INTERVIEWER: The date is the 6th of July, 1993. This [is] interview number two-seven-one, with Charles Smith. Right. Okay, when—when were you born, and what sort of childhood did you have, and what your parents were.
CHARLES SMITH: Well, I was born in 1920, May, in Rugby in Warwickshire. And my father kept a photographic chemist's shop. And so we had, uh, sold cameras, and I served customers with films and loaded the cameras. [laughter] I was the boy for all the people who'd bought expensive cameras and then had to get a shop assistant to load them for them and so on. So that, I suppose, was my first original knowledge of photography because we did developing and printing on the premises overnight in those days.
INTERVIEWER: Ah, yes, and what—you went to school, did you? Of course you went to school, but, uh, what—what was your schooling?
CHARLES SMITH: Well, I went to a primary school in Rugby, and then, unfortunately, my mother died, and my father was left on his own. I had to be sent away to a boarding school, so I went away at the age of 8 to a boarding school at Warwick—quite a distinguished school in its way. I think it's the oldest in the country. It was founded I think in 946, by Edward the Confessor. But it's not an expensive or distinguished school, but very old. Warwick School.
INTERVIEWER: Right. And after you left school, what sort of work did you start at?
CHARLES SMITH: Well, I got an exhibition to Cambridge in mathematics, but I decided for one reason or another not to take this up. I didn't want to live in Rugby at home anymore, and my father had just remarried. And I thought I was a bit in the way, so I decided not to go to university but instead to go to London and try and make my way in the big city.
INTERVIEWER: All right, so what happened when you got to London?
CHARLES SMITH: Well, I worked for a while for the Prudential Assurance Company. I suppose because of my mathematical ability, I was supposed to be training as an actuary, which is quite a distinguished profession, but has a lot of—I think a sequence of seven very difficult exams to pass. I think I passed the first two of them before the War came along. My chief activity in those days was listening to jazz in the London clubs ‘cause I was a great jazz enthusiast.
INTERVIEWER: And when was your first contact with cinematography and 3-D? How did you sort of drift into that side of it?
CHARLES SMITH: Well, that didn't happen till the end of the War. During the War, I was serving in the Light Rescue Service of Air Raid Precautions, at Islington Borough Council. I lived at Kings Cross at the time, right through the war. And, unfortunately, that was on 24-hours-on, 24-hours-off basis for—just to cope with air raids. And I fell quite seriously ill in 1943 because I got a lung abscess. And I was in hospital for three months, and gradually, fortunately, it dispelled, and I was pronounced cured. And I've really hardly ever had a day's illness since. I must have been well cured. And of course I couldn't go back to the Light Rescue Service, so I was free from further call-up. And I decided to look for a job, and I worked for a while in a Fleet Street press agency, supplying photographs to newspapers. And then I was offered a job in documentary films.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember what company it was?
CHARLES SMITH: Yes, of course. It was with a small cooperative unit called DATA, DATA Film Unit. And I was taken on, really, in the first place, as a production manager and accountant, again because I could add up a row of figures, which not everybody can—although I wanted to be a technician.
INTERVIEWER: Who was in charge of DATA Films at that time?
CHARLES SMITH: Oh, now. It was, as I say, a cooperative unit. The chief producer was Donald Alexander, and other producers were Jack Chambers, Jack Holmes. Budge Cooper was a director. Francis Gysin was a director, later head of the Coal Board Film Unit. I can't remember any other names offhand.
INTERVIEWER: Well, that’s quite a roll call to start with!
CHARLES SMITH: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: And, uh, you were sort of auditor—accountant—at the time, and how did you sort of drift into the actual photography part?
CHARLES SMITH: Well, I sort of wanted to be a technician because of my experience in photography, and I made a sort of agreement with them that I would work as production manager for a while, and transfer to technical operations [indistinct] when that possibility became available, which they went along with, DATA, and it was about 1945 that I got transferred to become an assistant cameraman. And the Chief Cameraman—well, the permanent cameraman at DATA was Wolfgang Suschitzky, and I became his assistant full time, for something like three or four years. In those days, there was permanent employment, so I was really assistant to Wolfgang, and I think I was very fortunate because he's not only a very skillful photographer, but a very patient tutor. So I think I was lucky to that extent.
I shot from time to time—I worked from time to time as assistant for other cameramen. Other cameramen I worked for—I remember working for—were James Ritchie, later a producer at the British Rail Unit, and John Reed [UNVERIFIED], John R.F. Stewart, and Bill Pollard. It was with Bill Pollard I remember having possibly my most enjoyable locations when we made a couple of cricketing instructional films, one on batting with Len Hutton, and one on fast bowling with Ray Smith of Essex. Very enjoyable locations. Most of our locations at that time were in places like Rotherham or Aberdare… [laughter] …not the most attractive places to spend the evening.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, yes, I remember Bill Pollard. He was also a bit of a mathematician himself, wasn’t he?
CHARLES SMITH: Well, yes, Bill Pollard designed the Kelly calculator.
INTERVIEWER: That’s right.
CHARLES SMITH: Yes, yes, he was, and a very amusing fellow. Died recently, I believe.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, sorry to hear that. Yes, and then what happened next?
CHARLES SMITH: I shot my first film as a cameraman in 1951. That was for the National Coal Board, and it was a film on fires underground and how to fight them. This was made in the wake of a serious disaster which killed a considerable number of miners. I believe it was at Nottingham, and the Coal Board made a film on methods of firefighting—quite dangerous to work on because we had to start fires… [laughter] …and then put them out for the purposes of the film!
Now, also in 1951 there was a very important event in the history of moviemaking, and that was the Festival of Britain's South Bank Exhibition, part of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Now, the planning of the festival from the start had agreed it had to include a movie theater, which they named the Telekinema. And this was to show the best of technical achievements of British film and television, and this started a whole new episode in the cinema.
The first thing was that Raymond Spottiswoode was brought back to England to take charge of the production of films for the festival. At that time he was working in Canada as technical head of the National Film Board. So he came back, and he had to decide what films could be produced to make a show at the festival. So Spottiswoode decided to produce a whole program of stereoscopic films, which would be the first stereoscopic program anywhere to be shown in this way with polarizing spectacles in neutral colors, which permitted films in full color, and were also going to have stereophonic sound, which was extremely novel in 1951, and, again, was the first time that stereophonic sound had ever been put before a public audience.
And so his proposals were agreed by early in 1950, and he had about 14 months to master the technique of stereoscopic filming and produce the program of films, as well as building the special cinema, the Telekinema, on the South Bank site, which was a quite a unique building. The architect was Wells Coates, and this building had to include facilities, of course, for stereoscopic projection, which meant a pair of 35-millimeter film projectors, which were synchronized electrically with selsyn motors, and these of course were the very latest British, all-British, BTH equipment. And they were provided also with a separate sound head in the back of the projection box, also selsyn-synchronized, to run the soundtracks, and the sound was 4-track stereophonic, recorded on full-width 35-millimeter sprocketed tape. And these four tracks was the system that was later adopted by 20th Century-Fox and others in Hollywood. But this was—the Telekinema was the first presentation to the public.
Now, as well as the film projection, the program included big screen television. So, the television was projected by the Eidophor system on a 10-foot screen. And this was really outstanding quality for that period. Black and white, of course, only in 1951.
And also in 1951, there was no facility for recording programs, so the only material they could show at the Telekinema was actually live broadcasts. So, this was very popular when there was an event on, like the Boat Race or the Grand National or a Test match. But much of the time there wasn't a lot that could actually be shown. What they did have was they had a camera in the foyer, so that as people walked in and examined the equipment (because the projection box had a glass wall, so you could see everything that was going on inside), as the audiences walked in, those who already arrived could see them appearing on the big screen inside, which, again, was quite a novelty.
Now, Raymond Spottiswoode, together with his brother Nigel—who was an engineer, and a very skilled engineer, but not a film technician—together they worked out the technical requirements for making satisfactory 3-D images and ensuring that the pairs of images, one for each eye, were sufficiently well aligned, in correct registration, to give comfortable viewing for the audiences. And four films were ultimately produced for the opening program. Two of these were from Canada, from—made by National—Norman McLaren, the great animator. One was a brief introductory title, animated title, and the other was an ambitious abstract film derived from moving cathode ray tube patterns which were given synthetic color and synthetic depth by optical printing. And that was the first work of art for the stereoscopic cinema, and I think it's probably the last work of genuine art anybody’s made so far. That was a purely abstract film.
And then there were two live-action films made in Britain, and to make these films, there were two special camera rigs assembled: one, an assembly of a pair of Newman Sinclairs, and this was used for the first of the films, which was made by Pathé Pictorial in collaboration with Spottiswoode. And this was called A Solid Explanation, and was a sort of semi-humorous explanation of the facilities of stereoscopy, and how stereoscopic vision worked. And this—that was in black or white.
At least one of the films had to be in color, a scenic film—of course the animation films were both in color—and so it was decided to make that with a special rig assembled by Technicolor in London, a giant rig of twin Technicolor 3-strip cameras. So, in other words, it was a 6-strip rig, again for the first and last time. And they made a scenic film, and that film was produced by International Realist Productions, in collaboration again of course with the Spottiswoodes. And it was called Royal River. And it was a scenic film shot on the River Thames. Because of the massive and immovable nature of this giant camera, the film was nearly all shot from a barge, with the cameras mounted on a barge and steadily allowed to float down the river gathering scenic views. Quite a unique film in stereoscopy, and this was in fact the most popular film in the program.
The stereophonic sound was a saga in itself, and that was under the control of Ken Cameron. I don't know if he's contributed yet to this historical thing, but it would be—I'm sure it would be very interesting, his remarks. Because there was no knowledge at all of stereophonic sound in those days, he had to work out everything from first principles. The music was specially composed for Royal River, for instance, and for the abstract film, Around is Around, and this was recorded in stereophony. And all sorts of problems—a dubbing console was built actually in the Telekinema, so the dubbing was done on the spot where the films were going to be shown.
Well, there was nowhere else in the country the film could be played back, so all this had to be done there. The perforated magnetic film they used was very scarce. I remember Ken telling me that if they made a dud take while they were dubbing, they had to send the roll by taxi to RCA at Hammersmith to get it wiped off so they could reuse it.
However, all the problems were surmounted, and when the program opened on May the 1st, 1951, with the opening of the Exhibition, the Telekinema show was an immediate and sensational success. In fact, it was the great success of the Festival, I think it's fair to say. Images were put before audiences that none of them had ever seen before, that had never been shown before.
The Telekinema had 402 seats, and during the period of the exhibition, a total of twelve hundred shows were given, and there was never an unsealed—an unsold seat at any performance. This is thought to be an all-time record. The seats cost two shillings each, which was quite a fair price for that time—it’s equivalent to about four pounds today—and there were long queues for most of the day to get admission.
INTERVIEWER: [indistinct remarks]
CHARLES SMITH: At the end of the season, when the Festival Exhibition closed, it was decided to reconstruct the Telekinema as a permanent cinema on the same site. This became the original National Film Theatre, which is still on the same site today. The tremendous success of the stereoscopic film program made it obvious that there was a future for this type of films, and it was decided that the first program of four films should be distributed to cinemas around the country, and also to produce further films to build up the programs. A company was set up to do this called Stereo Techniques Ltd., with the two Spottiswoode brothers among the directors. The films were to be produced—The films to be produced were to be five to 15 minutes in length, on a wide variety of subjects, to build up experience of the possibilities of stereoscopic films.
The first of the new 1952 films was made in collaboration the National Coal Board, and was a documentary on open-cast coal mining. This was where I came in contact with 3-D for the first time because I hadn’t worked on the 1951 films. The 1952 Coal Board Film was commissioned from DATA Film Unit. We'd done a lot of work for the Coal Board, and Suschitzky was cameraman, with myself as his assistant on this job. And Jack Chambers was the director. But of course the technical supervision of the stereoscopy was under the direct control of Raymond Spottiswoode, and the film was called Sunshine Miners. It was quite successful.
Raymond came to the location to supervise the shooting, and to control the depth content of every scene in discussion with the director, and set the stereoscopic adjustments of the camera. I tried to pick up as much about the operation of the peculiar camera as I could. After that location, Raymond asked me if I'd care to join Stereo Techniques Ltd. to take over him the stereoscopic control function on subsequent films. So naturally I agreed; this was an exciting project technically. And so began the next three years of my working life, which were in 3-D, which was certainly the most interesting and exciting period of my life as a film technician.
Raymond and Nigel Spottiswoode patiently explained to me the theories of image formation and the use of the stereoscopic adjustments on the camera. These items had never been published at that time. And I supervised the stereoscopic content of all the remaining films made, excepting on one or two occasions when I was away on other business.
Stereo Techniques Ltd. were co-producers on all these 3-D films in collaboration with the production company, so Stereo Techniques had right of approval of all shots, to ensure that the stereoscopic content would be satisfactory. And at this time, we first started using the term “3-D.” It saved a lot of time in technical discussions I had with the Spottiswoodes when we were discussing the contrasting requirements of two-dimensional and three-dimensional movies, and we started using the abbreviations 2-D and 3-D instead. And this catchy abbreviation “3-D” caught on, and was possibly one of the reasons for the subsequent boom in 3-D.
The first screening of the 1952 programs was at the Tatler Liverpool, the Tatler News Cinema in Liverpool. That was, I see, on the 13th of January 1952. This was the first public cinema anywhere in the world to show polarized 3-D projection.
The cinema screenings were a great success. Surprisingly as it may seem, our program of 3-D shorts broke box office records all round the country. Projection of them was quite a complex process because a silvered screen had to be installed. This often had to be done in cinemas on a Saturday night, after the ending of the Saturday screenings, and a gang of men would erect a new silver screen and have it ready by Sunday morning before they knocked off. Also, the two projectors had to be synchronized. This was done mechanically, as a rule, with a rotating bar coupling the drive sprockets of the two projectors. This, surprisingly, wasn't as difficult as it sounds, and it worked quite satisfactorily in practice.
The... also, Stereo Techniques undertook to train the projectionists to make sure that the films, the twin films, were projected in exact synchronism. Of course, if they got out of synchronism, if there was a break, this was absolutely ruinous, and great care had to be taken the films were patched and joined and assembled, and disassembled, in exact synchronism. This was a great source of problems.
The films programs were also distributed in major cities abroad, such as Paris and Brussels and Berlin and so on. And they did great business everywhere, being such a novelty. I remember myself going to Copenhagen to supervise the installation of projection there.
[after an apparent break]
INTERVIEWER: Okay, now.
CHARLES SMITH: I remember myself going to Copenhagen for Stereo Techniques Ltd. to supervise the setting up of 3-D projection there.
At the same time, we proceeded with a production program of new short films. Everything we did was a world first, a first time. We made the first 3-D travelogue, the first ballet film, the first animated cartoon, the first sports film, the first newsreel, first 3-D advertising film, and so on. Most ambitious of these films I think was our 3-D ballet film called The Black Swan, which featured Beryl Grey and others from the Royal Ballet. This was a section of Swan Lake ballet, which was a very good subject for stereoscopic images, three-dimensional images, and to my mind it still looks very good today.
We now decided to publish our system of image control. An article was written called “Basic Principles of the Three-Dimensional Film.” This was a long article, 40 pages. It was published in The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers for October 1952, and I was co-author, in collaboration with Raymond and Nigel Spottiswoode. This paper was later given the Journal Award of 19—for 1952 by the SMPTE as the best paper of the year, the only time they'd ever given this to a non-American paper.
Our programs went ahead in the sort of conservative, very British way, by easy stages—nothing too ambitious. Our first camera, made for the Festival, the Newman Sinclair assembly, which we called the BFI Camera since the British Film Institute were really the owners—this had never been of adequate precision for the—for the precision necessary for a pair of stereoscopic images. We had to do quite a bit of optical correction, which was done in the Optical Department at Denham Laboratories, to get the images in perfect alignment where they’d slipped out. And so that camera had to be rebuilt on a more precise basis, which was satisfactorily done. And we also got financed to build a new camera. And here we had in mind the filming of the Coronation in 1953 in 3-D. And we had hoped to have several cameras available for that. But behind the scenes in Hollywood, events were building up which were soon to swamp our rather humble British efforts at marketing 3-D.
Two brothers in Los Angeles, Milton and Julian Gunzburg, established the Natural Vision Corporation, as they called it, and assembled their own 3-D camera with the aim of shooting feature films. This had the same layout as the 1951 BFI Camera, with the two cameras pointing towards each other and the images reflected by mirrors. But it used Mitchells instead of our Newman Sinclairs, and the pair of Mitchells on the large base plate, pointing nose to nose, were enclosed in a truly massive blimp. Very awkward to manage, and very limited in facilities because the lens separation, the interaxial separation, was fixed, whereas we’d always thought it essential to have variable separation. But it worked well enough to make a quick feature film of rather poor quality.
Natural Vision tied up with a producer, Arch Oboler, to produce a film called Bwana Devil, a low-budget action film, shot on location near Hollywood and supposedly in the African jungle. This was in Ansco Color. It was advertised as the first feature film in 3-D, although in fact the Russians were already ahead of us. But that's another story altogether.
Bwana Devil was sold with the memorable slogan, “A lion in her—a lion in your lap, a lover in your arms.” And it was shown in America with tremendous box office receipts, even though everybody agreed it was a terrible film. Everybody wanted to see it. And of course from the producers’ point of view, it didn't matter whether the film was good or bad, as long as the audience wanted to see it. If the film was bad, audiences might not want to go to a second 3-D film, but they would certainly go to see the first. And that, I'm afraid, was what happened.
Bwana Devil was released towards the end of 1952 in the United States, though not in Europe at that time. Its business was so sensational that at once, all Hollywood studios began shooting 3-D. They were nearly all low-budget productions sold on novelty value alone. Some films that had started shooting were junked and started over again in 3-D. Sometimes crews with no experience in 3-D and no particular interest in the new process were told their next film was to be in 3-D, often at two or three days’ notice.
At the same time, we were pressing on in England with constructing our new camera. In fact, we couldn't find anyone in England competent to build a camera and at the same time who was able to guarantee to produce it in time for the Coronation. We tried France, but we couldn't get it done there either satisfactorily, and so we had to decide to have it built in the United States, where Spottiswoode had a lot of contacts.
We contracted with a high-quality firm of camera engineers in North Hollywood, the Richardson Camera Company. Of course, there's a whole industry of motion picture engineering in North Hollywood and Burbank that doesn't exist at all in England.
The camera was to be based on a pair of Cameflexes, and was to be as light and portable as possible—the aim being that it should be capable of being lifted by one person and placed on the tripod, for mobility in our lightweight location documentary shooting.
Eventually I was sent out to Hollywood at the beginning of March in 1953 to supervise the construction of this camera, in collaboration with Richardson Camera Company, to check the accuracy of the image control systems. And of course I had strict instructions to get the camera completed and bring it back in time for the Coronation. Well, this was a very difficult task, and Richardson’s did a marvelous job. There was no time for detailed drawings; the camera had to be made up as you went along. The most difficult part of all was the special lens mounts we specified, which were a fiendish problem, which Lee Richardson tackled. We’d required, and Richardson’s agreed, to make special lens mounts for the Cameflexes which permitted the movements of each lens in two directions: In and out for focusing in the usual manner, and also the axis of each lens had to be capable of being offset sideways, away from the center, in order to give convergence of the image beams. This offset movement had to be up to about a tenth of an inch maximum. This had never been done before, and never since. It caused terrible headaches, but eventually it worked excellently.
The problems in making this mechanism, some of which we hadn't anticipated, were because of the complexity of the mechanism. It's difficult to make it compact enough for the lenses to focus right back to infinity, and when we first set them up, you couldn't focus farther away than about three feet. This took a lot of filing and reengineering to get this done. And also, having made this dual movement, it was difficult to provide for the movement in two directions without allowing light to leak through. Anyhow, at the end they were successfully completed. Or rather we had four pairs of lenses: 32 millimeters, 40, 50 and 75 millimeters. And it was only possible to complete the first three. The 75-millimeter lenses were never mounted, and we had to abandon them, leave them behind, in Hollywood.
I hired a garage at the back of Richardson's camera shop and shot frequent, constant tests as each stage of the lens mount was constructed, to make sure that the accuracy of image alignment was maintained, and that the focusing was adequate. And we had to construct focus scales. Eventually we ran out of time without being able to complete the 75-millimeter lenses. The double camera mount and the coupled drives were done without difficulty*. It was the lens mounts were the problem. And the soundproof blimp we’d ordered also was only half-completed when it all had to be shipped back to England. And we got it all safely packed up and shipped by airfreight back to England with about a week in hand before the Coronation.
This was an exciting time to be over there in Hollywood, a time of great change in the film industry. Eastmancolor had just become available. There was a great slump in the movie theaters in America because of the first impact of television. People started staying home instead of going out to the movies, and lots of cinemas had closed down. There were various attempts being sought to pep up business. Cinerama opened up in Los Angeles while I was over there; it’d already been showing in New York. Also while I was in Hollywood in those early months of 1953, I got to see the first demonstration of CinemaScope by Twentieth Century-Fox, which was given at the old Chaplin Studios in the center of Hollywood—a huge picture of really sensational quality.
At the same time, Warner Bros. opened up, about March 1953, with their first 3-D film, House of Wax, in Eastmancolor. Still a “B” picture, but well-made. And, again, extremely successful, as far as the box office receipts were concerned.
[after an apparent break]
INTERVIEW: All right, I’m running-- I’m running again now. Yes.
CHARLES SMITH: Back in London, the Coronation shooting had now been planned. The director was to be Bob Angel. The film was to be shot in Eastmancolor, and we had three cameras available on Coronation Day itself: the original BFI rig, now being rebuilt; the new camera of Cameflexes, which we called the Spacemaster; and a special assembly of twin Newman Sinclairs, which were made up by Pathé Newsreel for us, for that one day only. And the film was produced by Pathé, in collaboration with Stereo Techniques.
Of course, from three fixed viewpoints, you could only get a few odd shots of the coronation procession, and the film had to be built up with other royal events in the days following the Coronation. And I remember we included shots on Derby Day, scenes of the decorated London streets, a trip in the royal barge to the Tower of London, a ceremony of presentation of colors at Edinburgh Castle, and things like that. I was cameraman on the film, or principal cameraman, as well as stereoscopic supervisor.
The film wasn't finished until several weeks after the Coronation. The working title had been Coronation Britain, but it was decided to retitle it Royal Review because by the time we’d got the 3-D film out, the Coronation in fact had been done to death, and two feature films on the Coronation had already been put out in 2-D, so the coronation was thought not to be a successful appeal at the box office.
Royal Review was first shown at the Classic Cinema on Baker Street, and subsequently put into our normal 3-D distribution reels. It was well received, and it stands up today as a historic film, as the first ever public event recorded in 3-D and natural color. Technically it was quite good. We made full use of the new mobility of the Spacemaster rig. I’m glad to say that prints of Royal Review are still held at the National Film Theatre, and also the National Film Archive, and it's shown at the National Film Theatre from time to time.
In America at the time of the Coronation, mid-1953, the 3-D boom was still at its height. In Britain, it was still building up; Bwana Devil had just opened. Stereo Techniques had been trying to get a feature film lined up. This was always difficult in Britain, but it was now achieved, and the first—and also the only—British 3-D feature film went into production. This was shot at Nettlefold Studios, Walton-on-Thames, in September and October 1953. Working title was Million Dollar Diamond, final title was The Diamond. It was directed by the American actor Dennis O’Keefe, with a British co-director, Montgomery Tully. O'Keeffe was also the star of the picture with an American actress, Margaret Sheridan. Lighting cameraman was Gordon Lang; camera operator, Arthur Gordon [UNVERIFIED]; and I was in charge of the stereoscopic image control, although Raymond did look in at the studios every now and then to see how things were going and have a look at the rushes.
This was a rather low-budget, routine thriller, although it had quite a good cast. It was shot in black and white, regrettably. However, in the United States, the boom, the sudden 3-D boom, resulted in 70 3-D feature films being shot in 1953, mostly low-budget items of poor quality made by directors and crews with little knowledge of 3-D and little interest in the possibilities of the new system, apart from the stunt effects of throwing items at the camera. Rocks, acid vials, flaming torches—anything that was movable were thrown at the camera. I remember one film reviewer said, in some surprise, “Suddenly the air is filled with flying objects!”
Box office receipts at first were very good because of the novelty value, but they rapidly dropped off—the receipts dropped off for the later films. Many reasons have been put forward for the loss of appeal of the 3-D programs after their initial success. The chief reason seems to have been the poorly supervised projection in the United States. Films were often out of synchronism, out of correct alignment, and painful to watch. They didn’t supervise projection in the States as carefully as we’d done under the direction of Stereo Techniques Ltd.
[END OF SIDE “A”]
INTERVIEWER: Charles Smith interview, side two, cassette one. Okay.
CHARLES SMITH: Also, the films had little appeal except their novelty value, the gimmick appeal of objects sticking out into the audience. It turned out that audiences are not willing to pay to see an optical novelty, or not more than once. What audiences require is of course script values, dramatic and emotional values. Three-D is valuable only if it adds to the image reproduction value, enables you to appreciate the dramatic values. At the same time, the alternative of CinemaScope, which had appeared, was—had much more appeal to cinemas, to theater owners, because it gave far less trouble in projection, and it could also be advertised as the new step forward in the film business, so it could be put forward as a rival to 3-D. It was even advertised at first, CinemaScope, as “the 3-D you can see without glasses,” although of course it was in no way stereoscopic or three-dimensional.
The editing of our British 3-D film, The Diamond, wasn’t complete until early 1944—nineteen fifty-four. And, like many of the later American films, American 3-D films, it was too late to catch the boom and was ultimately distributed in 2-D only. So, with the collapse of the 3-D boom, I had to go back to working as a 2-D cameraman. But we'd made a total of about 25 3-D films in all—not a bad record—and copies of most of these films are still held in the preserves in the National Film Archive.
The failure to handle the possibilities of 3-D filming correctly, for the long-term goodwill of the industry, was certainly a tragedy for movies, and it lost us the prospect of a great enhancement of the image quality of movies. Having worked in both 2-D and 3-D, I feel assured—I feel certain that 3-D will be universal one day, with improved techniques in the future, simply because it’s capable of giving you a better image than 2-D, as simply as that. But only if handled with care. It’s very easy to make bad 3-D.
At the present time, 3-D survives in theme parks, in Disneyland, and in high-quality presentations at international exhibitions. These are places where the projection can be kept under careful, supervised control. But for a two-eyed viewer, a stereoscopic image is the natural form of vision. The flat image given by a 2-D, normal film, is simply a restricted image that will pass out of success when 3-D images become readily available.
Back in 2-D, I worked for a couple of years in special effects at Pinewood, as a camera operator, on films like Reach for the Sky—I was operator on all the model aircraft shooting—and A Town Like Alice, and The Prince and the Showgirl with Marilyn Monroe and Lawrence Olivier. Then I went back to documentaries, where employment was more stable than in features, and I think also it was more congenial to my frame of mind. And I worked in 2-D documentary movies up to my retirement date.
I shot films for Anglo-Scottish Pictures and Shell Film Unit at first, and then, for nearly 20 years, I was with World Wide Pictures, specializing there in popular science films for sponsors like Shell and Unilever, sometimes as cameraman and sometimes as director/cameraman.
All the time, though, I’ve tried to keep in touch with 3-D and work in 3-D processes wherever possible, and I’ve written many articles on the subject.
Raymond Spottiswoode died in, I think it was 1970, and after that I took over writing technical articles on 3-D.
Other 3-D experiences: In 1961, I went to Toronto for a couple of months to shoot complex 3-D sequences for a horror film called The Mask. This was mainly a 2-D framework with a few complex and ambitious dream sequences shot in 3-D. It made a lot of money for Warner Bros., then it was retitled Eyes of Hell and reissued, and made a lot of money over again.
For The Mask, I used a new camera I haven’t mentioned up till now. This was made to the ideas of the Spottiswoode brothers and built by Vinten Ltd, to a very high quality. It was financed by the National Research Development Corporation. A very ambitious piece of engineering, it was a camera built from scratch as a 3-D camera, with the two films being transported in a single camera body, not an assembly made from two existing 2-D cameras. It’s still in many ways the most advanced 3-D camera ever built, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t complete until 1955, and by that time there was no further requirement for 3-D filming.
In fact, in 1955, the National Research Development Corporation camera—NRDC camera, we called it—was used by Raymond Spottiswoode for a short documentary for the Shell Film Unit entitled Power in Perspective. Apart from that, the location for The Mask was the only time the NRDC camera has been used. This advanced piece of motion picture equipment is now in storage in the vaults of the Science Museum.
In 1972, I visited Russia and was able to see their system for 3-D viewing without glasses on a lenticular optical screen, and I saw this in cinemas in Kiev and Leningrad.
Other 3-D projects have come up from time to time that I’ve been able to lend my experience to. In 1979, a small company was set up, in collaboration with Signet Films. We assembled a twin 16mm 3-D rig and made quite a number of 3-D 16mm commercial films. These were the first professional 16mm 3-D films. We also built a full-frame 35mm 3-D stills camera and made the first commercial 3-D slide shows.
In 1982, I was asked to go to Los Angeles for two periods to work for the 3-D Video Inc., who were developing a system for showing 3-D on television with red-and-blue spectacles—the old anaglyph system, which dates back to 1858. This is rather a poor quality system, though we did our best with it. I also collaborated on two broadcast TV programs on 3-D, which showed anaglyph 3-D scenes. These were put out by TBS in 1982.
At the present time, I’m working again in 3-D, on a project for the European Community entitled DISTIMA, which stands for Digital Stereoscopic Imaging. This is in collaboration with French and German research teams, which has been given funding by the European Community. It’s intended to do the groundwork for the possible future 3-D TV transmissions. I’ve been asked to draft the theoretical requirements the images have to satisfy for comfortable home viewing of 3-D. And we’re also building a test camera, so it will be possible to shoot test scenes, though of course the possibility of 3-D transmissions is a very, very distant project, a long way in the distance. But I’m hopeful we can make sure that, when it comes, 3-D will be handled more intelligently in television than it was in the cinemas.
The TV research departments know a great deal about the signal processing, if necessary, but very little, I’m afraid, about stereoscopic images. So now I’m starting to be called a pioneer in 3-D, and it’s true that not many of those who took part in the 3-D boom period are still active today.
INTERVIEWER: Can I ask a few questions?
CHARLES SMITH: Of course.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve given a lot of details about the engineering side of it, but I was wondering about the sort of theory behind it because we have two eyes, binocular vision, and it’s getting the impression of depth, and of course when the eyes come closer—when the object they’re looking at comes closer, is that sort of… And also, the other thing is the screen is the important thing. I don’t know if you could enlarge a little on the Russian lenticular screen.
CHARLES SMITH: Yes, certainly. Well, let’s deal with the optical, the visual side first. The basis of 3-D stereoscopic images is the requirements of the human brain. We have two eyes, and not just two eyes; we have two visual systems, and in fact physiologically the eyes are part of the brain, they’re considered part of the brain. And this vision, three-dimensional vision, is easily the most advanced of the facilities of the human brain.
A normal camera with only one lens gives you a flat picture, as we all know, and as far as it goes, they’re very good. People sit happily in cinemas watching flat pictures—though not as many of them as used to 30 or 40 years ago. But you can get a satisfactory picture if you’re prepared to have a flat one. The ability to reproduce depth, man has been working on for fifty or a hundred years. To produce depth, you need to take a two-eyed picture with a twin-lens camera, then feed one picture to the left eye of the spectator, the other picture to the right eye, and the pictures have to be so well matched that the human brain will accept them as two related views of the same objects. If they’re out of synchronism, or if one is twisted in relation to the other, this is something we never meet in real life, and so the brain objects, and the thing becomes painful or even impossible to see.
So it is a two-eyed process. We have to produce one image to the left eye, one for the right eye. We shall have to satisfy quite strict requirements if they’re going to be possible to see them comfortably. This is the function of the stereoscop—of the polarizing spectacles, because, if you imagine stereoscopic pictures on small sizes, from a stills camera, possibly only an inch square, you can get pictures which give you superb quality on a good color film. The problem—and you would have to look at these in a hand viewer, with a lens in front of each eye, so that each eye sees its own picture. Get superb photographs. It’s not possible yet to duplicate them without losing quality, and of course the pictures—when you enlarge the pictures to more than two and a half inches across, the human eyes are two and a half inches apart, so inevitably the two pictures overlap in the middle, because the corresponding points have to be—infinity points—have to be two and a half inches apart, the separation of the eyes.
CHARLES SMITH: So, if you have—showing them on a 30-foot screen, then of course the pictures are almost completely overlapped. Now, once you overlap them, you’ve got to find a way of separating them, otherwise all you see is two flat pictures on top of each other. And the most satisfactory way of separating them so far developed was the polarizing filters that we used in 1951. The—the films were projected with two projectors, left film in one projector, right in the other, and the polarizing filters over each projector, which polarized the light in two directions, at right angles, so that when you wore spectacles with corresponding angle to the filters, then the left eye could see the left image only and cut out the light from the right projector, which was polarized in the wrong direction. Similarly, the right eye sees only the right projector. This enables you to see good quality three-dimensional images.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, that’s very well explained because it’s adding to the picture of the 3-D. And how about this special screen? Is that adjusted so that one eye sees one picture and the other eye sees the other on the…?
CHARLES SMITH: Yes. Could I say first, before we leave the eyes, that the brain is a marvelous piece of human engineering which does its best to help your—your sensitivity, the receipt of information, as much as it can. And, even from a flat picture, with nothing at all like the pictures we see, the scenes we see as we look around the world, the brain is capable of giving you a good reconstruction of it, of the world. But of course, to be completely satisfying, you have to have a three-dimensional image, with separate views for each eye. It’s not natural that both eyes get exactly the same picture.
And this is why I think there’s no doubt that when 3-D becomes readily available—may not be for 50 years—2-D will gradually die out, just as black and white movies have died out, except for occasional archive purposes. The thing is that color film is really the general case because in the color film you can have black and white scenes if you want to. In the same way, 3-D is the general case of viewing scenes because, in the 3-D film, if you want flat pictures, you can always show pictures, so 3-D is really the general case and therefore will survive.
To pass on to the next point… [laughter]
INTERVIEWER: Yes, um, I was thinking whether, you said earlier—a vague idea in my mind—fantasy—is that you can project two pictures side by side, and you can psychologically train one eye to look at one and the other eye at the other, because I’ve noticed sometimes when you look through binoculars, you can sometimes see two pictures, but if you keep looking, they gradually merge into one.
CHARLES SMITH: Well, you can do this quite comfortably with stereo pictures printed on paper, like book illustrations…
INTERVIEWER: Mmm, yes.
CHARLES SMITH: …if you have pictures which are no more than two and a half inches wide, so they don’t overlap, and you mark them up with the infinity points two and a half inches apart, then you can—it’s just a very simple trick to look at these two and allow the brain to fuse them. And all stereo photographers can do this naturally, and you can see this in 3-D without any kind of visual aid at all. Some people find this knack difficult to master, but once you’ve got it, you can’t forget it.
One simple way of doing this, if you’ve got a mounted picture, is to hold it up in contact with your eyes and then slowly take it away, so that each eye continues to look at its own picture as it gradually comes into focus.
Now, the difficulty, as I say, with projecting to an audience is that, for an audience to see a film, you have to be on a much larger scale, so the pictures overlap.
Now, you asked about the Russian optical screen. People have been working for years—for, well, not quite centuries, but decades, certainly—trying to devise systems, in the first place for lantern slides, to show pictures without needing to wear spectacles, because, on lantern slides, even in Victorian days, they had shows in the music halls of three-dimensional slides, lantern slides, showing with red and green spectacles. But movies presented greater problems where the separation of the images has to be concerned, particularly since color came in.
Now, you asked about, can the eyes be trained to do this? This reminds me of an amusing thing. Among the many people who tried to devise systems for viewing 3-D movies without glasses, there was one chap who put an advertisement in the paper saying, “See 3-D without glasses. Send ten pounds for full information.” So a lot of people sent this chap, or so I’m told… [laughter] …a lot of people sent him money to see what the secret was, thinking it must be worth ten pounds to see what the trick is, even if there was some kind of trick. So, when they got—when they sent their money and got their information back, this chap told them: “Project your two pictures side by side, but have the right picture on the left of the screen and the left picture on the right, then tell your audience to look at them cross-eyed.” [laughter]
CHARLES SMITH: And—and it’s perfectly true, and if you—[laughter] This really wasn’t a swindle because if you can persuade an audience to do that, then you can see them without glasses. And it’s not—it’s by no means impossible to look at pictures side by side and fuse them like that. But of course stereoscopists who work in the field develop the knack of fusing them just quite easily. The.... [laughter] ...an untrained audience would find it very difficult!
INTERVIEWER: Oh, yes, they'd probably have to have a session beforehand, just to accustom their eyes.
CHARLES SMITH: [laughter] Well, it would be practically impossible.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, yes.
CHARLES SMITH: But, um, to come to the Russian screen, the alternative to wearing spectacles is that the two pictures—you've allowed the pictures to overlap, to become mixed up together, and you've got to have some means of separating them. Now, if you're not going to separate them at the human eyes, by wearing some kind of apparatus, and originally we used—they used—spectacles in 1921 in America—they had set up a system called Teleview, and the audience was fitted with flickering spectacles which flashed right and left, 32 times a second for silent films. And so the film was projected at double speed, and they flashed alternately. This works as well, except it was terribly noisy… [laughter] …and inconvenient.
INTERVIEWER: Give you a headache.
CHARLES SMITH: So, if you're not going to separate the two images at the eyes, then the only other place you can separate them is at the screen, and so what is needed is an optical screen which picks up the images from two projectors and sends them out from the screen in two beams, in effect to be two and a half inches apart so that the rays from the left projector reach your left eye and the rays from the right projector reach the right eye.
This is—lots of people have been working on this, and the patents—patents go back 50 years or more explaining how this can be done. One patent—man who worked on it was Dennis Gabor, the inventor of holography. And he produced a system—he said it needed types of plastic with variable refractive index, which didn’t exist at the present time, but would no doubt be produced in the future. The Russians had an inventor called Ivanov, who did this with optical glass. And the image is picked up by lenticular, cylindrical lenses on the screen and reflected back in beams to the left and right eye of the audience.
The objection to this, of course, is that your head has to be in the right position to catch the beam. If—suppose your left eye is correctly seeing a left-eye picture. Now, if you move your head two and a half inches to your left, the right eye will be seeing a left-eye picture, and you get reverse depth, which is unpleasant… [laughter] …and doesn’t give you a satisfactory image.
Now, a lot of people have said this is an overriding objection. In fact, when I saw the Russian screen, I didn’t think it was at all an overriding objection because it’s perfectly easy to find the right situation. If you’re sitting in a movie theater, you don’t in fact weave your head around from side to side a great deal. People tend to sit with their heads reasonably still, as you’ll see… [laughter] if you’ll look at people in the movie theater! And so, once you’ve found the right position, which is quite easy, you can—I find it no particular effort to sit in that position. If you sway to the left, then the left side of the left picture starts to go dark. If you sway to the right, the right side starts to go dark, and so it’s self-centering. The correct position is where you get both pictures equally illuminated.
I thought the Russian demonstration was extremely successful, but the limitations were, the screen was very small; it was only about ten feet, possibly, in size, and the Russians said it’s impossible, using optical glass, to make it on a larger scale. I think the maximum they ever made was four meters, and they said it’s impossible with optical glass to make it on a larger scale because the weight of glass itself becomes too great for the strength of the material, so it won’t retain shape: As the lenses get longer, they become thicker and wider, and it gets too heavy for its own strength.
They say—the Russian experts say the future is screens not of optical components—not of cylindrical lenses—but of holographic components, which will do the same function, and which will be much lighter in weight. And the Russians assure us… [laughter] …this will be very easy to produce in a few sizes, “Particularly if you know as much about holography as we do,” they say.
So, when it will appear, we don’t know. But what is needed is simply described in the patents—what is needed is a screen, in effect, is a screen which has the characteristics of an elliptical mirror, which will produce an image of the left projector lens on the position of your left eye, and the right projector lens at the position of your right eye, and then this has to be a hologram with a multiple exposure, so there’s an exposure for every seat in the theater, so that an image of the two projectors, the two projector lenses, is reproduced for every seat in the auditorium. Holographic experts will say, yes, this will be done one day. Not in my time, I’m quite sure.
INTERVIEWER: Although holography has developed terrifically the past few years. I remember when it first came out, and it was very primitive, where now you have pictures on the wall.
CHARLES SMITH: Yes, you can, whereas at the same time the effects have been disappointing. I mean, the great difficulty of holography is that it’s a replication process; it’s only capable of reproducing images the same size. No such thing as close-ups, so that if you want a, for instance, if you want a hologram of a sailing ship—quite a popular subject, with its rigging and things—the first thing you have to do is make a model of a sailing ship exactly the size you want it. Then you can make a hologram. You can produce duplicates of the same size. But you have to start on making the model, and making the model, if it’s a detailed object, can cost much more than making, uh, making the hologram.
There was one football club, for instance, who won the F.A. cup, and they had a hologram made of the F.A. cup while it was in their possession. This is an excellent subject for holography because it’s about the right size. They got one about a couple of feet tall, made a lovely back-illuminated hologram in their boardroom. Perfect use of holography, but in fact it will only make things—for instance, you can’t imagine a holographic movie about, say, bees, insects, because you couldn’t produce an image of a bee bigger than your actual bee itself, so you can never show it to an audience.
The next thing about holography is you can only do it in total darkness because you require coherent light, so you can’t make a hologram in daylight. The next thing is that the coherent light with the best—you have to have a laser to make a hologram, to give you coherent light—and the best lasers made so far, the coherent—the light will only retain its coherency for something like ten feet, maximum. As the coherency drops off farther away, it’s impossible to make a hologram. So, all this makes it very, very limited for image-making, although it has great uses in engineering, for checking parts and comparing things.
The other thing about holography, of course, is that it produces redundant information. It—in effect, a hologram gives you an infinity of viewpoints, so you can move your head around and see it freely. Whereas this might be useful if we had eyes like a spider, with hundreds of lenses in them, but you’ve only got two eyes, and two images is all we need. So a hologram, really, is fundamentally a stationary object, like a museum object. It contains lots of images from different viewpoints, so you can move around as you’re looking at a sculpture and see a hologram in depth. But of course you have to have the time to explore the image. If you think of a moving hologram, the idea is pointless because if you’re going to replace the images 25 times a second, you’re never going to have time to explore any one image.
CHARLES SMITH: So you’re only going to see two views for any one image, and so all you need is a two-image picture replaced 25 times a second. The element of looking around the subject in a movie is given you by the director, moving the camera while he’s taking the picture. He will do the moving around for you; you don’t expect to move around as spectator. If you—if you go to the theater, people… [laughter] …will always talk about the possibilities of holographic movies, but, in fact, how are they to be enjoyed? If you go to the theater to see a play, it’s quite true that if you care to move around the theater, you can see the action going on from different viewpoints. But a theater audience doesn’t consist of hundreds of people all in constant movement as they walk around, looking at the thing from different angles! The people in the theater audience sit at their seats, enjoying it from one view only, so all they need is the two-eyed image.
INTERVIEWER: Another question that’s on a different subject is that 3-D should be very, very useful for medical research and medical purposes—I mean scanning machines and things like that are usually in 3-D, I believe, but that’s really being developed now… [indistinct]
CHARLES SMITH: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, this is quite being used already, particularly in the United States. Uh, of course, surgeons making very small operations, brain surgeons and eye surgeons, operate through a stereoscopic microscope. They’re dealing with subjects that are too small to see with unaided eyes, and you have to have a stereoscopic microscope.
There’s an optical—ophthalmic surgeon in Texas who, quite many years ago, Jim Butterfield, who I worked with in the United States, an American inventor, now dead, rigged up a system for him. He operated through a stereoscopic microscope to give enlarged, two-eyed images of the details of the human eye. And it’s quite straightforward to pick off the images from a beam splitter and to feed them into color television receivers. And Butterfield built for this surgeon color 3-D monitors so that his students could see the operation on their monitors, and this obviously was of tremendous value as a teaching aid. It’s almost impossible to learn how to do an eye operation without it. I mean, I wouldn’t care to be the subject of the first eye operation to be carried out by a man who’d never seen a proper image of the thing before.
So, this was very successful. But of course it was a highly expensive project, and supplying a color monitor to every student is a splendid idea if you live in Texas. But this is, like many other projects in the 3-D field, these things are accessible for closed circuit use, but not for broadcast use. Closed circuit television is well advanced.
I do some work as a consultant to Harwell, the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, ‘cause they need, of course, television equipment to monitor in power stations, to monitor equipment in rooms that are radioactive that you can’t send human beings in without putting the whole reactor out of commission and decontaminating it for three weeks or so. And so they have to rely on closed circuit television to observe the details of the machinery, how fuel cells are burning and so on. And they discovered that the extra information you get from a 3-D image is almost essential to get a picture of what’s going on. A flat picture doesn’t give you a good enough view.
And, in fact, in these cases they find that a 3-D, as compared with a flat, black-and-white image, the advantage of 3-D is very much greater than the advantage of color, because the color picture of an industrial thing doesn’t add very much information at all. So, you can paint things in contrasting colors to help to show them out, so you get a certain amount more information, but it’s vastly of less value than the extra information from 3-D.
So, 3-D video installations are quite well advanced in the United States, and also in Europe, and they’re well ahead, of course, at the moment of broadcast 3-D television, which will be a long, long time coming because of the need for international cooperation and the shortage of bandwidth, the shortage of stations, and so on.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, this has been a very, very fascinating and informative interview, this is. Any ideas about the future of stereoscopic 3-D?
CHARLES SMITH: Well, my time of life, you can hardly look too far into the future. [laughter] I don’t have the least doubt, having worked in both 3-D and 2-D as a cameraman, there’s not the least doubt that 3-D is more satisfying to work in. It’s a bit more difficult; it requires a certain knowledge of arithmetic, but not all that much advanced. The Americans always said that the Spottiswoode theories are far too complicated, but they don’t have anything more than “O”-level mathematics. [laughter] But some people are terrified of “O”-level mathematics. Probably a good many members of BECTU may be… [laughter] …terrified of “O”-level mathematics, but this can be overcome with a little simple training.
So, one day, when 3-D images become universal, possibly with better optical screens, so that the wearing of spectacles isn’t necessary, then I’m sure that 3-D will become universal—50 years’ time, maybe. Who can tell? Thirty? Twenty-five? A hundred?
Uh, the thing is, it’s not feasible—if any person has good two-eyed vision, if you show them, if you give them the choice between a flat image and a three-dimensional image, it just isn’t feasible that anyone can, uh, would choose the flat image, except possibly for flat subjects like oil paintings. So, I think this is bound to come, but I’m afraid it’s a long way in the future.
INTERVIEWER: Well, thanks very much, Charles. That was very fascinating. Appears we’re very nearly finished with the second side, so. So, thank you very much. All right.
[after a short break]
CHARLES SMITH: As to TV viewing and the 3-D of the future, in the home, I personally think it’s very doubtful whether wearing spectacles, polarizing spectacles, will be acceptable for home use. Spectacles are perfectly acceptable to audiences when they go out for the evening to sit in a movie theater because then they’re concentrating for an hour and a half or so on the film, and the spectacles are a necessary part of it.
In the home, you don’t watch television intensively. You watch it spasmodically, with many interruptions and doing other things at the same time, like reading a newspaper, having a cup of tea or a sandwich, having a conversation. And to keep putting on and off a pair of spectacles to enjoy an evening’s viewing I don’t think is really acceptable.
Other people who may want to watch particular programs for a half an hour concentrated 3-D viewing, spectacles may be perfectly acceptable. But I feel that an optical integral screen, which separates the different views into the eye, gives you the alternative restriction of having to sit in a fixed place, and I feel this is probably easier to put up with than having to wear spectacles.
I think a good parallel dimension, though, is that, if you want to speak on the telephone, you have to go and sit in a fixed place or stand in a fixed place. People don’t really… [laughter] …object to this at all. It would be more convenient if you had telephones which followed you about so that they were always on your head, but in fact people get used to going to a fixed position to speak on the telephone, and I think this is perfectly acceptable for looking at an integral screen for spectacle-free viewing in the home.
However, whichever method of viewing is used, of course the pictures required would be the same, so the same transmissions can be used for receivers either with spectacles, or with an optical screen without spectacles. And I imagine that both types of screens will be marketed, and we’ll have to wait and see which type finds the biggest sales.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, thanks very much. [indistinct]