3-D film is all the rage these days, not least because the Hollywood superstructure decided to invest heavily in the production and distribution of this technology. “This is it!” they say, “3-D is here to stay this time!” “You’re gonna love it!” But as Ray Zone thoroughly demonstrates in Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film 1838-1952 inventors, technologists, filmmakers, and production studios have been chasing that stereoscopic dragon for a long, long time.
For over 25 years, Ray Zone has been perhaps the world’s most passionate advocate for 3-D as an art form. He’s made numerous 3-D works, he’s written more than a book or two on the topic, and basically runs around being a champion of 3-D. He’s also been called the “King of 3-D Comics” — think Stan Lee, but in a pair of anaglyph glasses. So given all that, one might expect that the appropriately named Ray Zone would write a book about the evolution of stereoscopic cinema that would be both informative and wildly entertaining.
This book is definitely informative, but unfortunately the entertaining part falls a bit to the wayside. If, for some reason that I can’t think of right now, you needed an ultra detailed listing of every patent number ever issued around the globe for devices related to creating, reproducing, or projecting stereoscopic motion pictures, then do not leave home without this book. If you really just wanted to know where 3-D came from to better understand where it’s going… this book has that too, but you have to skim over a jumble of those patent numbers for that takeaway.
Of course, this book pointedly covers only what Zone defines as “the novelty period” of stereoscopic motion picture development, specifically 1838 to 1952. Note that cut-off date. By design, the book ends before the “golden era” of 3-D film begins. No 3-D man-eating lions in these pages. But pleasures do abound in the novelty period of stereoscopic film, particularly if you have an interest in early filmmaking and the novelty period of conventional cinema. Patent numbers aside, the names of stereographic and stereoscopic devices are worth the price of admission. Thaumatrope, Zoetrope, Stroboscope, Phenakistoscope, Fantascopic Stereoscope, Stereophoroskop, Motoscope, Diorama, Cosmorama — all that in just a few pages/years. The names of these devices, and their results — the phantasmagoria, Pepper’s Ghost — are pure film-geek poetry.
Zone also does a commendable job of communicating the overarching why that sparked the frenzy of inventing around photography, motion picture, and stereoscopy in the first place. In short, everyone strained for “more real.” Photography resulted from a desire to more closely replicate nature. And once you have a photograph, the obvious path to more natural is to make those photos move. Clearly, the 3rd dimension is the crowning optic glory of nature, so of course, stereoscopic motion pictures, what we now call 3-D movies, is the logical end point. So why aren’t we there yet? And is that even what we want from a movie?
This is where Zone loses the thread a bit. In the development of conventional cinema, the “more real’ remained a pressing concern for only a brief period of time. Somewhere around 1903, as narrative cinema matured, the audience became enthralled with characters and stories. Viewers grew enraptured with empathizing with the narrative, and far less concerned about the sense of being there when looking at a stereographic image of the Grand Canyon or the thrill of seeing a train rush toward them. After all, if we wanted to watch nature parade by we would sit in the park, but instead we sit in darkened theatres and watch decidedly not real images flicker on a screen. Zone, at least in this book, doesn’t address that reality, nor does he explain why, or even how, 3-D film relates to it.
So in the end, Sterescopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film 1838-1952 was a little disappointing. But expecting one author in one book to give me a reason to care about the future of 3-D film is asking too much. In the end, I wish Zone had provided more context and fewer patent numbers. However, the book is informative, and will be very interesting to people who work in the field of 3-D, those interested in the development of cinema in general, and patent nerds. If that’s you, don’t skip this book, but check it at the library as the hardcover clocks in with a shocking $50 cover price.