The history of 3D cinema is longer and more complicated than most expect. After several decades of development, widely released 3D cinema became commercially viable for the first time as early as the 1950s. Over the next 50 years, 3D films resurged and disappeared periodically, gaining popularity briefly in the 70s, 80s and, most recently over the last five years. In each of these resurgences there have been both skeptics and gimmicky 3D fodder to feed their pessimist attitudes. 3D cinema as a medium is often dismissed as a fad. However each era has brought great films that justify its use, cementing the fact that, lasting for half a century, 3D has proven to be as enduring as any trend in modern movie making.
The MoMA’s Festival of Film Restoration this year showed a sampling of the long history of this movement from its new division of 3D film restoration. The showing, called “3D Funhouse!”, featured a broad range of work taken from 3D’s inception—short animations from Canadian Film Bureaus’ Norman Mclaren, Soviet educational cinema, and forgotten 50s American pop of the highest and most un-cynical caliber. MoMA’s project of rediscovery and re-mastering of the earliest 3D movies is an impressive venture. It opens the eyes to the forgotten history of a cinematic form that deserves to be revisited.
The most remarkable achievement of the Department of 3D Film Restoration at the MoMA is the digitized conversion of these old films into today’s standard 3D format. This allows for the 3D experience without any of its historical detriment. 3D technology has increased exponentially over the years. Today, the technology allows for the making of films that offer 3 dimensionality without the standard and distracting annoyances: distorted color, poor picture quality through red cyan glasses, and the risk of headaches. The restorers at MoMA have carefully translated 3D films from this older format into the new standard, with far better glasses and picture quality. This is what makes the MoMA restorations remarkable. On top of the fact that these forgotten films have not been shown in decades, they also have never been screened with such a clear quality of 3D. The experimental flourish of these first attempts at a new medium shines through in this format.
Shlock, gimmickry, and shameless cash-ins are common to every era of 3D, but are far from the rule. There exists a large body of work that pushes and justifies its use of the medium. In our own time, some directors have used the medium brilliantly to serve an important, aesthetic function, such as Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Even more recently was Jean Luc Godard’s Death of Language, where 3D was used experimentally to show different images to each eye. More popular films have also used the medium in more standard forms that are still effective, last year’s Gravity comes to mind. Then there are of course features which lie on the other side of the realm of respectability, but which are nonetheless genuinely clever in their approaches, and almost impossible not to enjoy—Piranha 3D, for example. The wide range attracted to the work, from avant garde to smut, is part of the medium’s appeal and the showcase at the MoMA was curated to show a range of quality 3D films of the 1950s that was appropriately wide.
The first works on display were a series of animated shorts by Norman McLaren. McLaren’s work provides the clearest example of the potential for artists working in 3D, already in consideration 60 years ago. Though many of McLaren’s hypnotic and dazzling animations are available in standard form, his 3D work showcases the artist’s excitement in the face of this new medium. McLaren’s experiments are hand drawn, abstract animations of interacting geometric figures in timeless landscapes. Red dots bounce and interact with doodled blue lines which bounce towards the viewers and spin hypnotically. 3D brings the compositional aspects of his abstract and colorful animations to the forefront. The short and fun pieces play with notions of depth and perception with dizzying success. Otherwise flat shapes become full of depth, hand drawn animated cycles seem to come to life. McLaren demonstrates in full view the sheer playful possibilities of 3D for his artistic purposes.
Meanwhile overseas in the Soviet Union, 3D was used for far drier, state-run educational material. The 3D film restoration group had a series of these rare films, offering a unique and totally strange perspective on Soviet State Cinema. Long shots of a crowded Moscow park of the late Stalin era bring to life a forgotten world, while un-subtitled educational films on the formation of ice and crystals give a sense of the undressed aesthetics of Soviet State propaganda. The form here seems to be the point. The abilities of 3D was apparently invigorating enough to justify filming pretty much anything, or rather nothing. These quotidian films are undeniably boring, but showcase in quiet stillness a nearly lost world that is interesting unto itself.
The tedium of these films becomes all the more evident however when thrown into relief against the showcase of lost American 3D films of the same era. For instance a short introduction to 3D, which would precede a feature, and explain the new technology, proves incredibly entertaining, with the likes of Miss America, two fifties radio comedy stars, and even a visit to an optometrist featured. In the crowded MoMA showcase, genuine laughter and smiles proved its timeless charm. This was followed by a trailer for a shlocky 3D horror, The Maze, a natural precursor to modern, 3D Hollywood horror. Finally the night was capped off with a beautifully crafted episode in 3D of Casper the Friendly Ghost, whose 3D film canisters were literally saved from permanent destruction by the restorers and whose charm again still proved incredibly infectious.
The exciting possibilities of more extensive 3D restoration are clear from this first showcase. The different films provided a broad range of interesting, well-crafted cinema, in re-mastered versions of their intended format, otherwise lost to the past. What is striking beyond the range of the work on view is the works’ context. These often-forgotten films both showcase precedent for the ways in which 3D is used today and show forgotten techniques for 3D filmmaking, as reinvigorating now as they were 60 years ago–be it for the sake of animation, education, or cheap thrills. The restoration of 3D reveals avenues of expression previously forgotten and unknown. There is still a lot to learn from the history of the undying fad in filmmaking.