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Stereoscopic Cinema
and the Origins of
3-D Film, 1838-1952

By Ray Zone

 

BOOK REVIEW

Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952
By Ray Zone

University Press of Kentucky : Lexington, Kentucky : 2007
ISBN 0-8131-2461-1 (978-0-8131-2461-2) : 232 pages : hardcover : $42.00

Reviewed by Carl Bennett
Long-time 3-D expert Ray Zone, known best for his epic work in 3-D comic books, has composed another definitive work on a sparcely documented segment of cinematic history — the stereoscopic film. This well-researched and well-written volume not only examines the commonly-known stereoscopic inventors, technologies and productions, such as those of William Van Doren Kelley and Jacob Leventhal, but also presents information about a number of processes (particularly those of the silent era) previously unknown to this reviewer — some nothing more than unrealized patent filings. Supported by numberous illustrations of photographs, patent documentation, technical drawings and marketing materials, Zone methodically examines the step-by-step development of stereoscopic film technologies, their marketing efforts, and the public exhibition of their oftentimes single-digit number of productions.

Of high value is Zone’s challenging of certain assumptive conclusions, perpetuated from one modern author to another in a chain of literary citations, such as the claim that William Friese-Greene was the first successful taker of stereoscopic images on motion picture film. Some claims are not definitively debunked — they may never be, given the challenges of locating and consulting sparce surviving contemporary documentation — but Zone is right to question unsupported assumptions and the reader is presented enough information on both sides of an issue to draw their own conclusions.

Happily, Zone elaborates on previous works on cinematic technologies and stereoscopic film by presenting additional details on the best-known processes and film series, including those of the early 1920s boom such as Laurens Hammond’s Teleview, Kelley’s Plasticons and Leventhal’s Plastigrams and Stereoscopiks. A satisfying amount of information is presented on the largely unsuccessful experiments of C.F. Jenkins, the Lumière brothers, Edwin S. Porter, and George K. Spoor and Paul John Berggren. Also documented are a host of unrealized patents for stereoscopic camera, processing and projection systems.

The book’s singular focus on the experimental stereoscopic technologies that led up to the 3-D film boom (and rapid bust) of the early 1950s gives the reader a comprehensive perspective, supported by little gems of historical detail, on the seemingly myriad trial-and-error experiments that culminated in one of the film geek’s most dear cinematic gimmicks. This historical perspective of Zone’s will impress upon the reader the complex technical challenges that needed to be overcome in the development of successful 3-D film processes, and may even impart some residual legitimacy to the ongoing efforts of serious and tireless stereoscopic professionals whose modern work largely fails to escape the pigeonhole marketing of 3-D film as juvenile entertainment.

 
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