Wednesday Wonders: Adding depth

Sixty-seven years ago today, on April 29, 1953, the first-ever experimental broadcast of a TV show in 3D happened, via KECA-TV in Los Angeles. If those call letters don’t sound familiar to any of my Southern California audience, that’s because they only lasted for about the first four-and-a-half years of the station’s existence, at which point they became the now very familiar KABC-TV, the local ABC affiliate also known as digital and broadcast channel 7.

The program itself was a show called Space Patrol, which was originally a 15-minute program that was aimed at a juvenile audience and aired daily. But once it became a hit with adults, ABC added half-hour episodes on Saturday.

Remember, at this point in television, they were at about the same place as internet programming was in 2000.

By the way, don’t confuse this show with the far more bizarre British production of 1962 with the same name. It was done with marionettes, and judging from this promotional trailer for a DVD release of restored episodes, it was incredibly weird.

Anyway, because of its subject matter and popularity, it was a natural for this broadcast experiment. This was also during the so-called “golden age” of 3D motion pictures, and since the two media were in fierce competition back in the day, it was an obvious move.

Remember — at that time, Disney didn’t own ABC, or anything else. In fact, the studios were not allowed to own theaters, or TV stations.

The original 3D broadcast was designed to use glasses, of course, although not a lot of people had them, so it would have been a blurry mess. Also note that color TV was also a rarity, so they would have been polarizing lenses rather than the red/blue possible in movies.

Since it took place during the 31st gathering of what was then called the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters (now just the NAB) it was exactly the same as any fancy new tech rolled out at, say, CES. Not so much meant for immediate consumption but rather to wow the organizations and companies that could afford to develop and exploit it.

Like pretty much every other modern innovation in visual arts and mass media, 3D followed the same progression through formats: still photography, motion pictures, analog video and broadcast, physical digital media, streaming digital media.

It all began with the stereoscope way back in 1838. That’s when Sir Charles Wheatstone realized that 3D happened because of binocular vision, and each eye seeing a slightly different image, which the brain would combine to create information about depth.

Early efforts at putting 3D images into motion were akin to later animated GIFs (hard G, please), with just a few images repeating in a loop.

giphy-downsized

While there was a too-cumbersome to be practical system that projected separate images side-by-side patented in 1890, the first commercial test run with an audience came in 1915, with  series of short test films using a red/green anaglyph system. That is, audience members wore glasses with one red and one green filter, and the two images, taken by two cameras spaced slightly apart and dyed in the appropriate hues, were projected on top of each other.

The filters sent each of the images to a different eye and the brain did the rest, creating the illusion of 3D, and this is how the system has worked ever since.

The first actual theatrical release in 3D premiered in Los Angeles on September 27, 1922. It was a film called The Power of Love, and it screened at the Ambassador Hotel Theater, the first of only two public showings.

You might think that 3D TV took a lot longer to develop, since TV had only been invented around this time in 1926, but, surprisingly, that’s not true. John Logie Baird first demonstrated a working 3D TV set in 1928. Granted, it was an entirely mechanical system and not very high-res, but it still worked.

Note the timing, too. TV was invented in the 1920s, but didn’t really take off with consumers until the 1950s. The world wide web was created in the 1960s, but didn’t really take off with consumers until the 1990s. You want to get rich? Invest in whatever the big but unwieldly and expensive tech of the 1990s was. (Hint, related to this topic: 3D printing.)

That 30 year repeat happens in film, too. As previously noted, the first 3D film premiered in the 1920s, but the golden age came in the 1950s. Guess when 3D came back again? If you said the 1980s, you win a prize. And, obviously, we’ve been in another return to 3D since the ‘10s. You do the math.

Oh, by the way… that 30 year thing applies to 3D printing one more generation back as well. Computer aided design (CAD), conceived in the very late 1950s, became a thing in the 1960s. It was the direct precursor to the concept of 3D printing because, well, once you’ve digitized the plans for something, you can then put that info back out in vector form and, as long as you’ve got a print-head that can move in X-Y-Z coordinates and a way to not have layers fall apart before the structure is built… ta-da!

Or, in other words, this is why developing these things takes thirty years.

Still, the tech is one step short of Star Trek replicators and true nerdvana. And I am so glad that I’m not the one who coined that term just now. But, dammit… now I want to go to Tennessee on a pilgrimage, except that I don’t think it’s going to be safe to go there for another, oh, ten years or so. Well, there’s always Jersey. Or not. Is Jersey ever safe?

I kid. I’ve been there. Parts of it are quite beautiful. Parts of it are… on a shitty reality show. Pass.

But… I’d like to add that 3D entertainment is actually far, far older than any of you can possibly imagine. It doesn’t just go back a couple of centuries. It goes back thousands of years. It also didn’t require any fancy technology to work. All it needed was an audience with a majority of members with two eyes.

That, plus performers acting out scenes or telling stories for that audience. And that’s it. There’s you’re 3D show right there.

Or, as I like to remind people about the oldest and greatest art form: Theatre Is the original 3D.

Well, nowadays, the original virtual reality as well, but guess what? VR came 30 years after the 80s wave of 3D film as well, and 60 years after the 50s. Funny how that works, isn’t it? It’s almost like we’re totally unaware that our grandparents invented the stuff that our parents perfected but which we’re too cool to think that any of them are any good at.

So… maybe let’s look at 3D in another way or two. Don’t think of it as three dimensions. Think of it as two times three decades — how long it took the thing to go from idea to something you take for granted. Or, on a generational level, think of it roughly as three deep: me, my parents, and my grandparents.

Talk about adding depth to a viewpoint.

Image licensed by (CC BY-ND 2.0), used unaltered, Teenager wears Real 3D Glasses by Evan via flickr.

In Memoriam: Silent Movie, Los Angeles, silenced

It’s appropriate, really, to repost this article I originally wrote for Filmmonthly.com about Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax which, in retrospect, seemed to have trouble with years ending in seven.

It was in 1997 that it’s owner was murdered by his lover in a faked robbery and 2017 when it shut down for good. Meanwhile, in 1999, Charlie Lustman bought the place on a whim and kept it going until it was taken over by Cinefamily in 2007. Rape allegations from 2014 revealed in 2017 shuttered the business.

I had been to Silent Movie many a time before Larry Austin was killed and, in fact, once talked to Robert Downey, Jr. there at intermission when he was doing research for his role in the film Chaplin. (And damn, is that mofo short. Or maybe it’s just that I’m tall.)

Anyway, 23 years after the fact, here’s my take at the time on a bit of violence in a theater I knew and loved so much.

LOS ANGELES — January 17, 1997. As a sell-out crowd laughs at the flickering images of comedian Larry Semon onstage, one young man in the back row isn’t watching the movie. He gets up and sneaks to the lobby where theatre owner Larry Austin is counting the receipts with another staff member. The young man pulls a gun and shoots Austin fatally, grabs the money and runs back out through the theatre, firing at least one shot into the wall on the way. Austin dies in this apparent armed robbery, but things don’t add up for the LA detectives on the case. In less than two weeks, they have discovered that this incident was a murder for hire, instigated by Austin’s lover and business partner, James Van Sickle, in an attempt to get his hands on Austin’s money, the theatre and its collection of rare silent films. The murder turned up sordid details like earthworms in a Sam Spade full of dirt. Austin probably bilked the former theatre owner out of her property and her films, and everyone involved seemed to be a little bit of a con artist. The real victim through it all was the business itself. In January, 1997, Silent Movie closed its doors. At the time, it seemed like that closure would be forever.

I had the great pleasure of attending Silent Movie many times in the Larry Austin days. Definitely the only regularly operating silent film venue in Los Angeles, and probably the world, the place drew huge crowds, many of them regulars, along with a good number of celebrities. I once met Robert Downey, Jr. there, preparing for his role in Chaplin. Like other famous attendees, he was just part of the crowd, hanging out and enjoying the common bond of experiencing cinema history. Larry Austin did a lot to foster that bond. He would greet the audience at the door personally, introduce the shows with trivia about the evening’s films and frequently host special guests. Silent Movie was always an experience one hundred and eighty degrees away from multiplex madness. Going there felt like an evening out with a few hundred friends to watch a film in someone’s living room. Sure, some of the seats were on the verge of collapse, the carpet was ratty, the ceiling was water-stained and the long-promised rear patio and cappuccino bar never materialized, but that didn’t matter. We were there for the movies that we couldn’t see on a big screen anywhere else and, for the several hours we sat in the dark watching, the audience members were not strangers. They were almost family.

Then, a misguided plot and someone’s greed ended it all. It looked like the property was going to be sold off by Los Angeles County, probably torn down and turned into a mini-mall, the film collection auctioned off into private collections to never be seen again.

Cue music, enter hero on white horse. Charlie Lustman, a local musician and songwriter, while out to grab a falafel at his favorite place on Fairfax, saw the “For Sale” sign on the building. Less than a month later, Silent Movie was his and, in November 1999, the place re-opened, to the gratitude of its many, many fans.

Silent Movie is back, and with a vengeance.

For starters, the place has been refurbished. No longer a slightly tacky, musty room, the carpets, walls and seats have all been re-done. The long promised but never delivered outside patio and upstairs cappuccino bar are open, and the new marquee outside is large and brightly lit, beckoning to the crowds to come in. All these little details hint that Charlie cares about the place. Attending a performance proves it.

In the old days, Larry Austin’s presence and intros gave a homey feel to the experience. Charlie has carried on the tradition, but he’s much hipper than Larry ever was, and he’s also quite a showman. At a recent performance I attended, he took the stage, introduced himself, then held up a sign to triumphantly declare that the performance was sold out. (This is not uncommon at Silent Movie, and I do recommend arriving early.) He also did intermission schtick as a typical hunchbacked assistant, in keeping with the Silent Horror theme of the week. Before the first film, we were treated to a short routine by a magician decked out and made-up just like Conrad Veidt in the evening’s feature, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (reviewed elsewhere here).

Everyone at Silent Movie gets into the routine. The theatre staff help to ensure that everyone finds a seat and that couples attending get to stay that way. When they ask if people sitting between empty seats can move over to accommodate, everyone gladly does; it’s just that kind of friendly atmosphere. On the night I attended, the staff searched for a seat for a late-arriving woman. Finding none, an usher announced in dramatic tones, “Then we shall give her a pillow, and she shall sit where she pleases…” By the way, the show doesn’t start until everyone is inside and in their seats. If it takes fifteen minutes to manage this, so be it. The result is a very relaxed, unrushed experience.

Then, it’s time for the show to begin — but not the main event. The program at Silent Movie usually starts with a few surprises, rare silent shorts that you’re not going to see anywhere else. Like the main feature, they are accompanied by live music from piano or organ, a necessity for silent films and definitely an essential atmosphere builder.

The night I attended, the first item on the bill was Winsor McCay’s 1921 cartoon, The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (also known as The Pet). McCay, newspaper cartoonist turned film animator, is best known for his character Little Nemo. While the story in Rarebit Fiend is slight, the animation is gorgeous, using intricately detailed backgrounds that look engraved, and meticulous character animation. I thought at first that the human characters in the film were rotoscoped — that is, live action footage was hand-traced to create the animation. In fact, they were not. McCay just took that much time and care in his work to give his little humans such reality. The result is a charming and funny story, recounting the dream that our titular fiend has after consuming the also titular rarebit. In case you’ve never heard of rarebit, it’s a cholesterol-laden concoction made of eggs, cheese, butter, beer, ham and toast. No wonder it causes nightmares. In this particular episode, the nightmare involves a cute and perky little… um… puppy-like thing that wanders into the house one day. The wife is enthralled, the husband, our dreamer, isn’t. The puppy, or whatever it is, proceeds to eat. And grow. And eat. And grow. Eventually, it’s terrorizing the city Godzilla style, munching on streetcars and buildings until a fleet of biplanes literally drops the bomb — long before the famous King Kong finale. What makes the film is the strange new pet, which frolics around the place with such gleeful abandon that it’s infectious. If you’re interested in seeing all surviving Winsor McCay films, they’re available on video and DVD.

The other pre-show feature came from Germany. Called, I think, “Die Überthaler,” it’s a very moody, atmospheric, weird piece about a coin that seems to be cursed and the man who finds it in the street. Eventually, he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Pursued by a street thug intent on robbing him, our hero takes refuge in a prostitute’s parlor, only to soon learn that she and her pimp are also intent on assault and theft. The editing, pacing and choice of camera angles in this grim little tale struck me as very modern, with ample use of close-ups, quick cutting, point of view and the like.

But, I do digress…the two short flicks were the pre-intermission entertainment. During intermission, I checked out the patio and cappuccino bar, and both are great places for hanging out. The patio is large and open, but be aware that it’s the haven for the nicotine hounds in attendance, a rarity, since smoking is now banned almost everywhere in Los Angeles. The cappuccino bar is a cozy upstairs room and, the night I was there hosted to a mini-exhibit of figures from famous horror movies courtesy of the Creature Features bookstore in Burbank. Creature Features also provided the post-intermission raffle give-away goodies. Yes, goodies.

Like I said, an evening at Silent Movie is always full of surprises. Whether you live in LA or you plan to visit, a trip to the place is essential. When you’ve gone once, you just have to go again… and again… and again. Don’t be surprised if you start preferring trips to this place over the latest release down at the cineplex.

And don’t be surprised if Charlie Lustman keeps this landmark going for decades. With his enthusiasm and showmanship, the real nickelodeon survives, a living reminder of exactly what it was about movies that made them the medium of the twentieth century.

Image source, Charlesconstantine, unaltered, shared via Creative Commons (cc) Sharealike 3.0 licence.