There’s a reason why a repertory film event like the Quad Cinema’s “Comin’ at Ya! 35mm 3-D” is so rare: Showing vintage 3-D films is a costly labor of love. Technological limitations have long prevented Philadelphia-based film programmer Harry Guerro, the owner of one of the largest private collections of 16mm and 35mm horror and genre film prints, from screening 3-D films for modern audiences. Almost twenty years have passed since Guerro and his fellow grindhouse cinema buffs at Exhumed Films showed a 3-D 35mm film print of the dopey slasher Friday the 13th Part III at Philadelphia’s now-defunct GCC Northeast theater. But only recently — after paying out of pocket to retrofit old lenses and custom-made 3-D glasses — has he achieved a longtime dream of frequently projecting older 3-D genre films to modern audiences. Among the movies whose full 3-D glory is being unearthed at the Quad: the thrilling kung fu films Dynasty and Revenge of the Shogun Women; the bizarre porno Love in 3-D; and the riotous horror-comedy Flesh for Frankenstein. The Voice spoke with Guerro about what kind of technology is required to show 3-D films, and why we’ll probably never see Michael Jackson in the charmingly delirious 1986 science-fiction short film Captain EO shown in 3-D on a big screen again.
Film Forum’s 2016 program of 3-D films proved how difficult a dual-projector system — the kind commonly used in the 1950s — is to maintain. I was at a screening of Revenge of the Creature that was disrupted multiple times because the two interlocked projectors weren’t in sync. Why haven’t Hollywood studios updated old 3-D films for modern technology?
The dual-projector system that was commonly used to show 3-D films in the 1950s was hard to pull off and incredibly time-consuming to run. Remember: You need two prints for every such film you’re showing, one print for what viewers see with their left eye through polarized glasses, and another print for what they see through their right eye. There are probably only two or three modern American theaters that can interlock their projectors in order to perfectly sync up 1950s 3-D film prints. Hollywood studios don’t want to spend their money, or waste their time on restoring older 3-D films.
At Exhumed Films’ recent “3-Dementia” program, audience members wore 3-D glasses that you had specially made for modern screenings.
A couple years ago, I found out about a company that tried unsuccessfully to work with Hollywood studios on the recent spate of 3-D movies, like Avatar. They got beat out by RealD 3D, a company that uses a process similar to the old polarized method of projecting 3-D films from the 1950s and 1980s. Still, they had all of these filters for 3-D glasses lying around, so I asked them to custom-size some filters to replace the polarizers in my old 3-D lenses.
The chromatic filter technology in our 3-D lenses and glasses divide the color spectrum so that your left and right eyes can each see a full range of colors. You are, however, seeing colors slightly differently in each eye, which keeps the two projected images separate. You’ll only notice the small differences between what either eye sees when you close either your left or your right eye. The chromatic process eliminates the need to project 3-D films onto a silver screen that has metallic fragments woven into its fabric. Many contemporary multiplexes have plain, white matte screens. The chromatic filtration process we use is similar to the Dolby 3D projection system commonly used in today’s IMAX theaters.
The cyclical nature of the 3-D film trend is fascinating since it only appears to be superficially spurred on by technological innovation. For example, Hollywood studios have had the means to post-convert 2-D films into 3-D for decades, but they’ve only recently used it. How much of the history of 3-D movies is dependent on marketing, and how much relies on new technology?
The 3-D trend boils down to movie studios’ desire to make 3-D films. Studios recently forced theater owners to switch from film to digital projectors. Exhibitors consequently had to upgrade their projection equipment at great personal expense. Likewise, I think the recent 3-D trend has only lasted as long as it has because of studios’ artificial demands. It allows theaters to charge customers more money. Post-converted 3-D movies — shooting a film in 2-D, and Photoshopping the film print to add extra layers — is a cheat. They’re calling it 3-D, but it’s not really 3-D. The only way it’s 3-D is if it’s shot in 3-D, so that the image has a depth of field.
The new moviegoing gimmick seems to be 4DX theaters, where you sit in moving seats, and have water and wind blown in your face. Do you think we’ll see a revival of 3-D theme-park-ride short films from the Nineties, stuff like T2: Battle Across Time and Muppet Vision? Those films cost a lot to make!
I would love to see those films on Blu-ray! Or Sea World’s Sea Dream! Some guy on eBay was selling a print of T2: Battle Across Time. He was asking for thousands of dollars. Who’s gonna buy that? I don’t think you’ll ever see that film put on a Blu-ray. James Cameron should do it as part of the package for the recent post-converted version of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There are a lot of rights issues. How do you pay Disney to put out Captain EO as a bonus feature rather than the main title on a Blu-ray? Who even controls the license for that material? There are all sorts of complications that probably mean that we’ll never see a lot of those films projected in 3-D again.
‘Comin’ at Ya! 35mm 3-D’
October 13–19, Quad Cinema
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 12, 2017