PRINT September 2015


Philippe Baylaucq, Ora, 2011, 3-D digital video, color, sound, 15 minutes 37 seconds.

“THE QUESTION to which Hollywood now is seeking an answer to [sic] is this: How long can the novelty of such pictures be expected to hold public interest?” This statement on 3-D movies was published in the New York Times—but when? One might easily mistake it for a line from one of the many recent think pieces that have waxed skeptical about the lasting power of digital 3-D blockbusters. In fact, it appeared on February 1, 1953—at the height of the so-called golden age of stereoscopic cinema—in an article detailing growing interest in the polarization process employed by the Natural Vision Corporation.1 Today, 3-D’s failure to gain an enduring foothold after its 1952–54 heyday often serves to support claims that it is a passing fad in our time, too. History repeats itself. But it is striking that even during its first major time to market there was a sense that 3-D might not stick around for long. Many once-new film technologies were quickly accepted and widely adopted (sound, color, wide-screen), others simply weren’t (William Castle–style gimmicks), but 3-D occupies a peculiar, perhaps unique, position between the two camps. Across the decades, its reception has been marked by both the stubbornly persistent promise of a future in which all images will reach out to touch us and the feeling that the parallax effect is always already outmoded—barely less of a stunt than Smell-O-Vision and seconds away from being chucked into the media-historical scrapheap. The novelty value of 3-D—its supposed newness and the sense that it is a mere ornament—has been its blessing and its curse.

Has the post-Avatar wave of stereoscopy already crested? One might look to the declining number of releases, plummeting box-office receipts, and spectacular failure of 3-D television (swiftly abandoned by the home-electronics industry in favor of high-definition 4K) as evidence for such an argument. As easy as it might be to write off 3-D once again, two recent film programs suggest a more complex picture. In one sense, they cast a retrospective gaze on recent 3-D practice, as if to imply that it may be time to start thinking historically about what has come and gone. But they also testify to an enduring fascination with stereoscopic cinema, largely by widening the frame beyond feature-length productions to include 3-D shorts produced by artists. This past May at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, “3-D in the 21st Century” brought together eighteen 3-D features (such as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Wim Wenders’s Pina, both from 2011), prefacing many with an artist’s film and devoting a monographic screening to Ken Jacobs, the filmmaker who has done more than anyone to establish the place of 3-D in experimental cinema. And at the Sixty-First International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in Germany, also in May, a seven-part program titled “The Third Image: 3-D Cinema as Experiment” offered a look at the life of 3-D in short form. Programmed by Berlin-based filmmaker Björn Speidel, it featured films produced between 1935 and the present—including several not made for 3-D—and required no fewer than four types of stereoscopic glasses. 3-D is dead, long live 3-D.

Lucy Raven, Curtains, 2014, 3-D digital video installation, color, sound, 50 minutes.

“THE THIRD IMAGE” kicked off with the 1935 3-D version of the Lumières’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, a remake of one of cinema’s founding moments that uses the anaglyph process to model the planes of the image in relief.2 Though the original 1896 version was monoscopic, its first public projection is a notable parallax fable, at least in the apocryphal telling. As the well-worn story goes, spectators recoiled from the oncoming locomotive as if it would burst out of the screen and run them over. In this regard, the 1935 remake (reshot by Louis Lumière with a stereoscopic camera) might be said to make good on the promise of its better-known ancestor. In a sense, it is fitting that the earlier projection should have been mythologized as 3-D, for 3-D shares with the preclassical mode of representation—which film scholar Tom Gunning has termed the cinema of attractions—an emphasis on shock, astonishment, and a solicitous exhibitionism belonging, if not to figures on-screen, then to the technology itself.

This affinity is made explicit in Jacobs’s Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896 (1990)—screened in the “Passage” program at Oberhausen—which repurposes footage shot by Lumière cameramen: Jacobs has the viewer wear glasses with one clear lens and one dark-gray filter (positioned over the right eye for the first half of the film and over the left for the second half), which reduces the luminosity of the image and slows the speed at which the shaded eye is able to transmit the information to the brain; the resultant delay triggers the “Pulfrich effect,” which endows the traveling shots with the impression of depth. Like the early cinema itself, 3-D is often regarded as a form of spectacle that exists in an antagonistic relationship to narrative integration, and punctures the spatial separation of audience and screen so crucial to the voyeuristic pleasures of the classical mode. For Jacobs, this is a key interest, but for others it constitutes a serious problem. At the time of its release, Bosley Crowther saw Bwana Devil (1952), the first 3-D feature commercially distributed in the United States, as a “sobering reminder that the potency of movies depends upon the quality of their dramatic articulation, not upon the working of hocus-pocus on the eyes.”3 Recent 3-D naysayers, such as Roger Ebert, have echoed this position.4 But “hocus-pocus on the eyes”—or, put differently, the exploration of visual forms with little regard for narrative—has long been a central concern of experimental cinema. How different might 3-D be when freed from the need to contend with storytelling?

Oberhausen offered a wide spectrum of responses to this question. A limited selection of historical works showcased the affinities between 3-D and abstraction, extricating stereoscopic cinema from the seemingly never-ending debate over its realism (or lack thereof). Around Is Around (1951) was one of two polarized 3-D films by Norman McLaren commissioned for the Festival of Britain, a national exposition of science, technology, and the arts. Demonstrations of 3-D were offered alongside presentations of other novelties, such as television projection and stereophony, at London’s Telecinema, attracting nearly half a million people over a five-month run. Made using a cathode-ray oscilloscope, Around Is Around carries the tradition of visual music into three dimensions, creating aural analogies for the image now able to exploit the z-axis. At the time of the film’s release, McLaren emphasized that he was keen to “synthesize three-dimensional space from two-dimensional subject matter”5—i.e., nonreferential graphic patterns—thus understanding the mandate of 3-D not as reproductive, replicating a world in the round, but as a productive site of visual play that contaminates any simple opposition between flatness and depth.

Paul Sharits’s 3D Movie (1975) also explores this tension between surface and relief. The Oberhausen presentation marked the world premiere of a restoration recently completed by New York’s Anthology Film Archives. This little-known work is not listed in Sharits’s official filmography and was rarely exhibited during his lifetime; it was pulled from distribution after only a few months. 3D Movie was made in the same year as Shutter Interface (1975), the artist’s celebrated four-screen color-field installation, which consists (visually) solely of flickering patterns of vibrant, solid hues. Whereas Shutter Interface conforms to a modernist imperative to foreground the screen as surface, 3D Movie immerses the viewer in a blizzard of emergence and recession, as patterns dance across the screen, appearing alternately like television static and biological forms, depending on their density. And yet, taken together, the two works are not as different as they first appear. 3D Movie is an apparent oxymoron, a work of materialist stereoscopy that locates a push toward the production of depth at the most basic level of the filmic medium. Like Sharits’s closely related works Axiomatic Granularity (1973) and Apparent Motion (1975), it was made by magnifying and optically printing film grain with the aid of color filters; but unlike them, it uses the anaglyph process to exaggerate the parallax effect that results. Perhaps this betrayal of a strict faithfulness to the filmic substrate was what led Sharits to pull the work from distribution so swiftly. However, seen today, 3D Movie lends credence to the revisionist understanding of the filmmaker that has recently emerged in the work of scholars such as Ara Osterweil. According to this view, Sharits engages less in the dry axioms of structural film than in orchestrating embodied encounters with light and motion that, in Osterweil’s words, “convulse the spectator into a heightened awareness of physiological and filmic sensation.”6 The use of 3-D can be seen as very much in line with this larger project: In addition to its haptic effect, it invokes the heritage of the stereoscope, a device that art historian Jonathan Crary sees as emblematic of the nineteenth-century shift to a new conception of vision as unreliable and corporeal and as signaling a move away from perspectival organization toward tactile space—issues of great importance across Sharits’s body of work.

Still from Johann Lurf’s Twelve Tales Told, 2014, 3-D digital video, color, sound, 4 minutes.

GIVEN ITS OPEN REMIT, “The Third Image” constituted a tremendous opportunity to unfold a history of 3-D more expansive than is commonly acknowledged, in terms of both the period covered and the practices showcased. On the whole, however, the historical promise made by starting with the Lumières was scarcely fulfilled, with films made in the past few years constituting almost the entire program. Also striking was the near-singular emphasis on illusion and wonderment, without any attempt to address the significance of 3-D in the history of military and scientific film.

It is notable that following the first public demonstration of Polaroid 3-D at the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair, where the technology was used to advertise Chrysler automobiles, it migrated from the movie theater to the theater of war. At the Polaroid War School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, soldiers learned to make vectographs, 3-D aerial stills that helped pilots hit their targets by depicting the landscape in relief, lending a character to 3-D’s claims of increased realism very different from that found in narrative cinema. The National Socialist instructional film Die Flakschiesslehre (Antiaircraft Firing Instructions, 1943), made using a side-by-side 3-D process, teaches soldiers how to hit targets on the ground and in the air, and even includes a lesson in how to properly project and view 3-D films. The Oberhausen program contained only oblique gestures to this history of “useful” 3-D: Scott Stark’s Speechless (2008) repurposed medical stereographs, taken from a 1976 textbook titled The Clitoris, of vulvae in extreme close-up; Johann Lurf’s Embargo (2014) surveilled the Austrian weapons industry in relief; and, much less self-consciously, Philippe Baylaucq’s Ora (2011) aestheticized technology used for killing by capturing half-naked dancers with a restricted form of HD thermal imaging developed for the US military by Lockheed Martin.

Most selections, though, suggested that 3-D beyond commercial cinema might look very much like 3-D within it. Too many uncritically reproduced an industrial logic in short form, and came off as so many calling cards designed to land their makers a job at Pixar or DreamWorks. Drone-like insects swerved through the streets of Paris, a clockmaker’s apprentice seemed like a character cut from Hugo, CGI giraffes catapulted into swimming pools, breasts protruded, and the northern lights glimmered to the accompaniment of a kitsch orchestral score. During this last film, Ikuo Nakamura’s Aurora Borealis 3-D (2015), an exaggerated sigh from an audience member gave way to audible laughter that persisted for the duration of the piece. This screen saver writ large failed as a film but succeeded as a symptom. Reducing a natural wonder to a cheesy effect, it attempted to deliver what Walter Benjamin called the “blue flower in the land of technology.” A spurious effort to resurrect auratic immediacy through artificial means, Nakamura’s work crystallized a problem haunting many contemporary films at Oberhausen: namely, the sense that the mere spectacle of effects was enough—an affirmation of technophilic innovation unsettling to find so well represented in a noncommercial festival context.

Though 3-D might be thought to reassert the primacy of a cinematic experience assailed by pretenders (as it was in the 1950s, with the advent of television), it is useful to recognize that its twenty-first-century resurgence is intertwined with Hollywood’s attempts to rationalize processes of distribution and exhibition and thereby maximize profit. As film scholar John Belton has argued, exhibitors had little incentive to engage in the costly process of converting to digital projection, since it was widely regarded as roughly the equivalent of, if not inferior to, 35 mm. For studios, though, conversion promised immense savings. Enter 3-D. As Belton puts it, the recent wave of 3-D “marks an attempt on the part of the film industry to artificially manufacture a missing novelty phase for digital cinema.”7 Digital 3-D, with its spectacular declaration of difference from flat, analog projection, functioned as a Trojan horse within which digital conversion could be smuggled. This close alliance between 3-D and manufactured newness—that motor of commodity fetishism—hung over many films on view at Oberhausen. It also made the relative lack of older material particularly egregious, for recourse to history might have provided an important means by which strategic yet amnesiac claims to novelty could be debunked.

The necessary acknowledgment that digital 3-D is as much about studio economics as it is about the magic of the movies was at the heart of two of the strongest contemporary works on view in Oberhausen, Johann Lurf’s Twelve Tales Told and Lucy Raven’s Curtains (both 2014). Twelve Tales Told, which also featured in the BAM series, repurposes the opening logos from thirteen major studios, intercutting them five times per second to create a percussive and dazzling audiovisual experience. Lurf produced a 2-D 35-mm version before premiering a 3-D DCP at the Diagonale in Graz, Austria, a shift that adds conceptual heft not only by mimicking the 2-D-to-3-D conversions common in Hollywood (a concern central to Raven as well) but also by bringing the work’s format in line with its content. After all, Hollywood doesn’t have much interest in 35 mm these days, but media conglomerates were central to the revival of 3-D. Twelve Tales Told is a spectacular performance of the double falsity of its own title: Thirteen logos appear and together weave not twelve tales, but a single story of corporate consolidation and false differentiation. The studio logos, each supposedly the site of unique identity, manifest striking graphic similarities in a revelatory litany highlighting how the technological convergence of the digital age has been accompanied by an industrial convergence, with many formerly autonomous studios now owned by giant parent companies.

In Curtains, Raven turns to the outmoded anaglyph process to explore the global work flow of 2-D-to-3-D conversion. This single-channel installation builds on the artist’s ongoing interest in 3-D, visible in the illustrated lecture Low Relief, 2013, and in the site-specific installation Tales of Love and Fear, 2015, produced for Rensselaer’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York. Running on a fifty-minute loop, Curtains comprises ten stereoscopic stills depicting outsourced postproduction in locations ranging from India to China to Canada. First shown in a black box constructed within the gallery at Frankfurt’s Portikus in 2014, Curtains gained added resonance at Oberhausen by being installed within a movie theater that regularly shows 3-D blockbusters. Workers sit in anonymous offices facing screens showing technical interfaces that bear no resemblance to the spectacular effects they are used to produce. Over the course of five minutes, the two components of the stereoscopic image—one red, one cyan—enter from opposite sides of the screen like titular curtains closing. They cross over and resolve into a three-dimensional illusion for just a brief moment before continuing on their way. As they vanish into the wings, the next image enters onto the global stage of digital labor. Many spectators of 3-D complain of headache and eyestrain; in the case of Curtains, these are not potential side effects hopefully avoided, but integral parts of the phenomenological experience of the work. Raven’s formal conceit joins the famous “separation shot” from Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014) in staging “bad” 3-D in order to foreground embodied binocularity. One’s eyes work hard to resolve the 3-D image before and after the slides perfectly overlap, resulting in a sensation of optical misalignment and pain that serves as a corporeal metaphorization of the occluded labor of production. Raven provides the fantastic illusion, but only for an instant. Most of the time, she concentrates on the flatness that undergirds it, taking this graphic quality as a figuration of the world system, guiding the viewer to intellectually and physically recognize the disingenuousness and artificiality of the marvelous image.

Raven’s use of anaglyph 3-D in Curtains enacts a material separation from the processes used in digital blockbusters and points to the internal differentiations that exist within the domain of stereoscopy. She cannily turns to an outmoded device to interrogate the industrial relations that cohere around its present-day inheritor, thereby calling on old media to challenge the twin logics of innovation and planned obsolescence so ubiquitous in the present. In this, Raven is not alone. Though digital 3-D is generally thought of as a technological novelty in Hollywood, artists such as Trisha Baga, Ben Coonley, Jodie Mack, and Blake Williams engage with 3-D in artisanal, low-tech ways, as if to challenge the industry’s dominion over it. Such DIY stereoscopy reaches special heights in Mack’s Let Your Light Shine (2013), which was paired with the candy pop of Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012) at BAM. Mack’s film is remarkable for the stark contrast between its economy of means and its sensational visual effect. Seen with the naked eye, it is an abstract animation of white markings on a black background, but viewed through diffraction-grating glasses that separate light into spectral components, it transforms into a rainbow extravaganza that prompts the viewer to consider the intersections between abstract animation, psychedelia, and the science of optics. Mack has described Let Your Light Shine as “acknowledging a desire for all things natural and spectacular—fireworks, sunsets, rippling water.”8 Yet, crucially, she refrains from mimetically picturing such things in favor of creating a specifically cinematic experience.

Jodie Mack, Let Your Light Shine, 2013, 16 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 3 minutes.

Like Let Your Light Shine, Alexandre Larose’s Brouillard—Passage #14 (2013) pushes the limits of what might properly be considered a 3-D film in provocative and productive ways. Brouillard, which Larosemade by exposing the same thousand-foot reel of expired and discontinued Ektachrome thirty-nine times at 150 frames per second, until the film broke in-camera, is what Speidel called a “3-D bastard,” in that it is neither truly stereoscopic nor flat. This long take consists of a traveling shot that moves through the forest to a lakeshore, with the vibrating coexistence of almost-identical views serving to create a slight parallax effect. Larose’s exquisite film shimmers with a pointillist vitality, using old media to index the ceaseless becoming of the world—a refreshing alternative to the banal perfection of the computer renderings that populate so much digital 3-D.

The mainstream discourse around 3-D is yoked to very limited kinds of filmmaking, with a work’s success largely judged on the basis of its ability to generate revenue. Unsurprisingly, this fails to do justice to the role of stereoscopy within feature filmmaking, where digital 3-D has taken major steps toward the perfection of illusionism while participating in a wider cultural shift toward nonperspectival, tactile spaces. (In this regard, 3-D might be thought to be the inverted twin of the touch screen.) The limitations of this discourse become even clearer when one considers the place of 3-D in artists’ cinema, where interest is growing: May also saw the opening of exhibitions (in London and Berlin, respectively) by Malcolm Le Grice and Cyprien Gaillard that featured 3-D works. To consider this technology—or, rather, these technologies, for 3-D is not one thing—beyond commercial cinema forces one to leave behind a narrative in which 3-D lives or dies at the box office and emerges only as a cyclically recurring blip on the radar of mass-cult novelty. Making such a move opens the possibility of finding a history more continuous and complex than is often acknowledged, in which the possibilities of stereoscopy have been called on for myriad uses, many of which lie far from storytelling, beyond the regime of commodified innovation that governs Hollywood, and are, at times, even positioned against it. 3-D doesn’t have to be all or nothing; parallax cinema is best understood as a parallel cinema, occasionally swerving into the mainstream but often evolving alongside it. Although no one would wish to diminish the triumph of Goodbye to Language, it cannot be forgotten that Godard is far from the first or the only 3-D heretic.

Erika Balsom, a lecturer in film studies and liberal arts at King’s College London, is the author of Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (Amsterdam University Press, 2013).


1. Thomas M. Pryor, “Hollywood’s ‘3-D’s’: Producers List at Least a Dozen Three-Dimensional Features for This Year,” New York Times, February 1, 1953, X5.

2. The anaglyph process uses opposing color filters, usually red and cyan, to encode each eye’s image. By contrast, the polarization process—used in today’s digital 3-D—employs lenses that allow only similarly polarized light to pass through. Both processes result in a slightly different perspective reaching each eye, creating the illusion of three-dimensionality.

3. Bosley Crowther, “Illusions, Limited: Taking a Sober Look at New Movie Processes,” New York Times, February 22, 1953, X1.

4. Roger Ebert, “Why I Hate 3-D Movies,” Newsweek, May 9, 2010,

5. Norman McLaren, “Stereographic Animation: The Synthesis of Stereoscopic Depth from Flat Drawings and Art Work,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers 57, no. 6 (December 1951: 513).

6. Ara Osterweil, Flesh Cinema: The Corporeal Turn in American Avant-Garde Film (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2014), 215.

7. John Belton, “Digital 3-D Cinema: Digital Cinema’s Missing Novelty Phase,” Film History 24, no. 2 (2012): 190.

8. Jodie Mack, “Baby, I’m Your Firework,” Notebook, May 11, 2015,