Tangible specters: 3-D cinema in the 1910s.
This set-up is a variation of an optical illusion that Italian natural philosopher Giambattista della Porta had described in his major work Magia naturalis in 1558 (Porta 340). It is based on the simple fact that glass can both reflect and transmit light. The more the lighting conditions vary on both sides of a pane of glass, the more pronounced are the glass's reflective qualities: objects on the lighter side of the glass pane appear "superimposed" onto the objects on the darker side. For example, when glancing into a dimly lit shop window, passersby may see reflections of themselves superimposed onto the items on display (Fig. 1). Henry Dircks and John Henry Pepper adapted this phenomenon for the theater and patented it in 1863 (Dircks). To Dircks's dismay, it became known under the name of "Pepper's Ghost." (4) The illusion became the greatest success of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London, where it was first presented on December 24, 1862 in a scene from Charles Dickens's The Haunted Man (Steinmeyer 29). A large glass plate, invisible to the audience, was placed at an angle in front of the stage. It reflected the image of a hidden and brightly illuminated actor, whose image the audience perceived superimposed onto the stage behind the glass (Fig. 2).
Characteristic for nineteenth-century optical magic, Pepper's Ghost relied on the modern science of optics to visualize "surmounted" magic beliefs (Freud 154) as spectacular mass entertainment. Tom Gunning has argued that Pepper's Ghost heralded a new era of optical conjuring ("We are Here" 55). The illusion demonstrated the extent to which the visual experience of a mass audience could be controlled while concealing the mechanism involved. Thirty years before the invention of the cinrematographe, Pepper's Ghost featured moving images of ambiguous materiality, superimposing "the world of the virtual image on the recognizable world of flesh and blood" (Gunning, "We are Here" 57). Pepper's Ghost represented the supernatural by means of ostensibly truthful, yet immaterial images and thus raised fundamental questions regarding the relationship between knowledge and vision. The "separation of visual experience from intellectual certainty extends (and perhaps transcends) the dominant tradition in Western metaphysics of doubting the evidence of the senses" (Gunning "We are Here" 60).
The Pepper's Ghost illusion simultaneously calls attention to and mitigates the opposition between the physical stage and the virtual image, which accentuates the uncertain corporeality of the reflected figure. It re-focuses aerial images on an "invisible screen," which reflects the rays of light back to where the projected image is observed. The virtual image is formed at a distance behind the reflecting surface that is equal to the reflected object's distance in front of it. The audience therefore perceives the reflection not at the level of the invisible glass pane, but rather behind it, in the same physical space as the actors. Depending on the illumination intensity on and off stage, the "ghost" can be rendered more or less transparent. At any rate, the brightly lit "ghost" stands out from the necessarily darker stage, which not only emphasizes its otherworldliness, but also separates the figure from the background and makes it appear distinctly three-dimensional.
Following its triumph at the Polytechnic, Pepper's Ghost was licensed to numerous theatres and music halls and, even more often, copied without authorization? However, because the glass pane muffled the dialog, the illusion's applicability for conventional drama productions was limited, and Pepper's Ghost was primarily displayed in ghost and magic shows. It was also frequently adapted for new illusions? Over the course of the twentieth century, the principles of Pepper's Ghost were used, for instance, to provide concealed visual aids in Teleprompters (since 1950), to stage metamorphoses in museum exhibits (Science Museum, London, since 1983), to represent ghosts in theme parks (Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, since 1969) and as a special effect in filmmaking. (7) One of the illusion's greatest assets was the opportunity to create three-dimensional effects. Even before Pepper's Ghost had been patented, aerial images had been employed to represent apparitions in space. Phantasmagoria-type shows indirectly projected magic lantern slides with black backgrounds (Marcy 45) on smoke screens (Fig. 3). Late nineteenth-century showmen also resorted to Pepper's Ghost to create relief effects with magic lanterns, even with simultaneous front and back projection (Engelsmann, "Improvements").
Alabastra and the German film industry around 1910
The idea to utilize Pepper's Ghost for three-dimensional film exhibits traces back to a German civil engineer named August Engelsmann. Starting in 1909, he obtained patents in several countries for a process that combined filmed performances and physical decor live on stage. (8) German inventor and film tycoon Oskar Messter quickly seized the idea. Very likely by agreement with Engelsmann, (9) he obtained patents for an arrangement that only differed slightly from Engelsmann's (Messter). In 1910, Messter began marketing a miniature movie theater and corresponding three-dimensional sound films he named "Alabastra."
In the late 1900s, the German film industry was in severe crisis. Producers, distributors and exhibitors were engaged in cutthroat competition. As Corinna Muller has shown, tickets were extremely cheap, films were churned out at a maximum pace, and prints were relentlessly screened, typically way past their physical lifespan (43-47). In addition, the once highly profitable German Tonbild (synchronized sound picture) market collapsed from overproduction in 1909 (Loiperdinger 197). Messter, whose patented Biophon process had launched the Tonbild era in Germany in 1903, suffered dramatic sales losses and was forced to abandon the Tonfilm trade before long (Muller 79-83; Karlsch 154). In 1910 the multiple-reel feature film emerged as a means of crisis management. Within a few years, it supplanted the variety format of short films. In the meantime, however, members of the industry continued to explore other ways to gain a competitive advantage. Three-dimensional film was seen as one possible solution, as this 1909 trade press article indicates:
Given that exhibitors today relentlessly seek--and must seek--new attractions, endeavors in this direction [of stereoscopic cinema] should come at no surprise. Given that neither trouble nor expense is spared to lure the eye with pretty colorful images, it may be appropriate to develop three-dimensional representations as well ("Stereoskopische Kinodarstellungen"). (10)
Messter, it would seem, conceived of Alabastra as a way to revitalize his floundering Tonbild business. Indeed, Alabastra can be understood as Tonbilder in 3-D.
Like Messter's sound pictures, Alabastra films featured mostly musical performances and dances with pre-recorded sound. The playing time of contemporary phonograph records limited film lengths to under four minutes (Loiperdinger 195-5). The phonograph was synchronized with the projector by means of electric motors and a crank (Messter, "Method"). In addition to Messter's Biophon system, the Alabastra apparatus consisted of a transportable stage, ten by thirteen by ten feet, and specifically produced films that showed figures without any background (Messter, Mein Weg 77-8). (11) Similar to the original Pepper's Ghost illusion, the films were projected from below the stage onto a screen and then reflected in a glass pane in front of the stage (Fig. 4). The audience perceived about thirty inch tall figures moving around on the physical stage. Contemporary observers like author Hanns Heinz Ewers were thrilled: "Until now the figures in the cinema have been stuck to the wall. In the Alabastra theater, in contrast, we see a regular stage; the figures are detached from the surface and move freely in space" (Ewers). In order to isolate the figures from their original background, actors were brightly dressed and lit and shot against a black backdrop. Their brightness ensured maximum exposure, which prevented the background from shining through the reflected figures. Messter evidently associated the actors' chalk white appearance with alabaster figures, hence the apparatus's fantastical name. Alabastra films were shown either hand-colored or in black and white. Several Alabastra films, including Pierrot und Pierrette and Pierrot und Colombine, featured clowns blancs. The reason was "the destruction of the coloring qualities owing to the high light necessary. This [...] was overcome by utilizing pierrots and clowns, in which only black and white dress and makeup were required" ("Motion Pictures"). Although some Alabastra films survive, (12) to my knowledge no attempt has been made to exhibit them as originally intended, in 3-D with sound and color (Fig. 5).
While Messter may have originally envisioned Alabastra as an enhanced and therefore more competitive version of his Tonbilder, he backed out of the unprofitable Tonfilm business as early as 1909 and consequently turned toward silent feature film production (Karlsch 154). Under these circumstances, it seems little surprising that Messter did not take great pains to promote Alabastra. He marketed his invention to itinerant showmen in Germany and abroad, (13) but produced only a limited number of Alabastra films. The trade press warmly recommended Alabastra "for conducting sophisticated business in banquet halls, when arranging performances in social clubs and for ordinary show business (Minelli), but the business" model was ultimately not profitable, as Messter explained in his autobiography:
These three-dimensional photographs did not gain wider currency, because they could not been shown on conventional cinema screens. It was uneconomical to produce an assortment of films for the small number of Alabastra theaters, which therefore had a short lifespan. Another disadvantage was that only stage scenes could be shown, no nature films (Messter, Mein Weg 78).
Alabastra theaters existed roughly until World War I (Selle). In Germany alone, the idea spawned numerous imitators, (14) and Messter himself eventually resumed his activities in this field. As late as 1914, in collaboration with Engelsmann and a shady American businessman named Frank J. Goldsoll, (15) he launched a variation of Alabastra that was now called "Fantomo." (16) Despite favorable reviews (Hollriegl 24; Wider; Reicke), Fantomo disappeared quickly, presumably in the wake of the commencing war.
The Vienna Kinoplastikon
While Alabastra remained a local attraction, the launch of a closely related process caused an international stir. (17) On 14 September 1911 Austrian showmen Karl Juhasz and Franz Haushofer opened their 360-seat Kinoplastikon theater in Vienna (Schwarz 221).TM Whether this occurred in agreement with Messter is unclear. Juhasz had exhibited Messter's Tonbilder as the main feature of his itinerant show since 1907 and was likely familiar with Alabastra (Buttner 36). What is more, the trade press initially reported that Juhasz's new theater would "show three-dimensional images according to Messter's system" ("Kinetoplastikon"). However, Messter was not mentioned again in conjunction with Kinoplastikon.
In June of 1911 Juhasz and Haushofer applied for a patent that can be described as a variant form of Engelsmann's and Messter's (Juhasz). According to their specifications, the films were projected from the wings instead of from underneath the stage, which allegedly reduced light loss and image distortion. Unlike Alabastra, however, this arrangement allowed for life-sized projections. Backed by affluent aristocratic investors, Juhasz and Haushofer subsequently formed a limited liability company called Kinoplastikon GmbH, which licensed Kinoplastikon patent rights to exhibitors in Austria and abroad. (19) However, the company started commercializing the patent before it was actually granted. An unidentified third party, possibly Messter, opposed the grant of the patent that had already been licensed to multiple exhibitors ("Hinter den Kulissen"). A settlement was eventually reached and the patent was granted, but both Juhasz and Haushofer left the Kinoplastikon GmbH in November of 1912.
Regardless of the management's dubious business practices, the Vienna Kinoplastikon thrived and audiences were enthusiastic:
The orchestra strikes up, the curtain is raised, revealing what to all appearances is an ordinary stage.
The dancers, garbed in dainty coloured costumes, step from the wings, and commence their terpsichorean act. [...] I rub my eyes. Is it real? Are they living, these figures? [...] Never before had I witnessed such a moving picture spectacle. It was practically the illusion of life, remarkable and astonishing, almost uncanny in its realness (Cher). (20)
Starting in late 1912, Wiener Kunstfilm, the leading Austrian production company at the time, supplied the films for Kinoplastikon. (21) Three-dimensional films were shown alongside regular two-dimensional ones (Huppert). In comparison with conventional cinemas, Kinoplastikon programs changed much less frequently and admission prices were significantly higher--hardly affordable for working class audiences. (22) The Kinoplastikon targeted the respectable middle classes, primarily white-collar employees. In doing so, it sought to fill a gap in the market between unsophisticated cinemas and exclusive theater culture: "Small civil servants with their families finally find an attractive alternative for the theater, whose high admission prices they cannot afford" (Huppert). At a time when the multiple-reel drama was quickly gaining ground, the Kinoplastikon must be understood as an attempt to revamp the short film business model. Indeed, in the early 1910s many trade insiders--including Karl Juhasz, coincidentally president of the Association of Austrian Cinema Owners--believed that cinema was ultimately a form of variety entertainment and that the multiple-reel film drama would not prevail (Schwarz 155). Until at least World War I, Kinoplastikon shows were successful special-venue presentations. Besides Austria, allegedly 250 Kinoplastikon theaters existed in the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Italy, and North America in 1913 ("Kinoplastikon," Le courrier). In Paris, Kinoplastikon films were shown starting in January 1914. (23) While theater magnate Lee Shubert had purchased the American rights already in 1912 ("What is the Kineplastikon?"), it was not until March 1915 that Kinoplastikon premiered in New York at the Hippodrome ("Hippodrome Succumbs").
The London Kinoplastikon
Among the international licensees of the Vienna Kinoplastikon GmbH was British inventor Theodore Brown ("Kinoplastikon," Motion Picture World). In the spring of 1913 he brought Kinoplastikon to London, where it caused an even greater stir than in Vienna. Newspaper reports from New Zealand, South Africa, Sumatra, and Argentina attest to a strong international response to the promise of 3-D cinema. Brown had previously explored cinematic adaptations of Pepper's Ghost. In 1911 he had published a lengthy trade press article promoting the effect for live theater and also given a public demonstration (Herbert). However, Brown's idea, which bore close resemblance to the Alabastra set-up, could not establish itself. Compared to the original Pepper's Ghost illusion, such "kine-spectra displays" (Brown, "Spectra Effects" 96) were cumbersome and their benefits not quite evident.
Possibly with financial backing from Charles Urban (Herbert 85), Brown founded the U.K. Kinoplastikon Company, Limited in February of 1913 ("Alphabetical List"). (24) In April, he began exhibiting Kinoplastikon films at the 920-seat Scala Theater off Tottenham Court Road in London. The opening program consisted of six Kinoplastikon films on the same bill with Urban's Kinemacolor, which was a sensation in Britain at the time. (25) Although it has been claimed that Kinoplastikon films were actually shown in Kinemacolor (New Zealand Observer), it is improbable that the two processes were compatible: Kinemacolor absorbs large amounts of light, while Kinoplastikon requires very high light levels to render the projected figures opaque. In all likelihood, U.K. Kinoplastikon films were hand-colored just like their German and Austrian precursors.
A significant number of films shown at the London Kinoplastikon were imported from Vienna, quite likely as part of the licensing agreement. Of the films presented in the opening program, "three were given in the German language and three in English" ("Kinoplastikon," The Times). A contemporary observer described one of the first London performances, including a film that had almost certainly been part of the opening program of the Vienna Kinoplastikon in September 1911: (26)
The curtain goes up, and the stage is revealed, bare, to all appearance, of everything but a conventional set. Then, suddenly, you hear the grating of a gramophone beginning to get to work. The orchestra strikes up in accompaniment. And, without warning, two white pierrots dance on from the wings--as naturally and as easily as though they were beings of real flesh and blood. They give a xylophone duet--their instrument apparently resting on a table which has been placed there beforehand, in full view of the audience, by a solid human attendant--and then, their performance is finished, they skip off the stage, running back again to make their bows in answer to the riotous storm of applause which marks the conclusion of their "turn." Five other pictures follow, one of them a flute solo and the others vocal performances ("Kinoplastikon: As Seen").
U.K. Kinoplastikon also produced its own films. In 1913, the company made ten films, most of which featured performances by popular stage artists. (27) Walter R. Booth, who at the time was working for Charles Urban, directed them in a specially built studio on the roof of the Scala Theatre (Fig. 6). All are considered lost (Fletcher 100). The prerecorded sound was synchronized using the sound-on-disk Vivaphone system, which Cecil Hepworth had devised in 1910. Hepworth was also personally involved in making Kinoplastikon films. In his autobiography, he recalled:
We had quite a lot of fun in the making of these special films for which we had to follow very carefully the instructions which were given to us. The actors had to be clothed entirely in white and have their faces and hands whitened too, and they had to be photographed against a very dark background of black velvet. The films were so processed that the figure was very white and clear and the surroundings so black and dense that no trace of light could get through and make any part of the screen even faintly visible as a screen (Hepworth 112).
Although Brown had acquired a license from the Vienna Kinoplastikon GmbH, he also applied for patents for his own variation of the process, which combined front- or rear projection with reflected decor. This process is remarkably similar to Goldsoll's, who applied for his patent only ten days after Brown (Brown "Improvements").
With the beginning of World War I, European experiments with cinematic adaptations of Pepper's Ghost came to a halt. In the United States, however, inventors continued to explore ways to combine filmed figures with a still background to achieve three-dimensional effects. (28) In doing so, they pursued the course already suggested by Brown and Goldsoll, namely to combine two virtual images and dispense with the playable stage altogether.
Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. can be described as a hybrid form of theater and cinema. Set on a seemingly regular stage, these performances gave the illusion of liveness while in fact relying on projected images. They simulated a tangible encounter between auditorium and cinematic representation. A contemporary critic remarked: "Whether they are acrobats, dancers or singers, they appear in front of us visibly tangible, completely unfettered and agile. The Kinoplastikon is the theater of artificial and nonetheless living human beings" (Huppert). This purely visual tangibility (Crary 124) was the greatest appeal of Alabastra, Kinoplastikon, et al.
In contrast to theater, film exhibitions entail a spatial and temporal rift between performance and spectators. This separation is embodied in the screen, which Stanley Cavell has described as a barrier: "What does the silver screen screen? It screens me from the world it holds--that is, makes me invisible. And it screens that world from me--that is, screens its existence from me" (24). While the screen is a constitutive element of the cinematic apparatus, the desire to attenuate its dividing powers, to blur the boundaries between virtual and physical space is as old as the medium itself. Unlike the rigid, separating screen of two-dimensional cinema, the 3-D movie screen has been theorized in terms of a penetrable proscenium arch. This "stereo window," "an apparent opening behind which depicted objects can recede or through which they can seem to emerge" (A. Rogers 190), links 3-D cinema to the theater. According to Sergey Eisenstein, 3-D cinema is "not only a great-cousin of Lumiere's and Edison's invention, but also great-grandchild of the theater" (207). Indeed, this "theater of the future" (Eisenstein 222) holds potential to realize the theater's age-old mission of "reuniting action and audience into an organic whole" (Eisenstein 208). Similarly, Max Linder dreamed of a hybrid cinema-theater, a stereoscopic cinema without a screen: "One day there will be a cinematic theater and the screen will have vanished. On stage, thanks to sophisticated projections, characters in relief will "act" and will be heard talking. I believe in the future of a mixed cinema-theater" (Linder). (29) More than ninety years later, the elimination of the screen continues to be the ultimate ambition of 3-D cinema, as producer Jon Landau has indicated: "The screen has always been a barrier for the audience's experience of the movie. Quality 3-D removes that barrier. The screen disappears" (quoted in Fritz).
When in the early 1910s it was suggested that Kinoplastikon was about to "revolutionize film art" ("Kinoplastikon," Le courtier), it was precisely on account of the impression that the separation between filmic image and spectator had ceased to exist. A contemporary reviewer observed: "The absence of the familiar white screen proved an irresistible attraction" ("Moving Pictures"). Indeed, both critics and advertisements highlighted screenlessness as the most prominent feature of Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. In Germany, Alabastra theaters promised "three-dimensional living photographs without a visible screen" (Mellini 3). The Vienna Kinoplastikon promoted its "three-dimensional presentation of motion pictures on an open stage (no projection screen)" (Schwarz 113). In London it was "singing, talking, moving picture figures in solid stereoscopic relief, without a screen" (Herbert 87) and in Paris "living projected images without a screen" ("Kinoplastikon," Le courrier). The fact that motion pictures without a screen caused such a stir is also indicative of a specific period in film history. Yuri Tsivian has noted that, "unlike the modern spectator, the early viewer was very screen-conscious" (123). After an initial period of public curiosity about all aspects of the cinematic apparatus,
the naked screen came to be regarded as something almost indecent, something that needed to be covered up by a curtain. The curtain came as a part of the general drive of the 1910s to drape the entire cinematic apparatus, to give it new 'cultured' names, to hide away the projector, to kill the flicker, to suppress any suggestion of technology (Tsivian 23).
By eliminating the screen, Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. went much further than conventional cinema in suppressing any suggestion of technology. At the same time, however, as a spectacular technological attraction, as "newest wonder" ("Kinoplastikon," Le courrier) and "amazing mystery" (Herbert 86), these shows also called attention to the apparatus, that is, specifically to its ability to vanish entirely.
Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. held out the prospect of transcending the ontological limitations of both theater and two-dimensional cinema: theater's exclusivity and transitory nature on the one hand and cinema's disembodiment and separation from its audience on the other. Unlike two-dimensional films, Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. evoked the presence of live performers in the "here and now." Unlike theater, they could reproduce any performance indefinitely: "The Kinoplastikon bestows immortality upon celebrated artists and individuals wishing to leave their families an eternal souvenir" ("Kinoplastikon," Le courrier). Alabastra, Kinoplastikon, et al. attested to the fantasy of the machine's ultimate triumph over death. To a far greater extent than ordinary cinema, they promised, as Siegfried Kracauer put it, "to wrest the totality of life from its transitoriness and to transmit it in the eternity of the image" (Kracauer 124). The most comprehensive technological reproduction to date seemed to obliterate phenomenological differences between living human beings and their virtual clones. Thus, performers could trade their unique human existence for magical omnipresence:
It has been sagely observed that no one can be in more than one place at one time, but "Kinoplastikon" practically makes the impossible possible, for it enabled an actor, singer, dancer, or lecturer to appear to all intents and purposes in the flesh at various places of entertainment simultaneously, actions and voice being faithfully reproduced ("Topics of the Day").
Yet the technological specter of ubiquitous, eternal presence also struck some as eerie: "Kinoplastikon. There is something decidedly uncanny about the latest development of the science of cinematography" ("Topics of the Day"). The more closely technology was able to approximate perceptual reality, the more unsettling became the discrepancy between perception and comprehension, between seeing performers live on stage and knowing that these were recorded moving images. While it is unlikely that contemporary viewers had difficulties discerning motion pictures with phonograph accompaniment--even if three-dimensional and in color--from external reality, Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. championed the idea that virtual realities could eventually become indistinguishable from the real thing.
Like all technological media to some extent, this type of "modern magic" was expected to democratize the arts, making metropolitan high culture available to everyone. Hanns Heinz Ewers, for instance, predicted apropos Alabastra: "Exactly the same performance with all the best artists will be seen in the smallest backwater town in exactly the same way as in Berlin, London or Paris" (Ewers 14). The argument that a key function of 3-D cinema is to make exclusive experiences generally accessible is still relevant today. As a recent BBC report on 3-D renderings of high culture artifacts such as Pina (Neue Road Movies et al., 2011, dir. Wim Wenders) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Creative Differences et al., 2010, dir. Werner Herzog) has argued, 3-D cinema "opens the door to expensive artforms for the price of a cinema ticket" and "gives people the opportunity to see this beautiful and timeless content in areas of the world where they would never have the opportunity to see it" (Masters).
The fact that performers in Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. were seemingly present on a physical stage distinguishes these motion picture shows from other forms of 3-D cinema. As a result, an aesthetics of emergence and immersion, which William Paul and Ariel Rogers have traced in widescreen, 1950s stereoscopic 3-D and digital 3-D, does not readily apply to them. First, emergence effects are not available to pseudo-binocular 3-D methods like Pepper's Ghost. Indeed, such effects rely on binocular disparity, specifically negative parallax, to produce images within the viewer space in front of the screen. In the absence of a visible screen, objects cannot seem to thrust out from the screen into the auditorium. Instead, the audience perceives the performers independent from any screen plane, physically present, yet confined to the area behind the proscenium arch. Second, the intended effect of Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. was not to immerse the audience in an imaginary world on the stage. Immersion, as Richard Wagner characterized it, implies that the spectators "transplant" themselves into the diegesis. Consequently, "the public, that representative of daily life, forgets the confines of the auditorium, and lives and breathes now only in the artwork which seems to it as Life itself, and on the stage which seems the wide expanse of the whole World" (185). In contrast, the underlying illusion of Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. was to encounter virtual images within space and time of the auditorium. Viewers were not drawn into strange worlds, but invited to enjoy in the technological illusion of an impossible physical presence within the confines of their physical space.
Instead of enhancing the spectators' sense of immersion by means of a darkened auditorium, Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. did not require house lights to be fully extinguished. (30) Reviewers were delighted: "On a well-lit stage of the Scala Theatre, London, men and women appeared, danced and sang--and yet they were not living personas at all (says the Daily Chronicle), but the latest and most wonderful living pictures, which require no screen and no darkness" ("Amazing Cinema Effects"). Rather than maintaining the illusion of a "fourth wall," performers acknowledged the audience's presence and bowed after their acts. However, the pretense of liveness also resulted in eerie discrepancies between the performers' apparent spatial presence and their physical absence: "Nothing struck me with as much amazement as these people foolishly returning for applause that was not given or that erupted at different moments. The apparent lack of contact between the audience and these calmly bowing and smiling people was the strangest thing of all" ("Kinetofoon").
Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. emerged as a response to a worldwide crisis of overproduction in the late 1900s, which would eventually supplant the variety format of short films. In this context, the brief era of 3-D cinema of the early 1910s must be understood as an attempt to develop a niche market that justified higher admission prices and offered an attraction that conventional entertainments could not match. The approach bears striking resemblance to industry strategies in the 1950s and, most recently, in the 2000s, when, as Ariel Rogers has pointed out, the "crisis was again linked to a changing media landscape [...] and cultural climate [...]. In the face of such challenges, three-dimensional spectacle was again posited by the industry as a potential salvation" (182). Although Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. were individual ventures rather than a concerted undertaking, they likewise came as a response to an industry in crisis and critics were quick to announce they would revolutionize the film business (Cher; "What is the Kineplastikon?"). However, the big players in the industry were turning toward another niche-market to combat the growing output of single-reel films. Between 1910 and 1914, precisely during the heyday of Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al., the multiple-reel feature film became an important production and exhibition format for European cinema. In 1911, French, Danish, Italian, and German studios began producing multiple-reel films on a regular basis. Instead of three-dimensional shorts in sound and color, it was the silent narrative feature film that effected radical structural changes in the industry. Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. became obsolete given that their technology was not suited for more complex, multiple-reel filmmaking and too inflexible for versatile stage entertainment. Synchronized sound systems limited film lengths and the live combination of foreground and background restricted the choice of subject matters. For many decades, there was little interest in methods combining projected moving images with the Pepper's Ghost illusion for three-dimensional effects. In 1995, however, the German Uwe Maass, co-owner of the Dubai-based event management company Event Works, obtained a patent for a variation of the 1910s processes (Maass). Although Maass was not the only one to revisit the idea at that time, (31) it was his version that established itself. The British company Musion Systems Ltd. has been exploiting Maass's patent successfully since 2003. (32) In 2012, Eyeliner, Musion's high-definition video projection system, enabled Tupac's Coachella appearance. (33)
Musion Eyeliner is essentially identical with the processes of Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. (34) Nonetheless, Musion, which misleadingly markets its product as "holographic technology" (Musion), has quickly built a reputation as a trailblazer in mainstream entertainment. (35) It has been employed at live performances, conference or trade show presentations, in retail displays and digital signage. Musion has been able to draw upon various technological advances in recent years. For example, the replacement of the expensive and bulky glass plate with a cheap and effective polyester film has improved the process's practicality.
In addition, computer animation grants near-total control of the performance design. With the "resurrection" of icons like Tupac, Frank Sinatra, and Paul Arden, computer-generated imagery showcases the machine's seeming power to transcend death. Representations of the impossible play an important role in Musion Eyeliner shows. Many involve spectacular appearances, disappearances, transformations, and multiplications, effects that are strongly reminiscent of early trick films. Pixie Lott's performance with her four clones, for instance, can be seen as a variation on Georges Melies's L'homme orchestre (The One-Man Band, Star-Film, 1900), where a man clones himself into seven musicians. Trick films like L'homme orchestre are emblematic for an early "cinema of attractions," which Tom Gunning has characterized as differing "from later narrative cinema through its fascination in the thrill of display rather than its construction of a story" ("Primitive Cinema" 9). Musion's illusion of live performance has allowed such effects once again to become attractions in themselves. Rather than integrating them into longer narratives, which is--in contrast to the 1910s--now technically possible, Musion abides by the attraction model with short spectacular "numbers."
Extremely bright high-definition video projection has greatly enhanced the illusion's realism. It is difficult to ascertain to what extent contemporaries may have found Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. indistinguishable from reality. In any case, viewers went to see "living photographs" and could then marvel at their lifelikeness. Musion's audiences, in contrast, are not always aware of the virtual nature of the performances they attend. At the same time, however, Musion performances typically call attention to the technological apparatus and the discrepancy between audience perception and reality. Stunts like Mariah Carey's costume change in mid-air or virtual members of The Black Eyed Peas crumbling into blocks at the end of their performance highlight the impossible nature what appears to be a regular live show. "Resurrections" and appearances by animated characters like the virtual band Gorillaz, particularly when interacting with real life performers like Madonna, fulfill the same function.
High-speed digital streaming allows performances to be simultaneously distributed around the globe. To a much greater extent than was conceivable during the 1910s, the internet has altered the relationship between spectators and virtual images on stage. In the 1910s, the fictitious encounter only went one way: the audience could react to performers, but not vice versa. This, as we have seen, could result in an eerie incongruity between performers' apparent presence and physical absence. A century later high-speed internet allows performers and presenters to interact remotely with multiple audiences in real time. Indeed, Musion sees "telepresence" as the company's future. Adapted for teleconferencing, Pepper's Ghost is becoming interactive.
Far more radically than conventional 3-D cinema, Musion, Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. seek to efface the intrinsic separation between moving image and spectator. This objective is epitomized in the absence of a visible screen, which facilitates seemingly tangible encounters with virtual performers in the "here and now" of the auditorium. In the tradition of nineteenth-century optical magic, Musion, Alabastra, Kinoplastikon et al. simultaneously negate the apparatus and call attention to its technological marvels. This gives rise to a fascinating discrepancy between perception and comprehension: the technological specter of an unmediated presence that transcends space and time.
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(1) Heartfelt thanks to Tessa Valabregue, D. Gantt Gurley, Michael Stern, Ariel Rogers, Gwendolyn Waltz, Tom Gunning, Doron Galili, Jennifer Wild and David Degras for their generous support.
(2) The footage of Tupac was projected onto a mirror. It was reflected in a translucent polyester sheet that was, invisible to the audience, positioned in front of the stage on which Snoop Dogg performed.
(3) An aerial image is an image that is cast into space (rather than onto a screen) and therefore remains invisible. It can be re-focused by a second optical system and produce the image at another location.
(4) Devices whose technical design directly preceded that of the Pepper's Ghost illusion include Pierre Seguin's Polyoscope (1852; patent lapsed) and Henry Dirck's Dircksian Phantasmagoria (1858; not patented).
(5) This was partly the result of Dircks's and Pepper's failure to obtain patents in France and the United States.
(6) In the United States alone, seventeen patents for Pepper's Ghost type illusions were issued between 1877 and 1927 (Wobensmith 16-18).
(7) Pepper's Ghost illusion was frequently used to represent apparitions in lieu of conventional superimpositions (Seeber 132; Turner 45), for instance in The Bells (Chadwick Pictures Corporation, 1926, dir. James Young); Daddy Long Legs (Fox Film Corporation, 1931, dir. Alfred Santell); Beyond Tomorrow (Academy Productions, 1940, dir. A. Edward Sutherland); Sylvie et le fantome (Sylvia and the Phantom, Ecran Francais, 1946, dir. Claude Autant-Lara). See Smith 126; Turner 45; Stull 3000; Douy 141.
(8) See for instance Engelsmann, "Improvements" and Engelsmann, "Apparatus."
(9) Messter credited Engelsmann for the idea in his autobiography (Messter, Mein Weg 77). Messter had been previously engaged in experiments with three-dimensional moving images: on July 23, 1896 he had filed a patent application for a stereo rapid viewer. The patent was not granted. See Messter, Mein Weg 76.
(10) Unless noted otherwise, all translations are mine.
(11) It is possible that Messter and Engelsmann were aware of a 1908 patent by a Frenchman named Charles-Joseph Forets (aka Charletty) who proposed achieving magic effects by combining lantern slides and filmed figures shot against a black background live on stage. Forets's invention is not related to Pepper's Ghost, however (Forets).
(12) Six Alabastra films are held at the George Eastman House: Messter Alabastra #1: Pierrot und Colombine; Messter Alabastra #2: Pierrot und Pierrette; Messter Alabastra #3: Salome; Messter Alabastra #4: Can-can; Messter Alabastra #5: Japonaiserie; Messter Alabastra #6: Apachentanz.
(13) For instance, in April 1911 Alabastra films were shown for approximately two weeks in Franz Anton Noggerath's Bioscope Theater on Reguliersbreestraat in Amsterdam ("Bioscope-Theater").
(14) For example, Alexander Trippe-Furst, the Stuttgart-based theater society Wilhelma-Theater-Gesellschaft, the motion picture studio Projektions-AG Union received utility model patents (Deutsche Reichs-Gebrauchsmuster D.R.G.M.) for similar arrangements (Liesegang 207). Unfortunately, German utility model patents of this period seem to be lost. The Berlin-based company Grass & Worff, which produced and rented lanternslides and films, ran an experimental stage based on the same principle in 1912 (FH, "Plastische").
(15) Frank Joseph Goldsoll was born in Cleveland, OH. After a career as an elegant swindler in Europe (Paris, Commercial Tribunal, 1905), he acted as a dealmaker for Lee Shubert, for whom he secured the American rights to Kinoplastikon in 1912 (Lewis 134). In 1913, he established with A1 Wood a circuit of vaudeville and motion picture theaters in Germany and France ("Woods Home Again"). In 1917, he changed his name to Godsol and eventually became vice-president of the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation. See also Birmingham 198-202.
(16) Goldsoll and Engelsmann were issued joint utility model patent (Deutsches Reichs-Gebrauchsmuster D.R.G.M.) (Liesegang 207-8). In addition, Goldsoll received patents in several countries for a variation of Engelsmann's original patent (See for instance Goldsoll). A film entitled Fantomo, der plastische Film ("Fantomo, the three-dimensional film") premiered on 16 April 1914 at the Palast Theater, Berlin. The credits list Goldsoll as production company and Oskar Messter as producer.
(17) See for instance Cher and "Spirit Pictures."
(18) On the premises of the former cabaret Himmel, Linke Wienzeile 4, VI. Bezirk.
(19) Besides Juhasz, general director of Kinoplastikon GmbH, and Haushofer, managing director, owners of the limited liability company were Count Dominik Potocki, Count Szapary, Baron Friedrich von Hainburger, Nobel Kronel von Pitrof and squire Bela Rosza ("Umwandlung").
(20) They were succeeded by Desider Deutsch ("Kinoplastikon-Gesellschaft").
(21) It is possible that the Kinoplastikon initially showed Alabastra films. The films of the opening program featured artists who previously appeared in Messter's Tonbilder (Huppert). Austrian pioneer directors and co-founders of Wiener Kunstfilm, Luise Fleck and Anton Kolm were likely involved in the production of the Kinoplastikon films (Btittner 37). The following titles could be identified: Mirza, die weisse Sklavin ("Mirza, the White Slave Girl," 1912); Helfer in der Not ("Helper in Time of Need," 1912); Das Gewissen ("The Conscience," 1912); Der hungrige Ritter ("The Hungry Ritter," 1912, starring J. F. Ritter); Die Boxer ("The Boxers," 1913); Der Liebhaber in der Kuche ("The Lover in the Kitchen," 1914); Die schone Galanthee ("The Beautiful Galanthea," 1914). All are considered lost; dates according to Paolo Caneppele, Head of Collections at the Austrian Film Museum, in an email of 10 April 2012.
(22) At the Vienna Kinoplastikon, the best seats cost 4 Kronen and the cheapest 1 Krone (Huppert). Schwartz details that in 1912, a box seat in an upscale Vienna cinema was between 1.50 and 2, the cheapest seats .60 and standing room .30 Kronen. A worker earned approximately 3 to 5 Kronen per day. Schwarz concludes that the cheap seats in upscale cinemas were affordable for workers, but box seats were not (147). Given these numbers, the admission prices at the Kinoplastikon were likely out of reach for the working class.
(23) At the Biograph Theater, 19, rue Le Peletier. For an account of the Paris Kinoplastikon see Meusy 341-343.
(24) It was liquidated in August 1918 ("In the Matter of Kinoplastikon").
(25) Kinemacolor was the first successful natural color system. This two-color additive process had been invented by G. A. Smith and patented in 1906. In 1909, Urban had bought out Smith's patent rights and formed the Natural Color Kinematograph Company to exploit the process.
(26) The pierrots' xylophone duet is likely identical with the "Brothers Blanche as xylophone virtuosos" at the Vienna Kinoplastikon (Huppert).
(27) His Father's Voice. Mrs. Kelly (April; comic song starring Dan Leno Jr.); Good Queen Bess (April; comic song starring George Robey); And Very Nice Too (April; comic song starring George Robey); Persian Dance: Eightpence a Mile (April; starring Phyllis Monkman); Trio: Everybody's Doing It by Irving Berlin (May); Fantasie." Dresden China (October; dance starring Evelyn Baker); A Sister to Assist 'Er (December; comic song starring George Graves); Recitation by James Welch (December; comedian recites, starring James Welch); Sailor's Song (December); Artful Athletics (December; impossible athletics, starring Walter R. Booth) (Gifford 04083-6; 04143; 04399; 4531-4) In addition, the following unidentified Kinoplastikon films were shown in London in 1913 (programs reproduced in Herbert 87): Song and Hornpipe Ship Ahoy by Bennett Scott; Two Dances: Valse de Fleurs by Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikowsky and Melody in F by Anton Rubinstein (starring Florence Phillips); Song and Scene: The Future Mrs. Hawkins by Charles Ingle; Scene and Glockenspiel Solo; Trio (Plantation Song): Swanee River," Quartette: Massa's in the Cold, Cold Ground by Edwin Christy; Dance Orientale (starring Florence Phillips); Solo: Mignon by Ambroise Thomas (starring Hedwig Francillo-Kaufmann). The latter is likely identical with the Mignon film starring Francillo-Kaufmann that was shown in the opening program of the Vienna Kinoplastikon in September 1911. See Huppert.
(28) See Schneider, Lewin and Hammond. For a detailed account of American experiments with aerial images for three-dimensional effects during the late 1910s and early 1920s see Waltz 29-31. Remarkably, also August Engelsmann revisited the subject as late as the mid-1920s (Engelsmann, "Verfahren").
(29) Linder claimed that he was so committed to the idea of the three-dimensional, screenless cinema-theater that he had already "created this genre in France and on tours abroad" (Linder). This suggests that Linder might have been involved in bringing Alabastra/Kinoplastikon to France.
(30) See Wandsbecker Stadtblatt.
(31) For instance, shortly prior to Maass, Lunde, Lekowski and R. Rogers, "Apparatus and Method" and "Image Forming" obtained related patents.
(32) James Rock, Co-Founder of Musion, speaking at the British Business Embassy Global ICT Summit UK on 3 August 201 2. According to Rock, the company meanwhile holds fifty global patents for this process.
(33) The video footage of Tupac was created by Digital Domain, the visual effects company that realized Brad Pitt's reverse aging in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Kennedy/Marshall Company, 2008, dir. David Fincher). AV Concepts provided the high-definition projection technology, licensed from Musion Eyeliner.
(34) Footage of brightly illuminated subjects is captured against a black backdrop by means of a locked-down high-definition camera. Alternatively, computer animated imagery with black backgrounds can be used. A high-definition projector, aided by a mirror, displays the footage on a screen on the lowered front part of the stage floor. It is reflected in a transparent smooth foil that extends between the stage floor and the stage ceiling.
(35) Musion Eyeliner is a high-end product. According to the company's website, renting a simple Musion Eyeliner setup starts at $64,000 (Musion).
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