Today, film aficionados consider the 1950s to be part of the Golden Age of Cinema, a decade that produced such classics as "Singin' in the Rain," "Roman Holiday," and "Sunset Boulevard." However, back in 1953, the box office was suffering as televisions entered more and more living rooms across the nation, keeping potential filmgoers away from the theater. In order to compete, movie studios devised a new product to lure them back: the 3-D film.
In April 1953, U.S. News & World Report ran a special report about the technology behind 3-D movies and the obstacles theaters had to overcome to expand its use nationwide (and potentially around the world). The magazine was not known for its coverage of light-minded topics like film, so the piece included a tongue-in-cheek, parenthetical description at the top of the page: "(This article represents the result of an extensive research on a problem of outstanding importance.)"
The basic stereoscopic technique used to create 3-D images predates the 1950s, but according to the article, the technology hit the mainstream with the release of the first feature length, 3-D film, "Bwana Devil," a forgettable movie about two man-eating lions starring Robert Stack of "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Airplane!" fame.
The film's tagline: "A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!" It was based on a true story.
The technology fell out of vogue for a few decades, but now it appears to be here to stay, as its use is essentially a requirement for a film to be taken seriously as a summer blockbuster.
Older films are frequently being rereleased in 3-D to reach a new generation of moviegoers as well, including a 20-year-old blockbuster about man-eating beasts that is not based on a true story—Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park," coming to a theater near you this Friday.
This article originally ran in the April 10, 1953, issue of U.S. News & World Report.
Movies With 'Depth'—The Answer to TV?
Remember when you looked in a gadget and saw pictures with three dimensions? Hollywood has found a way to make those pictures move.
What interests the studios most is the box-office appeal of "3-D" movies. It's got them all excited.
New hopes are flaring that the latest wrinkle in movie making will lure people away from their television sets.
The movie industry is confident that it has hit upon a device that will restore sagging box-office receipts. This is the three-dimensional film, which adds a sense of depth to the conventional flat picture. Hollywood executives feel sure that this is the answer to television, which is blamed for keeping people in their homes and out of theaters.
The sudden excitement in Hollywood results from the popularity of Cinerama showings in New York and the box-office attraction of "Bwana Devil." "Bwana Devil" is described by the critics as a rather mediocre story of railroad building in Africa, but it is expected to gross at least 9 million dollars, returning fabulous profits to its owners. That is enough for Hollywood.
The appeal of "Bwana Devil" idea lies in the fact that it is a stereoscopic movie, viewed through special polarized glasses worn by the audience. This gives the same effect to motion pictures that the old stereoscopic photographs gave when viewed through your grandparents' stereoscope. So lifelike are the scenes that people involuntarily duck when a spear is thrown toward the audience from the center of the screen.
Now all of Hollywood is working feverishly to get three-dimensional films ready for release in theaters. Hardly a day passes without announcement of a new "3-D" system, or the start of a new "3-D" picture. Studio talk is all about "round" and "flat" films, just as 26 years ago it was about "silents" and "talkies." Studio executives, in fact, hope the recent development will produce as revolutionary—and profitable—a change in the industry, as did talking pictures.
Actually, the only thing new about the process is the surprising box-office appeal. Methods of making three-dimensional films have been known for 20 years or more and had even been tried on a small scale. But it took Cinerama and "Bwana Devil" to fire Hollywood.
Paramount quickly switched over on "Sangaree," to be released in May. Warner's hopes to have "House of Wax" on a "3-D" screen this month, and next October Twentieth Century-Fox is to present its first "3-D" feature in "The Robe."
Two basic systems of "3-D" are being used in the movie industry. One is a truly stereoscopic process, and the other is an "illusion" method shown on a large, concave screen.
The stereoscopic process requires a separate picture for each eye. Such films must be viewed through special glasses that prevent each eye from seeing both pictures on the screen. The use of two pictures, seen as in natural vision, gives the impression of depth. Widespread use of this method will require the manufacture of millions of glasses, since health laws require that glasses may not be reused without sterilization.
Stereo films also involve an intermission, since two projectors must be used at the same time and theaters now have only two projectors. So the film must be interrupted when reels are being changed.
The illusion process is simpler than the stereoscopic method, but is not true "3-D." It is based on a wide, curved screen, conforming to the natural field of vision of the eyes. The screen in effect "surrounds" the viewer, just as the area that is naturally visible to the eyes also "surrounds" the viewer. To add to the illusion, sound comes from several speakers, instead of from one speaker as in the current "flat" movies. The actor's voice thus comes from his own position on the screen.
Several illusion processes are being tried. Cinerama uses a concave screen six times normal width. The picture for this process is taken by three synchronized cameras, and three projectors are used in the theater. To enhance the illusion, seven sound tracks are used in making the picture and up to seven loud speakers are used in the theater.
A simpler illusion method is promised by CinemaScope, bought by Twentieth Century-Fox from a French inventor. This process uses only a single camera and a single projector. Paramount, too, is working on an illusion method that uses only one camera and one projector.
Confusion quite naturally accompanies the excitement now sweeping Hollywood and the motion-picture world. Theater owners, who have sadly watched box-office sales dwindle for five years, hesitate to install the devices required for "3-D." It costs $75,000 or more to equip a theater with Cinerama and from $5,000 to $25,000 to install methods such as CinemaScope. For stereoscopic films, the screen must be coated with metal to improve reflecting power, and special projection equipment must be obtained. The cost is estimated at $1,000 and up. Before making such investments, theater owners want to be reasonably sure that the new pictures will fill seats. However, Twentieth Century-Fox reports 750 theaters taking CinemaScope.
Studios themselves are pondering over the best "3-D" method and the change in technique that "3-D" requires. In Cinerama, for example, close-ups are almost ruled out, since the illusion requires a full view. That will kill one of the film director's most effective devices in telling his story. Camera methods also must be adapted to twin or multiple-lens photography.
The industry would like some kind of standardized "3-D" system, possibly one for stereoscopic films and another for the illusion method. As a move in this direction, Twentieth Century-Fox is offering the CinemaScope to the industry.
Another problem is what to do with Hollywood's inventory of films and background shots. Millions of dollars are tied up in films already completed but not released. If "3-D" replaces the old flat film, as sound replaced silent pictures, this inventory will become valueless.
Foreign outlets are a source of concern. Today about 42 per cent of Hollywood's earnings comes from foreign sources. The industry has no desire to see this source of income vanish. But it does not yet know if foreign theaters can afford to switch to "3-D," or if audiences abroad will like the new process as audiences in America seem to.
The industry would like to hit upon a solution that will permit flat films to be shown on the same screens as three-dimensional pictures, thus giving audiences both types. Studios also would welcome a method whereby existing flat films can be projected on the wide, illusion screens, thereby giving these pictures some of the lifelike illusion.
In taking three-dimensional pictures, more lifelike sets are required. Simple painted backdrops will not do. And the bigger scenes may require more actors and extras. All this adds to the cost of the film. Offsetting this added expense, however, may be the fact that fewer individual camera shots will have to be made, and there may be less moving around of equipment and props while the film is being photographed.
Studios are at odds on how far to go toward three-dimensional films. Twentieth Century-Fox is switching to "3-D" for all of its major productions. RKO is following suit. But Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is not quite so convinced. Dore Schary, M-G-M production chief, holds that "if somebody produces a great motion picture, people will go to see it whether it's in black and white, in color, round or flat." Other producers agree that the story is a picture's greatest appeal; but top-notch stories always draw crowds. What Hollywood and the theater men want is something to restore the movie-going habit to the American public.
At the moment, "3-D" appears to be the answer to this problem. At least all the major studios are giving the process a whirl and theater owners are eager to see return of the days when some 85 million people went to the movies each week, instead of the current 60 million.