3D in the 21st Century. Becoming 3D

Exploring the 3D films that manufacture their stereo visuals for two-dimensional projections.
Blake Williams

Let Your Light Shine

It took over a century, but 3D is finally generating some cultural goodwill. With two major retrospectives of 3D filmmaking taking place next month—one at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (May 1-5), focusing on a broad range of stereoscopic experimentation throughout avant-garde history, and the other, BAMcinématek’s “3D in the 21st century” series (May 1-17), looking at both experimental and mainstream manifestations from the last fifteen years—the tenacious ‘here again/dead again’ format is apparently beginning to transcend its stigma as a box office gimmick; its capacity for new formal breakthroughs now more than ever met with inklings of trust instead of contempt. Pernicious connotations of commerce, power, and excess haven't been exorcised from 3D so much as they've been fused into its very infrastructure, opening up new opportunities for radical abstractions, poetics, disruptions, and historical inquiries to subvert grand institutions and languages from within the form itself. This potentiality is not actually new, we just needed Godard to give us the go-ahead to embrace it.

The present output of 3D work, as presented in BAMcinématek's series, reminds us yet again of the high/low polarity that exists in cinemas that hoist image and spectacle above narrative. Films in the program fall, more or less, into one of two camps: high-dollar blockbuster spectacles, and DIY artist films. This isn't to say there is a purely black and white disparity between the two, but it's a necessary distinction to note, in that it represents yet another illustration of 3D's essentially binary nature—despite the triadic implications of the terminology. These are films that operate within the realms of left and right, red and cyan, vertical and horizontal, “out from” and “into,” one image and another. Then again, as was reiterated by Adieu au langage last year, we could, should, just as well replace any “and” in the previous sentence with an “or.” That is, depth ought to be regarded as supplementary, not fundamental, to the ontology of stereoscopic imagery, because “correct” 3D representation is always optional, but also, and more importantly, because depth sensations, intrinsically linked to our basic predatory instincts, are biological phenomena, natural illusions that trace us back to our impulses to dominate and consume, which art should always consider its duty to question and disrupt.

Which brings me to the films. Avant-garde filmmaking and exhibition has long been a tradition of making do with limited resources, and the production and distribution of 3D work represents a continuation, if not the pinnacle, of said tradition. Thus, whereas several of the experimental shorts in “3D in the 21st Century” were made with state of the art cameras and editing workflows or were finished for polarized projection on 3D systems (a rarefied luxury that most experimental cinema venues are unequipped for), I want to draw attention to those films that manufacture their stereo visuals for two-dimensional projections. These are works that rely either on antiquated, “imperfect,” or otherwise specialized glasses technologies (Anaglyph, ChromaDepth, Prismatic, et al), or solely on the brain's visual cortex, pulling 3D spectacles from out of technically flat images. That is, these are functionally two-dimensional films that were stealthily designed to become 3D via agents external to the films themselves, with the meaning of works often lying in whichever technological or biological method is used to initiate that transformation.

Capitalism: Child Labor

Ken Jacobs wasn't the first major experimental film figure to explore stereoscopic phenomena in cinema, but he's as close to a 3D juggernaut as the medium's got. While his body of work includes innumerable films, videos, and performances utilizing Anaglyph glasses, Pulfrich filters, and magic lantern shadow plays, the quartet of pieces compiled here samples from the work Jacobs has made with his (literally) patented Eternalism technique, which he started using in the early 2000s. Requiring no glasses or any other mediation between our eyeballs and the screen, Eternalism is a simple process wherein a set of only a few frames of the same space, taken from approximately-but-not-precisely the same viewpoint, cycle repeatedly, in positive then negative and back again. Objects and walls shift and torque like factory gears, stroboscopically exploding out to us, caught in spasms and released again into blinking infinity.

In a program that also includes Seeking the Monkey King (2011) and Canopy (2014),  A Loft (2010) represents Jacobs's workspace as a steely industrial wasteland from hell. Objects and the space that holds them unfold and enfold into themselves, first in hyper-contrasted black and white, then graduating to retina-obliterating reds and greens and violets. Ceiling fans and decades-worth of clutter flutter and collapse into some black hole of a sunroof in the room's ceiling’s center; possessions become merely things, and light becomes the only thing we can or even care to register. Four years earlier, his Capitalism: Child Labor (2006) addressed and critiqued the workspace in a far more Cubist and scathing register. Probing a single Victorian stereograph of a 19th century thread factory across a fourteen-minute running time, Jacobs flickers the image's deep-space perspective into a fan-shaped pulsation that dares us to feel sympathy (or not to) for its long-dead child subjects. Picture-in-picture window boxes zoom us illusorily closer to the figures and their gestures, the 3D illusions conflicting with and breaking the space around it, the horrors of capitalist urges portrayed as a bottomless chamber of disorder that our brains can't work hard enough to adequately organize and decipher—try as they might.

Chromatic Frenzy

Little effort is required of our brains, though, to appreciate Kerry Laitala's Chromatic Frenzy (2009), a video that calls upon Chromatek’s ChromaDepth technology to generate its spectral depths. Like Jacobs's Eternalism, ChromaDepth is a fairly young technology, and it achieves its depth sensations by using filters that defract binary optics and colors to the left or right based on their inherent chromatic aberrations. Reds are drawn forward, blues pushed back, with the hues in between reacting accordingly—and seemingly unpredictably. Due to its novelty, ChromaDepth has recently become a popular tool for translating classic, primary color-dominated films into stereoscopic playgrounds—Lillian Schwartz's UFO's(1971), for example, was screened in TIFF's Wavelengths program in 2012 paired with the glasses, which had many asking what a Jordan Belson film would look like through these lenses.

Chromatic Frenzy had in some sense answered that question three years earlier. Laitala, who is also well-known for her colorful and kaleidoscopic multi-projector performances, has worked extensively in ChromaDepth since 2009, and had apparently mastered it from the very beginning. Allegedly shot entirely in her studio, Chromatic Frenzy is a densely saturated freakout of solar streaks, kaleidoscopic magma globs, and seared disco vortices. Her incandescent images suggest an intergalactic mysticism from out of Harry Smith's sketchpad, but yet they are grounded in the modesty of a schoolhouse colour palette, no doubt dictated by the ChromaDepth filter's strictures. Truthfully, the film is almost unbearably rapturous even without the effect of the glasses. But with them, there's an additional and unexpected charm that comes through, one that makes gains through the naiveté of the technology’s stunted range. Depth illusions are largely limited to only three planes—just off of, a bit back from, and flush up against the screen—letting all that is frantic become tempered by a sense of welcoming simplicity.

Red Capriccio

Though I obviously can't offer any meaningful qualitative statements about my own seven-minute film, Red Capriccio (2014), I feel I can objectively say that it strives to achieve a similar tension between the frantic and the tempered, and with a comparably pared down, primary-heavy palette. The last in a trilogy of Anaglyph (red and cyan) found footage films, this was my attempt at a grand reduction of both an image and a technology down to their dialectical essences. Footage of a parked Chevy Caprice cop car, Montreal's decaying Turcot Interchange, and an empty dance room with a deliriously dancing  toy police car all see their colours progressively saturated into pure reds and blues, producing an interactive call and response sensation in our vision. The image, distilled through the Anaglyph filters—one bloodshot and the other frigid—grants each eye its moment; one fills in the blanks for the other, the two share together but then finally fight for exclusivity, blinding the other before being blinded right back.

Conversely, Jodie Mack's Let Your Light Shine (2013) takes the singular and refined and proliferates it into oblivion. Described by Mack as “eye candy as a special treat,”  this rigid three-minute film, which serves as the big grand finale on her globetrotting, five-film Dusty Stacks of Mom compilation, ostensibly depicts nothing but a barrage of wavy white lines. These undulations are unlocked, though, by wearing an unassuming pair of clear Prismatic glasses. Viewed through these lenses—which themselves couldn't possibly serve any practical purpose besides bedazzling to death any and everyone who wears them—the white curves' bottled up spectra combust and fire off in every direction, the ROYGBIV clones clouding and overwhelming our vision, simply because they can; or, better yet, because we need them to. This is color and spectacle for pure, intoxicated consumption, replicating and zooming out for us faster and faster but always never fast enough.


Part of the Notebook's critical supplement to BAMcinématek's "3D in the 21st Century" series, running May 1 - 17, 2015. Chromatic Frenzy plays on May 3 accompanying Jean-Luc Godard's Adieu au langage; short films by Ken Jacobs play May 11; Let Your Light Shine plays on 14 accompanying Katy Perry: Part of Me 3D; Red Capriccio plays on May 17 accompanying Charlie Victor Romeo.

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3D in the 21st CenturyBAMNew YorkKen JacobsJodie MackBlake WilliamsKerry Laitala
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