3D movies and film grow out of stereoscopic photography. Two images with slightly different parallaxes (angles of view) are presented to the viewer, often through some eyepiece that helps to blend the offset images, creating the binocular image that our eyes expect to see. The concept was invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838. This basic idea is still the basis for most 3D imagery.
How many of you had a View Master? I did. It is the same idea. That little wheel of pictures had two frames for a single image, each one slightly offset, creating the parallax view that our binocular eyes require.
3D (stereoscopic) movies began in 1915, but there weren’t many made or seen due to the added expense of production, and the elaborate equipment needed for projection and viewing. In the 1950’s there was a brief surge when techniques developed that provided both parallax images on a single film frame, the 3D effect visible when viewed through glasses. In those early approaches, the offset images were produced in a specific color, blue and red, with the viewing glasses being inexpensive cardboard frames housing cellophane lenses of red and blue. One eye looks through the red filter, seeing the blue parallax image – the red image filtered out. The other eye looks through the blue filter, seeing the red image as the blue image is cancelled from view. The result is the stereoscopic, parallax image that we need to perceive depth.
The problem with the color version of 3D was, well, the color. Black and white worked well enough, but there was an odd sense of color due to the colored lenses you looked through. Color movies worked, more or less, but the color seemed a little flat. The effect was so color dependent that natural colors needed to be washed a little.
Another problem with the early approaches was an unnatural interim flatness. I’ll call it “plainning”. If you think of your old View Master, the backgrounds always seemed flat, the middle ground objects appeared more forward but flat themselves, and likewise the foreground objects seemed more forward, and yet equally flat. It was as if there were several plains of depth, layered on each other with space between them. In many cases that is exactly what was happening, especially with those View Masters. There wasn’t a team running around the world taking pictures of Paris or Elephants in Africa with special 3D cameras. Instead, a flat picture was used, copied several times, with objects at certain depths cut out and replaced over the background on plains of glass, layer upon layer, until a sort of depth was generated.
They didn’t do that with movies. That would take forever. They used specially designed cameras, in some cases side-by-side cameras, whose films were processed for their colors and then the two films were exposed to a single film, creating the combined offset images.
These days the idea is pressed a bit forward using polarized lenses. This allows for more realistic colors, though it does dim an image a little. The new cameras and development techniques allow for more realistic depth as well. There is a lot less ‘plainning’ going on. Foregrounds seem to gradually recede into backgrounds in a more natural way.
Now, all that said, my discussion with Damon had nothing to do with the how of 3D. It was about the purpose of 3D. To coin a commercial from the Cotton Industry, “The look, the feel of the fabric of our lives.”
Damon feels that 3D should be immersive. It should reach out of the screen and fill the theater. For him, flaming arrows and roiling comets should whiz out over the audience, forcing them to look up in surprise. The frame of the screen should not be a delimiter. Visions of some Monsanto exhibit at Disney World pop to mind.
It is a valid point of view. There was no end of flying spears and whizzing spacecraft in the early heyday of 3D movies. In fact, without those 3D boo-shots, there seemed to be no 3D to the movie. Unfortunately, because of that emphasis there was often no movie to the 3D; the whole event contrived for the boo-shot, plot being secondary.
I see modern 3D in a different light. I expect the movie to be immersive, the 3D being only an enhancement to help suspend one’s disbelief. For me, modern 3D is a matter of fidelity. It isn’t a stunt for stunt’s sake. Instead, it is an attempt to increase the fidelity of the viewing experience, taking it one tiny step closer toward reality. Just as color was an improved fidelity, and then digital improved the fidelity over 35mm, polarized 3D is an improved fidelity over a purely flat image. It does not require effects purely to play to 3Dism. Its function is simply to enhance the baseline experience.
Okay, 3D movies cost a bit more to see. They cost a bit more to produce as well. Seems fair to me. I prefer seeing a movie in 3D if it is available in that format. Not because I prefer 3D, but because I want to see what the director intended with it and how the technology and its use might be improving. Use of 3D is more than technology alone. Everyone involved, from Director to Actor, from the Key Grip to the Sound Engineer and the Editor have to take the concept into account.
The goal has always been for the fidelity to improve. If we avoid those improvements under the ideas that, 1. They cost me a few bucks more, and 2. They don’t make me jump the way I think they should, then there would be no incentive to improve, and no experience to know how to improve. I say, 3D me.