From Stereoscopes To Porn To Avatar: The 110-Year History Of 3D Movies

a pocket stereoscope

Photo: Wiki Commons

Today’s news is that director James Cameron personally banked $350 million making 3D blockbuster Avatar.So is 3D the next big thing?

Well… it always has been.

3D images have been around for almost two-hundred years. The first attempt at a 3D movie was made before 1900.

There have been boom days for 3D before now, and so far, they have all been followed by busts.

This might well be the real thing this time, but it’s worth knowing the history that suggests differently.

In 1838, the first patent was issued for 3D image-viewing technology

Charles Wheatstone, a scientist and inventor who contributed to the development of the telegraph, received the first patent for a stereoscope, a device for creating the illusion of 3D still images.

A stereoscope displays two slightly different images, one to each eye. These images -- whether photographs or drawings -- depict the same object from very slightly different angles, as if recorded by your two eyes. The brain naturally renders this as a single, three-dimensional image.

Wheatstone's invention never came to much, but a later design by Oliver Wendell Holmes, took off, becoming a popular form of entertainment through the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The first patent for 3D movie technology was filed in the 1890s.

William Friese-Greene, an inventor and early film pioneer, saw potential in combining the stereoscope with nascent motion picture technology to create 3D movies.

Two images would be projected onto the screen side-by-side, and each member of the audience would be equipped with a stereoscope.

The bulk of the apparatus made this impractical, and nothing ever came of it.

In 1915, 3D cinema became a reality

Edwin S Porter put on the first ever 3D screening, using anaglyph (the system where you wear the funny two-colour glasses), which had been around as a less-popular alternative to the stereoscope since 1853.

This wasn't a full film, but rather a proof-of-concept, with unconnected blocks of footage. Notably, the screening included footage of silent movie actress Marie Doro, making her the first 3D movie star.

3D feature films arrived in 1922

On September 27, 1922, a film called The Power of Love shot in red-green analglyph was shown to an audience at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

The film wasn't a success, and has since been lost, but it sparked a mini-boom in 3D movies over the next few years.

When the Great Depression hit, however, demand for the new type of film fell away.

The introduction of the Polaroid filter in 1932 made a new form of 3D film possible.

As with analglyph, viewers wore glasses to seperate two images for each eye, but the two images had to be run from separate projectors. The resulting effect was much more vivid. The Depression, and then World War II, kept 3D from truly taking off for two decades.

In 1952, a 3D film called Bwana Devil became a smash hit, launching what is now known as 'The Golden Era' of 3D movies. Over the next few years, studios released dozens of 3D films.

While 3D movies were successful, they were never able to justify the greater cost of production and display, and the technical difficulties with running two projectors simultaneously. By 1955, the novelty had worn off, and 3D films died off.

A series of 3D booms and busts

For the next several decades, 3D film became an intermittent craze. Mini-waves of 3D films came and went, occasionally generating serious revenue, but consistently earning terrible reviews.

The highlight of this era, from a commercial perspective, was The Stewardesses, a 1969 softcore porn that grossed $27 million. Adjusted for inflation, The Stewardesses remained the most profitable 3D film ever until Avatar.

IMAX, and the slow return to the mainstream

In 1985, the first IMAX 3D films began to appear. The technology was used for smaller-scale nonfiction films at first, then was adopted as an attraction at theme parks and studio tours.

Over the next few decades, 3D films slowly became more common, and of higher quality. Huge IMAX theatres, and more recently regular theatres fitted for digital 3D, went from showing campy mini-features designed to show off the technology to showing regular features that happened to be in 3D.

Avatar blew the lid off

James Cameron's Avatar quickly became the highest grossing film in history.

Critics were almost universally in awe of Avatar as a visual spectacle, and the movie went on to win three Academy Awards.

It's a D-minus 2D film, and is perhaps best watched without sound, but it is truly beautiful to behold.

The post-Avatar boom

Movie studios are going bonkers trying to capture some of Avatar's magic, and to some extent, they have suceeded.

Three of the four highest grossing films so far in 2010 have been at least partially 3D. Hollywood is churning out more 3D content than movie theatres can handle.

So now what?

Is this just another boom, or is 3D here to stay this time?

We don't know for sure, but we do know this:

Huge piles of money are being invested in 3D right now →

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