Head honcho of Lobster Films, Serge Bromberg is an avid collector and preserver of film, and happily for the rest of us, he is also an enthusiastic exhibitor. He came to the TCM Classic Film Festival this year with a fascinating program of short experiments and showcases for various stereoscopic filming techniques, dating all the way back to some fantastic 10-second snippets made on paper strips in 1900. Bromberg excused their slightly naughty nature by explaining that they were French; he himself is charmingly so.
The program was billed as running up the year 2000, but in fact was capped by a whizz-bang 2012 Daffy Duck cartoon, to an original 1951 recording of Mel Blanc’s singing, that went down very well with the audience. It pretty much ran the gamut of 3D maximization, without overdoing any particular effect. Unlike several others: a 1939 Chicago Exhibition animation of Plymouth car parts assembling themselves relied mainly on hurling large chunks of metal straight at the audience; and the same technique was taken to obnoxious extremes in a 1941 piece by George Sydney entitled Three-Dimensional Murder. Highly creaky hokum in a haunted house whose denizens, including the “Madman of Magnesia” and, for some reason, Frankenstein’s monster, are continually hurling things in our face.
This works a lot better in the Russian Parade of Attractions: jugglers’ batons and disci thrown at the camera are caught by a darkly disembodied hand that truly seems to rise from the audience. This was in fact the third “Parade of Attractions”; Bromberg was not backward in alluding to the faults of various of the films on offer, and joshed that the makers of each of the first two installments had been shipped off to Siberia. No wonder: the first is a load of sea-life swimming around, and the second a gang of parakeets and garden birds (in fact, the squid in the former provides a rather pleasing and little-used effect, with its extended tentacles swimming away from the following camera).
A far more unusual effect is presented Max Fleischer’s 1935 Musical Memories, a rare stereoscopic film that one watches without glasses. It is presented as two old folks looking through their stereo viewer, and having their memories spring to life before them. The presentation is interestingly meta, but the content basically banal, save for a weird ending, and a creepy old midget dancing with some children (contemporaneous political caricature [Al Smith]). The remarkable element, however, is that the 2D cell animations perform against stereoscopic three-dimensional backgrounds. I have no idea how this is achieved, but it is remarkably effective, particularly in the long lateral traveling shots that comprise much of the film, and astonishing to view without glasses.
For those ambivalent about 3D, or animation in general, Donald Duck, The Chipmunks and Bugs Bunny were all just fine, as was the 3D version of Pixar’s 1988 showcase Knick Knack. A 2002 NFB Canada short would be of little interest to anyone were it not for the Dietrich accompaniment. It’s the early experiments and oddities that make the show, however, like the paper-strip technique or Louis Lumière’s 1935 3D remake of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de Ciotat. And the pinnacle was undoubtedly a triple bill of hand-colored 3D Méliès, full of wizardry and magic: Le Chaudron infernal (the infernal cauldron) and L’Oracle de Delphe from 1903, and Alchimiste Parafaragamus ou La cornue infernale (the mysterious retort) from 1906.
Finding his films routinely pirated in the US, Méliès opened a distribution office in New York in 1902. A duplicate negative was too degraded to be of use in striking prints in the US, whilst the original remained in France, so, ingénieur that he was, Méliès constructed a two-lens camera that produced two negatives at the same time – ie stereoscopic. Uncharacteristically, the stereoscopic potential was neglected by Méliès, and the negatives went their separate ways. Until, that is, Bromberg went to New York to look at missing material from his own copy of Le Chaudron infernale. He found that where the footage was duplicated, the images did not quite match. He realized what was going on. Marrying the French and American negatives created true stereoscopic films. Even though not all the material was present for both “eyes”, and not all the material was colored, it works brilliantly, and the films are stunningly beautiful. Nice to discover that Mélies, even inadvertently, had yet another magical innovation up his sleeve.