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.

6 responses

  1. Méliès would have been thrilled. Alternate versions (or at least shots) exist for many silent films. Unfortunately, Chaplin used alternate takes more than the same shot with the foreign negative. I’m pretty sure that “foreign” versions of some Laurel & Hardy silent films survive. The Méliès films were usually shot from a static camera position, so that would make the stereo effect easier to produce.

  2. Chaplin may have experimented with 3D, or least some of his technicians (including Rollie Totheroh) did. Among the ‘Unknown Chaplin’ reels at the BFI there are four reels which show attempts (with some success) to demonstrate a stereoscopic effect that did not need glasses. They don’t feature Chaplin, but some of his technicians (unidentified) appear in the films, gesturing at the camera to show, occasionally, the 3D effect. The process is an example of ‘oscillatory projection’, discovered by British inventor Theodore Brown, where – to put it simply – the camera moved backwards and forwards creating an effect by which the edges of the picture were wobbly but the centre was sharp and in 3D, when it worked.

    Here are the links from the BFI database, with catalogue descriptions by Chaplin scholar Frank Scheide:

    CHAPLIN OUT-TAKES CAN 2 http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/750637
    CHAPLIN OUT-TAKES CAN 256 http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/751404
    CHAPLIN OUT-TAKES CAN 261 http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/751476
    CHAPLIN OUT-TAKES CAN 294 http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/752304

  3. There’s a tantalising behind-the-scenes photo of Chaney’s HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME being shot by two cameras side-by-side for the same reason.

    The same result would be achievable if you had both versions.

  4. More information on the phenomenon has been provided by Rodney Sauer in a fascinating post to Nitrateville, http://nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?t=7137. The reason the Méliès films work in 3D is because he had his cameras set up (quite unwittingly) to facilitate this:

    Although he NEVER intended it as a stereoscopic process, George Melies apparently devised a special camera to create both his European and American negatives simultaneously. Because his trick films required very careful set-ups, and cranking the camera backwards and forwards by measured amounts, he didn’t want to film each twice. He apparently created a camera (which Serge [Bromberg, of Lobster Films] apparently has found no reference to in any historical documentation) that had side-by-side film and lens mechanisms, controlled by a single crank. This means that if you can find both the American and European prints of a Melies film, you have the material to make a stereo 3D film. Since survival of these films is spotty, the three examples that we saw often have artifacts — sometimes the film starts in one eye, turns to 3D for the middle, and ends on the other eye; and in one case one eye is from a beautiful hand-painted print while the other eye is black and white — the 3D effects are quite clear.

    Unfortunately he points out that Hollywood films which used adjacent cameras to film American and European versions were set too far apart for any 3D effect, and because they were manned by different cameramen who were unlikely to be cranking in perfect unison, the result would be visually nauseating as well as not stereoscopic.

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