Three-dimensional film has an interesting history. It has both waxed and waned in popularity over the years, briefly being one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Now, with the development of the modern “megaplex”, 3D film is enjoying a renaissance that likely will not go away.
The Early Days: 1900s-1940s
3D technology actually dates back to the very beginning of film. The earliest 3D film was produced in France in 1903 and was called “L’arivee du train”. It included, as one might expect, the arrival of the train. It took advantage of three-dimensional photography technology from the nineteenth century called “anaglyphic” technology, which uses overlapping blue and cyan colors and glasses to create a three-dimensional illusion.
However, for the first fifty years of film, three-dimensional films were never commercially viable. The process for making them was very expensive and the audience never warmed up to them. Rather, the developments in film technology focused on developing sound and then color, rather than three-dimensionality.
The Fad: 1950s
For about three years in the early 1950s, three-dimensional movies became a craze. The boom years after the Second World War created a great deal of interest in new technologies, and 3D movies found a way to satisfy that interest. Dozens of films were produced during this period, perhaps the most popular being Bwana Devil. Unfortunately, the technology used involved the use of two film projectors, greatly increasing the cost of showing the movies. Therefore, once the fad died out, there was simply no incentive to show 3D films anymore and they died out almost as quickly as they began.
The Dark Ages: 1960s-1970s
After this, 3D films were basically dead. However, in the 1960s, a method was developed for producing color anaglyphs, which enabled filmmakers to produce 3d color films on a single reel. Unfortunately, the “faddiness” of 3D movies from the 1950s and the cultural revolutions that portrayed the 1950s as backwards and tacky never allowed for a renaissance of the medium. A few, low-budget 3D films were made, but nothing was ever commercially viable.
Three-dimensional technology was almost single-handedly revived by the company IMAX in the 1980s. IMAX technology focussed on producing films that would completely envelop the senses of sight and hearing of their viewers. They decided very quickly that three-dimensional technology would be a part of their technology, but they did not like the anaglyphic technology, which tends to distort color. Instead, they used polarized lenses, where two simultaneous images are projected on the screen, and polarized lenses block one of those images from entering each eye. Perhaps ironically, their technology was closer to the technology of the 1950s than the 1970s.
The Megaplex: 2000s to Present
To draw people away from their VCRs and DVD players, movie theaters became increasingly spectacular in the early part of the millennium. They increased the size of their theatres and their screens. Along with this came the willingness to experiment with more advanced technology in terms or projection and sound systems. As a result, these megaplexes were willing to include the same polarized 3D technology that IMAX used. In recent years, some films, such as Superman Begins, included 3D segments. In April 2010, the film The Clash of the Titans was released with a full 3D version that was widely released. The release was a commercial success and we can expect more 3D films to be released in the future.