In Defence of Stereo-Cinema: 3D, Past and Present

Does 3D only exist as a gimmick? Milo Garner dives into the history of 3D cinema, from Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder to Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. 

For as long as 3D has existed, it has found itself to be a novelty, a gimmick of sorts. Its proliferation is more often a result of economic necessity than artistic inspiration, and that much is as true of today’s digital 3D as it was the 3D golden age of the 1950s. These two worlds converged in the most recent exploitation of 3D’s novelty. In partnership with Rio Cinema and Little White Lies, MUBI presented Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder in its original 3D form – part filmic curiosity, part advertisement for their ongoing Hitchcock season. I found its effect striking, though not in any way Hitchcock might have conceived. The film itself does not seem initially to lend itself to the 3D format – it is set almost entirely within one room, unfolding more like a filmed play than the more outrageously experiential cinema that 3D tends to accompany. Only twice does an element onscreen protrude outwards from the frame, and only once is this effect particularly powerful.

Robert Burk’s cinematography functions better in creating depth, with a low-angled camera shooting past various obstacles, and images composed with the z-axis clearly in mind. Rather than allowing any deepening of the story or its suspense, this mode has the remarkable effect of opening the past. The aesthetic of 1950s cinema, usually locked in a 2D plane, is made expansive and, despite the overt artificiality suggested by 3D cinema, alive. Almost as though you could peer past the corners, seeing beyond the purview of plot and progression; an absorbing simulacrum of another time. More than a unique manner of viewing 1950s cinema, the 3D permits a profound experience of history, recreating a space in its x, y, and z-axes in a decade otherwise rendered flat.

But why was Dial M for Murder made in 3D to begin with? Its creator hated the format, and it hardly acts in direct service to the plot or aesthetic. This question ties into the history of 3D cinema more generally, a novelty that has existed for near as long as moviemaking in general. The first 3D explosion, as it might be termed, came in Germany in the early 1910s. This “pseudo-binocular” 3D did not require stereoscopy or anaglyphs, or any glasses at all. Instead it exploited the Pepper’s ghost illusion, an optical trick still in use today to resurrect stars of yesteryear onstage (mislabelled as “holographic” in a cheap marketing ploy). This illusion removed the screen entirely, projecting images against two glass panes resulting in their phantasmal appearance before an audience.

An innovation of August Engelsmann, the idea was then capitalized on by Oskar Messter, who built a series of cinemas specifically for this type of film. These ‘Alabastras’ were structured as a theatre, with house lights left up and an open stage fitted with all the appropriate décor. Ironically, it was in recreating theatre that 3D found its first major commercial boon, with actors projected under this new proscenium arch, their performances recorded for perpetuity. While staginess is a quality now used to denigrate cinema, not least Dial M for Murder, Messter had found a way to marry the two mediums in such a way as to transcend their ontological limitations. Both the exclusivity and transitory nature of theatre, and the disembodiment and separation of cinema were, at once, defeated. Actors would even bow and return for encores after their performances, though one critic found this somewhat perturbing: “Nothing struck me with as much amazement as these people foolishly returning for applause that was not given.”

But other limitations proved more troublesome for this early innovation. The nature of Alabastras and of the 3D illusion restricted the films to theatrical reenactments, which were then generally limited to a single reel to avoid further technological issues. These largely surrounded the use of colour (the films were hand-coloured after shooting) and synchronized sound, which became unfeasible across multiple reels. As fascinating as a sound, colour, and 3D film might seem for the early 1910s, especially considering the silent monochrome that would come to define the era and the decade proceeding, this was simply one novelty among many. The saturation of single-reel films demanded innovation, and the innovation to best succeed was the silent multi-reel narrative picture. While this format now seems a given in filmmaking, it was once one of many new methods of visual storytelling in competition.

Despite the decline and disappearance of this early 3D genre of moviemaking (that is, until very recently), many of the ideas surrounding it become particularly pertinent when considering 3D as a manner of experiencing history. An enthusiastic Hanns Heiz Ewers predicted at the time, “Exactly the same performance with all the best artists will be seen in the smallest backwater town in exactly the same way as Berlin, London or Paris.” For him, it was not only that these performances were recorded, but that they were then replicated in the exact same manner. These films did not use creative angles or closeups, but preferred single takes that would recreate the effect of the theatre, and so that same theatrical experience in the audience. This is not the immersive cinema of the imaginarium that 3D so often courts now, but its very opposite – a cinema self-aware of its environment, an impossible (and obvious) illusion. It doesn’t invite its audience into the screen – there was no screen at all – but shares a space with them: a direct experience of history.

Other than occasional dips into the world of 3D (notably John Norling’s 1939 New Dimensions, later rereleased as Motor Rhythm), the format was to remain largely dormant until the early 1950s. Once again, a crisis of cinema invited it back into the mainstream: television had recently taken the United States by storm, and the result was catastrophic for the film industry. From 1946 to 1952, weekly cinema attendance dropped from 83 million to 46 million, and studios were scrambling for something to differentiate the big screen from the small. One solution was to make the screen bigger – Cinerama, a process that projected three aligned frames to create a widescreen effect, emerged in 1952 to rapturous crowds. It would be later rendered obsolete by the cheaper and more artistically viable CinemaScope (which used anamorphic lenses to create a single, wider frame), but not before another challenger emerged. Two months after Cinerama’s startling debut came Bwana Devil, a film as exploitative as its title suggests. Its poster loudly declares, “A LION in your lap! A LOVER in your arms!” It would be this film that ushered in a flurry of 3D filmmaking.

Being cheaper than both Cinerama and CinemaScope, 3D projection was quickly adopted in many cinemas across the US, and production of 3D films quickly followed, with some forty-six 3D features released from 1952 to 1955. This sudden popularity was the reason for Dial M being 3D – Warner Brothers would not allow it to be made any other way. Many of the initial (and most of the total) 3D films made were quickies completed in 11 to 18 days, with the larger budgeted films only appearing later – but this first impression was not easily shaken. 3D quickly became synonymous with cheapness and gimmickry, and waning enthusiasm was met by falling standards in movie houses. Poor projection, cheap glasses, and dim image quality could render a 3D movie far more trouble that it was worth. While a handful of notable films in the format did emerge, such as Inferno, Gun Fury, and The House of Wax (the last two ironically by one-eyed directors), it quickly fell into disrepute; so much so that Dial M for Murder (and various other films shot in 3D) would be released “flat” (bar its initial four performances), only regaining its original z-axis in a 1979 rerelease.

The quick-spun gimmickry of 3D might be familiar for many, given we are currently living through the decline of 3D’s second golden age in Hollywood, again born from cinema’s waning popularity against the still-burgeoning home media industry. While often used in contemporary action films, 3D has again failed to become a new standard for cinematic expression, in the way artificial lighting, sound, colour, widescreen, and now digital filmmaking have all succeeded. The reasons for this are myriad, and it perhaps links, again, to its limitations as a tool for narrative storytelling.

While 3D has always functioned in its immersive effects – and thus found regular use in IMAX documentaries and theme parks since the 1970s – it typically offers little within the standard paradigms of narrative cinema. Additionally, it is not effective enough to warp those paradigms significantly, as sound markedly did in the late 1920s. As Werner Herzog puts it, “You can shoot a porno film in 3D, but you cannot film a romantic comedy in 3D.” So, aside from the action extravaganzas of James Cameron and Peter Jackson (probably the most significant innovators in the technology), should 3D be consigned again to the novelty bin? We might adopt André Bazin’s stance from the 1950s, in which he said with some prescience, “Outside of certain specific themes (like horror, precisely) the third dimension adds nothing essential to the action of flat cinema, and it brings with it in return some real inconveniences.”

A quintet of filmmakers offer an alternative, if not completely, to Bazin’s disparaging. The first is the abovementioned James Cameron. While Avatar has lately been denigrated in almost every aspect of its construction – its trite narrative, hollow characters, bland aesthetic, and absolute failure to impact popular culture in any way proportional to the initial frenzy it provoked – one element largely free from censure is its use of 3D. This can partially be explained in its prescient position in terms of digital 3D cinema – the 3D of Bwana Devil no doubt also benefitted from its novelty at the time. But there is also a sense that, more than so many who have attached themselves to this novelty thereafter, Cameron better understood the format, and put far more thought to its realization.

In response to an early moment in the film wherein someone jumps out of the screen, Cameron said, “I just did that so they would know I know how to do it. But then I stopped doing it because that’s not what 3D is; 3D is bringing the audience completely into the environment of the movie.” His sensibilities stand opposite Bwana Devil; that was a film that played up to the gimmicky potential of 3D, while Cameron is instead reserved, grounding his use of 3D in spatial and immersive terms. His 3D seems intrinsically linked to his vision of the landscape of Pandora; just like I felt able to peek round the corners of Dial M for Murder, so too does Cameron feel it apposite for one to feel the contours of his imaginary world. Where the 3D of many popular action films (consider Marvel’s output, and the like) feels disposable, more an obligatory glaze than a considered artistic decision, Avatar remains striking.

Another early adopter of digital 3D for whom narrative vision and 3D seem to overlap is Robert Zemeckis. In his 2015 The Walk – a film of forgettable substance – he exploits 3D to wring yet more suspense out of its climactic sequence, in which French high-wire artist Phillipe Petit must walk the line between the World Trade Center buildings (whose digital reconstruction is entirely convincing in these scenes, another virtual vision of the past). Here the effect becomes essential to the filmmaking, inducing a genuine vertigo in audiences and reflecting the direct experience of the protagonist. While these could and perhaps should be considered as examples of specific genres in which 3D can work, as per Bazin’s limitation, they contradict the idea of 3D being pure novelty; cinematic purpose beyond empty spectacle can be derived.

But more convincing yet might be to expand the purview of 3D beyond genre filmmaking. This expansion is provided by two greats of German New Cinema, still pioneering late into their careers. Wim Wenders’ Pina (2011) is an exploration of space and movement, a film about dance that considers 3D a necessary cinematic tool in capturing this medium through cinema. Wenders was conflicted with a formal dilemma – if he shot the dancers close, he would miss much of their background and context, bar the use of distracting and abstract montage. If he shot them far, the dynamism of their dance would be lost to the flatness of frame. The solution was found in 3D, through which he could shoot from a distance while retaining the spatial dynamics at play. He said of the format: “3D really thrives on space – the 3D camera loves infinity, the horizon.” He continues, “It’s a shame the 3D most people have seen wasn’t shot in the real world but in the studios, because it’s in the real world where 3D really comes into its own.” In contrast to the grandiosity of Cameron or Zemeckis, Wenders sees the utility of 3D in capturing reality as opposed to using it to construct a new one.

This approach is met by Werner Herzog, who released his Cave of Forgotten Dreams a year prior. Another documentary, this film is perhaps the ultimate contradiction to the style of educational film with which 3D is usually associated. Instead of soaring through the cosmos or delving the deeps, Herzog instead focuses on stationary drawings in the Chauvet Cave, using the world’s newest art form to capture its very oldest. He believed “this film [to be] the only 3D film where [he] really [knew] it was imperative to do it in 3D,” suggesting that to truly experience this ancient art one must feel and appreciate the way the walls bend and contour; sense the sacred space of the cave. In many ways this harkens back to the 3D cinema of the 1910s, which hoped to share and recreate a tactile experience – not one to immerse per se, but to replicate a known and distant reality. A BBC report seemingly recognizes this, reading in regard to Wenders’ and Herzog’s films: “[3D] opens the door to expensive art forms for the price of a cinema ticket” and “gives people the opportunity to see this beautiful and timeless content in areas of the world where they would never have the opportunity.” If not for its British reserve, this praise would read as an almost verbatim repetition of Ewers’ prediction a hundred years prior.

A synthesis of these two extremes – Hollywood spectacle and German artistry – might be found in Peter Jackson, whose most recent project is a meeting of the two. They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary that has left many a film archivist aghast; not only does Jackson controversially sonorize and colour silent monochrome footage from the First World War, he also applies a 3D effect. His purpose is to bring the past closer to the present; as much as monochrome is an accurate artefact of the past, it is also distinctly unreal and potentially alienating. The same could be supposed of a flat image. Says Jackson, “I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more.”

The counterarguments are immediately evident: Jackson’s efforts are effectively desecration, and almost entirely fictitious. The film stock used to capture the First World War is orthochromatic, meaning that while sensitive to greens and blues, it lacks red, requiring any colouring work to be assumption rather than revelation. So too are these photos not taken with 3D cameras, the result a slew of guesswork. Any indexical “truth” that these photos may convey about the First World War, those who took them, and those who are subjects, is wiped immediately from the frame. It is almost as falsified as a direct reenactment of events.

Writing for Sight & Sound, Luke McKernan even goes so far as to suggest that by colouring these images, we are actually alienating ourselves further from the past by directly suggesting that the black and white pictures are beyond personal relation. But in that same article he provides an adequate defence: “Film is not reality, but a reflection of reality. Overlaying it with colour is only a further treatment of that reflection of reality, a way of looking at the past rather than the pretence of being the past itself.” As such, Jackson’s work is one of fiction, but one that uses archival footage in order to create – and “create” is the apposite term – a more tactile vision of the past. His use of 3D is not so distinct from Herzog’s in theory, in that it suggests a space can be better experienced and understood if granted a sense of visual depth. It is not a film that should stand in place of the artefacts on which it is based, but rather alongside, sacrificing literal truth for a more direct connectivity, as cinema so often does.

For me, this leads right back to Dial M for Murder, at least in its effect. Even though it was not intended to be so, it now functions as a kind of document, whereby the mundanity of its setting is offered fresh interest by the format of its capture. So if limited to a certain kind of genre film in narrative filmmaking, 3D perhaps holds greater stock in documentary, wherein the function of parallax can become less a spectacle and more an emphasis of reality – a sense of “being there,” experiencing something directly and uninterrupted by the limitations of technology. While 3D effects that penetrate the frame often encourage the unreality of the cinematic space – for something leaving the frame to be remarkable, the frame’s existence must be acknowledged – those that do not can serve the opposite function. The moving camera has always had the effect of suggesting a world beyond the borders of the frame, far more than painting or theatre, for which the absolute nature of the frame often becomes inherent in the art itself. 3D exploited in the manner of the above filmmakers does not contradict this fact, and if used effectively, can deepen it immensely. The 3D revolution may not be coming, but its poor reputation certainly deserves reappraisal.

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