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3D in Movies: A Brief History

3D films and 3D technology are bigger than ever. Avatar became the first film to gross over 2 billion dollars, and in this decade the number of 3D films produced have continued to increase– a record 47 3D films were released in 2011. But those who know the films of yesteryear know that this latest 3D craze is nothing new, as 3D has been around for a long time. So, with that in mind, what was the year the first 3D film was shown?

The answer: 1915.

Yes, 1915. And by that time, the technology responsible for it was already around 15 years old. 3D dates back almost as far as film itself, although it took nearly a half century until it became a hit with the public.

The first patent for a 3D ready camera came in 1900, a few years after a prior 3D patent. The earlier patent was completely impractical, as it required two different screens as part of the process. Frederic Eugene Ives’ two lens camera didn’t require that. It would still be another fifteen years before the first 3D film was shown.

It was an early film pioneer that brought about the first 3D screening. Edwin S. Porter was an early innovator in narrative films, most notably The Great Train Robbery. He put together the first showing in 1915, which was made a red-green anaglyph without any glasses for the audience. The test showing included a portion of a previous Porter film, rural scenes and other test footage. There were no other showings at the time.

No other 3D films were shown until The Power of Love in 1922. The camera responsible for this film was created by Robert Elder and Harry Fairall. Their system required both two cameras and two projectors, and was only used for the purposes of this film. It was also the first time audiences wore glasses to view the film. The glasses themselves brought a gimmick: depending on which side of the glasses the audience looked in, they saw a different ending. It never ran outside of Los Angeles and was released widespread in 2D under the name Forbidden Lover.

Prizma Color, mentioned in the last post as an early color innovator, were also at the forefront of 3D. In fact, they were part of a rash of companies releasing 3D films in 1922. A new company called Teleview (started by the creator of the Hammond organ) created a highly impractical system that required special rigging to each individual seat. Ives himself created films with his system. All three produced short films only, with Ives being the most successful. His films had a two year run up to 1924, but afterwards 3D films stalled again.

MGM became the first major studio to get in on the 3D action in 1936. Both of those were Pete Smith specialty shorts. Polaroid also developed it’s own filter system, one that presented it’s own challenges. This required two different prints to be synced correctly. A few shorts were produced, but nothing else. By this time, it had been over 15 years since the only 3D feature film. The entire decade of the 40s went by without any further interest in 3D.

By the early 1950s, the corner was finally turned in terms of popularity and production. The technology itself hadn’t changed. Polaroid filters were still the driving force, but this time it fully caught on. Bwana Devil was the first in 1952, and soon nearly everyone followed. Films of every genre from horror, western, animation and sci-fi created 3D films. Even Alfred Hitchcock was compelled to make one, Dial M for Murder, although it would be hard to tell from how it was shot that it was in 3D. That proved to be for the best, as most audiences never even saw it in 3D. By the time it came out in 1954, the 3D bubble was already bursting.

Much of that had to do with the same problems with the Polaroid system, which hadn’t been improved on much. Syncing two prints presented all kinds of technological problems, and increasingly theaters opted to show 2D versions of films like was done with Dial M for Murder. By 1955, the big wave of 3D was already gone.

In the ensuing decades, particularly the 70s and 80s, it still didn’t appear all that frequently. When it did, it was largely as a gimmick for horror films. The 1990s saw it become more of a special attraction in IMAX theaters, all of this leading to the huge surge of popularity in the past several years.

But is it here to stay, or just another fad like in the 50s? Evidence indicates that it may not sustain perhaps due to over saturation. Although 2011 was the peak year for films produced, the films made less money than the year before. In addition, in some cases the 2D versions drew comparable or even better audiences than the 3D version.

3D has almost always been around, but we are only in the second period of great public acceptance of the idea. The technology is better than it’s ever been, but whether it will ever remain popular this time remains to be seen.

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One response to “3D in Movies: A Brief History

  1. Great post! I had always thought 3D was invented in the ’50’s. I had no idea it had been around since the turn of the century!

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