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CanFilm Five: 3-D Film Expert Jason Pichonsky

“CanFilm Five” is the Canuxploitation blog’s ongoing guest column, which brings together prominent filmmakers, bloggers, critics and programmers to discuss their most loved offbeat Canadian films.

Jason Pichonsky has been interested in 3-D images ever since his first ViewMaster, but it wasn’t until his rediscovery of 3-D movies back in 2000 that he became fanatical about the subject. His blog, depthsploitation.com, was set up to share some of his thoughts on 3-D, focusing on films made during it’s most exploitive yet leanest years (1960-1990). He continues to research this era with plans to turn his findings into a book, appropriately entitled Depthsploitation. Jason is also a frequent Rue Morgue magazine contributor and filmmaker based in Toronto. He’s even made a zombie film well before it was fashionable–8 ½ Short Films About Zombies to be precise. Jason sez:

jason_pichonskyFinding five Canadian films to collect under the banner of “depthsploitation” (3-D exploitation flicks) is no easy task. Prior to the current wave of 3-D, Canada’s contribution to three-dimensional filmmaking is meager, but in no way insignificant. With a little creative license, here are five Canadian “depthsploitation” films that that exploit the gimmick of 3-D and are well worth seeking out. Although this list begins and ends with the National Film Board of Canada, every film here has ties to the NFB.

NOW IS THE TIME (TO PUT ON YOUR GLASSES), 1951
Commissioned by the British Film Institute for The Festival of Britain in 1950, NOW IS THE TIME is the first in a pair of animated short films produced by the NFB, showcasing the animation of Norman McLaren. To achieve the 3-D effect, McLaren abandoned his beloved camera-less animation technique (in which he would draw directly on the 35mm strip) and instead relied on cutout drawings suspended in front of a black background to create planes of depth. Although the clouds in the film’s opening are flat and two-dimensional, they appear to drift out from behind the screen and into the audience. Traditional cell animation, drawn for each eye, added an extra layer to the film. NOW IS THE TIME also employed an experimental stereo music score draw directly onto the celluloid optical soundtrack space to create its sound.

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AROUND AND AROUND (1951)
Okay so I’m clearly cheating already. AROUND AND AROUND is the second of the short animations produced by McLaren for the BFI. But, not one to repeat himself, McLaren employed different techniques to achieve his 3-D images. Using an optical printer, McLaren panned flat animated images to create left and right stereo-paired images. He also experimented with oscilloscope patterns, frame staggering the patterns’ horizontal motions in the optical printer to create the 3-D (with this highly technical task he was aided by cameraman Chester Beachell). This time around, the soundtrack featured a more traditional score provided by NFB composer Louis Applebaum.

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McLaren’s animated films screened via dual projection (a projector for each eye) in a specially conceived Telecinema, built for the exhibition as an experimental pairing of television broadcasting and cinema. Additionally, three live action films, A SOLID EXPLANATION, ROYAL RIVER and THE BLACK SWAN, were also screened in 3-D. These films were produced by the Brits under the supervision of Raymond Spottiswood who, together with his brother Nigel, quite literally wrote “the book” on 3-D moviemaking. Published in 1953 under the less then sensational title, The Theory of Stereoscopic Transmission and its Application to the Motion Picture, the Spottiswoods dedicated their manuscript to McLaren.

A year later, Hollywood would discover 3-D in a big way with the release of Arch Obler’s Bwana Devil and 3-D would enter its first major theatrical era. Hollywood would release 50 films over the next few years until filmgoers, exhibitors and the studios began to lose interest in favor less cumbersome and glasses-free widescreen technologies.

THE MASK (1961)
This is the first film on this list that truly fits my definition of a depthsploitation film (a 3-D film that has exploitation elements and was produced between 1960 and 1990). Breaking new ground for Canadian genre film, THE MASK certainly remains one of Canada’s most noteworthy and original forays into the horror genre. Producer/director Julian Roffman blends elements of noir and psychological thrillers with surrealist nightmare sequences presented in 3-D. Recognized as Canada’s first horror film,THE MASK makes full use of 3-D as gimmick, as the B&W film only incorporated 3-D for it’s three hallucinogenic dream sequences. A disembodied voice invites the audience to “put the mask on now,” a cue to raise their red and green (anaglyphic) 3-D viewers. The 3-D sequences continue to intrigue fans’ of the film, not merely due to the 3-D gimmick but the imagery presented by the filmmaker. Grotesque human figures in hooded cloaks, snakes and skulls projected into the audience as well as the imposing “mask” itself, all wrapped in an otherworldly soundtrack by Louis Applebaum (surprisingly reminiscent of his contribution to McLearen’s AROUND AND AROUND but wrapped an electroacoustic performance).

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Much of THE MASK’s continued life (already 50 years old) is that the 3-D effect continues to work effectively on home video, thanks to an anaglyphic conversion done for television back in the eighties. By 1961, exhibitors had dismantled much of the 3-D dual projection equipment installed for the 50’s boom so, in order to distribute the 3-D film, Roffman choose the a low rent anaglyph process for the 3-D projection, a far cry from the quality that was seen in the fifties. Aside from the special “mystic mask,” no additional special equipment was needed to see the 3-D effect.

However, Roffman did not skimp of quality when it came time to film the 3-D sequences. Instead, hen used his NFB connections (he was after all a founding member) and turned to Telecinema consultant Raymond Spottiswoode for advice. Spottiswoode helped Roffman to secure the twin cameras used to produce the live action shorts at The Festival of Britian almost 10 years earlier.

SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983)
In the pantheon of Canadian film, SPACEHUNTER (a.k.a ADVENTURES IN THE CREEPZONE) is a true depthsploitation flick,  the only 3-D effort attempting to capitalize on the brief 3-D boom of the 1980s. Sure it had the backing of Columbia Pictures and utilized a number of exterior locations in Utah, but it’s key creative personal where all true north strong and free. It had strong ties to Cinepix–John Dunning, Andre Link and Don Carmody are all credited as producers and Ivan Reitman served as the executive producer. Canada’s favorite tax-shelter villain, Michael Ironside, was employed to play the heavy and even SCTV’s Harold Ramis provided the voice of the spaceship’s computer. (I know, Ramis is a Chicago native but his early years as a performer and head writer on the Canadian-produced SCTV, make him an honorary Canadian in my book.)

Most reviews pass SPACEHUNTER off as a MAD MAX / STAR WARS rip-off, overlooking its connection to Heavy Metal magazine. Indeed, the film plays as a live action tale from that notorious comic book magazine and Heavy Metal even featured a six-page adaptation (see panel below) to promote the film. Not surprising, since just two years earlier Reitman had teamed up with publisher Leonard Mogel to produce HEAVY METAL, an animated anthology film based on the periodical.

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A western dressed in sci-fi/fantasy, SPACEHUNTER follows the exploits of bounty hunter Wolff (Peter Strauss), as he heads to Terra Eleven to rescue three distressed maidens from the clutches of the Overdog (Ironside), and collect the reward money offered for their safe return. For better or worse, the film also introduced theatregoers to the 1980s ginger-haired teen queen Molly Ringwall (SIXTEEN CANDLES), as Wolff’s newly acquired sidekick Nikki. Ringwall pouts and whines her way through the film as only she can. You either love her or you hate her. As an effects extravaganza, SPACEHUNTER was a blockbuster trial run for producer Reitman, who would follow the film up in 1983 with the insanely successful horror-comedy fusion GHOSTBUSTERS.

This production used a dual camera 3-D system designed by NFB alumni Ernest McNabb, however the system was plagued with 3-D convergence problems and hundreds of shots had to be redone in post-production. To make things worse, a number of uncorrected prints got out, resulting in poor critical and audience reaction. I must have seen one of the better prints, because I found the 3-D in the film is pretty enjoyable if somewhat restrained, containing less eye-gouging effects than FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3.

TRANSITIONS (1990)
The brainchild of NFB’s Colin Low (who’s multi-screened LABYRINTH broke new ground for installation art in the late 1960s), TRANSITIONS returned 3-D to the world stage. Created for Vancouver’s Expo ’86, this film took inspiration from the world exposition’s theme; “transport and communications” and highlights the nation’s technological innovations–a precursor to the Canadarm reaches out of the screen to grab an egg, the logging industry shines as helicopters drop freshly harvested trees into the Pacific Ocean to the awaiting beachcombers below. And TRANSITIONS includes flying teddy bears!

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Although a showcase for Canada’s achievements in technology,  TRANSITIONS is also an achievement of its own, incorporating some of the earliest computer generated animation, presented in 3-D no less. The stereoscopic rig used to shoot the film was (again) developed by McNabb. After his critically panned work on SPACEHUNTER, McNabb solved his earlier problems and a new 3-D system–IMAX 3-D–was born. The production from the NFB/IMAX pairing would in many ways mark a transitioning of 3-D films. Much of the technology developed by IMAX and audiences’ continued exposure throughout the ’90s to large format 3-D cut a path to the current 21 century rebirth of 3-D films.

A few words from producer Colin returns the Canadian 3-D full circle to where it started:

After TRANSITIONS, IMAX had decided that 3-D was the way to go and was off and running with it. It’s been very successful for IMAX and its growth. IMAX 3-D had come out of Norman McLaren’s early experiments for the festival of Britain in 1950-51. I was also very interested in 3-D. The night I first met McLaren, I saw his 3-D paintings on the wall of his apartment. He was very enthusiastic about the process but it never went anywhere for years because the problem with 35mm is that it moves slightly on the screen and your eyes can not tolerate any vertical misalignment, When I first saw an Imax film on the full screen, which was Graeme Ferguson’s NORTH OF SUPERIOR in 1971, I said now you can do 3-D properly. It took 15 years to do it properly for Expo ’86 in Vancouver.