The history of 3D movies parallels the general history of films and cinematic technology. From its early inceptions in the late 19th and early 20th century, to its so-called golden era in the 1950s, to its deployment in the early part of the 21st century, the gimmick has been vying for a place in mainstream cinemas for almost as long as movies have been projected on screens for commercial audiences. This year 3D has returned with a vengeance with releases from a mixed bag of genres: horror films like My Bloody Valentine, the re-release of Pixar's Toy Story and Toy Story 2 and this week's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Coming up next: Jim Carrey's A Christmas Carol and James Cameron's Avatar in December.
Three-dimensional films' earliest defining quality---from the 1890s to its 1950s heyday---was cumbersome or precarious technology. William Friese-Greene's method (for which the first patent was filed in the late 19th century) involved two projectors, showing the film side-by-side, with the viewer wearing stereoscope glasses that smooshed the images together. In 1922, The Power of Love became the first 3D film shown to a paying audience at the Ambassador Hotel Theatre in Los Angeles, as well as the first film to utilize the dual-strip projection method (two strips of film run in unison, developed by the film's producer, Harry K. Fairall, and cinematographer, Robert F. Elder) and the iconic red/green anaglyph glasses.
In intervening years the technology was honed and cultivated---stalled only by WWII---until 1952, when writer/director Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil, about British Railway workers in Kenya being attacked by blood-thirsty lions (Tagline: "A LION in your lap! A LOVER in your arms!"), debuted as the first full-colour 3D film and kick-started the golden era. From 1952 to '55, many notable 3D films---with a wide spectrum of respectability---were released, including the Vincent Price horror House of Wax (1953), the Howard Hughes-produced The French Line (1954), which played up star Jane Russell's busty sex appeal (Tagline: "It'll knock BOTH your eyes out!") and, from the NFB, Norman MacLaren's shorts Now is the Time (to Put on Your Glasses) and Around is Around (both 1951).
Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954) was originally shot with the same specialty rig as Bwana Devil, but its 3D release was scrapped by the studio in response to the waning interest in 3D projection---a victim of its own fussy demands and unreliable execution. At the time, two prints of the film were still requited to be projected simultaneously, a process that had to be monitored tirelessly by projectionists, in case it became out of sync, causing eye strain and headaches for the audience. As well, audiences had to be seated directly opposite the screen as the image darkened when viewed from an angle, limiting wider houses from booking 3D films.
Though gains were made in 3D exhibition after the 1950s (notably, the advent of the more manageable single-strip projection method), what is, in fact more relevant to today's 3D's revival are the prescient similarities in the competition for entertainment dollars. In the early 1950s, television claimed multitudes of cinema-goers, while in 2009, cinemas vie for the attention and time of a public with multiple options like cable, DVDs and the internet. Back then, producers employed gimics like 3D and heralded new technologies like widescreen photography to create bigger, more expansive film experiences.
Today, technology like high definition, CGI, 3D and motion capture feeds early buzz for films. (Think about the "game changer" talk regarding James Cameron's upcoming Avatar.) The 1950s enjoyed a period of great genre filmmaking---sci-fi and horror, particularly---with House of Wax and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) gestating out of the 3D years. While the last decade isn't defined by one particular genre, it does have one overarching ploy to get people in seats: big-budget remakes. Technology, it seems, is a reaction to what ails the marketplace.