Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Golden Age of 3D!

Could this be describing today? … No!…. What’s considered   ‘The Golden Age of 3D’ was actually from 1952 to 1955!

Film-makers have attempted to create the ‘illusion of depth’ since the earliest days of film. Experiments with 3D movies as we know them—with glasses—actually started as far back as 1897! But most attempts were for novelty, or impractical, and never got off the ground as a serious format for film until the 1950’s.

Patent drawing for invention of ‘set-back.’ Patent filed in 1933, and granted in 1936 to Max Fleischer. (click on to enlarge for viewing)
When Seymour worked as an animator at Fleischer Studios in the 1930’s they were using a completely different method to create the illusion of depth. It was technically called ‘the set-back’ and was used in many Fleischer films. This process, patented by Max Fleischer, involved building large miniature sets that sat on a turntable.  Painted drawings on clear celluloid sheets were placed in a special holder in front of the set. A special camera placed in front of the holder sequentially photographed each cell … after which the set was turned ever so slightly. When projected this created a terrific 3D effect… and in spite of considerable expense, was used in many Fleischer films. A number of other animation studios developed their own multiplane process with the same goal in mind—achieving a 3D effect. 

Photo: Dave Fleischer shown with 'set-back' for opening scene of Mr. Bug Goes to Town Fleischer Studios, released December 1941. Collection: Virgnia Mahoney

An interesting thing happened to the film industry in the early 1950’s. Movies had reached a low point in attendance--- television, an increasingly popular medium had taken away the audience! Attendance in theaters fell from 90 million in 1948 to 46 million in 1951. A favorite joke in our house was of a man standing at the box office asking what time the feature started, and the box office girl asking... "What time can you be here?" In 1952, just as theaters were desperately looking for something special they could offer the public, along comes the film Bwana Devil, the first popular 3D film in what would be referred to as 'The Golden Age of 3D.' Suddenly theaters could offer something TV could not...3D!!!

Poster for Bwana Devil explaining the 3D process, 1952 (click on to enlarge for viewing)
Collection: Virginia Mahoney

Bwana Devil was made in a dual strip process, which meant it required two projectors with a special motor to properly sync the projectors,  a special silver projection screen… and polarized glasses* worn for viewing. Most films made during this time used this process. Bwana Devil was hugely popular with the public. It not only brought the audience back to the theaters—it started a whole stream of 3D films that were made between 1952-55.

During this time Famous Studios made two animated 3D films, Popeye, The Ace of Space, (released 1953) and a Casper film, Boo Moon, (released 1954). To take advantage of 3D, both films used outer space as a setting.  The Popeye was directed by Seymour, and the Casper film by both Seymour and Izzy Sparber.

Advertisement for the Trade for Popeye, The Ace of Space. Famous Studios, 1953.
Popeye and Bluto are copyright 2011 King Features Syndicate, Inc. TM Hearst Holdings, Inc.
Collection: Virginia Mahoney
I remember going to the screening of the 3D Popeye film with my dad. He got a great charge out of the fact that the opening ‘gag’ in that 1953 film Popeye, The Ace of Space--- is the same ‘gag’ that had been used in the very first Popeye film made in 1933…. that of Popeye having to cross a great chasm by tossing a rope to the other side and pulling the other side to him. Re-cycling a good ‘gag’ was very common in those days. Popeye, The Ace of Space can still be seen at 3D Film Festivals today. 

Below is the Agreement between Famous Studios and Paramount Pictures dated July 1953 stating that during the contract period of 1953-54 Famous will make twenty four cartoons that will include both a Popeye and a Casper in 3D.

Here’s a 2D copy of the Casper film Boo Moon that was originally made in 3D. When Casper arrives on the moon the tiny inhabitants treat him like Gulliver…another bit of story re-cycling! You’ll also notice King Luna is a take-off on King Bombo from the earlier Fleischer Studio's film Gulliver’s Travels.

Boo Moon, starring Casper the Friendly Ghost, Famous Studios- released 1954. 
All character images are the copyright and trademarks of their respective owners. 

However, ‘The Golden Age of 3D’ was a passing fad, brought down by problems inherent in the 3D process used. The use of two projectors required them both to be exactly in sync—but film repairs due to tears, or even a sloppy projectionist could result in the two reels being out of sync, resulting in viewer headaches and eyestrain.  Also, the process required a special silver screen best viewed from the center with sideline seating often unusable. By 1955 3D was finished, and films using a wide screen format, that didn’t have these problems, were becoming popular. CinemaScope was to be the new fad.

3D periodically re-enters our lives. Some film historians see this occurring in 30 years cycles, pointing to ‘The Golden Age of 3D’ in the 1950’s, the brief 3D resurgence in the 1980’s (Friday the 13th Part 3, Amityville 3-D,  Jaws 3-D, etc.)– and in 2008 a new wave of 3D films started up again, energized by the release of the 3D film Journey to the Center of the Earth
The impetus behind this most recent 3D resurgence is again related to failing attendance at the box office. Since we can all now view large screen hi-def films in the comfort of our homes. theaters once again needed something unique to lure the public back. Again, the answer is 3D… this time enhanced with additional dazzling effects. When the film Avatar came out in 2009 it was released in 2D, RealD 3D, Dolby3D, Xpan 3D, and IMAX 3D. New and improved 3D films are suddenly abundant --- though so far we’re still wearing glasses…..

An interesting end to this story……Animation historian 
Michael Sporn has a post on his blog about Larry Riley who had worked at Fleischer Studios: 

"Larry also told of a 3D process he’d developed for Paramount in the 50’s when the movies were all going 3D…Larry offered to give me the camera on which he shot these films- he had it stored in his basement. He was afraid it would get thrown out when he died. I didn’t have room for it.” 
Larry’s grandson later told Michael another collector took the camera to keep it from destruction…. hopefully this bit of history is safely out there…somewhere….

*Most 3D viewing glasses during this time were polarized, with each lens the same gray tinted color- as opposed to the alternative type 3D glasses which have red/blue lenses.

Online References include:
Odd Culture
Michael Sporn Animation
For the history of many amazing early 3D attempts see:


  1. Did any of the set-backs survive? It would be interesting to see one today.

    And two corrections:

    -Boo Moon carries direction for both Izzy Sparber and Seymour.
    -It's not Larry Klein, but Larry Riley, the studio's writer from 1947 to 1951.

  2. Hi- thanks so much for the response and comments-- I've incorporated them all-- including the good reminder to include Izzy Sparber who surely deserves much credit. As to the set-backs, sadly, I know of none that survived. Thanks for checking in.. really appreciate...

  3. did your father often take you to the screenings of his cartoons?

    do you remember how the audience reacted to seeing the popeye cartoon in 3d?

    1. Very occasionally I went to a screening, and a few times to a sound mixing-- but when I was in college I worked at the studio two summers as an opaquer and then as an inker. I think when I was at the Popeye screening there were mostly people in the business-- and it was really well received.

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  5. 3D was in full swing when I came back from Korea Nov. 1953, and my first film was "Hondo". I remember ducking when the Indians started throwing spears. It was something new and very exciting. I saw one other but don't remember the name, but someone threw a bottle or coffee pot and I wend down again.

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