The Shock of the Old – A History
It's no coincidence that some of the earliest sightings of 3D in mass mainstream culture came via science-fiction B-movies of the 1950s. Here, after all, was the ultimate immersive future-shock, in living colour and walking in, about and among us, albeit in a utilitarian, grim-faced Cold War climate.
3D movies were, of course, a gimmick, designed by and for geeks to sex up an ailing post-war film industry high on alien-invasion induced paranoia. As gimmicks come and go, it worked. For a while.
On November 26th 1952, Life magazine photographer J.R. Eyerman took a series of photographs of the audience attending the premiere of the first ever full-length colour 3D movie at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California. Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil was based on a real-life story in which a big-game hunter in Africa squared up to man-eating lions after his predecessors fell prey to the hungry kings of the jungle.
Exciting stuff, for sure, though that's hard to tell from the image that adorned the front cover of the 1973 film of Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967. Mirroring Debord's analysis of a consumerist culture in love with the object rather than being that became the situationist bible, Eyerman's photograph showed an audience uniform in their apparent state of hypnosis, the 3D glasses worn collectively giving each an air of alien, Stepford Wife-like supplication.
The image used by Eyerman himself for a Life brochure designed to define the decade that ran from the mid-1940s to the mod-1950s, told a different story. Instead of being passive consumers, the Bwana Devil audience were caught in a state of hilarity, active participants in some un-defined moment caused, presumably, by the 3D world they were immersed in rather than merely watching.
In 1953, the Jack Arnold directed It Came From Outer Space had a race of benign aliens crash-land on Earth, where they briefly take over the bodies of some Arizona locals before repairing their ship and moving on to another galaxy. The fact that that the aliens weren't hostile invaders, but intelligent and peaceful beings, spoke volumes about the man behind It Came From Outer Space's original screen treatment.
Right up until his death in June 2012 aged 91, Ray Bradbury was the most humanist of science-fiction writers, whose huge body of work amounted to some twenty-seven novels and more than six hundred short stories, with The Martian Chronicles and Farenheit 451 among them.
Other classics of the short-lived golden era of 3D were Herk Harvey's cheapo 1962 horror flick, Carnival of Souls, and, in 1963, Roger Corman's sci-fi horror, The Man With X-Ray Eyes.
3D vision and X-Ray spex were the stuff of comic book small ads of the 1960s and 1970s alongside grow your own sea monkey kits and Charles Atlas' strip-cartoon guides for 90 pound weaklings to bulk out and kick sand in the faces of buff beach bum bullies.
Three years before It Came From Outer Space, in 1950, Bradbury published a short story, The Veldt, in the September edition of the Saturday Evening Post. The Veldt was set among a family living in something called The HappyLife Home. This was a space where machines did all the work, from cooking, to rocking the children, tellingly named Peter and Wendy, to sleep at night.
Peter and Wendy spend their days in the nursery, a virtual room with which they are able to communicate with telepathically to recreate any place they imagine. In an echo of the sensations perhaps experienced by the audience watching the 3D premiere of Bwana Devil, the nursery becomes stuck on an African jungle setting, where lions in the distance feast on a dead carcass. In an attempt to break Peter and Wendy from their addiction, their parents propose a move to the real countryside, but not before thy give in to Peter and Wendy's pleas for one last visit to the nursery. Only when the parents are locked inside the room do the virtual and real worlds collide in a seemingly far-flung but all too familiar awfully big adventure.
The Veldt was republished a year later in The Illustrated Man, Bradbury's compendium of eighteen stories using the framing device of a tattooed vagrant whose tattoos become animated as they bring each story to life. The Veldt was later dramatised for mid-1950s science-fiction radio show, X Minus 1, and also formed a segment of the 1969 feature film adaptation of The Illustrated Man. More significantly, in The Veldt, and in Peter and Wendy's addiction to the nursery in particular, Bradbury had predicted the sort of 3D virtual reality experience that is common-place today, albeit one without parent-eating lions.
Bradbury was a friend of Ray Harryhausen, the seminal master of stop-motion animation, who made great ape Mighty Joe Young a cuddlier King Kong – a beast brought to life aloft the Empire State building in 1933 by Harryhausen's mentor, Willis O'Brien -, had Jason duel with eight skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, and put giant dinosaurs in the same prehistoric space as a bikini-clad Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC.
Stop-motion animation was a painstaking process of manipulating and filming filming every tiny gesture of a model in order to give the illusion of movement. It too was a form of virtual reality imagined by Harryhausen. Things have moved on a bit since then, mind.
As with all gimmicks, however, the novelty of 3D wore off, and the Cold War gave way to the counter-culture, which begat movie brats with names like Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas, alongside an ecologically inclined back-to-nature techno-fear.
At some point in the 1970s, breakfast cereals of all things picked up the slack, first with free 3D collectors cards, of wild animals, cartoon characters and sci-fi icons depending on which particular flavour of the month franchise was spending its marketing and merchandise budget.
Next came cut out 3D dioramas on the back of the pack, which could be cut and pasted into model theatres where scenes from Dr Who or Disney's Robin Hood could be played out using the no longer 3D but still free cardboard figures contained within the cereal box in packs of three. But this was basic stuff, designed for the pre-digital age such cardboard constructions could never live up to. Sometimes, it seemed, the future looked pretty cheap.
In the last decade or so, there has been something of a revival of interest in 3D movies. The American avant-rock band Pere Ubu in particular have seized on the potential to reinvigorate what now looks like kitsch period pieces predicting futures that never came by playing live underscores to key films of the 3D era. It Came From Outer Space and The Man With X-Ray Eyes have both received such a treatment, while Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas and his Two Pale Boys duo have provided something similar for Carnival of Souls.
Beyond such vintage reappropriations, a new wave of 3D took hold, and by the time we get to Avatar, or the even more recent Marvel Comics franchise, Avengers Assemble, the future predicted in all the original 3D movies appears to have arrived. In actual fact, that future has been with us all along. It's just the technology that got better.
And so it goes with 3D Printshow, a myriad of possible worlds, parallel universes, infinite exchanges and designs for future living.
Seen individually, the array of wares on offer are by turns sculptural, performative, flamboyantly decorative and at times oddly functional.
Seen collectively, 3D Printshow appears to occupy an access-all-eras-and-areas science-fiction film-set where worlds collide and yesterday's tomorrows meet in today's most magic of moments.
It is dystopian, utopian, retro-future chic for lubricated living rooms.
As with Arch Obela's Bwana Devil, Ray Bradbury's Veldt and Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion monsters, it may be a jungle sometimes, but it remains the best of all (im)possible worlds.
The Future starts here, so print the Legend.
Commissioned to coincide with the 3D Printshow London 2012 exhibition, which took place at The Brewery, London, on October 19th-21st 2012