A History of Three-Dimensional Cinema

A History of Three-Dimensional Cinema

By David A. Cook

Anthem Series on Exploitation and Industry in World Cinema

A History of Three-Dimensional Cinema chronicles 3-D cinema from its origins in 19th-century stereoscopic photography through anaglyphic/digital stereoscopic cinema in the 20th century to the promise of Virtual Reality in the 21st century.

PDF, 208 Pages


September 2021

£25.00, $40.00

EPUB, 208 Pages


September 2021

£25.00, $40.00

  • About This Book
  • Reviews
  • Author Information
  • Series
  • Table of Contents
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  • Podcasts

About This Book

In human binocular vision, the lenses of our eyes project two slightly different images onto the retinas and our brain calculates the difference between them as actual depth. Stereoscopy replicates this process by providing left-eye views and right-eye views (stereo pairs) of the same picture at slightly different angles which, when viewed simultaneously, create the illusion of depth (stereopsis). In 1844 Sir David Brewster invented a handheld apparatus for viewing stereoscopic photographs through a system of prismatic lenses, with the stereo pairs mounted on a single card. During the 1870s, a popular theatrical entertainment involved the projection of duo-color coded slides onto a large screen to be viewed through glasses with corresponding left and right colored cells to produce a stereoscopic illusion, known as “anaglyphic” 3-D. 

With the development of motion pictures, it was natural that pioneers like William Friese-Green and the Lumiere brothers would experiment with anaglyphic systems, since the photographic principle was the same. But commercial exploitation of the process awaited 1952, when independent producer Arch Oboler released Bwana Devil, a low-budget Anscocolor feature whose phenomenal box-office success catalyzed a short, industry-wide conversion to 3-D. Between 1953 and 1954, Hollywood produced 69 features in 3-D, mostly action films that could exploit the depth illusion, such as Westerns, science fiction, and horror films—all of them shot in some version of Oboler’s Natural Vision. With some modification, such as the introduction of twin-lens cameras and projectors, this was the process used for nearly all the 3-D films made between 1953 and 2009, when James Cameron’s Avatar became the highest-grossing feature of all time and the studios once again stampeded into 3-D production, this time in the more perceptually satisfying (and, ultimately, cost-effective) digital form. 

While all 3-D systems fool our brains into believing that something is either closer or farther away than it actually is, older systems tended to represent depth as a series of dimensionally flat planes like an eighteenth-century peep show, whereas digital systems add the effect of volumetric figures occupying real space, creating a kind of “aesthetics of immersion.” Yet the ultimate technology for seeing things in three dimensions is Virtual Reality (VR), which uses a hybrid of advanced modern technology—Lidar scanners, hyper-accelerated graphic cards, etc.—and the stereoscopic illusion first quantified in the nineteenth century to create a state of sensory immersion that borders on otherness. Finding a way to mass-market the VR experience as a form of popular cinema, rather than as an enhanced form of video game, has become the new grail of the film industry.


“An invaluable contribution to the field—a concise, comprehensive and insightful account of ‘stereoscopic cinema,’ from its conception in the nineteenth century to its most recent boom in the wake of Avatar. And Cook doesn’t stop there, charting the course of 3D beyond the screen and into the immersive experience of virtual reality, where the next boom awaits.” — Thomas Schatz, Professor, the University of Texas at Austin, US

“This study of three-dimensional cinema offers a fascinating and meticulous account of the development of stereoscopic moving-images. By charting a path from early visual experiments in the fifteenth century to the more recent use of virtual reality technologies, David A. Cook successfully goes further than any historical overview to date.” — Associate Professor Miriam Ross, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

“David A. Cook connects 15th century art to 21st century blockbuster films via peep shows and photographic experiments in a fascinating history of three-dimensional cinema. Exploring artistic, scientific, technological and industrial motivations, Cook takes us on an all-encompassing journey through filmmakers’ fascination with recreating depth.” — Elizabeth Evans, Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies, University of Nottingham, UK

"Deftly combining technical, industrial and creative material, David Cook's exhaustive account of stereoscopic cinema's past, present and future wears its extensive research lightly. A History of Three-Dimensional Cinema is a necessary read for anyone who thinks of 3D as marginal or ancillary to film history." — Nick Jones, Lecturer in Film, Television and Digital Culture, University of York, UK

“This volume skillfully stitches together the attempts to deliver a three-dimensional view of the world via audio-visual art. David Cook binds 19th century stereoscopy to the 1950s, 1980s, and recent failures of 3D cinema in movie theaters. His observations about the failure of 3D television provide an eclectic view of the pandemic’s destruction of our normative viewing of moving images. Cook delivers a 360 degree view of a cinema that gallantly failed—as the melting of the House of Wax in front of the lumens of the projector bulb—to match his accomplishment.” — Walter Metz, Professor, Department of Cinema and Photography, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, US

“David A. Cook’s A History of Three-Dimensional Cinema offers a fascinating account of the complex evolution of stereoscopic entertainment, from a centuries-old prehistory to the boom of 3D movies in the 1950s and a renewed interest in the post-Avatar digital era.” — Kathleen Loock, Professor of American Studies and Media Studies, Leibniz University Hannover, Germany

“Cook offers a meticulously researched, wonderfully accessible survey of 3D motion pictures from their prehistory to the present. Along the way, he treats his readers to a rich array of granular details and far-reaching conclusions concerning their complex evolution and what they mean to us today.” — Noah Isenberg, author of We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie

“Cook provides a brilliant history of 3D filmmaking and exhibition. The book is neatly divided into key historical eras, and the chapters on 3D’s recent years are truly astonishing, insightful and compelling. Cook also delivers a wonderful account of the aesthetic properties and viewing conditions of 3D films.” — Richard Rushton, Lancaster University, UK

Author Information

David A. Cook is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA, and the author of A History of Narrative Film (2016).


Anthem Series on Exploitation and Industry in World Cinema

Table of Contents

List of Figures; Acknowledgements; Prefatory Note/ Introduction; 1. “A New Way to Simulate Presence”: The Foundations of Stereoscopic Entertainment, 1427– 1888; 2. “A Very Vivid Impression of Movement”: Early 3D Cinema, 1895–1952; 3. “See It in 3 Dimension!”: The First Hollywood 3D Boom, 1952–55; 4. Stereoscopic Revival, 1970–85; 5. The Age of IMAX, or the “Immersive Cinema,” 1986–2009; 6. The Blockbuster Years: Digital 3D, 2010–20; 7. “A Diff erent Kind of Mental Image”: Some Aesthetic Considerations about 3D; 8. “Experience on Demand”: Virtual Reality; 9. Conclusion; 3D Discography: Discs Viewed or Sampled in Preparation for This Book; Selected Bibliography; Index.


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