The world of visual entertainment is in a turmoil. The background of stable technical procedures that has enabled the motion picture industry to concentrate on the dramatic elements of its films is being shattered by two new processes with tempting possibilities of financial success. These are the three-dimensional and the wide-screen motion picture. They come at a time when theaters have been closing and attendance rapidly decreasing.
What do the three-dimensional movie and the wide screen add to a motion picture? Do they really improve the artistic and aesthetic qualities of the medium to the degree necessary to recapture lost audiences permanently? In what ways are motion pictures inherently superior or inferior to television? Are there any factors unique to motion pictures that make movies indispensable to the entertainment field? Above all, what of subscription television? In view of the answers to these basic questions, are motion pictures and television friends or enemies, and what will their ultimate relationship be?
The complete reproduction of the seen world by artificial means is the ideal end of the visual entertainment field. Television and motion pictures are dynamic representations of this world. Their possibilities and limitations are inherently linked to the capacity of vision to induce in us a willing belief.
A skillful control of the mechanisms of vision is, therefore, of the utmost importance in the new developments in the motion picture field. The three-dimensional film in particular is a very sensitive medium, capable of high realism and powerful emotional effects when properly handled but susceptible to annoying distortions and great visual discomfort if ignorantly or carelessly controlled. Since the process of seeing depth has been explained ad nauseam in recent months, we need spend only a moment on it.
Each pair of human eyes receives a pair of images. The two are slightly different. This difference is the dominant factor in depth perception. Together with the focus of the eyes and the directions of sight, these images are all the evidence the brain has from which to interpret the world of space. A wrong interpretation can be more dangerous than blindness, for it encourages you to move with confidence rather than with caution. Nevertheless, you must make an interpretation, and you do so, effortlessly and immediately.
In three-dimensional movies the fundamental problem is to create within the eyes two images which correspond as nearly as possible with those seen in the real world and thus to obtain the same interpretation from the brain. If the images in the two eyes are identical, as when viewing a normal movie, the mind has learned to know it is looking at a flat picture, even though it successfully reconstructs the solid original from such depth-indicating features as perspective and known size of objects. If the images are different the mind automatically interprets the difference in terms of depth. This is the reason that two pictures are required in 3-D and that a means of properly assigning them to the eyes—polarizing spectacles—is required.
Within limits we can reasonably reproduce the necessary pair of images. Certain difficulties of great importance in the development of the three-dimensional movie are, however, encountered. All involve visual discomfort, which detracts from the effectiveness of the entertainment and may ultimately drive away business.
Fortunately only one such difficulty is inherent in the medium—the breakdown of the accommodation-convergence ratio. This is simply a way of saying that in normal vision your eyes keep focused on the point where the lines of sight of your two eyes cross. This point moves back and forth in space depending on the distance of the object you want to see. In 3-D, however, although the point of sight still moves, your focus must remain fixed for the distance of the screen.
The evidence seems to be that if objects are allowed to approach no closer to the observer than halfway to him from the screen, most individuals will experience no visual discomfort—in fact, some authorities insist that the eyes are benefited by it. The momentary violation which is involved in throwing daggers or baseballs or flying saucers at the audience proves acceptable to most people. If a movie is comfortable to 95 percent of all observers but uncomfortable to older people with no visual adaptability, is it satisfactory? If it is comfortable for one hour, will it be for three? These are the kinds of questions the technicians must answer.
Certain other unnatural factors spring from mechanical difficulties. The two pictures may not line up vertically on the screen; they may be separated horizontally by too great a distance; they may be out of synchronization. All of these produce visual discomfort of varying intensity in different people.
Unfortunately some motion picture companies, in their haste to be the first on the market, have permitted inexcusably gross examples of such defects. Actually all of these defects can be mechanically eliminated, and the picture freed from the human errors of the operator. They unquestionably will be held well within safe limits or entirely eliminated as better equipment is built and controls established. For instance, in the Vectograph of the Polaroid Corporation the relation of the two pictures to each other can be built into the film since they are printed superimposed on the same film frame.
One of the great dangers in the 3-D movement is that the overemphasis of the novel will obscure any artistic values that exist, and will place the medium in the fad category. The effect of throwing things at the audience is so sensational that no producer has yet been able to resist the temptation. In fact, the first few such pictures have depended largely on this one device to carry thoroughly mediocre stories. This sort of thing can serve only for a short time the useful purpose of introducing audiences to the medium. Furthermore, the factor of visual discomfort has distinctly not been reduced to a minimum. The complete effort seems to have been to "wow 'em." But sensational effects rapidly become "old hat."
The three-dimensional world is a plastic world. It is a world of sculpture rather than of painting. It adds a dimension to form and design. It is thus a different artistic medium from the two-dimensional world of the classical movie. There has been a tendency among technicians to treat it as a means of reproducing the true shape of things, whereas it should be treated as an opportunity to mold them subtly and artistically into the most pleasing configurations. This is doubly important in view of the fact that 3-D adds nothing to the capacity to tell a story, as sound does, but adds richness to reality, as color does. This capacity should be capitalized.
Its plasticity is a danger as well as an advantage. Human beings with misshapen heads and yard-long necks are not pleasant, yet they have appeared in close-ups in all the 3-D movies I have seen, although new camera designs at least permit this to be eliminated. At any rate, it is inexcusable to turn an asset into a defect because of a lack of technical equipment, to say nothing of sheer carelessness. Furthermore, sensitivity to shape distortions increases as familiarity with the medium increases.
When the technical aspects of 3-D are subordinated to the story, its power to heighten reality, and therefore dramatic effect, is truly enormous. Its capacity to separate objects increases the awareness of detail, the consciousness of texture and arrangement. Above all, the perception of depth is in itself a satisfying experience; the sense of a reach into distance is aesthetically powerful. It need not be exaggerated. A quiet dependence on quality to add intensity and visual pleasure to an absorbing story should yield a genuine sense of satisfaction from a 3-D movie. This satisfaction should be such that a subsequent viewing of a flat movie would seem dull indeed. When Hollywood produces pictures of artistic merit in which the gripping space realism and the aesthetic qualities of depth are capitalized, the sensational effects minimized, and visual discomfort eliminated, the real possibilities of 3-D can be assessed.
The addition of depth to motion pictures on standard screens heightens reality. However, it does not surround you as a real scene does, but only exists in the pyramidal space established by your eyes and the four edges of the screen even though the pyramid continues through the screen to infinity. Since substantially all the image is behind the screen, you are in effect looking through a rather confined window into a narrow segment of space. Around the window you are still conscious of the theater. In the 3-D movie this window seems smaller than in the flat movie.