John Bailey on 3D

I’m embarrassed to say I was a bit late in catching up to John Bailey’s wonderful blog, John’s Bailiwick,  hosted by the The American Society of Cinematographers, especially since John and I have been friends since our days as cinema students at the University of Southern California’s in the 1960s.  (John’s recollection of me during our USC days found here is spot on; I should also note his credits include The Big Chill, Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire, As Good as It Gets and The Kid Stays in the Picture.) I was especially taken with his extended piece on 3D, “Ray Zone and the “Tyranny of Flatness,” which is one of the best discussions on the topic.

Stereoscope in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution " styled after the Holmes-Bates model."

It starts out as a profile of his friend Ray Zone, a “3-D film scholar and 3-D photo buff,” who has not only written extensively on the topic but is also responsible for creating many 3D comics; and his book, Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D, 1838-1952, was a primary source for Anthony Lane’s excellent New Yorker article I mentioned in an earlier post. Like Lane, Bailey not only picks up on the importance of Oliver Wendell Holmes in the development of stereoscopic photography with his stereo-cards, but claims

The rapid introduction of sequential stereo cards that featured recurring characters in staged settings became a true forerunner of narrative cinema. A chapter on the work of famed photographers such as Marey, Watkins, and Muybridge, whose stereo landscapes and animal studies are much better known in flat versions, leads directly to William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson’s exit from Edison’s labs when the great inventor refused to adapt his still-new film technology to Dickson’s dream of large screen popular exhibition. There are also fascinating tales of how 3-D films, though still a curiosity, developed alongside flat ones in the early 20th century. The culmination of contending concepts came with the release of the first feature length 3-D film, The Power of Love, in 1922.

He also notes that some scholars link Greg Toland’s interest in deep focus cinematography from his  “projection of film tests at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1935 with producer Sam Goldwyn, of footage shot with a purported 3-D camera built by William Alder” of Cal Tech.

He also quotes from the last published article by Sergei Eisenstein (whose writings were the cornerstone of film theory for many years) in the January 1949 issue of the Penguin Film Review,

Nowadays one meets many people who ask: “Do you believe in stereoscopic cinema?” To me, this question sounds as absurd as if I were asked: Do you believe that in nought hours it will be night, that the snow will disappear from the streets of Moscow, that there will be green trees in the summer and apples in autumn?”

Zone’s writings also lead Bailey to Oliver Sacks’ New Yorker piece on Dr. Susan  Barry, a neuroscientist who (contrary to conventional wisdom) learned to see in three dimensions late in life with the help of  optometric vision therapy despite having a history of strabismus, wherein one’s eyes look in different directions.

Sons and Lovers (Jack Cardiff, 1960)

Though he hesitates from being a full-fledged 3D advocate, Bailey ends by one of those might have been moments:

[British cinematographer Jack] Cardiff also had a distinguished career as director, with more than a dozen credits. His most satisfying film in this role is the black and white feature Sons and Lovers, adapted by Gavin Lambert from an early D.H. Lawrence novel. For his work on this film cinematographer Freddie Francis received his first Oscar. It is a tense and dramatic film, photographed mainly in small sets. It was released in 1960 at the time of a real slough in 3-D production. I can’t help but wonder what Cardiff and Francis, two of the greatest cinematographers in cinema history, would have done if they had elected to film Sons and Lovers in 3-D. Cinema stereopsis may have had a far different history during the following half century had they done so, and my generation of film school brats would perhaps now not be looking at 3-D, here in our mature years, with both intrigued and ambivalent eyes.

Author: Harvey Deneroff

Harvey Deneroff is a Los Angeles-based independent animation and film scholar specializing in labor history. He formerly taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design and was editor of Animation Magazine, Animation World Magazine, and Graiffit (published by ASIFA-Hollywood). He is the founder and past president of the Society for Animation Studies.

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