3D cycle repeats itself in Hollywood

Even in 1953 showbiz was discussing the technology

It’s been said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. That’s especially true of Variety’s coverage of an industry greedy for 3D.

Take this sentence for example: “Current cycle of interest and activity in stereoscopy is more in the nature of a revival show than an escapade into new technological and optical fields.”

That bit of analysis led an article in the Jan. 21, 1953, issue of Variety, under the headline “3-D Activity Just a Renewal of an Old Interest; 4 Majors Probing Production,” on the same page as the news that Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift had been cast in “From Here to Eternity,”

That’s right, even in 1953 stereoscopic 3D (S3D) was considered an old technology. In 1936, it turns out, MGM had released some novelty shorts in red-blue anaglyph 3D, not unlike what was used in the 1970s and ’80s. And while Variety remembered that “reaction then, too, was enthusiastic,” the experiment hadn’t led anywhere.

According to the same story, by that time 3D without glasses, what we now call “autostereo,” had already been demonstrated in Europe.

What’s uncanny about Variety’s coverage of the 1953 S3D boom is how much that period parallels this one. Auds flocked to S3D pics and bizzers wondered if 3D would replace 2D just as sound drove out silents. In fact, Variety reported, 2D pictures were starting to be called “flats.”

Then, as now, the industry was exploring not just S3D, but larger screens. Then it was Cinerama and VistaVision, now it’s Imax — but at the time, Cinerama was touted as “a three-dimensional illusion process requiring no glasses.” Today, we’d simply call it “immersive.”

Harry M. Warner took the Jeffrey Katzenberg role, predicting “everything will be in 3D in two years.”

Feb. 4, after the release of “Bwana Devil,” Variety’s Abel Green reported: “The fourth dimension for 3-D is the boxoffice. … The simple conclusion is that if that’s what the public wants and will pay for, that’s what Holywood will give ’em.”

But a few pages later in the same issue, Century Theaters VP Fred J. Schwartz was quoted predicting that if the industry didn’t find a way to get rid of the glasses, the future would be “large screens and ‘directional’ sound.”

Schwartz said the novelty of 3D would soon wear off and “the B.O. will depend on the quality of the films themselves.” This time around, it’s James Cameron and other filmmakers sounding the same warning.

It was inadequate methods for capture and projection, not the glasses or audience boredom, that doomed 1950s 3D, but Schwartz turned out to be quite the prophet.

Does all this suggest this that history will truly repeat and this 3D boom will also bust? That would certainly make 3D skeptics like Roger Ebert happy, but it’s unlikely.

The same audience enthusiasm that greeted MGM’s S3D experiments in 1936 and the S3D boom of early ’53 is still here, but now there’s also the extra impetus of d-cinema. The studios want exhibitors to go digital, and S3D is the biggest carrot d-cinema offers. As a bonus, S3D is a deterrent to piracy. So powerful forces will continue to drive the format forward unless auds get bored with 3D pics — and there’s no indication that is happening yet.

What’s more, industry technologists are already looking beyond S3D to more sophisticated ways to deliver depth in filmed images. Stereo delivers just two views, left eye and right eye, but at SMPTE’s Digital Cinema Summit in Las Vegas before the NAB Show, engineers presented on the “Multiview Codec” (MVC), which would deliver an image made up of multiple views, so that if a viewer moves his vantage point, he can see around objects, more like real life.

It’s not quite a hologram, but holographic television is in the works, too. The engineer who updated the gathering about it suggested that in about 10 years holographic TV might be ready for consumer products.

Maybe. But some 57 years after Variety reported autostereo had been demonstrated, the first handheld devices with glasses-free 3D displays are only now reaching consumers. And a method for ditching glasses in theaters is nowhere in sight.

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