The history of 3D cinema

We kick off our 3D week extravaganza at Pocket-lint with a look at how it all began. 3D has been around in one form another for over 150 years, from early stereoscopes to the golden era of the 50s and the boom we're seeing today. For a better understanding of the science behind, watch out for our "How does 3D work" feature later today but for now take a ride with us from when another dimension jumped out of the silver screen...

Beginnings

History of 3D
1840 Stereoscopy (3D imaging) is invented by Charles Wheatstone and used to view stills and make them seem to pop out at the viewer. The effect is usually produced by placing two images of the same subject inside a viewing box or Stereoscope - as introduced by David Brewster - which uses lenses to converge the images onto one another and allow the illusion to work. The idea is popularised by a famous 3D image of Queen Victoria on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

1890 British 3D pioneer William Friese-Greene files a patent for the first 3D motion pictures. His idea is for a stereoscope machine that rushes two strips of film through in synchronisation. The invention is successful but ignored for mass market because of being impractical for large scale theatre use.

1915 The first 3D test reels for the cinema are produced by Edwin S. Porter and William E. Waddelland and screened to an audience at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York. The footage is of oriental dancing girls and Niagara Falls amongst other performances and presented using the red/green glasses to decipher it. The tests come to nothing in the way of further production.

1922 The Power of Love, the first feature film in 3D, is screened at the Ambassador Hotel Theatre in Los Angeles. The 3D images are produced by using two film strips projected on top of one another - one using reds, the other greens - which are then viewed using the the anaglyph colour filter glasses.

In December of the same year, William F. Cassidy and Laurens Hammond (inventor of the Hammond Organ) come up with an alternative method of 3D film viewing, called Teleview. A single strip of film is projected at a screen with the the images for the left and right eyes rolling past one frame after the other. Audience members look through viewing machines resting on the arms of each seat in the house, which alternately open and close shutters in front of each eye in time with the corresponding frames appearing on the screen. Only one cinema in New York ever installs it, running a series of 3D shorts and one feature - The Man from M.A.R.S. It's the first example of the alternate frame system of 3D.

Late 20s - early 30s Developments in cinema and 3D invention go into a lull with the onset of the Great Depression

1935 MGM hires filmmakers Jacob Leventhal and John Norling to produce the Audioscopic series of shorts in 3D which go on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Subject, Novelty in the same year.

1936 Edwin H Land, co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation, demonstrates 3D imaging using polarised light at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Two prints are projected in synchrony onto a silver screen through polarising filters. The images are then separated by polarised glasses as worn by each audience member.

1952-53: The Golden Era

History of 3D
After a second lull in 3D film production, this time because of World War II, 3D films finally find their golden era as the cinema comes under threat from the invention of the television. With ticket sales plummeting from 90 million in 1948 to 40 million in 1951 , the industry looks for a new way to draw audiences back to the movies and Bwana Devil, as written and directed by Arch Oboler, is released heralding the new age. The film is shown in colour using the Land's two-print method with audiences wearing polarised light filter glasses and not the red/cyan anaglyph type mistakenly associated with this era.

The plot centres around the hunt for two man-eating lions on the loose in East Africa and typified the action/thriller/horror genre that worked so well with 3D. The tagline is: "The Miracle of the Age!!! A LION in your lap! A LOVER in your arms!" The critics pan it but the crowds flock and so 3D finally arrives in all its glory.

In 1953, Warner Bros. releases House of Wax which becomes the first 3D film to come in stereo sound, but by the beginning of the following year 3D cinema's popularity begins to dwindle. The impracticalities of the medium become apparent. Audiences complain of eye strain and headaches when the projections are not aligned correctly. Worn copies of the film are difficult to repair with the two reels having to stay identical and often two projectionists are needed to play them. Worse still is that the silver screen has a poor viewing angle meaning that big films premiering in large theatres had to do so in 2D.

The final test comes with the release of Kiss Me Kate and the feedback concludes that audiences would rather see it in the flat. Finally, other innovations to lure people back to the cinema, such as the triple widescreen Cinerama, take over. The final full feature 3D film to go out is the Return of the Creature. Ironcially, it's very well received.

The Return

History of 3D
After just one 3D film of note in the early 60s, Mask (1961), 1950's 3D pioneer Arch Oboler invents a single print solution to 3D film projection called Space-Vision 3D. The process involves having both images on the same strip with one on top of the other and an alternating polarisation lens on the front of the projector. The images are subsequently separated in the same ways as before with polarise filter glasses. It's known as the "over and under" technique.

Once again, critics rubbish the first film, Bubble, but the audiences come in their droves. Best of all, the system is now far more economically viable and easier to maintain with just the one print and no synchronisation to deal with.

1970 Stereovision 3D is introduced and sees the two images squashed in side by side on the same reel instead of over and under. An anamorphic lens is put on the front of the projector to stretch the images and overlay them onto widescreen. The Stewardesses is released in this format costing just $100,000 to make and, grossing $27 million after showing at just 800 theatres, it becomes the most profitable 3D film of all time.

IMAX & the 1980s While the sideways running 70mm IMAX projectors moves 3D on another level for short, non-fiction films in specialised cinemas, the genre blooms once again in the mainstream. Stereovision's re-releases of House of Wax and Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, which was shot in 3D but never screened as such, inspire a new wave of films such as Jaws 3D, Amityville 3D and Friday the 13th part III on the over and under Space-Vision format.

1995 The 80s craze dies down, as did the one in the 50s, but IMAX continues to bubble under until the first non-fiction feature, the 45-minute Wings of Courage is released.

2003 James Cameron brings the first full length feature to IMAX screens with Ghosts of the Abyss - the underwater documentary on the wreck of the Titanic. The film is the first to use the Reality Camera System with digital video and not film.

2004 Rap duo Insane Clown Posse record the first 3D film in HD with the music video accompanying the track Bowling Balls

2004 The Polar Express makes 14 times as much in the cinemas showing the film in 3D than the 2D theatres. It is the first full length feature animation in IMAX 3D.

With the studios realising the financial power behind these films, the floodgates have opened once again with more movies slated than ever before. But will this be another short era or is 3D finally here to stay?

2009 After waiting for a critical mass of 3D cinemas around the world to rise up, finally Avatar is set for its December release as the first big live action 3D film of the modern era and the true test of the future of this genre of entertainment.

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