50s' studios like MGM or Paramount wanted to court.
3) "3-D died in the 50's because everyone hated it!"  Yes and no.  Like certain other misdirected-hate trends today (ahemsuperheromovies) what audiences hated was bad presentations of it, and blamed the first scapegoat they could find.  3-D projection, requiring properly synchronized projectors in the 50's, was difficult to set up, especially for minimum-wage projectionists in the average small-town theater.  A misaligned projection, or an error in timing two synchronized prints projected onscreen, could end up as a major headache--literally--for most audiences trying to filter a decent image through their glasses for ninety minutes.  In a word, that's pretty much what happened to the initial ambitious run of Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M For Murder" in 1953, causing Warner to pull the 3-D release early in favor of the standard 2-D run.  Again, Bob Furmanek has the details for further study:  Dial M For Murder, 3D Film Archive.
When the widescreen formats of Cinemascope and Cinerama arrived in 1952, each were quick to cash in on their new novelty by promoting itself with what became "The Robe"'s tagline to introduce Cinemascope:  "The Modern Screen Miracle You See Without Glasses!" Imagine what a sales pitch it must have been by that point.

4) "3-D died in the 80's because everyone hated it!"--Well, there is THAT.  3D between 1982-'83 persistently and willfully made itself very, very easy to hate.  But not the only reason.  If 50's 3D had major studios behind it, 80's 3D had low-rent B-movie producers behind it, in that funky little space of early 80's between the cheap thrills of 70's B-movies and the mainstream pop of the 80's.  Low-budget Italian chintzmeister Gene Quintano started the craze with "Comin' At Ya!" and "Treasure of the Four Crowns", a pre-Full Moon Charles Band cut his first producer teeth on "Parasite" and "Metalstorm", and by the time Paramount and Universal got into the act with Jaws, Amityville and Friday the 13th triquels, the kitsch, played on the ultra-ultra-cheap, was too well established.  When 50's movies like Dial M and Vincent Price's "House of Wax" played exploitation revivals in their restored polarized-screen forms, they looked positively professional.  Which, of course, in their day, they were.  
But the reason also had to do more with projection--More and more after 1983, theaters were moving from single-screen to multiplex, and while a 3-5 screen theater could keep the same movie on its screen for a week, the new 8-12  screen cineplexes were playing Chinese-fire-drill and juggling the movies for whatever screening rooms were convenient for a packed play schedule.  To show an old-fashioned synchronized-print theatrical 3-D meant leaving the same projector and same reflective screen in place for at least an entire week, one was crazy enough to do that anymore.  This was now the AMC era.  When Nightmare on Elm Street and Spy Kids sequels tried to bring the glories of 3-D back for the 90's and early 00's, it wasn't so much that they "thought" they had to use color-filtered anaglyph--They just didn't have any choice.  Movies had to stay on their toes and be ready to play anywhere.

So why did 3D first come back in 2005-2010?  One very obvious reason:  Digital projection.  It made the problems go away.
Instead of hiring the projectionist (who was more likely in the 00's to be minimum-wage than the technicians of the old days) to line up projectors with careful synchronization, digital projection showing one digitized print could now experiment with strobing left and right-eye images onto the screen, and letting the glasses do all the work of filtering them together.  
CGI computer-animation had already been experimenting with the new "strobe" system synchronized to special electronic glasses (similar to the "Active" glasses used with 3DTV sets today) to bring seamless 3-D images back again, and director Robert Zemeckis, who wanted to play with any toy the minute he'd heard about it, used the format as a special new IMAX-theater gimmick for his 2004 CGI-animated film "The Polar Express".  (IMAX had already been using a similar 3-D system for several years for its museum-based and gimmick-theater movies, but not for mainstream theatrical titles.)
And as became the consensus of both the critics and audiences, boy, did the film need something.  Two weeks into its run, industry headlines were becoming abundantly aware that three times as many audiences were going to see the special 3-D showings of the movie, while the movie in its own 2-D form was, to put it mildly, not packing them in.  The industry at the time took that more as a reflection on the novelty of new-generation 3-D, than on audience's interest in the quality of the movie.
Disney noticed the note of desperation, and sympathized--Their 2005 "Chicken Little" was not the studio's most confident animated release, and also believed it would die on its own if, like Polar, it didn't come bearing gifts with the safety-net of special digital-3D screenings.  Dreamworks Animation, as usual, was quick to join on with "Monsters vs. Aliens", the market was dominated by CGI-animated films whose depth could be created in a computer, and for three years until 2008's "Journey to the Center of the Earth", no producer even thought of whether it was possible to shoot a live-action 3-D digital film with, y'know, real actors next to the computer special-effects.

But to film buffs, digital filmmaking was now The Villain, which was out to wipe the glory days of classic 35mm film off of our landscape, and replace it with the CGI-heavy 00's studio blockbusters that were plaguing our cineplexes.  And what did digital-projection make easier in our corrupt modern theaters that 35mm film didn't?...Why 3-D, of course, and all those annoying computer-converted reissues and CGI comedies about wisecracking critters!--THEY were the ones destroying cinema!  If you liked 3-D, you must be one of those sacrilegious Digital-lovers, out to burn every print of Lawrence of Arabia!  
It wasn't enough to simply express annoyance with a badly exploited trend, it might wishfully help push it out the door faster if you let everyone know it was Secretly In League With the True Forces Of Evil.

Which pretty much brings us up to present date with theatrical showings--We've had a steady, if occasionally annoying, clip of theatrical 3-D runs still airing every summer and Christmas season, and no signs of slowing.  3-D is no longer considered a "novelty", but more of a marketing necessity, and the idea of re-issuing old movies computer-converted into the illusion of depth doesn't quite seem to be the "magic" draw it used to be six years ago.  Now that it's possible, we'd rather have them made from scratch.  But then, the automobile wasn't suddenly "dying" once we started considering them more common on the street than horses, and paying no attention.

Wow.  One whole page, and we're not even up to the persecution, dogpiling, and murderously misdirected hatred that Blu 3D received as a home theater format yet.  To be continued in the next column, I, um, guess.
But the "death" of 3-D seems to share one thing in common with the "death" of physical Blu-ray disk:  
It's rather hard to persuade why "everyone" thinks so, when one find one's own self running out of plausibly convincing historical reasons to begin with.

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