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Real 3D (2011) vs. Natural Vision 3D (1953)

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

It’s no contest. While I certainly agree with Roger Ebert that all 3D films are inherently gimmicky, I recently had the chance to see a restored 3D print of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) at Film Forum in New York, shown in its original Natural Vision, 2-projector format, as created by Milton Gunzburg.

While contemporary Real 3D uses a digital camera and projection system and a beam splitter in the projection booth to produce two images that merge into one with the use of polarized glasses, Natural Vision uses two 35mm film projectors in frame-for-frame sync which doubles the brightness, and gives the image added punch and depth. Of course, the system is impractical for many reasons; it needs two perfect copies of each reel to be run in interlock simultaneously; one frame missing from either print, and the effect is lost.

At this point in time, there are only two theaters in the United States that can still project Natural Vision 3D; Film Forum, and the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, which houses the American Cinematheque. But seeing Dial M for Murder, and Natural Vision 3D, for the first time in many years, I was struck by how much more effective it was than Real 3D as used in James Cameron’s Avatar. Of course, you’ll have to see it for yourself, but trust me; Natural Vision is warmer, more lifelike, and creates a truer illusion of depth than Real 3D ever can. And, of course, it’s much, much brighter, and causes considerably less eyestrain.

Natural Vision was abandoned by 1955 in Hollywood, and while it’s true that a lot of inferior films hastened the process’s demise, the real factor was the inherent technical clumsiness and cost of the process. Although all 3D films, in the end, rely on spectacle, to see a restrained drawing room murder mystery brought to life by Natural Vision 3D in Hitchcock’s film demonstrates that 3D can be used with style and taste, and that the results can be extraordinary.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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