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Give 'em the Old Razzle-Dazzle

Gene Deitch, who has seen and heard it all, gives his assessment of 3-D.

Deitch says what's truly 3-D is the world you see around you. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

The song from Chicago sums up the current hysterical hype now gushing forth about so-called "3-D" movies. It's just the latest in the long series of "revolutionary" movie formats, gimmicks and gizmos I've seen come and go just in my lifetime.

I was born in 1924. Since then I've witnessed the loud fanfare introductions of:

"Talkies"

Color (Technicolor and then Eastmancolor)

Stereo projection (red-blue goggles): The first 3-D boom lasted only two years

Stereo sound (introduced as Disney's "Fantasound")

CinemaScope (the anamorphic format that launched the widescreen craze)

Todd AO (70mm film)

"Schultzorama": Lopping the top and bottom of a classic format film and producing fake widescreen

VistaVision: 8-perf horizontal film projection

Cinerama

Smell-O-Vision

Kino Automat (audience voting on the course of a movie)

IMAX

Motion Capture ("MoCap")

Digital Projection

"Live" movie events

"3-D" Redux

Photography with the illusion of depth was popularized more than 100 years ago with the Stereoptican viewer. Courtesy of Disney.

Every one of these highly celebrated innovations had lesser noticed downsides:

The current "3-D" rage will confuse audiences as many older films are being re-jiggered into faux stereo, simply splitting the film frames into flat planes. I'm putting the currently reheated term "3-D" within quotation marks, as it is obviously a phony concoction. Photography with the illusion of depth was popularized more than 100 years ago with the Stereoptican viewer, a fixture in almost every cultured living room before there was anything else to look at in there. In the meantime, the term stereo has been co-opted by sound systems, so the movies have had to fall back on the term "3-D."

But walk up close to the screen of a theater showing one of these goggle movies, and what do you notice? That it's actually a flat movie screen! The only true 3-D is what you are seeing all around you "live," if you are lucky enough to have two good eyes. Everything you see is in three dimensions. You are looking at and able to touch solid objects. That is true 3-D, with no screen edges! Now step back into the theater, put on your stereo goggles and watch a stereoscopic movie from a proper viewing distance. Notice what the director and cameraman hope you will not notice: that it's only in the central area of the screen where there is a credible spatial effect. If you look at the edges of the screen, you will see sliced images poking out, unless the cameraman has been deft enough to avoid foreground images near the screen edges. So right away, there is the downside: disorienting moving images that can cause eyestrain and even vertigo. Where is the storytelling and cinematic advantage if the cameraman and director have to limit their camera framing to compensate for this unnatural gimmick? Now take off the goggles for a minute and notice how the screen is much brighter and clearer, even with an annoying double image.

So it was with every one of the hotly heralded "innovations" on my list above. The downside was never mentioned and rarely understood.

Notice how the screen is much brighter and clearer when you remove the glasses, even with an annoying double image? Courtesy of Warner Bros.

When "Talkies" came in the late 1920s many critics saw that it caused static scenes, because the cameras had to be enclosed in sound-proof booths. It took many years to get mobility back into the movies. The very term "movie" indicates motion. Many even thought that pantomime action, the art of visual storytelling was what made films as a great art form. OK. Today I believe the soundtrack is half the movie.

But did you ever consider the projectionist as a performer?  How about a disco artist who manipulates sound by hand turning the discs? It's a performance art! In the days of hand-cranked cameras and hand-cranked projectors, there was actually flexibility in filming and projecting. That, of course, is a totally lost art!

Most importantly, silent movie frames used the maximum area of 35mm film. The picture quality when the films were new was superb. But when sound on film came in, the image size of each frame had to be reduced to make room for the soundtrack. The result was grainier movies, with scratches and imperfections having to be magnified to fit the same size screens. But who noticed that with the blare of sound?

COLOR! I remember the sensation, when the magic moment came in a black-and-white film when the scene smoothly dissolved to brilliant color! A heavy question about color movies is their life expectancy. With the original Technicolor process the shooting was actually on panchromatic and orthochromatic black & white negative film stock, with every third frame of film being exposed through a revolving three color filter. The black and white negative could indefinitely produce color prints with the original brilliance… as long as the equipment to do it will exist. Nowadays, a film must be preserved with a digital master.

CinemaScope and the widescreen shape. The easiest way to dramatize the movie experience after the threat of TV was to widen the screen. It would have been much more difficult and expensive to make the screens also higher, and CinemaScope could fill a large wide screen using the same little 35mm film. With an anamorphic lens, a tiny 35mm frame was stretched to fill a very wide screen, gifting us with magnified film grain and other artifacts, covered up by ever louder stereophonic sound. The perfectly suitable classic screen shape was now on its way out. TV itself had to struggle with its original round cathode ray picture tubes, with the picture forced into an awkward and unnamable shape, until finally a square cornered rectangular flat screen tube was developed. But now, that ideal shape has totally succumbed to the newly mandated wide screen standard.

"What's it about?" That's the question John Hubley taught Deitch to ask. Courtesy of Disney.

What has that meant for us -- animators? I was dazzled, when I got the biggest job of my career in 1956: Creative Director of CBS-Terrytoons, which came complete with a 20th Century-Fox release of 18 theater cartoons a year, all in glorious CinemaScope, a 20th-Fox invention and the format they wanted for their cartoons. WOW! I thought. What I can do with that vast screen real estate! I soon awakened to the reality: 1) The useful animation device, the rotating field zoom, was almost completely ruled out. I could barely rotate a scene without the corners of the screen moving out of camera range! 2) I was informed that our shorts also had to be able to be shown on TVs of the time, still in classic format. That meant that all important action had to be confined to the central "TV Safety Field" area. The result? All visual benefit of the ultra wide CinemaScope size was lost! I had managed to get R.O. Blechman's Juggler of Our Lady into production, hoping to dramatize the contrast of Bob's tiny scraggly little figures with the vast wide screen. But the compromises I had to live with virtually lost the effect I had hoped to achieve. So what has the wide screen brought to animation? Only limits; only difficulty in creating good graphic composition. The original shape of the classic movie screen was inspired by the most typical shape of most oil paintings we see in museums. CinemaScope-shaped paintings with human figures, natural views or events are certainly rare!

The original IMAX system creators at least understood that the height of the screen is every bit as important as its width!

Motion capture and performance capture have already muddled the question of what is animation.

All of this continuing mad rush to dazzle masks over the true point of what film is about: storytelling. "What's it about?" That's the question John Hubley taught me to ask.

So what is the real shape? What's left to us? My feeling is coming to the notion that we are now approaching a new truth: There is only one category, cinema itself. All films contain one or more elements of animation and visual effects. All films have one goal: to tell stories in compelling ways. Let them all be judged on their success in that one "Master Category" rather than focusing on the technology of their production!

Roger Ebert's May 20th Newsweek article boldly explores and debunks the current "3-D" craze, and coincidently completely demolishes the ga-ga over 3-D statement made by Jeffrey Katzenberg in Time magazine of the same date.

Gene Deitch has been an innovative and maverick animator for 60 years. He worked at UPA ( Bert & Harry Piels) and later then joined Terrytoons before moving to Prague, where he worked on Tom and Jerry, Krazy Kat and Popeye, as well as the Oscar-winning Munro and the Nudnik series, based on his Terrytoons character, Foofle.

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