The truth about old 3D

Anaglyph 3D has popped up several times since the 1950s craze died

I've read a lot of articles in the last year or so about the new 3D trend in theatrical movies and HDTV, and far too many of them have made the same mistake about the 3D movie craze of the 1950s.

The myth: 3D movie projection in the 1950s used anaglyph technology, requiring audiences to wear those inferior, red-and-blue (or red-and-green) glasses. Anaglyph 3D is inferior, making black and white images look horrible and color images look worse. But while there were anaglyph 3D comic books in the 1950s, and perhaps some shorts, no Hollywood feature film was commercially released that way.

The 3D movies that enjoyed brief popularity from 1952 through 1954 used polarized lenses, as do most of today's theatrical 3D presentations. The technology at the heart of theatrical 3D really hasn't changed.

Today's 3D projection systems have some advantages. In some, but not all, of them, you can tilt your head to the side or wear the glasses lopsided without ruining the 3D effect--a universal problem with older polarized 3D. And the old system was extremely complicated to project, increasing the chances of projectionist error marring the presentation.

Ironically, anaglyph 3D has popped up several times since the 1950s craze died. Universal re-released Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space that way in the 1970s. Within the last decade, both Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl played that way. And several 3D movies are available on DVD or Blu-ray in anaglyph form. (The advantage of anaglyph is that you don't need special projection equipment. The disadvantage is that it looks terrible.)

I suspect that some people in the movie and home theater businesses want this 1950s anaglyph myth to continue. It fits the desired narrative: 3D failed then because it was primitive, but it's no longer primitive and therefore will prevail. But there's a big difference between desired narrative and truth.

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