George Arliss in 3D

The current interest in 3D movies has a long history dating back to the 19th century use of stereograms whereby two seemingly identical photos were placed side-by-side. When seen through a viewer, called a Stereoscope, these 2D images sprang to life by blending into one three-dimensional image that was more vivid than life itself. The secret to creating this 3D illusion was to take one of the two “identical” photos from a slightly different perspective than the other, about equal to the distance between our eyes.

The Age of Stereograms spanned the 1880s through the 1920s and offered mainly the sights of far-away places. Celebrity 3D photos were limited to political leaders and important military officers. For whatever reason, neither Broadway nor Hollywood celebrities seemed to have posed for these pictures. However, 21st century computer software can help us render a “simulated 3D” image that suggests what our favorites of yesteryear might have looked like in the third dimension. If you have access to an old Stereoscope or perhaps to a modern version made of cardboard found in books about old stereo cards, then you’re all set to enjoy seeing Mr. A as Shylock as he appeared on the stage in 1928 in Shakespeare’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE:
Arliss_Shylock 3D

Don’t despair if you lack access to a viewer because you really don’t need one. With a bit of patience you can easily train your eyes in the knack of “free viewing,” where you can see the 3D effect without a viewer. If your Blogmeister can learn it, so can you. It helps at first if you hold your hand or a piece of cardboard in front of your face on edge so your right eye cannot see the picture on the left side and your left eye can’t see the picture on the right. Stare straight ahead as if you are are looking “through” the photos and soon you’ll notice the two photos move towards each other to become one. Try it with this image of Ivan Simpson and Mr. A from DISRAELI (1929):
Arliss_Disraeli 3D

I find that smaller size photos work better than larger ones. Also, experiment with moving the images closer or further away from your eyes. A distance between 10 and 12 inches or so usually works but you’ll just have to use trial and error. Once you’ve experienced the 3D effect you will know what to look for and subsequent free viewing will be easy. Here is Ivan Simpson again without his makeup for DISRAELI, but practicing his skill as a sculptor by immortalizing Mr. A as Mr. Disraeli:
Arliss_Simpson 3D

You can enjoy the 3D effect right on your computer screen so there’s no need to print out the images. I’ve even managed to see the 3D effect with these photos on my iphone but I won’t recommend it for beginners. Not every photo is a candidate for 3D. This photo of Mr. A and June Collyer from ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931) works well because it has a clearly defined foreground and background:
Arliss_Collier in HAMILTON 3D

If you’ve gotten this far with seeing the above photos in 3D, then you’re ready for the post-graduate course. Try this exquisite portrait of Mr. A, Loretta Young, and Robert Young from THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD (1934). Not only is the foreground/background clearly distinguished, but the lighting effects seem to suggest a 3D effect as well:

This photo is from the closing scene of THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD that was originally photographed in color so I took my coloring cues directly from the film itself. I slightly altered the color of the carpet between the two images so you may notice a vivid quality as the colors combine. Florence Arliss, Mr. A, and Reginald Owen:
Arliss_Owen_Roth 3D

Finally, here is a genuine 3D photo that your Blogmeister just made using an ordinary digital camera. The bust was sculpted by Ivan Simpson around 1923 and captures Mr. A as the Rajah of Rukh in THE GREEN GODDESS, a hit play that he made both as a silent film and later in sound in 1929 (release in 1930). Mr. A refers to this bust in the first volume of his memoirs:
Arliss GG Bust 3D

The Lost Secret of Portrait Photography

Ever wonder why movie stills from the 1920s and 30s look so drop-dead stunning? And why professional studio photos from the 1950s onward look so, well, chintzy? It’s not your imagination or cheap modern printing processes. There actually are long-forgotten techniques used by the still photographers in early Hollywood. Fortunately, George Arliss was our man on the scene during that Golden Age so let’s take a look at some superb original 8×10 and 11×14 inch portraits by these Rembrandts of film to uncover some of their methods.

Admittedly a self-consciously artsy photo, this Bert Longworth portrait of Mr. A suggests a 3-D quality:


Here’s a refreshing outdoor composition by Irving Lippman. You can almost feel the warmth of the sunshine:


Photographers understood the inherent drama of black & white as this stark study suggests:


This is one of several portraits that Warners commissioned when Mr. A signed to make talking pictures in 1928. The unknown photographer has subtly softened the focus on the facial features without calling attention to it:

The portrait above is 4×5 and here is the 4×5 work negative it was made from (cropped due to my scanner):

And here is a painting that Gaumont-British studios made from the same photo a few years later:

I have not enhanced the colors – they are as vibrant now as they were 75 years ago.

Getting the flesh tones right marked the true artist, not too light and pasty, not too dark:

THE MILLIONAIRE (1931) by Bert Longworth

The still photographer often worked closely with the cinematographer on lighting. Here notice the “candlelight effect” that was a challenge to achieve due to the relatively low sensitivity of film stock of the time mandating lots of lights – there is minimal frontal lighting, the glow from the fireplace at right is noticeable, and most of the lighting comes from overhead:

VOLTAIRE (1933) with Doris Kenyon and Reginald Owen

A dramatic portrait by Elmer Fryer:


An uncharacteristic pose of Mr. A, note the sharp focus on the face:

We’ve discussed the role of lighting, lenses and focal points, but what was the real secret that makes the work of these vintage photographers unattainable their by counterparts today? Ready? It was the size of the negatives they used. They didn’t use those handy 35mm rolls of film or larger rolls that produced negatives about 2 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches square. No, these da Vincis of da camera used gigantic negatives measuring 8 x 10 inches. In other words, those beloved 8×10 stills that film buffs admire are not enlargements from small negatives like today, they were contact prints!

Here’s an original 8×10 negative – and yes, it required a huge, bulky camera:

Most digital scanners today can’t handle these 8×10 monsters but the depth of field these negatives produced just can’t be duplicated with smaller size negatives. It’s the difference between painting a miniature or working on a large canvas

And here’s this negative turned into a print:

THE LAST GENTLEMAN (1934) with Rafaela Ottiano, Donald Meek, Frank Albertson, Janet Beecher, Charlotte Henry, Edna May Oliver, Ralph Morgan, and Mr. A.

(restored from a scrapbook clipping, circa 1934)

Published in: on March 19, 2011 at 10:46 PM  Comments (4)  
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