Why the 3-D format refuses to go away

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 March, 2004, 12:00am

Filmmakers have tried many gimmicks to entice audiences into cinemas over the years. Some have been more successful than others. Widescreen (which is often known by its brand names CinemaScope, VistaVision, and, in Hong Kong, Shawscope) was invented to lure viewers away from their new-fangled television sets in the 1950s. Once directors adapted to the demands of the new format - close-ups don't work in Cinemascope because it makes people's heads look weird - it became a durable success.

Other ideas, such as Odorama and its variants, never caught on. Schlock-horror genius William Castle once installed long tubes in a movie theatre so he could pump in smells to accompany his movies. Audiences weren't impressed. Cult trash film director John Waters was more modest in his attempt to stimulate the nostrils. He simply issued scratch-and-sniff cards to the audience for his film Polyester. The smells were cued by numbers flashing on the screen. Some smells weren't pleasant - sweaty training shoes, for instance. But those familiar with Waters' films would expect as much. The idea has, thankfully, been used sparingly. People don't seem to want to be surrounded by smells, bad or otherwise, while watching a movie.

Then there's the 3-D, which was popular in the 50s, and still occasionally returns to haunt cinema screens. If you mention 3-D, most people think of the audience rather than the films. Who can forget those old photographs of American viewers clad uniformly in the polarised spectacles needed for the effect to work? Today, those photographs look more like scenes from a freaky science fiction movie than pictures of a movie audience. But it turned out to be a nothing more than a tacky gimmick - returning recently, for instance, as a marketing ruse for the lacklustre Spy Kids 3. But in the early 50s it was regarded as more than a passing fad.

As a recent series at New York's Film Forum showed, all kinds of movies were shot in 3-D, from westerns to dramas, comedies and thrillers. Indeed, some misguided producers believed 3-D would be the saviour of the movie industry. In fact, its popularity was quickly superseded by the widescreen format, to the relief of most critics.

3-D, or 'stereoscopic cinema' as it was originally known, has been around since the 20s. The technique originated in three-dimensional still photography, which brought depth-of-field to landscapes. Three-dimensional photographs were a staple form of entertainment in fairgrounds and parlour rooms around the globe in the 1890s, and entrepreneurs where quick to translate the idea to moving pictures. As many as 200 patents for 3-D cinema systems existed in the 20s. Many were tested in front of audiences, but none proved commercially viable. Most were abandoned when public interest in the format waned.

Twenty years later, the television boom in America caused a sharp decline in cinema attendance. The studios started looking for bigger, more spectacular ways to show their films - and suddenly 3-D was back in fashion. Bwana Devil, an African adventure about two lions who halt the building of a railroad, was the first to hit the screens in 1952. Produced by United Artists and released in 'Natural Vision 3-D', it was far from a critical success.

'The much ballyhooed point of a lion leaping out of the screen into the auditorium comes off very lightly,' wrote Variety's critic, although a spear thrown by a native was judged more effective as it had 'the illusion of coming right into the audience'.

Suddenly, all the big American studios were getting in on the act. Some, such as Universal, treated the idea quite seriously. Its two 3-D science fiction movies, It Came from Outer Space and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, apparently worked well in the format, although they weren't box office successes.

Columbia Studios was less selective, churning out a slew of 3-D films, 11 of which are showing at the Film Forum's Columbia 3-D Thursdays series.

Nobody was safe from the 3-D effect. Rock Hudson, Donna Reed and Lee Marvin appeared in Raoul Walsh's Gun Fury; Ernest Borgnine popped-up (literally) in The Stranger Wore a Gun; and Rita Hayworth starred in the dramatic Miss Sadie Thompson - which was banned in some US states because of her sexy 3-D shimmy through a crowd of soldiers.

All of these were filmed in 1953, the year cinema screens went 3-D crazy. Few of these steroscopic films were any good, and even fewer seemed to gain much from using the 3-D effect. The technique only really gets a reaction when something is being hurled directly at the camera - a shower of arrows in Fort Ti, or a wicked knife in the Three Stooges' skit Pardon my Backfire. Otherwise, viewers quickly become used to the effect, and the glasses start to become irritating.

Comedy seems to benefit most from the treatment, especially if there's a bit of violence thrown in. Pardon my Backfire worked well, with the trio taking on a bunch of criminals who turn up at their car workshop. Knives, cakes and oil are hurled directly at the camera, flying out over the heads of the audience. It's a lot of fun, and mercifully short.

But 3-D is one of those bad ideas that simply won't go away. It resurfaced in the 70s, mind-bogglingly as a promotional tool for porn films, and then again in the early 80s, to add spice to cheap horror movies and shockers such as Jaws 3-D.

Recently, it has been put to better use by IMAX filmmakers. The size of the IMAX screen, coupled with the technical adroitness of the filmmakers, has led to some impressive 3-D shorts, such as the Canadian Falling In Love Again. This romantic animation features delights such as leaves gently floating over the audience. CinemaScope's big screen killed off 3-D in the 50s. So, it's somehow fitting that the effect should find a home in today's massive large-format IMAX theatres.