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Méliès in Stereopsis

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This is an excerpt from an essay written for The Funambulist on the relation of 3D effects in Hugo to the aesthetics of Georges Méliès, and what that relation implies for 3D effects more generally.

“Magic-Eye” posters saturated shopping malls at roughly the same time that I was spending most of my time in shopping malls – early adolescence, in the mid-1990s.  For a few years they were everywhere, explosions of gaudy color patterns that all looked more or less the same from a distance.  If you stared at these posters with unfocused eyes, they revealed hidden figures in three dimensions.  The pictures were supposed to resolve themselves before you in a startling instant—from seeing chaotic color-snow to seeing a fish or a boat leap off the paper.  They came with instructions to the effect of, “Put your nose right up to the picture and slowly pull away,” and, “do not focus on the picture.”

Looking at a picture without focusing one’s eyes is difficult to do.  Often we mall denizens didn’t know what we were doing when we did it.  A great many frustrated people stared and stared and never saw anything.  (The phenomenon soon became a running joke, leaving traces in Mallrats (Kevin Smith, 1995) and a Seinfeld episode.)  Or, we would lose the image as soon as we had it.  The figure would pop out for a moment; then I would try to focus on a detail in it; then, immediately, it would dissolve.  Once I began focusing on the picture as if it were an object in space – that is, once I tried to unite the disparate impressions from each eye into a single thing – the depth was pulled underneath the thick layer of static again.  Any time I blinked there was a danger of losing it, because the eyes wanted to be focused again, and I had to fight that urge.  It hurt to concentrate on an unfocused picture.  I could feel my eyeballs straining, like they were muscles being worked in the wrong way, like trying to pop a shoulder out of its socket.

The nose tactic never worked for me.  I found it was easier to hold the picture still and actively go cross-eyed, controlling my binocular vision: finding the repeated pattern of colors in the print, and playing a game with my eyes that forced the pattern from one eye to slide into the pattern from the other eye.  I soon found that this game worked with any kind of flat pattern, like carpet or wallpaper, if I viewed it in the right way.  No fish or boats would emerge, but the misfit of optical cues made for strange private sights.  Tiles in public bathrooms worked especially well.  Squares could hover over themselves and bounce above the floor in front of me, transparent and opaque at once.  If different-colored tiles were the same size, they could merge into a single tile, both colors simultaneously.

Avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs has played with stereoscopic vision for decades in ways like this, sometimes projecting images side-by-side and asking his audience to resolve them into a single image.  He has written stereoscopic poems as well.

What seem like trivial games become important aesthetic matters, with so much present-tense investment in 3D viewing at the movie theater.  Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) plays some games with the viewer of this nature – some on purpose, some by accident.  But it’s the strange sense of depth in stereoscopic tricks that a film about Georges Méliès, made in 3D – and a film bold enough to put Méliès’s films through the stereoscopic process – that holds some interesting possibilities for 3D’s future.  These possibilities, like the games, are difficult to see.

Read the rest here.

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