Méliès in 3D

First Chaplin, now Georges Méliès. Much more of this and we’re going to need a new category for stereoscopy. Kristin Thompson, on the essential blog Observations on film art which she co-authors with David Bordwell, has written a piece on a season of 3D films that they saw recently at the Cinémathèque Française. Part of the season was a programme of early 3D films presented by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. And when we say early, we mean really early – Bromberg showed experiments made by French inventor René Bunzli in 1900, ten-second vignettes including “a mildly risqué scene of a man arriving to visit his mistress and another discovering his wife in bed with her lover”.

But the startling revelation is the 3D effect achievable from films which were not shot in 3D in the first place, which is where Méliès comes in. Thompson explains:

Méliès’s early shorts were often pirated abroad, and a lot of money was being lost in the American market in particular. Aftern the Lubin company flooded that market with bootleg copies of a 1902 film, Méliès struck back by opening his own American distribution office. Separate negatives for the domestic and foreign markets were made by the simple expedient of placing two cameras side by side. The folks at Lobster realized that those cameras’ lenses happened to be about the same distance apart as 3D camera lenses. By taking prints from the two separate versions of a film, today’s restorers could create a simulated 3D copy!

Two 1903 titles – I think that they were The Infernal Cauldron [Le chaudron infernal] and The Oracle of Delphi [L’oracle de Delphes] – triumphantly showed that the experiment worked. Oracle survived in both French and American copies, and the effect of 3D was delightful. For Cauldron only the second half of the American print has been preserved. Watching the film through red-and-green glasses, you initially saw nothing in your right eye, while the left one saw the image in 2D. Abruptly, though, the second print materialized, and the depth effect kicked in. The films as synchronized by Lobster looked exactly as if Méliès had designed them for 3D.

One’s first thought is how absolutely delighted Méliès himself would have been at this unexpected effect. The second – more remote – is whether other such instances of films being shot side-by-side for domestic and foreign markets (not an uncommon practice in the silent era) might be found which might demonstrate the same 3D effect. Would we want to see this, or might it be a vulgarisation comparable to the colorisation of black-and-white films? Vulgar or not, I’m rather thrilled by this glimpse of a hidden dimension to early film just waiting to be untapped. Hats off to the lateral thinkers at Lobster for having spotted the possibility.