Coming out of a screen near you

Image of Peter Aspden

There seems little we can do to stop the relentless march of cinema’s latest technology. The third dimension reigns supreme. Since James Cameron’s wondrous Avatar became the highest-grossing movie of all time, 3D cinema – after several false starts – has been acting as if it is here to stay. Next month’s 56th London Film Festival opens with Tim Burton’s 3D Frankenweenie, an animated feature shot in fashionably retro black-and-white, and not breaking too many conceptual boundaries in the narrative department (“a heartwarming tale about a boy and his dog”).

At the micro level there are democratising elements at play, opening the hitherto expensive process of 3D to a wider audience. The games manufacturer Nintendo is inviting its customers to shoot films on their handheld 3DS consoles, and upload their content. It is also collaborating with the British Film Institute to make some of its 3D archive available to console users.

Those users may be in for a shock.

The early history of 3D cinema in Britain gave little indication of the entertainment behemoth that was to come. When four modestly budgeted films were commissioned by the BFI to feature in the Festival of Britain in 1951 there was no great publicity campaign to support them. Yet these were the first screenings of “dual projection 3D in colour, with interlock stereophonic sound”. (You can tell the marketing department was on holiday.)

To be sure, there had been previous efforts to achieve the illusion of visual depth, practically from the birth of cinema. But this was one of its more convincing examples. So stunned were the film-makers by the technological breakthrough that they forgot to provide any plots. A Solid Explanation featured “scenes shot at London Zoo and Aquarium”. Royal River showed fragments of life along the Thames. It was a fascinating example of timidity in the face of near-limitless potential. The technology was deemed sufficient to wow the audience.

In the succeeding years, Britain continued on its pioneering course, with a typically Britain-in-the-1950s lack of élan. The festival’s Telekinema (later the National Film Theatre) set up permanent home on the South Bank. But the marketing department stayed on holiday.

“No posters are used outside the theatre,” trumpeted general manager Frank Hazell with pride in a 1953 article for Kinematograph Weekly. “No information to members is given the customary build-up of superlatives. Our audience is of a general art type, which covers a multitude of personalities, from the extremely long-haired to the Garbo types.” There would be new standards of presentation: the dresses of the theatre’s receptionists would be “made of nylon, and can be washed daily”.

Further 3D masterpieces followed: 1952’s Around and About featured “Square Dancing in Hammersmith”; in the same year a 3D advertisement for Doncaster Co-op had audiences cowering in fear. “It showed a pint of milk coming towards you,” says Jan Faull, archive production curator at the BFI, with admirable enthusiasm. “People are always pointing to things in early 3D cinema.” Patrons, in the meantime, were advised that their 3D glasses were “not suitable for driving or sunbathing”.

I am speaking to Faull at the BFI archive in Berkhamsted, north of London, and she flicks through a leaflet full of mathematical formulas and graphs, a testament to the scientific complications involved in creating 3D cinema, and to British mastery of the fledgling medium. “Hollywood wasn’t interested in ploughing through all that,” she says. But Hollywood did have the uncanny talent to recognise that square dancing in Hammersmith was never going to cut it at the box office.

So it was Hollywood that duly took over the dissemination of 3D cinema, most famously with the 1950s drama Bwana Devil and its breathy poster slogan: “A lion in your lap!” It felt even more compelling than a pint of milk. But despite being billed as a movie that would be “as remembered as The Jazz Singer” for its technological significance, it went the way of cultish obscurity.

More 3D films were released during the rest of the decade, not least to combat the burgeoning threat of television, and for a while it looked like the “flatties” were living on borrowed time. “Warner has no interest in flat or 2D pictures any more,” writes a melancholy Alfred Hitchcock in a letter to a friend (then again, the letter ends with the evidently self-deluding words: “Am seriously dieting”).

There were two reasons 3D didn’t catch on properly in the 1950s. First, the films were simply not good enough. Second, those glasses. Movie cinemas were the most popular venue of the time for courting couples. They got up to no good in the back rows of the stalls. And they certainly weren’t going to do it in weird glasses.

All those hang-ups seem ridiculous now. Although there is a backlash against contemporary 3D cinema, a line has been crossed. It is not going to go away. We are used to lions in the lap, and want more. But we should remember those heroic pioneers and their strange depictions of a more innocent time, which could never be said to lack depth.

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