Ray Zone: A 3D History Adventure

There is no middle ground when it comes to 3-D movies – either you love the experience of greater depth to a projected film or you hate the clunky special glasses and the headaches that sometimes accompany viewings. Either way, 3-D has made a profound impact on cinematic exhibition, as witnessed in film historian Ray Zone’s new book “3-D Revolution: The History of Modern Stereoscopic Cinema” (published by University Press of Kentucky).

Film Threat spoke with Zone on how the 3-D experience progressed from the glory days of “Bwana Devil” in 1953 to today’s digital offerings – along with a funky 1970s detour into the skin flick industry!

One of the most interesting aspects of your book was learning about the myriad of 3-D camera and projection technologies. How many of these technologies were created, and which ones were considered the best?
Many.  A dozen dual-band technologies were produced for 1950s 3-D films and just as many in 1980s for single strip. Three or four camera technologies for IMAX 3-D were developed and numerous strategies for CG 3-D with software for digital 3-D cinema.  21st century 3-D camera technologies number about eight to 10.

There is really no best technology, with the exception of IMAX 3-D, which as large format has a clear advantage.  It is the artistic use of the technology that makes it work to advantage on the 3-D screen.  And it is not the technology which advances stereo cinema but the creative use of the technology.

“3-D will remain permanent in theatrical motion picture exhibition…”

The initial 3-D craze came on strong in 1953, but died within two years. Why did it fizzle out so quickly and dramatically?
CinemaScope killed 3-D.  Widescreen was promoted as soon as 3-D boom was beginning.  When exhibitors were faced with a choice they elected to go wider and not deeper.  There were also many difficulties and expenses associated with the dual projector 3-D of the 1950s.

During the early 1970s, X-rated filmmakers began using 3-D. What inspired that trend – and is it safe to say that the porn industry may have saved 3-D?
The box office success of Chris Condon’s “The Stewardesses” in 3-D inspired the porno trend.  The 3-D porno films came out in the 1970s at a time when there were no other 3-D films in release.  So 3-D porn was a bridge between the 1950s’ and 1980s’ 3-D films.

Do you believe that 3-D will remain a permanent fixture in film exhibition, or will the studios stop releasing 3-D films?
3-D will remain permanent in theatrical motion picture exhibition.  There are 20,000 digital 3-D screens worldwide today and that number is inexorably growing every week.  The studios will start producing smaller 3-D films with budgets less than $100 or $50 million to amortize the “risk” they’ve been taking with $200 million dollar tent-pole films in 3-D.  The real masterworks of 21st century 3-D cinema will likely be produced in the independent sector and not by the risk averse studios at all.

In your opinion, which film offered the most invigorating use of 3-D technology?
“The Polar Express” (2004) still offers the most exciting and invigorating use of 3-D in the current era of stereo cinema. “Beowulf” (2007) was also astonishing.  We have to look to “House of Wax” (1953) and “Kiss Me Kate” (1953) for real 3-D stimulation in the 1950s.  With IMAX 3-D, we have “Cirque du Soleil: Journey of Man” (2000) and “Space Station” (2002) as preeminent examples of 3-D excitement in large format.

Originally published on August 8, 2012. 

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