More of John Bailey on 3D

Sony 3D camera

Ace cinematographer John Bailey’s newest posting on 3D, “3-D, 3-D, 3-D, in All Directions,” is essential reading for those interested in stereoscopic cinema. In it, he reports on “a 3-day 3-D workshop sponsored by IATSE Local 600 and longtime master 3-D guru Buzz Hays” as a jumping off point to discuss the problems and possibilities of the technique.  Among other observations, he notes that,

One thing quickly became apparent to me. Working in stereo movies in a responsible way is not simply a point and shoot affair, even in the most simple of conditions. Oh sure, you can do that—but that kind of off-the-cuff approach is what partly undid 3-D moviemaking in the past. Such a slipshod effort is one of the principal sources of viewer eyestrain. There is a dictate that became a mantra doled out by the workshop instructors and taken to heart by we eager students—3-D in movies is NOT REAL. Like an Escher drawing, it is an illusion. Our actual eyes simply don’t function the way 3-D movie imagery does. In constructing the 3-D movie frame we professional cinematographers have to evaluate carefully all the visual elements contained within the shot, as well as their cumulative effect as the sequence develops, shot by shot. One of the gravest mistakes we can make is to create exaggerated depth cues. This makes for an unreal sense of space that conflicts with the ability to integrate more dominant monocular cues. The result is a confusing sense of scale.

Among other things he discusses the process he went through in ultimately deciding not to use 3D for a film he will soon be shooting in the Arctic. As usual with John’s writings, it is essential reading.

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.