Single-Strip 3-D
by Bob Furmanek



Colonel Robert V. Bernier is a forgotten innovator in the history of stereoscopic motion pictures. His Trioptiscope Space-Vision lens was the gold standard for the production and exhibition of 3-D movies for nearly 30 years.

He was born in Minnesota on July 12, 1911 and developed an interest in three-dimensional imagery as a small child when his family inherited two Brewster Stereoscopes and a collection of stereograms. He studied the images and began looking for ways to take his own 3-D photographs. He eventually bought two cameras and mounted them side-by-side and created nearly 200 black and white stereograms. In the early 1940s, he volunteered for service with the armed forces and was assigned to the 29th Engineers in Portland, Oregon, an organization that made anaglyphic maps from 3-D aerial photographs for reconnaissance purposes. 

During World War II, he was stationed with the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in England and was on General Eisenhower’s immediate staff as the Chief Map Officer.



In a 1974 interview, Col. Bernier explained: “After a tour of duty overseas, I returned to the United States and was fortunate enough to be assigned to the photo lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. I started what we called the Stereoscopic Photographic Department and developed various means of recording subject matter three-dimensionally, including three or four still camera configurations. Following this, I began to think that 3-D motion pictures for training military recruits would be worthwhile, and I developed what I called the alternate-frame system, where the right eye picture is photographed with a time lapse, as compared to the left eye view.”

His system utilized a synchronized barrel type polarizer in front of the lens and a Morgana shuttle mechanism which helped to minimize the flicker. The United States Air Force filed the first patent in Bernier’s name on November 4, 1947 and patent US2478891 for “Three-dimensional adapter for motion-picture projectors” was granted on August 16, 1949.




On May 2, 1951, he presented a report at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers annual convention held in New York City. He predicted that synthetic vision “almost as remarkable as natural vision” in its depth perception and other characteristics would be achieved in motion pictures and television. International Projectionist wrote about the 16mm test reel shown following his presentation: “In one novel scene, a tray of refreshments appeared to leave the hands of a serving maid on the screen and float out before the audience to a position just a few inches before the eyes of each spectator.”

He submitted a detailed report to the Journal of the SMPTE in June 1951 and an article describing his invention appeared in the August issue of American Cinematographer. Click here to read Bernier - SMPTE June 1951.

On July 12, 1951, the first public demonstration was held in Dayton, Ohio. A syndicated Associated Press story reported on the event: “Spectators ducked as steel balls, apples, pears and a tray of bottles shot out from the screen. It was so realistic that viewers although seated far from the screen, felt they could reach out and pluck a bottle from the tray… The system still has a few bugs. There is some slight flicker which the new projector probably will eliminate. There is no disputing, however, the true third-dimension image.”

Synthetic Vision Corp. filed for a second patent on July 17, 1951 and patent US2729138 for “System and apparatus for projecting three dimensional motion pictures” was granted on January 3, 1956.


Despite the successful demonstrations, Bernier realized that simultaneous projection of the right and left images was crucial and began to develop a working system with one image above the other on a single strip of 35mm film. 


ENTER ARCH OBOLER AND NATURAL VISION

At the same time that Colonel Bernier was developing his 3-D system, Lothrop Worth and Friend Baker, along with Milton and Julian Gunzburg, began demonstrating their dual-35mm Natural Vision camera. First shown to the press on May 29, 1951 with further demonstrations on July 6 and July 24, none of the studios expressed interest.

However, Arch Oboler had seen some of the demonstration footage and recognized its potential. On February 4, 1952, he announced plans to produce the first 3-D motion picture in color. On June 18, 1952, principal photography on THE LIONS OF GULU commenced on location at the Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles. 

Retitled BWANA DEVIL on June 23, the gala world premiere was held on November 26, 1952, Thanksgiving Day.  Neither the Los Angeles nor Hollywood Paramount theatres could accommodate the large crowds. Arch Oboler’s modest film set the box office on fire. Motion Picture Herald wrote, “Three-dimension is a box office smash. Los Angeles is proving it beyond question and in the face of a bad press and worse weather. It’s breaking records every hour on the hour.”


Within two weeks, it was booked into 230 theatres around the country. Following the phenomenal success of this independent production, every studio quickly made plans to jump on the stereoscopic bandwagon.

In late December, producer Edward A. Alperson and United Artists got into a bidding war for the rights to BWANA from Arch Oboler and his associates. On January 12, Film Bulletin reported that Alperson had offered $2,000,000 for the film but on January 14, a deal was finalized with UA for $1,750,000. This led to a series of lawsuits and countersuits that lingered until mid-1956, when a Superior Court Judge ruled against Oboler in his countersuit against Alperson and the case was closed.




While BWANA DEVIL was breaking box office records throughout the country, Colonel Bernier’s Synthetic Vision Corp. announced Naturalama.

Variety reported on February 9 that both Warner Bros. and Paramount were studying the system. 

Eleven 3-D features had gone before the cameras since the start of the year. The future of three-dimensional motion pictures was looking very bright.





On April 7, Variety announced a license agreement between King Brothers Productions and the Zeiss Ikon Company in Stuttgart, Germany. The King Brothers would act as American distributors of the Zeiss single-strip lens system – which dated back to 1935 – and would use it on their upcoming film, CARNIVAL. Two weeks later, Variety reported that Zeiss had not licensed the American rights to their lens. On May 23, Boxoffice wrote that plans for 3-D were dropped and when production commenced on CARNIVAL STORY at Geiselgasteig Studios in Germany, it was filmed for 1.65:1 widescreen instead.

Business was very good for the 3-D movies released in the spring and early summer. HOUSE OF WAX, FORT TI, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER, THE MAZE and SECOND CHANCE were doing exceptionally well at the box office.

On May 12, Stereocolor was announced as an alternate-frame system which would produce a 3-D color image from black and white film. Developed by R. E. Schenstad, the first demonstration was held on May 31 in Davenport, Iowa. Using two jury-rigged projectors and four color wheels with a prism and mirror arrangement, International Projectionist reported, “While some aspects of the system are interesting, our reaction was not favorable on the whole.” 





By the end of summer, interest in 3-D movies was beginning to decline primarily due to projection issues with the necessity of interlocking two projectors in precise synchronization. Over the next few months, several companies introduced various single-strip projection devices which would eliminate these problems. However, the primary disadvantage with any beam-splitting system was the reduced film area and a substantial loss of light on screen. More information can be found on this page, What Killed 3-D?

On June 16, the Nord Process lens was demonstrated in New York. Developed by inventor Raymond Clapp of Minneapolis and first introduced for 16mm home movies in November 1951, the system utilized the full height of the 35mm frame. The left/right images were printed vertically side by side on a single frame of film in an aspect ratio of 1.75:1. Projection through angled mirrors rotated the images, passing them through appropriate left/right filters. The projection unit was mounted in front of the lens on brackets. The units would be custom made for each installation and would cost about $1,500.



In reviewing the demonstration, Pete Harrison of Harrison’s Reports wrote, “In addition to the economy of operation that the Nord system offers to exhibitors, it should help also to eliminate 3-D projection flaws that are damaging the commercial value of this new medium and are frequently proving costly because of refunds demanded by dissatisfied patrons.”


On June 27, 3-D pioneer John A. Norling announced his own system, claiming to offer three times more light than other beam-splitting systems. According to Variety, it utilized an alternate frame method with the right and left-eye views following one another in rapid succession. Motion Picture Daily wrote, “The Norling method is said to utilize two separate lenses, permitting the full aperture of each to be used, whereas the beam-splitter method uses a single lens, permitting less than half the effective aperture of the projection lens to be utilized. Another feature claimed for the Norling method is the arrangement of left and right-eye images on the film to obtain equal illumination for corresponding areas.” Norling said, “Basic research has been completed, and no further invention is required to build a prototype of the new system which now requires only straightforward design and development to bring it into being.” Nothing further was heard about this system.

At the July Allied Theater Owners of New Jersey convention in Atlantic City, President Wilbur Snaper placed special emphasis on the need for a one-projector system. Motion Picture Daily wrote, “The single-projector method for 3-D might well spell the difference between profit and loss. Under the present interlock system, labor costs are tremendous and exhibitors cannot afford the load of carrying an extra projectionist.”


KEEPING 3-D ALIVE


The 3-D boom had generated a tremendous profit for Polaroid. In the eight months since BWANA DEVIL premiered, Polaroid viewer production had gone from 30,000 to 6,000,000 a week. They scrambled frantically to find a solution. In July, their engineers began working on a means to fix the sync issues and restore the public's faith in 3-D movies.

Nord had its first west-coast demonstration at the 750-seat Picfair Theatre in Los Angeles on August 18. One reel from a single-strip conversion of I, THE JURY was shown along with some newly shot test film. Universal-International sent representatives and the following week, they circulated an internal memo: “The demonstration, which was poorly handled, was not impressive. However, the theory seems promising.”

Warner Bros. viewed the demonstration and stated the following internally: “All of the studios represented had inspected the Nord system and all agreed that it was technically inferior to what should be easily possible, and they all stated that none of them were willing to have their names used in any agreement to make prints available for the Nord system.”

On September 9, the Moropticon system was demonstrated at the 3,160-seat RKO 86th Street Theatre in New York. Developed in Vienna by producer Boris Morros, it was similar to the Nord process but differed in how the images were rotated. Matthew Fox, former executive vice-president of Universal-International and a partner in United Artists, was president of the newly-formed All Dimensions, Inc. which held all patents to the system. Thirty minutes of footage was shown including wardrobe tests of Ann Miller and Kathryn Grayson from KISS ME KATE

Motion Picture Daily wrote, “Besides a lighting deficiency, a defect ascribed to less than optimum shooting conditions, the demonstration was extraordinarily good.”

The Moropticon unit was lightweight, compact and could fit in a small carrying case. It would be offered free of charge providing the exhibitor agreed to purchase a minimum monthly order of 2,500 Pola-Lite glasses for a period of one year.

Matthew Fox was able to use his clout with Universal-International to shoot two days of tests beginning September 22. Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe photographed Christiane Martel, Ingrid Mills, Mara Corday and Lance Fuller in 22 setups on the California Street and Shelby home on the studio's backlot.



In October, at the Allied Industries convention and tradeshow in Boston, Polaroid introduced synchronization equipment for dual-strip presentations. An article in Boxoffice stated: "Polaroid representatives made a deep impression with their demonstration of an equipment kit that will simplify keeping 3-D films in synchronization. Nobody challenged the statement of the Polaroid people that their field studies showed more than 50 percent of the theaters were showing out of sync pictures.” On October 14, Variety said: "What amounts almost to a last-ditch fight to keep 3-D alive is being made by equipment and specs manufacturers with big financial stakes in stereopix."








On October 5, Variety reported that Columbia had completed a deal to make their new and upcoming 3-D releases available in the Nord Extended Area System, beginning with GUN FURY. However, the prints were never made.

Studio executives saw the writing on the wall. Paramount (and later Universal-International) dropped their requirement that 3-D films must play out their depth engagements before the films could be shown flat. Harrison's Reports wrote on October 17: "Third-dimension pictures are no longer a novelty and are, in fact, doing mediocre business throughout the country. The exhibitors are having sad experiences with the current crop of 3-D films and, consequently, are beginning to avoid them like the plague. Matters have come to a point where many exhibitors feel that to advertise the fact that they are playing a 3-D picture is to invite the public to stay away from the box office."

Not sure whether to release their new musical in 3-D or flat, MGM tried a unique experiment: they tested KISS ME KATE in six locations. Starting October 28, bookings were evenly split with three of six cities playing the depth version. To everyone’s surprise, the 3-D engagements did 40 percent better business. Based on this test, the studio ordered an unprecedented 300 Technicolor 3-D prints in order to meet the anticipated demand. Hollywood Reporter wrote, "This almost two-for-one business in favor of goggle-wearing ticket buyers indicates that 3-D is not dead, not dying, nor is it even sick."





Meanwhile, the production of 3-D films had greatly diminished. In his syndicated October 31 column for the Associated Press entitled, 3-D All But Dead As New Films Cancelled, Bob Thomas wrote, “The rise and fall of 3-D appears to have run its course. Of the 23 pictures shooting in Hollywood today, only three are the stereo type. Most producers are now agreed that 3-D will be limited to a few films, mostly science-fiction or suspense movies in which depth adds to the frightening effect… It’s too bad that Hollywood never really gave 3-D a chance to prove itself. Perhaps someday the potential of depth movies will be realized.”

At a November 1953 theater equipment trade show in Chicago, Synthetic Vision Corp. joined with seven other companies – including Polaroid, Nord, Moropticon and Pola-Lite – to demonstrate new advances in 3-D projection systems and glasses. After MGM’s successful tests with KATE in favor of 3-D, there was a renewed interest among exhibitors with such important films as HONDO, CEASE FIRE, MONEY FROM HOME, THE FRENCH LINE and MISS SADIE THOMPSON scheduled for release.

Moropticon had moved to the forefront of the single-strip sweepstakes and on November 20, they presented scenes from TAZA, SON OF COCHISE at New York’s 5,230-seat Capitol Theatre. International Projectionist wrote, “The print density had been cut to the point where the film was almost transparent. The resultant loss in picture quality followed naturally. The color was washed out very thoroughly… We were impressed by the possibilities but not by the demonstration.”

Showmen’s Trade Review reported, “The main problem in one-reel 3-D to date has been that of getting enough light when large-screen projection is used. Moropticon apparently compensates for this by making its prints very light, which tend to wash out the brilliancy of Technicolor." Fox countered that “proper lab processing” would solve the problem.

As the turbulent year came to a close, Variety reported on the acceptance problems with single-strip systems. “Both Nord and Moropticon have said that certain studios would make prints available in their respective techniques. However, as far as could be determined, not a single production company has processed anything but test footage.”

EPITAPH OR PROLOGUE?


The most promising development for single-strip 3-D was Polaroid’s Vectograph process. First patented in 1938 and announced for still transparencies in July 1940, the system utilized a double-coated film with emulsion on each side which carried the polarizing elements in its structure. The images were polarized at 90 degrees to each other and through glasses, the left eye would see the image on one surface of the film and the right eye would see the other image. Work had begun in March 1953 on adapting the system for use in motion pictures.
 



In June, Variety reported, “Company has been working on this process for considerable time and has been pressured by Warner Bros. to go ahead with the production of at least one test reel for demonstration purposes, regardless of cost.” Test Vectograph reels were made on THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER and Walt Disney’s animated short, MELODY. The results were encouraging but more work needed to be done.

On January 18, 1954, it was announced that Technicolor had joined with Polaroid to develop the system for 35mm dye-transfer release prints. Two major drawbacks which stalled its development were the high cost of Vectograph release prints (nearly double that of dual-strip) and a high amount of ghosting/double-image as a result of imperfect polarization. Declining interest in 3-D movies eventually ended any further research.



In January 1954, it was a chicken-or-the-egg situation. International Projectionist reported, “Theaters are willing to sign up with Moropticon, Nord or whoever comes down the pike provided the producers will make the films. Conversely, the producers are telling the exhibitors to install the equipment first. The question before the house seems to be: If the chicken does cross the road, will she lay an egg?”

Universal-International took the plunge and was the first studio to offer films in either dual or single-strip 3-D; CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and TAZA, SON OF COCHISE. The specially-processed Pola-Lite prints were timed several points lighter than a standard release print.

On February 23, Matthew Fox sold all interests in Moropticon; folded All-Dimensions, Inc. and walked away from 3-D. The projection system was acquired by Pola-Lite and further refined by Dr. Leon W. Wells.

  






The first exhibition with the updated Moropticon/Pola-Lite attachment was held at the March 31 sub-run opening of CREATURE at the Roxy Theatre, a 1,100-seat grindhouse in Detroit. Successful openings followed in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Oklahoma City, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Chicago.

Exhibitor interest was slowly building and orders began to come in, especially from smaller theatres. Motion Picture Daily reported on April 26 that Pola-Lite prints would also be available from 20th Century Fox and United Artists for GORILLA AT LARGE, SOUTHWEST PASSAGE and GOG.


After extensive research, we cannot find playdates for any Pola-Lite presentations other than a handful for CREATURE and one for TAZA. If you have come across any other Pola-Lite presentations, please let us know.


On April 18, Naturama, the new projection system specifically designed by Bernier for both 3-D and wide screen presentation was announced in the trades. The primary advantage of this system over Pola-Lite was the horizontal placement of both images – one above the other – allowing for a full 2.55:1 aspect ratio.

On May 25, a demonstration of Naturama for industry representatives was held at the Ames Theatre in Dayton, Ohio. Motion Picture Daily wrote, “The picture proportions were reported to be the same as those of CinemaScope with the images projected from a single film strip. Regular standard projection equipment was used with no change to the projector or the booth port. The installation of the Naturama superimposing attachment, which measures 11 by 10 inches thick, was made in three minutes.”

Jane E. Bernier, President of Synthetic Vision, announced that demonstrations for exhibitors would be held shortly.

Those test screenings of Naturama never took place.

The very next day, May 26 – after the cancelled 3-D engagement of DIAL M FOR MURDER following its world premiere in Philadelphia – Variety reported a story entitled, 3-D Looks Dead in United States. The article said, “Tri-dimension pix apparently have made their last stand in domestic distribution. There appears little interest among exhibs to show 3-D pictures.”


On June 3, Variety reported that Arch Oboler would use his profits from BWANA DEVIL to make a new 3-D film in Copenhagen with Bernier’s Naturama process: SPEAR IN THE SAND. Based on Raoul Faure’s novel about a man living alone on a desert island for 65 years, it was originally considered for 3-D lensing in February 1952. The film was never made.

In July 1954, John Norling wrote a scathing editorial for International Projectionist.



Ironically, just as Norling’s article was being read by projectionists and exhibitors around the world, the 50th and final domestic 3-D feature of the short-lived fad had gone before the cameras at Universal-International.

REVENGE OF THE CREATURE began filming on June 24, 1954 and was released in dual-strip only in March 1955. It did well at the box office and nearly half the initial bookings were for the 3-D version. Why it was not available in the Pola-Lite system is unknown but with that release, the brief popularity of stereoscopic motion pictures had come to an end.

By the following January, the name of Naturama was being used by Republic Studios for their new anamorphic 2.35: 1 widescreen system.


Part two of this story - and the development of Space-Vision, can be found on this page, The Bubble.