On Expanding Our Field of Vision: ‘3D Cinema and Beyond’

The best essays here simultaneously engage with like-minded scholars and inform casual readers of 3D’s importance in filmmaking.

The biggest challenge academics face is offering scholarship that is both new and useful. In the humanities, especially, the pursuit of publications and conference presentations can be daunting. With so many other like-minded professionals competing for the same jobs, the novice must make a significant contribution to his or her field in an attempt to stand out and maintain a career.

For scholars in cinema and media studies, it’s the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand, the advent of digital technology has made way for much-needed scholarly revision and innovation. Essentially, scholars can study and write about whatever they want. On the other hand, nearly every eager professional is jumping on the digital band-wagon, which means that it’s increasingly more difficult to contribute anything new to the field that also matters to more than five people.

It’s somewhat of a pleasant surprise, then, that 3D Cinema and Beyond is a rich collection of essays on 3D imagery. Edited by Dan Adler, Janine Marchessault, and Sanja Obradovic, the anthology aims to “explore a richly varied array of technological topics, historic instances, artistic strategies, and perceptual qualities of 3D media” (13). Ultimately, the authors argue that 3D represents a “distinct visual medium” of its own as opposed to a “supplement to the study of 2D visual culture” (ibid.). Whether or not you buy this notion of medium specificity—and the authors call attention to the potential problems in doing so—the essays contained herein are worthy of contemplation and discussion.

The anthology is divided into three sections. The first section, Excavating 3D Cinema’s Past, begins with an essay by Sergei Eisenstein. The 1947 essay, “On Stereocinema”, is translated into English in its entirety for the first time by Sergey Levchin, and is Eisenstein’s last written words on cinema. Just as he supported certain uses of sound in the ’20s, he was open to the promise of the stereoscopic image in the ’40s. Here, Eisenstein lays the groundwork for scholarship on 3D, and shows that 3D was an intriguing technological phenomenon long before James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) broke box office records.

The next two essays, “The Experimental Origins of Cinema, Stereo, and Their Combination” by Nicholas J. Wade and “Avant-3D: Notes on Experimental Stereoscopic Cinema and its Relation to Other Arts” by Ray Zone are similarly rooted in the past. Wade uses Charles Wheatstone as a case study to illustrate the relevance of early technological innovations, and Zone is interested in the relation between experimental stereoscopic cinema and abstract art.

Following Wade and Zone are Leon Gurevitch and Miriam Ross, whose essay “Stereoscopic Media: Scholarship Beyond Booms and Busts” focuses on “stereoscopy’s varying fortunes in order to take into account the technological determinants that have allowed it to exist across multiple media platforms while foregrounding the role that popular imagination has played in retaining sites for it to persist” (84).

The remaining three essays of the first section are similarly intriguing. Kenneth White’s “Muybridge’s Enthalpy” aims to rally a discussion around Eadweard Muybridge’s 1873 stereograph of David Stoddart’s vertical steam pumps. In “Of Motors, Martians, and Jazz Age Cuties: The Stereoscopic Inventions of Laurens Hammond”, Owen Chapman and Alison Reiko Loader examine Laurens Hammond’s 1920 contributions to stereoscopic technology, with special attention to Teleview and Shadowgraph. Finally, Haidee Wasson shows how cinematic technologies in the ’30s were connected to the automobile industry in “Industrial Magic and Light: 3D at the New York World’s Fair (1939)”.

The next section, Visual Regimes of 3D Cinema, moves toward an understanding of the image itself. In their theoretical essay, “This Side of Paradise: Immersion and Emersion in S3D and AR”, Olivier Asselin and Louis Auger Gosselin consider the interface between 3D cinema and AR media. David Harris Smith’s essay “Colin Low and Transitions 3D: Innovating Immersive Cinema” investigates Colin Low’s Transitions (1986), the first IMAX 3D-live action film produced for Vancouver Expo.

Further, Robert S. Allison, Laurie M. Wilcox, and Ali Kazimi survey the historical evolution of stereoscopic film practices to argue that 3D is its own artistic medium in “Perceptual Artefacts, Suspension of Disbelief, and Realism in Stereoscopic 3D Film”. Finally, Lance Duerfahrd concludes the section with an analysis of Alf Silliman’s 3D pornographic film The Stewardesses (1969) in “For Your Glasses Only: The Stewardesses and Sex in Three Dimensions”.

The final section of the anthology, Poetics and Politics of 3D Space, continues to explore the many facets of 3D imagery. Alla Gadassik offers an in-depth study of Wim Wenders’ Pina (2011) in “Anticipation of Contact: Pina 3D and Stereoscopic Cinematography”. Barbara Klinger, on the other hand, argues the aesthetic significance of negative parallax in 3D imagery, which is the projection of depth in front of the screen, in “Beyond Cheap Thrills: 3D Cinema Today, the Parallax Debates, and the ‘Pop-Out’”.

In “Transitions, Images, and Stereoscopic 3D Cinema”, Ron Burnett echoes Eisenstein with his claim that 3D represents the evolution of cinema. Lastly, the editors conclude with Wim Wenders’ keynote address at the 2011 Toronto International Stereoscopic 3D Conference, in which he ruminates on 3D’s potential for filmmakers and moviegoers.

3D Cinema and Beyond is directed at scholars in cinema and media studies who possess a firm comprehension of where the field has been, where it is now, and where it may be going. The downside to this is that some of the essays will only appeal to a limited number of academics. However, the best essays in the anthology simultaneously engage with like-minded scholars and inform casual readers of 3D’s importance, lesser-known historical figures associated with 3D, and new perspectives for viewing 3D.

If 3D cinema is here to stay, what do we make of it? This question is perhaps one of the most vital for contemporary scholars. I’m not certain that we can come to a definitive conclusion, but 3D Cinema and Beyond takes the conversation a step further and forces us to consider the many ways it has impacted those who make films and those who study them.

RATING 7 / 10