by Ray Zone
3-D attraction films are opening big the summer of 2003. Shrek 4-D, a digitally projected
stereoscopic show, elaborating the narrative of the feature-length movie, is playing to audiences
in kinetic seats at the Universal Studios theme park in Hollywood. R.L. Stine’s Haunted Lighthouse
is a 3-D filmed attraction (replacing Pirates in 4-D) at Sea World in San Diego and Animalvision 3-
D, a segment from nWave’s 15/70 version of SOS Planet, is being projected digitally at the
Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California.
Other stereoscopic delights are being served up with James Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss
finishing it’s run at large format (LF) theatres and Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids 3 in 3-D, with
anaglyphic sequences, opening on 3500 screens on July 25. It feels like cinema itself is being
reinvented all over again.
Underlying the attraction for all of these stereoscopic shows is an elementary and great principal,
that of motion through space, the fundamental dynamic of the movies. Film, with intermittent
motion, moves through the camera. Objects in front of the lens move towards or away from the
camera. The camera itself moves through space, which makes the third dimension of the visual
field apparent, even in 2-D films. And, perhaps most importantly, the human gaze moves
through visual space. In a stereoscopic film, the two eyes move through a surreal replication of
real visual space which is itself generally in motion.
The primal appeal of motion in space, delivered by film projection, launched cinema. On
December 28, 1895 the presence of the Lumiere cinematographe converted the Grand Cafe in
Paris into a special venue for motion pictures. The 50-second film L’Arrivee du Train astonished
audiences with its moving image of a locomotive heading straight toward them. It’s not surprising
that the Lumiere brothers reshot their train film for anaglyphic 3-D projection in 1935.
The ultra realism of the ride film, playing at special venues, is as old as cinema itself. At the Paris
Exposition of 1900 audiences stood on top of a raised circular platform to view Raoul Grimoin-
Sanson’s Cineorama, a 360 degree movie projected on a circular screen 330 feet in
circumference, 30 feet high. The hand-tinted 70mm films had been shot from a hot-air balloon as
it was borne aloft. At the same Exposition the Lumiere brothers exhibited a film attraction,
Mareorama, simulating the view from the bridge of a ship sailing the ocean.
Around 1901 the “Phantom Ride” films had become enormously popular. “These were panoramic
pictures taken from the front of a railway engine traveling at speed,” wrote British film pioneer
Cecil Hepworth. “I think it was the American Biograph Company, during their long run at the
Palace Theatre, London, who started this fashion of phantom rides, but it was rather strange that
the public should have liked it for so long. Before the craze finished, however, it was given a new
lease of life by the introduction of an ingenious scheme called Hale’s Tours.”
It’s likely that Kansas City fire chief George Halewas inspired by the Paris Exposition of 1900 and the phantom ride films to create Hale’s Tours, a popular attraction of 1904 at the St. Louis Exposition in which audiences boarded a rail car to view movies that had been shot from the rear of a train. Underneath the car, lugs on a belt with rollers created the clickety-clack sound of a train in motion as the audience watched the rear projected movies. Mechanically produced rushes of air were blown in at the audience as the car was swayed side to side during the program. Hale’s Tours was a big success and by 1907 had opened up at as many as 500 locations.
Adolph Zukor had opened Hale’s Tours in New York, Pittsburgh and Coney Island. “When first
viewing Cinerama many decades later, I mystified my companions by laughing,” wrote Zukor in his
autobiography. “It was necessary to explain that I was back in Hale’s Tours.” Fred Waller’s 3-
projector Cinerama process debuted on September 30, 1952 with This Is Cinerama, a travelogue
of the world that set box office records for the year. The aerial footage shot from the nose of a B-
52 in This Is Cinerama is stunning. But it is very likely the roller coaster sequence which is bestremembered.
Filmed from the front of the “Atom Smasher” roller coaster at Rockaway’s Playland, the panoramic plunging motion captured over a 140 degree angle of view had audiences responding viscerally to the wide images by leaning in their seats. This kind of response reflects the interactive nature of viewing motion in space on the Cinerama screen, the 15/70 IMAX screen and any stereoscopic film. When an audience member moves to avoid objects hurling off the screen in stereoscopic space, the interactive nature of 3-D is plainly shown. The promotional copy for 3-D films in the 1950s hinted at their interactive nature. “A Lion in Your Lap, A Lover in Your Arms,” read the posters for Arch Oboler’s 3-D film Bwana Devil, shot in the dual camera Natural Vision process and which launched the stereo movie boom on November 26, 1952.
The 3-D image is also interactive by its very nature. Because the stereoscopic picture is actually
formed in the brain as the “cyclopean” image synthesized from separate left and right-eye
information, the mind itself creates 3-D. The same thing is true for persistence of vision, the
perceptual basis for the movies, when a visual impression remains briefly in the brain after it has
In 1952, cinema was reinventing itself in reaction to the “small” screen viewing space of television
which was eroding cinema’s appeal. Making the projected image bigger, deeper and wider elicited
audience interaction once again and renewed the theatrical viewing experience as a special
occasion in a special place, which TV could not replicate. The motion picture theatre itself became
a special venue, as it had been at the very beginning.
In 1955 Walt Disney created a space-age ride film for his special “Tomorrowland” venue in
Disneyland with the Trip to the Moon attraction which proved popular for many years. The
astronaut/audience entered a rocket ship replete with blinking lights and incandescent dials to
view a film rear projected onto circular screens above and below them. As the seats vibrated and
rocket engines rumbled, the audience viewed footage which realistically depicted the earth
receding into space and the moon approaching. With the invention of the 15/70 IMAX motion
picture format by Roman Kroitor, Graeme Ferguson, William Shaw and William Kerr in
1967, one of the most immersive of all film formats was created. “From the beginning,” remarked
Colin Low, “I always felt that IMAX should be in 3-D.” Low had apprenticed with Norman
McLaren at the National Film Board of Canada in 1950 and 1951 when McLaren produced two
brilliant 3-D films, Now is the Time and Around is Around.
For the 1986 Vancouver Expo, Low produced Transitions, the first IMAX 3D film. Transitions, as a
film about transportation which shows continuously moving imagery, is a perfect marriage of
subject matter and format. “Everything that comes after Transitions has to be viewed in a
different light,” says LF director of photography Sean Phillips, “because it really marked the
dividing point between traditional 3-D, and what I call immersive 3D.”
With IMAX 3D nearly all of the onscreen imagery floats in the audience space. “Because the
screen is so large, you no longer really care about what is happening at the edge of the frame,”
says Phillips. “It allows you to view space continuously from infinity all the way to right in front of
your nose.” Phillips was the DP on the 1997 nWave 15/70 2-D production Thrill Ride, directed by
Ben Stassen. Thrill Ride, exploring cinema history and large format onscreen motion, seems like
a 2-D trial run for Stassen’s later LF 3-D films like Encounter in the Third Dimension (1999), Alien
Adventure (2000) and Haunted Castle 3-D (2001).
Stassen cleverly builds 3-D ride film modules into his LF features. These free-standing film ride
modules are given new titles such as Arctic Adventure, Magic Carpet and Kid Coaster and released
separately to a variety of special venues. As the most prolific maker of LF 3-D films, Stassen
recently grappled in print with film critic Roger Ebert who remains “unconvinced that 3-D is
necessary in cinematic storytelling.”
Characterizing IMAX 3-D as “a totally new language of cinema,” Stassen writes that the LF
filmmaker “tries to create a filmic space and then transport that audience into that filmic space
and let it decide where to look.” This freedom of visual choice for audience members in watching
an LF film, looking freely around the giant screen, is itself a new aesthetic.
Audiences watching Spy Kids 3 with anaglyph glasses will have the option of watching even the 2-
D segments of the film with the glasses, not that this is entirely new. The first public presentation
of a 3-D film in America, on June 10, 1915 at the Astor Theater in New York, Edwin S. Porter’s
black and white film, Jim the Penman, featured anaglyphic segments. In 1922 Harry K. Fairall
released an anaglyphic feature film called The Power of Love at the Ambassador Hotel in Los
Angeles which gave the audience the option of watching the tragic ending of the film through the
blue lens or the happy ending through the red. In the 1963 production, The Mask, the black and
white film was interrupted with three anaglyphic segments providing the audience a 3-D look into
the subconscious minds of characters in the film.
So, just what is 4-D? It has to be the motion of the seats or the watery mist that settles onto the
viewing audience during Shrek 4-D, all of the extra-filmic elements present in the experience.
These are interactive ploys that have been used previously with Muppetvision 3-D (1989) in
Disneyland or T2 3-D (2000) at Universal Studios. They are amusing additions to the sensory
experience. But actually, however, the fourth dimension is probably time itself, which is inherent
in the motion picture.
The irony is that, despite the best efforts of companies like Iwerks, which has produced many
simulation ride films, and numerous inventors who have attempted to add the experience of smell
(odorama) to cinematic presentation, that the visual sense alone creates the greater part of a
feeling of interactivity and motion. Compare the actual experience of going down a roller coaster
at the Magic Mountain or Six Flags theme parks with the experience of watching Stassen’s Alien
Adventure in 3-D on the giant IMAX screen. The 3-D film gives you just as visceral a sensation,
with vertigo, breathlessness, twists and turns, as the actual experience of a roller coaster.
PREVIOUSLY POSTED 11/16/12 ON THEMEDREALITY.COM