Thursday, July 10, 2008

An old Hollywood gimmick makes a comeback — in 3-D!

A 1950s movie theater gimmick is making a comeback.

The latest cinematic adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” opens in theaters Friday. And apart from a new leading man in the form of Brendan Fraser (“The Mummy”), this version sports a new look. Moviegoers will see Verne’s prehistoric world at the center of the Earth as never before — in 3-D.

“Journey” is the first live-action, action/adventure movie to open in the Real D Cinema format. Theaters screened last year’s CGI “Beowulf” in both 3-D and 2-D. The recent Hannah Montana and U2 concert films also used Real D Cinema.

You still must wear special glasses to get the 3-D effect, but the new glasses are a far cry from the red-and-blue filters of years past. They use polarized lenses that allow each eye to see only one of two projected images, creating the illusion of three dimensions.

Special effects wizards love new toys, so it was a given that 3-D would make a comeback in a more user-friendly format. But declining movie attendance is probably even more responsible for the new generation of 3-D movies. You have to give the audience something it can’t get at home.

That, of course, is exactly how 3-D movies began.

In the ’50s, theaters faced their first real competition, a newfangled entertainment device called a “television,” or “TV” for short.

The prospect of families staying home to watch the black-and-white flicker of Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan terrified theater owners. Theaters needed something new to lure people to the big screen.
Hollywood experimented with various 3-D formats, but the best remembered is actually one of the least used — anaglyph 3-D, which required audiences to wear headache-inducing cardboard glasses with colored filters, usually one red and one cyan.

Anaglyph 3-D turned up mostly on B movies and short subjects. Despite its disadvantages, anaglyph 3-D was easier to use given the technology of the day. Other ’50s 3-D formats, which relied on two projectors and polarized glasses similar to those now in use, were hard to maintain. But Anaglyph 3-D was perfect for low-budget movies.

Hollywood produced anaglyph 3-D movies into the early 1960s, and, ironically, some of these films eventually made their way to television, the medium they were produced to combat.

By the 1980s, 3-D was all but dead in theaters, with rare exceptions like “Amityville 3-D,” “Jaws 3-D” and “Friday the 13th Part III.” Still, that was enough to trigger a boomlet in old 3-D movies airing on TV.

That was when I had my first 3-D experience, when a local TV station aired the 1961 horror movie “The Mask.”

“The Mask” was mostly in 2-D but featured 3-D dream sequences. Whenever the main character donned a demonic mask, he hallucinated being in a spooky, 3-D landscape. Viewers knew it was time to put on their 3-D glasses when a voice intoned, “Put the mask on now!”

As a bonus, the TV station also aired a 3-D “Three Stooges” short.

This was a big deal for me and my friends. We all had our parents drive us to the convenience stores where we could pick up our 3-D glasses. Then we waited impatiently for Saturday night to finally arrive, so we could all experience the magic of 3-D.

Yes, it was cool. But I can’t say I enjoyed the eye strain that came with those glasses.

Still, 3-D had come full circle. What started as a gimmick for theaters had become a gimmick for TV stations. And, yes, I still have the pair of 3-D glasses I got to watch “The Mask.”

So, the question is, has technology come far enough to make 3-D mainstream, or is this another gimmick in the making?

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