Making movies in 3-D is an idea whose time has come and gone so often that it is easy to lose count. And no one is more aware of the constant travails of the business than Chris Condon, who for 33 years has been one of the handful of devotees preaching the gospel of three-dimensional movies.
In 1953, Condon sat in a Hollywood Boulevard theater and watched in awe as Vincent Price tried to pour hot wax over Phyllis Kirk in the 3-D horror classic "House of Wax." Condon said the picture, for which he did some technical work, forever changed his life.
"There's a small group of us around who are crazy about 3-D," Condon said. "It's so spectacular when it's done well that you can become addicted to it."
Condon, 63, now develops lenses, cameras, projectors and other instruments used to make and show 3-D movies. His company is Stereovision International, a small, 21-year-old firm based in a windowless brick building in Burbank that he runs with his wife, daughter and five employees. Condon said he hasn't made much money, but he carries on because he strongly believes 3-D has never received its due.
Films Two Images
To create 3-D, a director needs to film left-eye and right-eye images, using either two cameras or a special camera equipped with two lenses. When viewed through specially treated, dark glasses, the images merge and appear to show depth. Action from a 3-D movie, if made properly, should appear to spill off the screen into the audience.
Condon is widely known as one of 3-D's staunchest supporters. From 1971 to 1976, he and his partners spent close to $1 million to distribute "House of Wax" again. He said he barely broke even on his investment but has no regrets because it exposed more people to 3-D.
"I'd say Chris is probably the king of 3-D. He's the leading advocate," said Earl Owensby, a Shelby, N.C.-based movie maker who has made six B-grade films in 3-D over the last five years.
Despite Condon's efforts, 3-D still isn't taken very seriously by makers of feature-length films. Short, demonstration films in 3-D draw big crowds at places like Epcot Center at Florida's Disney World and at Expo '86 in Vancouver, but many regard 3-D feature films as a joke.
'Disco Dolls in Hot Skin'
More than 250 feature films have been filmed in 3-D, according to trade publications and industry sources. But nearly all have been forgettable bombs like "Lumberjack Rabbit," "Disco Dolls in Hot Skin" and "Robot Monster," a 1953 low-budget movie that featured a man in a gorilla suit with antennas attached to his head.
Few major directors have ever worked in the medium, with the notable exception of Alfred Hitchcock, who filmed the 1954 thriller "Dial M for Murder," starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and Bob Cummings, in 3-D.
Bob Rosen, head of UCLA's film archives, said many mainstream directors may have been hesitant to film in 3-D because of added costs and technical obstacles. In addition, he said, 3-D has been regarded mainly as a marketing tool rather than something that improves a movie's artistic quality. This was especially true, he said, in the 1950s when Hollywood was desperately coming up with gimmicks such as "Aromarama," which provided viewers with smells, and wide-screen movies to compete with television's growing influence.
Condon and his counterparts contend that too many 3-D movies have been exploitative schlock that damaged the technology's credibility. They accuse producers, distributors and theaters that show 3-D movies of exploiting the technology to make a quick buck, and also with failing to use proper camera and projection equipment or to supply audiences with comfortable glasses that don't cause headaches.
"Three-D has been prostituted. It should engulf you. You should feel the sun and the rain," said Andre de Toth, director of "House of Wax" and one of 3-D's pioneers.
"House of Wax" was Condon's first 3-D project. At the time the movie was made in 1953, Condon had an optical business, where he made lenses and other products for movie cameras. He was asked by a company that supplied the cameras to find suitable lenses for the two cameras that De Toth used to shoot the film.
Until the mid-1960s, Condon worked at developing 3-D equipment, and in 1965 he established Stereovision.
Condon discloses few financial details about his privately held business other than to say that it isn't very profitable. He said that is partly because of research and development costs, Stereovision's largest expense. Condon, who has patents on a 3-D camera and a projection system, is developing equipment that he says will make it much easier to televise 3-D.
Stereovision does some work for domestic companies such as Disney, but most of its business in the past two years has been for film producers in Pakistan, Japan, India, France and other foreign nations. Although he has little steady competition, Condon is troubled by what he calls "carpetbaggers," firms that enter the business during its intermittent revivals.
Last week, Stereovision refiled a lawsuit accusing Paramount Pictures of coercing theater owners to buy 3-D lenses and glasses that the studio sold when its "Friday the 13th: Part 3" was released in 1983. Stereovision was supplying glasses and lenses to some of the more than 800 theaters showing the movie.
Paramount denied the allegations. The original suit was dismissed last month by a federal judge.
Three-D is clearly in a lull now. The last rebirth was in 1982 and 1983, when Hollywood rediscovered 3-D, mainly because of the success of "Friday the 13th: Part 3." It mostly was used as a gimmick for sequels such as "Jaws 3-D" and "Amityville 3-D." KHJ-TV in Los Angeles also scored a hit in May, 1982, when it aired "The Mad Magician," a 1954 film starring Vincent Price.
But, as it has so many times in the past 30 years, interest in 3-D movies quickly waned. The reason is simple: with a few exceptions, 3-D movies don't set box offices on fire.
Only a handful of feature films shot in 3-D are scheduled for release soon. Even Owensby, who boasts that he's "made more 3-D movies than anyone else in the world," says he's given up on it.
Owensby's recently completed film, "Hyperspace," a science-fiction comedy starring actor-writer Chris Elliott, was shot in 3-D. Owensby said, however, that it will be released only as a conventional film because of the "dying" interest in 3-D. A movie shot in 3-D can be shown as a so-called flat, or standard film.
Part of the reluctance to develop 3-D stems from the expense. Owensby estimates that 3-D films cost an extra 25% and can take three weeks longer to produce.
Technical problems also hinder the field. Don Henderson, a film production manager for a Disney unit, recently analyzed the commercial potential of 3-D movies for Disney. He said he found that only about a third of the nation's theaters, or 6,000, can run 3-D movies. The others lack necessary features such as a coating of aluminum on their screens and the special projection lenses.
The current 3-D malaise comes while many efforts are under way to improve the technology, most notably in countries such as Canada, the Soviet Union and Japan.
Canada's pavilion at Expo '86 features what some call one of the most technically advanced 3-D movies ever. The film, a historical, 20-minute journey through Canada, combines 3-D for the first time with the technology of IMAX, which uses large-format film to produce some of the sharpest, brightest images ever put on film. Viewers have waited in line as long as three hours to see it.
'Magic Journeys' Popular
In the United States, Disney has drawn big crowds with its 3-D "Magic Journeys," a 17-minute, 70-mm picture showing at Epcot and Disneyland that uses a camera system Disney developed with Eastman Kodak.
Disney in three months also plans to unveil "Capt. Eo," a 3-D musical fantasy starring singer Michael Jackson that will be shown at theaters at Epcot and Disneyland. "Star Wars" director George Lucas is executive producer of the 12-minute film, and Francis Ford Coppola is the director.
Many in the movie industry believe there always will be a place for 3-D in short, novelty films like the ones shown at Disneyland and expositions. But, they add, the future is limited for 3-D in feature-length films, except for periodic revivals.
Condon isn't so sure, and is encouraged by developments like the Expo '86 film and the success of some 3-D movies overseas, such as "Little Poltergeist," a 3-D film that was India's most popular children's movie in 1984. He believes that 3-D can be used to enhance storytelling, if it's done properly.
"Why make movies in color?" Condon said. "Because it enhances the communication. So can 3-D, because it's beautiful."