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The 3D Zone: Its Past & Its Future

COW Library : : Ray Zone : The 3D Zone: Its Past & Its Future
CreativeCOW presents The 3D Zone: Its Past & Its Future --  Editorial

There are several compelling reasons why 3D is not going to go away this time. The train has left the station.

The first compelling reason driving studios and independent producers to make 3D feature films is that the 3D version makes three times the box office -- and sometimes even more than that. The 3D version of "My Bloody Valentine" earned closer to seven times more than the 2D version.

The second overriding reason is the technology itself. The tools for making both live action and computer-generated 3D movies are so sweet. Previously, producers have had to deal with these humongous 35mm cameras, and had to contrive to get the lenses close enough together to make the films viewable. That has really changed with smaller cameras from Silicon Imaging and Iconix. Live action stereoscopic productions no longer need to be limited in the kinds of things they can shoot, including handheld. The form factor of even 4K RAW imaging is so small, that you can easily make 3D movies that eliminate the difficulties of eye strain and visual errors that were seen in the past.

In exhibition, the great watershed which was inaugurated on November 4th 2005, with the release of "Chicken Little 3D" from Disney on 84 RealD cinema screens, using a single projector solution. Frames are triple-flashed -- 24 frames per second for each eye, flashed 3 times each, for a total of 144 frames per second. This creates a very high rate of intermittency, where you don't notice any flicker at all. It's a beautiful solution, almost 100% error free, and that eliminates many of the errors from the 50s. Even if the projectors stayed in sync, film weave would create an unpleasant kind of stutter to the image, or one of the films would break and then there would be a problem for the projection of putting them back in sync with the splice.

So, previous exhibition obstacles have been solved with RealD, Dolby Digital 3D, ExpandD and then IMAX 3D, which of course is a wonderful platform for watching 3D movies.

The third factor is a new generation stereoscopic filmmakers that is successfully creating 3D movies that are simply more immersive. Although they have imagery that comes off the screen, which you expect in a 3D movie, it happens in a way that is coherent and fits in the story.

We have at times seen this before. The 3D films of the 50s had noteworthy examples of a marriage between stereoscopic imaging and storytelling. "Kiss Me Kate" was a wonderful musical, and it was designed for 3D. "Inferno," starring Robert Ryan, was a great example of 3D being used as an integral part of the narrative. Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" is certainly a 3D film that stands out even in 2D.

Another wonderful 3D film that had a great influence on many people -- including me -- was "Creature from the Black Lagoon," which is actually a kind of poetic love story, along the lines of "Beauty and the Beast."

So the 3D films of the 50s were not just B pictures. There were some true A-list pictures that used 3D in a way that was seamless with the narrative.

3D filmmakers today have devised a number of storytelling innovations that are taking this even further forward. Brian Gardner developed the idea of a floating stereo window. Brian, Phil McNally (who came from ILM to Disney, and later moved to DreamWorks), and Bernard Mendiburu put this together on Disney's "Meet The Robinsons" in a way that animated the position of the 3D frame in a way that audience doesn't notice, but that makes 3D easier to create, and easier for the audience to view.

[Ed. note: You can read more with Phil "Captain 3D" McNally at Creative COW here. You can read the online version of Brian Gardner's article for Creative COW Magazine on 3D storytelling, here.]

Another wonderful device they implemented was the idea of multi-rigging -- different figures in the foreground or background all had different interocular settings. For animated films, this is just math, but it adds a richness to the 3D experience. They also used this control to animate interocular distances over the course of a shot.

The combination of additional box office generated by 3D feature films, new ease in making them, improvements in exhibition, and new, more immersive storytelling are a few of the compelling reasons that 3D filmmaking will not go away this time.


I like to use the term "stereography," because it means literally rendering the forms of volume on a flat plane. It happens that the discovery of stereography preceded the invention of photography as well as motion pictures.

Stereography, as discovered by Charles Wheatstone in 1838, preceded the invention of both photography and motion pictures.

Wheatstone's stereoscope

In fact, the realism of the very first stereo view cards drove the invention of motion pictures. These inventors looked through the stereoscopes and a saw a 3D image, and asked themselves, "What's missing?" Well, motion was missing, so as utopians of the image, they set out to add not just motion, but sound, and color, and depth.

The first three-dimensional motion pictures were developed by William Friese-Green in 1889. He devised a dioptic camera with twin lenses that took two pictures, side-by-side. The remnants of his system survive today in still versions as the View-Master -- still in production, primarily with cartoons and 3D movie promotional tie-ins.

But well before Friese-Green's invention, the stereoview card had become the great mass medium of the 19th Century -- far more popular than newspapers or anything else. It was only the proliferation of the motion picture which led to the eclipse of the stereoview card as a mass medium in the 20th Century.


A stereographic image of a stereograph factory, from 1905. Click image for larger.

Stereograph factory


We will have anaglyph for as long as there is imaging.

Many people in production who champion newer platforms think it's necessary to denigrate or put down the anaglyph and its red and green glasses -- but it conveys a very strong stereographic experience when done carefully. It is simply one of several different ways to display what is essentially two movies: one for the left eye, and one for the right eye.

I wrote my book ["Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952"] to show how 3D cinema preceded the release of "Bwana Devil" by 100 years, and to show how important anaglyph technologies and techniques were as a part of that period.

Ray Zone, Stereoscopic 3D

[Ed. note: Ray has also written "3D Filmmakers: Conversations with Creators of Stereoscopic Motion Pictures." Both of these books are highly recommended.]

Since its discovery and perfection by Louis Ducos du Hauron - he patented it in 1895 - anaglyph has been continuously in production. It has been the universal solution for making, exhibiting, and displaying 3D images, both in movies -- because it works with standard projections and a standard white screen --and print media, which often supported the movies even in the 20s.

Anaglyph was used initially for Magic Lanterns Slideshows, as well as some of the first movies made in America, I suspect shown using dual projectors. In the 20s, there was a wave of very popular anaglyphic short films, along with a 3D shadow show called the Shadowgraph, invented by Lawrence Hammond, also the inventor of the Hammond Organ.

Hammond Magic Lantern

The earliest anaglyph feature film was "The Power of Love." debuting in Hollywood in 1922, and shown using two projectors. The films using this early process were called plasticons and plastigrams. A plasticon opened at the Rivoli theater in New York in 1922 which made novel use of the anaglyphic process.
Two endings to the film were shown simultaneously. Audience members who desired a happy ending simply viewed the film through the red filter, with a tragic ending seen through the green filter.

Stereoscopiks, New York Rialto Theater

Things changed in 1939, when the New York World's Fair showed Edward Land's newly-patented linear polarizing material projected on a silver screen.

Click image for larger.

How polarized dual 3D works, first introduced at the NY World's Fair in 1939

That was the point at which polarizing technology for 3D movies become a standard - but the anaglyph is still the most versatile way to look at a 3D movie.

Even though 3D TV is going to be using some newer technologies that allow for full-color imaging will surpass the anaglyph, anaglyph is being produced in greater numbers today than it ever was before. Just go to YouTube and search for anaglyph 3D movies. You'll be surprised that how many there are. These films are coming from every corner of the world, from desktop 3D moviemakers -- and anaglyph works great in the RGB colorspace of computers.

So while there have been other important platforms for people to discover 3D, anaglyph remains the de facto way for most young people to discover 3D, as I did when I was six. When done with care, it really can convey a powerful 3D experience.


I first saw 3D images in the first issue of "Three Dimension Comics," by Joe Kubert and Norman Maurer, featuring Mighty Mouse, in September 1953. It sold over a million copies, leading to the release of over 50 3D comics, into 1954. They were primarily created by using three or four acetate overlays over a background board, and shifting the layers to create the left and right eye views.

Mighty Mouse 3D comic

While there were a few examples in between, I worked to reinvent the form in the 80s, and have produced over 130 3D comics -- the first hundred by using a number 11 Exacto blade, and cutting and shifting photostats of the line art. It was a labor-intensive process, but it meant that I was no longer limited to only 4 or 5 planes of depth. I could create as many planes as the art could bear, as many 20 or 30 levels - so many levels, in fact, that the art itself started to appear volumetric! I also started to use techniques that would stretch and twist the image.

Ray Zone, anaglpyh 3D comics, art by Jack Kirby

This was well in advance of using a computer. When I started using Photoshop to create 3D comics in 1995, they became polychromatic anaglyph, as opposed to the two-color comics used before. They now retained all of the color information of the original four-color images, but also had the 3D embedded into that four-color scheme.

The first comics to use this for the full length of the comic book were a 12 issue run for Image Comics that I did in 1997. The most recent 3D comics that I've produced were for DC, "Superman: Beyond Final Crisis," #1 and #2.

Alongside the full-color anaglyph comics, I'm still doing conversion of comics to monochromatic anaglyph -- essentially a black and white image delivered with the red and blue color selection.

Comic parody of Ray Zone. Click image for full-size version of the entire page.

Comic parody of Ray Zone

Right now I'm working with Clive Barker and a writer and a team at IDW (Idea and Design Works) to do an original Clive Barker 3D comic. We are using some unusual techniques with red and blue glasses, to create things like 2-step animation or hidden image, or some visually interesting effects exploiting the differences in color perception between the left and right eye, called retinal rivalry.

I'm also making stereo pairs of paintings by hand, in acrylics and oils. One example is below, I was influenced by a local gentleman named Abe Fagenson who creates left and right eye images on a single canvas, for cross-eye, binocular-free vision. You cross your eyes, and you see it in 3D without a viewing aid of any kind. I'm making my own stereo pairs of paintings, of abstract images. You can use a viewing device, or you can view them in cross-eye, or parallel free vision. You can experience the abstract imagery stereoscopically using any of these methods.

Arcadia, by Ray Zone. Click image for larger.

Arcadia, by Ray Zone. A stereoscopic painting

This is for art gallery display of 3D images, another platform that I'm moving forward on. As a curator, and an art writer, and an artist myself, I want to show people that stereography can, and should, be displayed in art gallery setting, and that there are numerous strategies to show the image in 3D using binocular stereopsis of one kind of another.


"Brijes 3D" is the second animated feature to be produced by Ithrax Productions, a motion picture studio based in Mexico City, and will be the first feature-length animated stereoscopic film in Mexican cinema history. Benito Fernandez is the principal at Ithrax, and the director of "Brijes 3D."

Marius Henry Hoyo is the visual effects supervisor for Santo Domingo Animation, and following a recommendation from Lenny Lipton at RealD, Marius invited me to be the 3D producer for the project. The first time I went down, in August 2008, we set up the stereoscopic team, which was Marius, Benito's brother Diego and two after effects Adobe After Effects wizards. We set up a procedure to take the digital still art as it came into the stereoscopic finishing department, and created pixel-based shifts to place the images both behind and in front of the screen. We then animated along the Z axis in After Effects.

Brijes 3D, the first animated 3D feature in Mexico film history

By January 2009 the 3D for the opening 7-minute prologue of "Brijes 3D" was complete. I had it encoded at RealD with the help of Lenny Lipton, Josh Greer and Robert Turner. SDA decided that they wanted to announce the stereoscopic production to the media in Mexico, at a 3D screening. Those chose a Cinepolis theater, Mexico's largest theater chain, which is quickly rolling out rolling out screens equipped with RealD stereoscopic projection in their multiplexes.

We showed it to the Mexican press on a 50-foot screen with the new RealD XO brighter projection platform, and they were very impressed with the stereoscopic aspect.

Production is underway again. We will be shooting some miniatures in 3D, as well as using some CG elements mixed with the still art. I will be making more trips down to Mexico as we move toward our spring 2010 release.

I also continue to work on my own films. As one example, I wrote and directed a 14 minute short called "Slow Glass" which was an attempt to do a new idea with 3D story telling. It is adaptation of a classic Bob Shaw story, "Light of Other Days." You see through this slow glass what happened 10 years earlier. The story involves a moving realization that, as it comes to the end of the story, is quite heartbreaking.

Sean Isroelit was the visual effects supervisor, and I had Brian Gardner work on some of the shots. For one of them, I gave him a stereo pair of a mountain forest with snow, and he animated snow falling in it, and he did this amazing push-in into that shot.

We had shot it in only two days, but it had taken two years in post production because of the extensive stereoscopic bluescreen effects. Bernard Mendiburu did two things to save Slow Glass. One, he made this amazing title sequence. He also rescued what all of us came to call The Shot From Hell. We had a live action plate with actors moving through it, and behind them, a number of bluescreen panes of slow glass, each with a 3D movie playing in it. And I told Bernard, lay things in there with garbage mattes, or whatever else you can figure out. And he did!. He finished the shot from hell, and the movie was done.


In the excitement over 3D releases from major studios, one thing that doesn't get discussed as much is that there is, right now, a desktop 3D video revolution going on. People are cobbling together their own solutions using readily accessible hardware and software, and they're sharing their stories with each other. I'll coin a term, "3DIY," to describe it. This is much more important than people realize.

I think of companies with major software and hardware platforms as 800-pound gorillas -- and 800-pound gorillas do not swing as high or as quickly through the forest as chimpanzees. There is this amazing groundswell of 3D movie production with the chimpanzees. They have kludged their own 3DIY stereoscopic solutions, and they've actually built in smarter, more sophisticated capabilities than the 800-pound gorillas have.

While the 800-pound gorillas are still undertaking studies, trying to figure out what to do with it, this technology is sweeping along at the desktop level. It's bottom-up. It's viral. And unlike a lot of areas where people are waiting for major studio-level tools to filter down to them, this is an area where the 800-pound gorillas have a lot to learn from the chimpanzees.

So as exciting as the top-down forward motion of 3D in cinema is - and it is very, very exciting - one of my concerns as a film historian is access to the couple of thousand 3D screens for the many thousands of independent 3D movie makers.

The solution that friends and I in the Stereo Club of Southern California have come up with is using two smaller digital projectors, a silver screen and linear polarizing glass. Solutions like this are critical for the development for 3D moviemaking now, because I believe some of the great 3D moviemakers of the future are going to come out of this desktop revolution.

People just haven't seen the full extent of how artistically diverse and conceptually rich stereographic imaging can be. But they are starting to find out, experiencing these new movies and the forward motion of of 3D on every kind of visual display, from mobiles and handhelds to the IMAX screen.

Ray ZoneRay Zone
Los Angeles, California USA

Ray is an award-winning stereographer, a producer of 3-D films and an author. He is currently working for Santo Domingo Animation as 3-D Producer on "Brijes 3D," the first stereoscopic animated feature in Mexican cinema, and is the author of "3-D Filmmakers: Conversations with Creators of Stereoscopic Motion Pictures" and "Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film: 1838 - 1952."


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