Ever since the 3D process was invented and improved by early 20th century pioneers like William Friese-Greene, Frederick Eugene Ives, Edwin Porter, and William Waddell, audiences have been fascinated with 3D movies – a trend/fad that seems to come in cycles (seems like every 30 years).
The first wave started in the early 1950s, often referred to as the Golden Era of 3D. Most of the movies shown during this era were displayed using a dual-strip process, using Polaroid filters. (Two prints, one carrying the left eye, the other carrying the right. This required 2 projectors and a special motor synced them up. Because polarized light is used, a silver screen was needed). Note that analglyph (red/green), while having been invented in the late 1800s, was rarely used for movies at this time.
The 3D boom was kicked off with the success of Bwana Devil, a 1952 movie based on the Tsavo maneating lions. It’s the first 3D feature in color, and Robert Stack is in it. April 1953 saw the releases of Man in the Dark and House of Wax (in stereophonic sound!) Vincent Price, who was in House of Wax, would later star in other 3D features. Now that studios saw that 3D flicks can lure people away from their TV sets, they released more 3D like: It Came From Outer Space, Robot Monster, Kiss Me Kate, and Creature From the Black Lagoon, probably the most well known 3D movie. It spawned a sequel – Revenge of the Creature, which also did well at the box office.
In 1970, Allan Silliphant and Chris Condon created a 35 mm single-strip 3D format, which printed two images squeezed side-by-side and used an anamorphic lens to widen the pictures through polaroid filters. This process (called Stereovision) was used in a softcore comedy called The Stewardesses, which cost about $100 grand to make, but ended up earning more than $27 million, making it the most profitable 3D movie ever – that is, until Avatar came around.
The 80s Boom
In 1981, an American company called Filmways and another campany called Lupo-Anthony-Quintano released Comin’ At Ya!, a 3-D Western. Directed by Ferdinando Baldi, the film starred Tony Anthony, Victoria Abril and Gene Quintano, and officially kicked off the next wave of 3D mania. The film used a single strip 3D process (2 images printed onto one frame – called “over and under” – and projected in Polarized 3D). 1982 saw the release of Parasite, a post-apocalyptic horror/sci-fi flick about a parasite-type monster. It has Demi Moore in her first starring role (starring along side her first hubby Freddie). The movie was directed by Charles Band, who later directed Trancers. Band was responsible for producing stuff like Laserblast and Tourist Trap, and would eventually start Full Moon pictures. Encouraged by Parasite‘s success, Band went on to direct another 3D feature the following year, called Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, a really bad futuristic cheesefest starring Kelly Preston and Richard frickin’ Mall! Even though the movie is called “The Destruction of Jared-Syn”, Jared-Syn actually gets away. On the plus side: the poster for the film kicked ass.
Another popular 3D movie in 1982 was the second sequel to the Friday the 13th series, which was in Super 3D! There’s lots of 3D tricks in it, like yo-yos, a spear to the eye, and Jason squeezing a guy’s head until his eye pops out at the audience (in super 3D, of course).
The film was shot with the Arrivision “over and under” camera, the same camera used on another “second sequel” to a horror flick – Jaws 3-D. Jaws 3-D features Dennis Quaid in his first lead role and takes place at SeaWorld. At the end, the shark blows up real good. Around the same year, Orion released another “second sequel” in a series – Amityville 3-D. It had a cool poster with a monster claw reaching out of one of the windows of the Amityville house.
Scene from Amityville 3D
How weird is that? Three sequels to horror films in 3-D, and they’re all Part 3’s.
Naturally, we can’t forget Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, which has Molly Ringwald and the awesome Michael Ironside in it. Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Animal House) produced it. It’s dumb, but hey – it’s in 3D. Being smart just gets in the way.
Third Wave – We’re in It Now
The ball got rolling again with the IMAX 3D success of The Polar Express in 2004. Things went mainstream with Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) and the remake of My Bloody Valentine (2009). MBV uses something called RealD Cinema – a hi-res digital 3D technology, using one projector. RealD uses circularly polarized light, which means you can move/tilt your head around without losing the 3D perception. The glasses you wear have special polarized lenses.
While 2008 saw a small number of films released in 3D, 2009 opened up the floodgates. You may recognize these titles: Coraline, Monsters vs. Aliens, Up, The Final Destination (AKA Final Destination 4, shot in HD 3D, and was a hit, beating out Rob Zombie’s Halloween II), and, of course, James Cameron’s Avatar, which has, to date, grossed over $2.7 billion worldwide. Avatar was released in 2D, RealD 3D, Dolby 3D, XpanD 3D and IMAX 3D formats, and shot using the 3-D Fusion Camera System.
2010 and 2011 saw even more 3D features, including Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3, Piranha 3-D (that’s a remake of the 1978 movie), Resident Evil: Afterlife, Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, and the final two Harry Potter movies.
Comin’ at Ya!
A new restoration of the 1981 3D western was announced by producer Tony Anthony, who upgraded the movie into a new 3D digital format. The “reinvention” of the movie features black-and-white sequences punctuated with exaggerated colors (they call it “Noir 3D”). The film got a special screening at the Berlin Film Festival on February 12, 2011.
Update: July 2013
Somebody on IMDB said that Comin At Ya failed to reach an audience during its re-release in Texas theaters (January, 2012) and was subsequently bought back from Drafthouse Films by Tony Anthony. Don’t fret, though, it seems 3D is here to stay. 2012 saw the releases of Underworld: Awakening, The Avengers, Men in Black 3, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Dredd, and Silent Hill: Revelation, all in 3D. 2013 so far has seen the 3D releases of Texas Chainsaw, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, World War Z, and Man of Steel.
Sources for this article: Wikipedia, The Cinema Snob