Ray Zone and the “Tyranny of Flatness”

Hillhurst Avenue, in the heart of Los Angeles’ Los Feliz Village, was, until a few years ago when a number of hip restaurants and shops opened, one of those quiet streets that begs you to cross mid-block on foot, with impunity. Today, you scramble for a parking space on the heavily metered streets. Set back from the bustle of the nearby restaurants is a barely noticeable apartment complex just north of Franklin Avenue. A gated, second story, cozy apartment on the west side of the street is both home and office to 3-D film scholar and 3-D photo buff Ray Zone.

Ray Zone in 3-D. Got glasses?

Ray’s presence among the community of 3-D film fans is almost legendary. He has served as president of the Stereo Club of Southern California, a loose confederation of amateur and professional 3-D filmmakers, scholars and always-amiable, techno-nerd shutterbugs.

Ray has written several books on the origins, history and technology of 3-D cinema, as well as numerous magazine articles on 3-D aesthetics and stereoptic theory and practice. He is also an accomplished creator of more than one hundred thirty 3-D comics.

Zone's 3-D conversion work for "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

I have known Ray for years and like many of my cinematography peers I have viewed his dedication to 3-D image creation with both awe and curiosity. The flat-screen, mainstream film community has read about and seen waves of interest in 3-D cinema technology ebb and flow, each predicted crest never quite reaching a discernible high water mark that left a lasting imprint — until Avatar.

James Cameron’s singular commitment to graft 3-D onto the cutting edge of digital technology, as well as his partnership with Vince Pace, has revolutionized a format that, though it popped up from time to time like a whack-a-mole, has for much of the recent decades largely been the domain of  quirky diehards, amateur 3-D film buffs, and quick-buck exploitation, grind and gore, skin-flick producers. (I suspect this will be challenged by a cadre of dedicated stereoptic-film fans who perceive themselves as keepers of the flame, but so be it). Now, suddenly 3-D digital filmmaking is not only the hippest of technologies but has so penetrated the consciousness of mainstream Hollywood, that it is unlikely that any “tent pole” movie in development will not seriously consider 3-D production, at least in the immediate future. Avatar is easily the largest grossing film in history, and the record opening of the 2-D to 3-D Alice in Wonderland has cemented the commercial viability of 3-D, D-cinema. A feature piece in the March 8 issue of The New Yorker written by staff critic Anthony Lane merely recognizes a phenomenon that has been growing for several years, strongly backed by a generation of 3-D computer-generated, animated features.

Zone's book.

A measure of Ray Zone’s prominence in the current writing on 3-D technology is the fact that Lane not only cites him early on in his New Yorker essay but he dips deeply into the content of Ray’s book Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D, 1838-1952. It is no accident that Zone’s history freeze-frames on the eve of the 3-D Golden Age revival of the early ’50s.

Divided into 10 chapters, the book traces the development of stereopsis from Charles Wheatstone’s stereoscope of 1833, up to the Festival of Britain in 1951 — a century after the Great exhibition of 1851 that was the debut of the Crystal Palace. At the Festival, the feature film The Magic Box was premiered. This 3-strip Technicolor film, photographed by Jack Cardiff, is a biopic of William Friese-Greene, an English pioneer (putative at least) of color and 3-D cinematography. One of the conundrums of doing research on 3-D is the difficulty of separating myth from reality in this oft-times confusing and speculative history of cinema. So much of the paper trail for scholars consists of hyperbolic advertisements, as well as drawings for patents that document concepts rather than practicable systems.

Other chapters of Zone’s book detail the early development of stereography as it parallels the history of planar still photography. He devotes a section as well to the manic popularity for stereo-cards in the post-Civil War home. Domestic viewing and collecting of stereo cards was made easy by the invention of a handheld viewing device by Oliver Wendell Holmes (a true stereo devotee).

A Holmes stereoscope.

The rapid introduction of sequential stereo cards that featured recurring characters in staged settings became a true forerunner of narrative cinema. A chapter on the work of famed photographers such as Marey, Watkins, and Muybridge, whose stereo landscapes and animal studies are much better known in flat versions, leads directly to William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson’s exit from Edison’s labs when the great inventor refused to adapt his still-new film technology to Dickson’s dream of large screen popular exhibition. There are also fascinating tales of how 3-D films, though still a curiosity, developed alongside flat ones in the early 20th century. The culmination of contending concepts came with the release of the first feature length 3-D film, The Power of Love, in 1922.

The emergence of sound films in the late 20s may have overshadowed growing developments in 3-D technology in the public eye, but new camera and projection systems continued to emerge and Zone presents several of them in considerable detail. One surprising story he describes is of Gregg Toland’s projection of film tests at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1935 with producer Sam Goldwyn, of footage shot with a purported 3-D camera built by William Alder, an associate at Cal Tech. Most scholars dispute that this test was true 3-D, but some historians aver that Toland developed his ideas for deep focus cinematography from this time.

For many of us today, the golden era of 3-D films was reached in the early Fifties when more than four dozen mainstream feature films were exhibited, some made by distinguished directors like Hitchcock (Dial M for Murder was released in 2-D), Walsh, and Sirk, as well as the monocular Andre de Toth, director of the seminal House of Wax. What Ray Zone’s book presents is a parallel window into film history that validates stereoptic filmmaking as an exciting alternative to the conventional one. He echoes all of the high points in motion picture development that planar histories do, but Zone’s perspective is a discourse on what was ultimately a road not taken — possibly because of the difficulties in achieving reliable exhibition guidelines and consistent quality control of far-flung screens. What became clear to me during a series of one-on-one conversations with Zone is that, despite the marginalization of 3-D filmmaking as a “transgressive” mode of crude and in-your-face gimmicks in the interim period from the 60s until the middle of this decade, there is an extremely rich earlier history to explore. Had several of the purely technological obstacles been overcome as much as eighty years ago, our whole notion of film history and grammar would be different today. Many of the classic films that now constitute our cultural heritage would possibly exist in a format and a dimension that Ray calls the “z” or “immersive” axis. The sense of an exciting format not yet realized is clear, even as far back as a 1949 essay written by the Great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

In an essay for the Penguin Film Review issue of January, 1949 (his last published work) Eisenstein begins with a question which he then answers himself:

Nowadays one meets many people who ask: “Do you believe in stereoscopic cinema?” To me, this question sounds as absurd as if I were asked: Do you believe that in nought hours it will be night, that the snow will disappear from the streets of Moscow, that there will be green trees in the summer and apples in autumn?"

Expressed in a less poetic metaphor, Eisenstein asserts that this is a “no-brainer,” that there is no real argument to be made against stereoscopic cinema. He further predicts that soon large-scale stereoscopic films will be ubiquitous. He continues:

But why are we so certain of this? Because, in my view, the only vital varieties of art are those which, of their very nature, are an embodiment of the hidden urges existing in the depths of human nature itself.

Eisenstein is not arguing here for a cinema of stereopsis based on any commercial designs such as the ones that came a few years later when Hollywood trotted out 3-D to get people away from their new TV sets. His argument is not only an aesthetic one, but an organic one—that we live and breathe in a stereoscopic world. He admits that all cinema is in fact a conceit, that 2-D planar cinema has not only prevailed for a century, but that it is clear to all of us who read film history, that a rich and almost ritualistic grammar of imagery has been developed to exploit the inherent limitations of flat screen movies. Eisenstein’s views for a future of 3-D cinema may have been based on a recent viewing of director Aleksandr Andriyevsky’s 1946 film of Robinzon Kuzo, the world’s first sound and color 3-D feature, using an auto-stereoscopic (no glasses) process. It employed rear projection onto a special screen constructed of a dense grid of parallel copper wires:

Eisenstein explains that:

…though we know quite well that they [all films] are no more than pale shadows, affixed by photochemical means on to kilometers of gelatin ribbon which, rolled on to separate reels, and packed into flat tins, travels from one end of the globe to another, giving spectators everywhere the same compelling illusion of their vitality.

This observation really gets to the heart of the dilemma of both 2-D and 3-D. While there is much emphasis made on the correspondence of depth perception in stereo cinema to that of nature, Eisenstein understands that just as in planar cinema, all movies are a trope, an illusion.

Further reading on stereopsis in cinema reveals just what an elaborate sleight of hand depth perception is—or rather, a sleight of inter-ocular intervals with lenses— that the degree as well as the quality of apparent depth is created and altered by the filmmaker at his discretion, that the conceit of 3-D filmmaking is not as simple as just limning the human eye. This became clear to me on the human level of biology as I read one of the essays that Zone had written for a recent issue of Stereo World. It is called “Stereorthoptics: Notes on ‘Stereo Sue’ Barry and Some Unknown Champions of Binocular Vision Therapy.” Susan Barry is the subject of a case study done by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist and best-selling author whose stories have been made into Hollywood movies, the most noted of which is Awakenings, a film in which Robin Williams plays a character based on Sacks’ work.

Sacks’ essay on Barry is in the June 19, 2006 issue of The New Yorker. Barry was born, as is more than 4% of the general population, with a condition called strabismus, a defect of the eyes that is either esotropic (inner turning) or exotropic (outer turning). The two eyes are not able to achieve fusion, the simple resolution of a point in space that allows the distance between the two eyes (which see slightly different images) to resolve into the single image that creates depth perception.

More amazing, another 20% plus of the population suffers some difficulty in rendering full stereopsis. 

However revealing the essay is, and Sacks is an exciting writer, the full story is told by Barry herself in her recent memoir Fixing My Gaze.

Here is a brief description of the book from Publisher’s Weekly:

Barry, a neuroscientist at Mount Holyoke College, was born with her eyes crossed and literally couldn’t see in all three dimensions. Barry underwent several surgeries as a child, but it wasn’t until she was in college that she realized she wasn’t seeing in 3-D. The medical profession has believed that the visual center of the brain can’t rewire itself after a critical cutoff point in a child’s development, but in her 40s, with the help of optometric vision therapy, Barry showed that previously neglected neurons could be nudged back into action. The author tells a poignant story of her gradual discovery of the shapes in flowers in a vase, snowflakes falling, even the folds in coats hanging on a peg. After Barry’s story was written up in the New Yorker by Oliver Sacks, she heard from many others who had successfully learned to correct their vision as adults, challenging accepted wisdom about the plasticity of the brain.

But there is no story as immediate as that of the narrator telling her own. Here are three YouTube videos of Barry in a lecture. She speaks from a lectern simply and directly with only a few projected slides, most charming of which shows her as a two year old with strabismus, shortly before a series of three operations that corrected her condition on a physiological level, but left her in depth limbo for another 4o plus years. It is an amazing story, not only as a human-interest narrative but also for filmmakers who want to think that the future of 3-D movies is some kind of an ordained inevitability. Here is part one:

In case you think that you now have a grasp of this story and are tempted to move on — don’t. Parts two and three of her talk are riveting and expand the dramatic turn of this visual adventure:

And part three presents the magical discovery of what stereopsis feels like to a previously monocular or ambi-ocular person:

In a June 26, 2006 interview with Barry and Oliver Sacks, NPR journalist Robert Krulwich follows the progress of Barry's journey into stereopsis. You can hear the conversation by clicking on the "listen" box:

Barry's description of “seeing” the steering wheel of her car hanging in space and of watching snow fall, made me recall an incident from my own life. I am not compromised in depth perception, or I don’t think I am, though I am now tempted to get tested with the cards Barry discusses.

I grew up in Los Angeles and as a child had never seen snow fall. At twenty, I was studying in Innsbruck, Austria, the autumn before the 1964 Winter Olympics were hosted in the Tyrolean capital. One October morning, I awoke to see the season’s first snowfall. Rushing outside, barely dressed, I looked up to watch the display. I felt an ecstatic shudder course through me as I saw thousands of snowflakes descending toward me against the early morning grey sky. I only began to understand this frisson later in the day. All my life I had experienced snow falling only in the abstraction of the movies — as planar images. Even in film angles with the camera pointed into the sky, the rush of snow had always appeared on the movie screen like dots dancing on a flat surface. Here, in real life, I now saw the fragile flakes cascade down toward my face, in discrete sizes, spacings, and speeds, falling, spinning, each one like a living being. I’ve never forgotten that rush of emotion.

Just recently, while I was filming a night exterior scene in Nashville, the crew prepared for a rain scene with towers and hoses set up outside a music honky-tonk. I had lit the set with a strong backlight in order to highlight the rain. Suddenly, it started to snow, slowly at first, then in a veritable torrent. The snow presented a tremendous problem for scene-to-scene matching — but I found myself as excited as a child at how magical it appeared. The backlight I had done for the now delayed scene, picked out the snowflakes, not just by defining white arcs in the night sky, but deep into space, like dancing curtains of light, softly, silently falling to the ground. I remarked at how beautiful it was, even as the ADs and script supervisor worried about the continuity problem. To my disappointment (since the snow scene will not appear in the final cut of the film) my friend Alex Nepomniaschy reshot it with rain towers a few weeks later. But I know that when I do the final grading of the film, I will always “see” the snow falling, defining a deep 3-D space that is otherwise hidden in the void and black flatness of night.

Looking around Zone’s living room as we talked I couldn’t help but notice that the walls were lined floor-to-ceiling with books. A clearly eclectic reader who says he embraces the polarities of high and low culture, I spotted novels by Roth, (a favorite) De Lillo, Foster Wallace, Maughan, Huxley, Balzac. As expected there are many volumes of film criticism and history including tomes by Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Bazin, Spottiswoode, Tarkovsky, and Kracauer. Sartre, Camus, and Walter Benjamin are also present. Sandwiched between two bookcases is a rack that displays many of the 130 plus comics he has produced, anaglyph viewing glasses hanging loosely from the shelf. Such eclectic curiosity causes me to nod approval. I explain to him that it is this same sense of eclecticism that I strive for in the essays on this site, a kind of arts salmagundi, even though some readers tell me I should stick to film. I tell him that for us as filmmakers all the arts are relevant. The so-called “Seventh Art” — film — so named in 1912 by Italian intellectual Ricciotto Cannudo, is the synthesis of the six Hegelian arts. These art forms are our lifeblood and we need embrace all of them, not just out of obligation, but hopefully out of true love. I’m not quite certain where 3-D comics fold into this rarefied equation, but as a comic collector in my pre-teen years, I know I envy Ray Zone’s collection.

Even though I have not yet completed reading his compendious book on the origins of 3-D cinema, Ray gives me even more articles he has written recently. I suggest that it must be gratifying to see what has happened to 3-D filmmaking in the past five years and what a validation of his dedication to the format it must be—that filmmakers and producers everywhere are jumping onto the 3-D bandwagon. The Anthony Lane piece, I suggest, is just the beginning of serious, and popular, writing to come.

In fact, Ray’s deep knowledge of 3-D history is only part of his knowledge set. An inveterate 3-D photographer himself, he shows me his new Fuji 3-D camera.

As he talks he snaps a flash photo in the dim room, then turns to show me the screen. To my surprise I see myself in 3-D, without having to wear glasses; the viewing screen is lenticular. When I get home I promptly go to the Fuji website and search for the camera.

Here is a pdf that may tell you more than you ever want to know about 3-D still cameras, with technical terms such as variable inter-ocular and hyper and hypo modes running amok:

The realization that I could possibly join this fraternity of 3-D shutterbugs, even as an elder novice, caused me to think back on cinematographer Karl Struss and his Stereo-Realist camera, the longtime bestselling 35mm 3-D camera that he took to Italy late in his career. He and Ethel lived in Rome for several years when he was photographing 3-D movies that were barely released in this country.

Photo-Realist 3D camera, made by the David White Company 1947-’71.

Some colleagues have accused me of being a Luddite because I continue to avow a deep-seated love for 35mm film, both in image capture at the production stage and in finishing with cut negative and photochemical answer printing. I know that actually being able to accomplish this is becoming an ever more elusive pursuit. But I am not so certain that planar 2-D movies, even photo-chemically finished ones, are on their deathbed. I will address this issue in the future as part of an essay on the inherent differences in film grammar and style between 2-D and 3-D movies, and why I think stereo is not the inevitable sole future (despite James Cameron’s and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s fantasies). But at this moment, I am excited by the challenge of how to step up to stereopsis in movies, especially in the kind of movies I have spent a career choosing to do — intimate, tightly dramatized stories with a small cast, few locations (primarily interiors), devoid of elaborate visual effects and eschewing rapid-fire action and stunts.

I have put on hold my reading of cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s 1996 memoir Magic Hour, intended subject of an upcoming blog essay, in order to write this piece on 3-D movies. Cardiff was the first cinematographer to use a 3-strip Technicolor camera in England, on a wartime documentary called Western Approaches. He chose the same camera system a few years later for several classic Michael Powell films including Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. (According to Rob Hummel, who worked with Cardiff late in his career, the English crews referred to the Technicolor camera housed in its sound blimp — a package of 570 lbs. — as "the magic cottage").

Wendy Hiller, Dean Stockwell and Trevor Howard in "Sons and Lovers," 1960.

Cardiff also had a distinguished career as director, with more than a dozen credits. His most satisfying film in this role is the black and white feature Sons and Lovers, adapted by Gavin Lambert from an early D.H. Lawrence novel. For his work on this film cinematographer Freddie Francis received his first Oscar. It is a tense and dramatic film, photographed mainly in small sets. It was released in 1960 at the time of a real slough in 3-D production. I can’t help but wonder what Cardiff and Francis, two of the greatest cinematographers in cinema history, would have done if they had elected to film Sons and Lovers in 3-D. Cinema stereopsis may have had a far different history during the following half century had they done so, and my generation of film school brats would perhaps now not be looking at 3-D, here in our mature years, with both intrigued and ambivalent eyes.

Photo by Samantha Contis for the NY Times.

Added Note: Just prior to posting this essay, a report was published in the March 14, 2010 New York Times Magazine, "Issues with a Fix for Kids with Issues: The Fight Over Vision Therapy." It investigates the possible correlation between many developmental "issues" such as A.D.H.D. and problems with vision, such as convergence and accommodation. While not directly relevant to the question raised in my blog this week concerning stereopsis and strabismus, it does present the debate between proponents of behavioral optometry and  those of traditional psychic and pharmacological therapy — a fascinating article especially if you have children with developmental "issues."


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