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.
Complete reality could be achieved only by filling the entire field of vision with the image. Normal eyes see a field of 180 degrees or more. You do not feel enmeshed in the world that you see unless peripheral vision is present as well as central vision. The sense of removal can be eliminated and reality heightened by extending the two dimensions as well as by adding the third. This is the basis of the wide-screen movie. Cinerama and Cinemascope are efforts in this direction. They are not three-dimensional at all, but flat, wide-vision movies which make the window so large that the eyes are considerably less conscious of its existence. Cinerama employs a wide, curved screen piecing together three pictures to fill it. Cinemascope and others condense a wide scene into a narrow one in a single picture and expand it again into a wide one on projection, all by means of special lenses. This process is called anamorphosis, which is simply a mathematical word meaning controlled transformation of shape.
Since consciousness of being in the scene is their dominant element of realism, and a very powerful one, these processes are most effective when the observer seems to be moving through the scene—automobile rides, roller coasters, and the like—or when panorama elements are involved where the action is fast-moving—chases on horseback, battle scenes, and distance shots. In such scenes the observer is engulfed in a dynamic world of vision nearly to the point of accepting it as reality. The wide screen is least effective when the central focus of attention is on a small area of action against a motionless background—scenes in a room, the intimate close-up. Under these conditions any action in the wide surrounding area is a distraction.
Both Cinerama and Cinemascope avoid the technical problems of 3-D. The question of visual discomfort does not arise. The distortions of shape are those of the ordinary movie. But they do create some problems of their own. Cinerama has borderline trouble and differences in color between the pictures, synchronization problems, and, of course, triple expenses and triple breakdown dangers. Furthermore, for the full effect of immersion in the scene the size of the audience is necessarily limited. For observers on the side, distortions in the form of narrow people and scenes can be very great. It would seem that at best Cinerama is a special spectacle for a few theaters in large cities. Its expenses are too great for the small-town circuits. Cinemascope is in a sense a compromise. It sacrifices some screen width over Cinerama and thus lowers the peripheral effect, but in return gains in simplicity and in lower cost by requiring only one camera and projector. Of all these processes its use will cause the least disturbance to the industry.
The end product of these new processes is, of course, a combination of 3-D and the wide screen. 3-D movies are already being shown on larger screens, which greatly enhances effect over the old standard size. Certainly it is difficult to believe that some permanent combination of the two will not be the ultimate result.
The relationship of the movies to television is still in its formative stage. Unquestionably the growth of home entertainment has severely curtailed movie attendance. Theaters have closed everywhere (20,000 were open in 1948, 16,000 in 1952). Attendance has been disastrous, from 90 million per week in 1948 to 45 million in 1952—a 50 percent cut in four years! This has largely been ascribed to television.
There are about 20 million television sets in use in the country now. Furthermore, this figure has been reached while television is still a thoroughly inferior visual medium. Its capacity for clarity of detail is poor, it lacks color and tonal quality, its distortions are great, and it is beset with continuous momentary difficulties such as "ghosts," "halo," and "streaking." All of these can and undoubtedly will be improved.
Furthermore, color can already be televised and the addition of the third dimension is not technically difficult. Screens can be made quite large though it is hardly practical in the home to invade the peripheral vision area. Of course, the definition of the image must remain inferior to that of the movies, and reception disturbances are bound to occur, particularly in cities.
Are the movies then doomed to an inferior, secondary position? Even assuming the permanence of 3-D movies on large screens, their superiority in quality over television must gradually decrease as television itself adds color and 3-D and reduces its technical imperfections. The difference in quality certainly cannot for any period of time be any more in favor of the movies than it has been during the period in which movie attendance has been halved. Thus on a straight competitive basis it is no wonder that a thoughtful segment of the entertainment world is very pessimistic about the future of the motion picture theater.
However, there are factors in favor of the movies. In spite of some of its crudities, its lack of caution in the present 3-D development, and its persistent reproduction of stereotypes, the motion picture industry is still a very vital and imaginative industry. In spite of constant complaint about the general caliber of motion pictures, superior pictures are produced. The industry does not and probably never will lack artistic ability. Quality pictures for the quality audience are increasing in number and having unexpected success. The motion picture theater could undoubtedly continue to exist at the present level. People do like to go out in the evening; young couples in particular find staying at home an unsatisfactory event.
This whole discussion, however, is wide of the mark, for it presupposes only direct competition between movies and TV. The problem is much broader than this.
To understand the relationship fully, we must first distinguish between the motion picture theater and the motion picture producer. The theater is no longer the producer's only important customer. About $20 million a year is currently spent on films made for television. As an example, last year Columbia's subsidiary, Screen Gems made a contract with Ford for thirty-nine half-hour screen dramas, Ford to pay about three fourths of the cost for the right to two television showings.
Furthermore, the producers have a large backlog of old films. Only about 20 percent of the potential audience has ever seen any one of these films. Thus there is a large source of revenue immediately available. Television is an omnivorous consumer. Its programming problem staggers the imagination. The producers of pictures are limited only by the capacity of television to pay—but this is the rub. So long as television is supported by advertising, it can pay no more than advertisers can afford, and it can pass on to picture producers only a portion of this. Thus there is a restrictive ceiling to television income, and to motion picture income from television. It costs Hollywood one million dollars for ninety minutes of first-rate entertainment.
The way out of the strait jacket obviously is to collect from the user for television. If one tenth of the country's set owners paid one dollar for any single evening, the revenue would be $2 million.
Subscription television is not just a dream. It has been tried out, notably over a three-month period in Chicago under the control of the National Operations Research Center of the University of Chicago. The results indicated clearly that the public will pay. Three hundred families from all financial levels averaged nearly two performances per week to see telecasts of movies two or more years old at one dollar per performance. The national average movie attendance per family is about once every two weeks.
The problem involved is that of finding an adequate and substantially foolproof method of collection. There are three current solutions, each backed by a different group. All involve the broadcasting of a scrambled image which can only be unscrambled by the proper device on the receiving set. Phonevision, backed by the Zenith Radio Corporation, requires a telephone call to operate the unscrambler. You are billed by mail. The Chicago experiment was on this system. The International Telemeter Corporation, controlled by Paramount, employs a coin-in-the-slot device. Skiatron involves the purchase of an IBM code card with desired programs punched on it. Insertion of the card in the set does the unscrambling.
Under any of these systems you can enjoy a two- or three-hour show free of commercials and not chopped up into the present quarter- or half-hour segments. Ultimately there is no reason why you should not have the best of performances with a reasonably large screen, in three dimensions and full color, with substantially no effort on your part and only one admission fee for the number of people you may choose to pack into your living room.
I believe that nearly all subscription shows would be on film except for major sports events—and incidentally this pay-as-you-see process is the answer to the football, baseball, boxing television problem. The space mobility, the capacity to control time, and the ability to be stored are far too valuable assets of movies to be overlooked by television. Nor is the ability to improve the performance after it has been given to be dismissed lightly.
The premiere of a feature movie is logically and properly an event for television, the truly superior send-off. This is an idea that seems to horrify the motion picture industry because of its supposed effect on the motion picture theater. The argument is that if people can see the best pictures at home they will not go out, and therefore such pictures should only appear on television after they have exhausted the theater audience.
Consider the 20 million television sets in the country and assume that a new movie adequately advertised its premiere over television at 8 p.m. some Tuesday evening. Assume again that 10 percent of the owners pay a dollar, totaling $2 million. Top-grade feature pictures now receive at least 50 percent of the box-office receipts from the theaters. At this same rate the movie premiere on television will gross $1 million for the producer. He has recaptured his investment even before the film is shown in the theater!
On Wednesday morning there are still 140 million people who have not seen the picture. Furthermore, it has received the best conceivable advertising by the mere fact of the successful television performance. It is now ready for distribution to the movie theaters with 20 million word-of-mouth critics, many of whom will want to see it again with the greater clarity the movies will always have. With this kind of high-powered send-off a successful normal feature picture should outdraw the present 13 million average; the class A picture, the present 23 million.
The phonograph and the radio, because they enabled music to be heard in the home, have not decreased attendance at concerts over the long run. On the contrary, because music can be heard in the home, the attendance at concerts has increased enormously, and music lovers in the country have multiplied.
The motion picture industry has within itself the capacity to survive. Its new forms are imposing on it some very difficult technical growing pains. The three-dimensional form needs new camera and projector designs, much more careful optical control. The industry's prime consideration, however, should be to foster all those aspects of television which will promote the future of motion pictures. It should view television as the most powerful advertising medium for motion picture theaters. If it needs a savior, that savior is much more likely to be television than either 3-D or wide screen or both.