IN THE BEGINNING
Daniel L. Symmes
NOTE: This article is dynamic in that it will change over time as new or different information is found. 9NOV2006
One of the many issues facing an historian is sorting through fact versus fiction. Sometimes myths are perpetuated and appear as fact.
I first read of a 3D film demonstration given in 1915 in Edward Conner’s 3-D ON THE SCREEN (Films in Review, MAR1966, pg. 167).
It puzzled me for years as there was no other reference to this seemingly seminal event. Yet, Conner quoted one of the people involved as saying “The long sought after third dimension of photography has been gained.”
But Conner was inaccurate enough elsewhere to allow me to discount his account.
I must add that I “catalog” myths, since the popular saw is “behind many myths can be a semblance of fact.”
The next serious mention of this event was in a book some years ago that is rife with errors, bias, and heavy on myth. The author of this book was in contact with me at the time, and showed me his correspondence with the current film company (Paramount Pictures), which only proved a film titled JIM THE PENMAN was indeed released at that time. No record of 3D.
More recently, I read an autobiography of the man heading the company at that time, and HE didn’t lay claim to it as well.
So I went on my merry way assuming it was a myth.
Finally my friend, and fellow 3D historian, Ray “3-D” Zone, had some time to go through the microfilms, and found the evidence.
The “industry” publication The Moving Picture World had a review of this event in its 26JUN1915 issue, page 2072.
SEREOSCOPIC PICTURES SCREENED
Myth has been dispelled.
The demonstration was given on the morning of 10JUN1915.
The man behind the curtain was Edwin Stanton Porter (1870-1941). A man of many talents who was by 1915 regarded as one of the two best film directors, with David Wark Griffith being the other. His THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) is legendary for making the film a story concept versus a gimmicky “chaser” to help move people out of vaudeville shows to make room for the next audience.
In 1912, Porter teamed up with Adolph Zukor in shooting and directing one of America’s first feature films, QUEEN ELIZABETH.
Originally a mechanic by trade, Porter was inventive, and always looking for new ways to do things. He was also usually the camerman on his own productions.
According to Zukor (THE PUBLIC IS NEVER WRONG, 1953, Van Rees Press), “It may come as a surprise, with all the current excitement about three-dimensional films, that Porter was experimenting with them nearly forty years ago. He used two cameras, just as two or more are used now, and threw the pictures on the screen by means of two projectors. He had made a lorgnette with read glass for one eye and green for the other. Seen with the naked eye, the pictures were a hopeless swirl. The lorgnette gave them three dimensions.
“I followed Porter’s experiments closely and encouraged him. But we were ahead of our time. There was enough to do to put across flat, silent pictures.”
And “I have mentioned that Edwin S. Porter was experimenting with three-dimensional pictures at the old Famous Players studio nearly forty years ago.”
This was in 1953. With 1953-1915 you get 38.
All this confirms Porter’s experiments.
Two cameras, two projectors. Simple and easy to do, especially for a mechanic.
The review contains literally all we know, outside of Zukor being the one paying for it.
The screening was given in the morning, to an invited audience—likely industry people. Trade papers were apparently represented.
The Astor Theater was a prestige house. It opened in 1906 as a “legitimate” venue—versus illegitimate?—showing its first film in 1913, but not becoming a movie theater until 1925. Interesting choice for the demo.
The 3D viewing glasses were described as having a green lens for the right eye, red for the left, and were hand held. I have little doubt these were likely hand made in a small quantity. They were made of “cardboard.”
I note the impression observed by the writer: “The screen seems to be brought to within a few feet of the onlooker and the objects, animate and inanimate, stand out in correct perspective, quite as though the vision were centered on an actual room, a landscape, or whatever the subject may be.”
This, as with today’s IMAX 3D “in your face” philosophy, is caused by a non-converging 3D system. Convergence hadn’t been "invented" yet. Thus, with the two camera lenses probably parallel (looking at infinity), everything in the picture is technically “off the screen.”
She goes on with “Looking at the screen with the naked eye, the rapidly moving pictures, inordinately large and duplicated in red and green, appear as meaningless and distorted as a nightmare. Merged by the colored glasses, the reds and greens are neutralized into an even tone and out of chaos, a duplicate of life emerges.”
“…inordinately large…” is interesting. As the Astor wasn’t a movie theater at the time, it’s likely the projection equipment was brought in by Porter. And, he would have known brightness affects the impression, so he would have had a screen as big as “practical,” but also compatible with the light sources on his projectors. As the Astor seated 1,500, for an image to appear inordinately large, Porter would have needed a really big screen, or, perhaps mounted a smaller one closer to the observers.
Or, this could also mean that the images looked “inordinately large” because of the stereoscopic effect of being in your face.
Just some musings.
Difficulties were observed: “Judging from the first samples, it may be surmised that the inventors are meeting difficulties in catching fast action. The poorest scene in exhibition was of an elaborate Oriental dance in which the performers were blurred and the film in its entirety shimmered, something like a reflection on a lake. Then there were other instances in which quick movements failed to register.”
This is a layman’s description of sync problems. There would be three places this would occur: original photography, editing, projection. One to all could have been involved.
And Lynde Denig is the very first of many to observe: “These pictures would appeal first by reason of the novelty, then because of the wonderful effects obtained, and after that, when they had become familiar, there would be the same old demand for an interesting story.”
At this time in history, movies were short—typically a “feature” was less than 60 minutes, and shorts often one to about six minutes. The entire program could run just over an hour.
Her comment: “Natural curiosity must prompt the average spectator to take an occasional disillusioning glimpse at the screen with the screen with the naked eye, and if it did not, the task of holding cardboard glasses in place for half an hour at a stretch is not altogether comfortable” is quite logical.
I take it that the screening otherwise impressed.
Yet apparently nothing, nothing in 3D came forth again from Porter. Zukor was head of Paramount Pictures when it was decided to shoot SANGAREE in the earliest days of the 3D panic of 1953.
I could easily see someone seeing a sometimes-good 3D, but with special projection stuff (linking two projectors, brighter lamps), and MOSTLY, the 3D glasses. Even at 5¢, that was big money for a wide release, and shorts made little in rentals, and couldn’t absorb the cost. And…well, it didn’t hold water.
The lack of publicity is surprising. The only other mention of this was a small review in the New York Dramatic Mirror, 16JUN1915. Nothing more can be derived from it. There might be an article still unknown.
My primary study is 3D that has been seen by (usually) paying audiences. And that is why this film isn’t “the first.” That would wait until DEC1922 with Kelley’s Plasticon Pictures MOVIES OF THE FUTURE.
But it does appear to be the first 3D film shown to an audience in a theater, and on Broadway, yet.
Apparently much of the subject matter of the demo was shot at the NYC Famous Players studio at 213-227 East 26th St.
At that time, Porter had shot JIM THE PENMAN, a "five reel" production (a feature in those days) based on an old, well known play. JTP was released at the time this demo was given.
Porter shot on one or more of the JTP sets. An actress named Marie Doro enacted a scene or two from a then yet-to-be-released film (either her first film THE MORALES OF MARCUS or her second THE WHITE PEARL, both directed by Porter). The star of JTP John Mason (this being his first film) “…played a number of passages…” from JTP. Apparently other actors and sets were seen.
The last reel was shot at Niagara Falls. Many have shot tests there over the years, for 3D, wide screen, color. I’ve shot 3D programming there as well, but to think Porter was there first…
William E. Waddell (1872-1954) is credited as being involved with Porter for this demo. He was described as an "engineer," and apparently worked with Porter when they both were employed by Edison. Waddell apparently later worked on big film ideas, with some association with the Fox Film Co.'s 70mm Grandeur process in 1929-30.
Somewhat interestingly, the same reviewer, Lynde Denig, reviewed the “feature” JIM THE PENMAN in the same publication, nine days after seeing the 3D demo, and a full week before her review of the demo. Not a word about the “wonder and amazement” of 3D.
A photo from the feature was printed with Denig's review and is presented here to give SOME kind of clue what things might have looked like. Sorry, the lack of quality stems from being a poor copy from a poor microfilm image.
From the 2-D feature JIM THE PENMAN (1915). Center is John Mason
with perhaps Marguerite Leslie to his right.
Likely to remain lost, this piece of 3D history is now better understood, and is still the focus of a hunt for more clues.
- - - - - - -
This is the theory department. I make this announcement in an effort to prevent my theories from being taken in context with facts.
It is possible the sync issues were not fully understood by Porter.
But back up. The building of the dual camera contrivance wouldn’t have cost anything to speak of. Shooting some tests? Maybe $3,000 tops. Likely Zukor (Famous Players) paid the costs.
And setting up in a legitimate theater (versus one with projectors and screen)? As the first film (perhaps only film until this demo), QUO VADIS, was shown in 1913, by 1915 things had changed in projection technology. So I would possibly assume Porter brought in his own projectors. The screen might have simply lowered from the fly space. And, without the Astor otherwise showing films, Porter was able to install his equipment without getting in the way of the theater’s normal activities.
Somehow I would think the Astor would have been possible because of Zukor’s influence.
Zukor’s polite dismissal of the concept: “But we were ahead of our time. There was enough to do to put across flat, silent pictures” was typical of his written “personality.” He put soft edges on most everything. So unless Porter gave up, likely Zukor pulled the plug.
Porter apparently had good and bad times after leaving Zukor the next year (1916), yet he didn’t do any other 3D, that I’ve found.Thus, six 1,000 foot reels need to be found. Not impossible, but not likely, as the Famous Players NYC studio burned to the ground three months later.
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