& GNASH: 3D or not 3D?

BY Chris Niedenthal

3D has been around now for almost a hundred and sixty years. Introduced to the public at London’s 1851 World Exhibition, Queen Victoria loved it

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Shakespeare wouldn’t have laughed at the title above. Neither will you, probably. But Shakespeare wouldn’t have had the foggiest what it meant. You do. And it’s a serious question, because it seems the film world is really becoming interested in this latest technological fad. Ever since James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar hit the world’s screens, the possibility of creating films in 3D has become ever more compelling and, perhaps more importantly, feasible. The funny thing is, we see in 3D. That’s why we have 2 eyes, each registering a slightly different image that, when superimposed, is three-dimensional. We can see depth. So we see in 3D all the time, yet we take it so much for granted that we don’t even think about it. And, even though our eyes take it for granted that we see everything three-dimensionally, we go to the cinema and are perfectly happy to see a two-dimensional film – flat as a pancake. We also take photographs of our mother-in-law for instance, and are perfectly happy to view her in two dimensions. Flat as a pancake. Perhaps in this particular case, that’s understandable.

But 3D has been around now for almost a hundred and sixty years. Introduced to the public at London’s 1851 World Exhibition, Queen Victoria loved it. As soon as photography was invented, clever people immediately had the idea of creating cameras with two lenses, and also the contraptions to view the finished result – from simple handheld devices to big machines for many viewers. You can see for yourself in Warsaw’s magical FOTOPLASTIKON (at Al. Jerozolimskie 51, opposite the Palace of Culture) – a machine built in 1905 that is one of the few remaining in working condition worldwide. 24 people can sit on stools around a circular wooden construction with brass fittings. Inside the machine, an electric motor works a series of pulleys to haul the whole show round to all the little brass viewing binoculars. Kids will love it, and adults will be fascinated. It’s a marvellous feast for your eyes, as you watch 48 three-dimensional photos of Warsaw 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or Japan and other exotic countries at the turn of the last century. Or, for that matter, my own photographs taken last year, of contemporary Warsaw in 3D. I shot them on a funny old Kodak stereo camera from the 1950’s, when 3D was a fad. Or come December, you will probably be able to see my colour photographs of martial law in Poland that were originally shot on colour slide film using a standard 35mm camera, as flat as a pancake too - but have since been magically converted by computer to give the illusion of three dimensions. For some critics, such photos give the impression of cardboard cutouts in childrens’ games. Look closely though, and you may be amazed at the lifelike qualities of the photos. The soldiers warming their hands over the coal braziers in the foreground, with the rest of the street, houses and cars in the background. It is only an optical illusion in this case because the original photos were flat, so we only think we can see round the corners or edges. Your brain works wonders though, to fool you into thinking you are seeing the real McCoy.

All that is old hat nowadays. Cinemas have been showing films in 3D for years too, but they were usually cranky old productions, made using awkward and highly unportable equipment. The projectors were not much good either then. Those were often the monster movies of the 30’s, when the advertising slogan was “watch it in terrifying 3D”. You had to wear special red and blue glasses then. Today’s latest technology means you wear special polarising glasses, more expensive of course, but a step up the ladder in terms of quality. Avatar showed us what can be done using today’s latest technology. Other film directors and producers are now jumping on the bandwagon and announcing that their newest productions will also be in 3D. Poland’s Jerzy Hoffman has said his latest historical epic about The Battle of Warsaw 1920 featuring actor Daniel Olbrychski as Marshall Józef Piłsudski will also be shot in 3D. Whether we need yet another historical epic is debatable - but making it using three-dimensional technology is not. With master cinematographer Sławomir Idziak behind the camera, it might well be a magnificent film. Last month I watched the Warsaw premiere of a short documentary film Liquidation 08’44 [Likwidacja 08.1944] about the Łódź (Litzmannstadt) Ghetto in World War Two, shot in real-life 3D by Michał Bukojemski, always a man of the moment when it comes to cutting edge technology. Together with journalist Marek Miller, they made what is probably Poland’s first documentary film shot in 3D. Bukojemski shot today’s scenes, and re-enactments of scenes from the war, using a fairly simple form of what 3D equipment is available today. The original, flat photos of the Łódź Ghetto taken in the 1940’s were converted using computers to make them appear three-dimensional – and they work to an extraordinary extent. For me, they were almost better than the real-life 3D images of the city Bukojemski shot today. Hell, they WERE better, because we are getting used to the 3D world of today, but find a 3D image of the horror of a wartime ghetto, 66 years ago, unimaginable, unbelievable. The illusion is there – and, believe me, it works.

Is 3D here to stay then? For me, the answer is yes. We demand reality in everything nowadays, and computers exist that can provide the virtual kind. If computer games and TV itself are slowly – but very surely - crossing the great divide between 2 dimensions and 3, and Fuji has already produced a relatively simple 3D digital still camera, then the bandwagon is the only place to be.


Here’s a photo of mine shot in November 1989 – of the “Velvet Revolution” in Prague, Czechoslovakia. One doesn’t usually compose photographs with the centre of interest in the, umm, centre, but here, I think, is one of those exceptions. The Czechoslovakian flag grabs your attention straightaway, and the rest of the picture falls into place, with the phenomenon of perspective working its miracle all the way down Wenceslas Square in the city centre.

The “Beside The Point” aspect of this photograph is perhaps not quite beside the point this time: this photo would look great if shot in (or even converted to) 3D. The flag in the foreground would jump straight out at you, then the individual rows of young people would take on a life of their own.