Light and Trees

Light and Trees

Saturday, July 24, 2010



On November 26, 1952, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland California, a movie called “Bwana Devil”, premiered in front of a packed house. Card board eye-glasses were handed out to audiences to “enhance viewing pleasure” and they watched the images of man-eating lions and big game hunters jump off the screen magically before their eyes. Critics called the movie “an utter disaster”, but audiences could not get enough.

Perhaps it was the shear novelty of a 3-D motion picture, or maybe it was because a photographer (J.R. Eyerman), took pictures of the audience wearing the “3-D glasses” and Life magazine published the photographs in a nation-wide spread, but on that fateful evening 3-D history was made.

In those days, box office attendance was at an all time low. The major studios in Hollywood had been scrambling to come up with a sustainable gimmick that would lure movie-goers back into theaters. Their eggs were riding in the respectful baskets of Cinerama and Cinemascope with the insight that something hip and mind-blowing might turn things around in the box-office. However, they had all rejected the obscure motion picture system developed by Milton and Julian Gunzburg called Natural Vision Stereoscopic Three Demension.

Maybe the name of it just sounded too space-aged, after all, Cinerama and Cinemascope roll off the tongue a little easier. Regardless, Natural Vision Stereoscopic 3-D was the vehicle that writer/director/producer Arch Oboler ventured out on a limb with to shoot his brain child “Bwana Devil” (originally called- “The Lions of Gulu”) and history was made.

Like a wild band of crazed monkeys, film producers and executives eager to turn a fast profit began churning out a succession of films poised to exploit the new phenomenon. Duel-strip projection, color filters and disposable anaglyph glasses made of cardboard… All the latest rage.

By April, 1953, big studio 3-D features like “House of Wax” made it obvious that moviegoers could be drawn back into theaters and away from their idiot boxes with 3-D movies. In the subsequent months more than sixty films were made, including some legends, like Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” and “Hondo”, starring John Wayne.

Other memorable movies from the 3-D boom of the 1950’s include:

It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Wings Of The Hawk, Spooks!, Sangaree, Revenge of the Creature, Melody, and Kiss Me Kate…

However, despite the initial craze, the state-of-the art "mind blowing" technology used, and even the high creative quality, by the end of 1954, 3-D had become old news…

The 3-D boom of the 1950’s lasted less than two years. Will the current 3-D craze share the same fate? Or will the current advances in digital technology offer longevity?

It is easy to look back and point out that technology wasn’t so great back in the 1950's. But think about this- it really was great back then because it was new and people had never seen it before… Technology seems to have that effect. People are always looking back reflecting on how great technology is today compared to yesterday (they did it then too).

When I was about 12 years old, I watched a movie in a crowded theater on the Lower East Side in New York City (at the St Marks Theater). The place was full of cigarette and pot smoke. The movie they showed that night was The Terminator. Without knowing it at the time, I would come to appreciate James Cameron’s work from that moment forward. I may not like all of his movies, but I still appreciate his work. His work has provided some of the moments of inspiration that caused me and probably many others to become a film-makers (perhaps we should curse him for it). James Cameron has the ability to fully engage and impact an audience.

The phenomenon of his latest blockbuster hit, Avatar, is very intriguing. It brought people out of the house and into theaters much like the 3-D boom of the early 1950’s. Similarly, it was at a time when the box-office was suffering. It was the perfect combination of creative vision, money and technology for a 3-D come-back. However, the question remains, is the current 3-D trend only a flash in the pan?

The reality of trends and fads is that they are often fleeting. This is not a mystery. I can only speculate exactly how many Hollywood Producers or Executives might be sincerely convinced that 3-D is here to stay? The reality is, if the consumer is buying it, then it will be provided with enthusiasm (at least until the consumer stops buying it).

Just like the days following Bwana Devil, 3-D movie production is in full force, here are a few I found after a quick search of the I.M.D.B:

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (2011), Alpha and Omega (2010), Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked (2011), Amphibious 3D (2010), The Cabin in the Woods (2011), Cars 2 (2011), Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (2010), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), Contagion (2011), Derrière les murs (2011), Drive Angry (2011), Frankenweenie (2011), Gnomeo and Juliet (2011), Green Lantern (2011), The Green Hornet (2011), Gulliver’s Travels (2010), Happy Feet 2 (2011), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010/2011), Hugo Cabret (2011), Jackass 3D (2010), Judge Dredd (2012), Kung Fu Panda 2: The Kaboom of Doom (2011), Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010), Mad Max: Fury Road (2012), Mars Needs Moms! (2011), MegaMind (2010), Men in Black III (2012), My Soul to Take (2010), One Way Trip (2011), Piranha 3-D (2010), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), The Power of the Dark Crystal (2011), Priest (2011), Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), The Ring 3D (2012), Rio (2011), Sanctum (2010), Saw 3D (2010), Shark Night 3D (2011), Spy Kids 4: Armageddon (2011), Step Up 3-D (2010), The Smurfs (2011), Tangled (2010), Titanic 3D Re-Release (2012), Transformers 3 (2011), Tron: Legacy (2010), Yellow Submarine (2012), Yogi Bear (2010)

[Even before Avatar, 3-D was gaining momentum... It's been the subject of many coffee room conversation at the motion picture camera rental houses here in Hollywood for many years. Avatar opened the floodgates, but many saw it coming.]

Some people dismiss 3D movies as a mere fad constantly rehashed by nerds… other people advocate that digital technology is enhancing 3-D to a new level of cinematic expression… If you ask me, I prefer a great story and great acting over bigger, louder, flashier, and more disorienting every time.

One of the reasons 3-D failed in the 1950′s was because it was expensive and cumbersome to implement 3-D projection systems nationwide. Today the movie industry has ponied up a huge percentage of the cost to update theaters with newer high tech projection systems. Yes, this time around the power players are taking measures to grind this trend into the marketplace. Perhaps there will be a permanent place for 3-D, if enough people sustain it.

But, there were other reasons that 3-D failed in the 1950′s…

Modern technology is impressive, but a gimmick is a gimmick... and gimmicks get old! I believe audiences know the difference between cinematic expression and gimmicks. If film-makers decide to take short cuts on creative integrity and presume that audience will fall for anything if it has enough bells and whistles, It is easy to predict that those film-makers will pay a price.

The only consistent thing about 3-D, is that the "wow-factor" seems to wear off quickly, and if the numbers in the box office don't generate a consistent profit, 3-D will be ushered out like a fallen viking. Set on fire and cast adrift...

My theory (only a theory) is that the competitive nature of the film industry will in itself cause the demise of the current 3-D trend. Too many movies will employ 3-D effects simply as a gimmick to exploit the consumer, rather than for the purposes of artistic expression. When that happens, people will turn away from it. Hollywood studios will once again resort to doing what they are really best at; manufacturing great films. The greatest films ever made have been created by the Hollywood studios, and those films were not dependent on mind-blowing ploys to get people to go see them.

Another contribution to the demise of 3-D could come from even more dire causes. Social fear… Fear of staphylococcus, for one… The Good Housekeeping Research Institute tested seven pairs (just 7 random pairs) of movie theater 3D glasses, and found a number of germs, including the ones that cause conjunctivitis, skin infections, food poisoning, sepsis and pneumonia.

Wow, that 3-D hospital scene was so intense- it jumped right off the screen! It seemed so real... I’m even starting to feel sick.

3-D advocates have assured the public not to worry because most cinemas clean the glasses in between uses- maybe all cinemas should, or better yet, allow the consumer to buy the glasses… If you could buy your own pair and bring them to the theater you would not have to worry about coming down with swine flu or hepatitis.

Then of course, there is the "neurological damage" angle... Who knows that might occur from staring at 3-D images for prolonged periods of time? This could lead to a whole generation of kids with brain abnormalities...

A study at the University of California, Berkeley found that 3D can cause headaches and eyestrain. The RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) in the UK is currently undertaking a study to compare people’s experiences when viewing 2D versus 3D material on a 3D television.

Regardless of the health concerns... Boring, over-cooked, plot-less stories will lead to the demise of 3-D before anything else. Those fancy bells and whistles will never go as far as a good story. I can't predict the future, but I can say that people often repeat the mistakes of the past- expecting different results.