Stereoscopic Media


This article was updated on 13 Aug 2020, and is filed under Research Provocations.

Marty Norden Research Provocation: Lois Weber’s Views on Stereoscopic Filmmaking

Lois Weber (1879-1939) was one of America’s most important and admired filmmakers during the 1910s and 20s. Well-known for creating films that explored pressing social issues, this highly influential director also harbored a deep interest in stereoscopic filmmaking. ‘The purely mechanical side of producing interests me’, she told an interviewer in 1916 at the height of her fame. ‘The camera is fascinating to me. I long for stereoscopic and natural color photoplays, but I would sacrifice the latter for the former’ (qtd in ‘Mlle Chic’ 20/5/1916). Five years later, she wrote an article that detailed her thinking on stereoscopic filmmaking. It appeared in May and June of 1921 under various titles in newspapers across the US, including the Atlanta Constitution, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Oakland Tribune, and New Orleans Item. The movie industry trade press was gently skeptical in its response to her article. As a writer mused in Motion Picture News, ‘Lois Weber says her great ambition is to make a [motion] picture in natural colors which has a stereoscopic effect, which, to say the least, is some ambition’ (‘Hollywood Hokum’ 14/5/1921). In the interest of stimulating discussion about this renowned director’s perspectives on stereoscopy, I herewith present the most thorough version of Weber’s article that I could find. It was published in the New Orleans Item on 1 May 1921. Despite an awkward and misleading headline (‘Remember Telescopic Pictures Out at Grandma’s House’, a title that Weber had nothing to do with), it contains a number of intriguing points that the filmmaker offered in a rather pin-wheeling fashion. They include her childhood interest in stereoscopic images, her attendance at a red/green stereoscopic film exhibition at the Hotel Astor, and the images’ usefulness in wartime. She also suggested, though only in passing, that such images could be helpful for movie set designers.

Lois Weber, 1921:

“There are two things that I always wanted to do when producing [motion] pictures. One of them is to film my plays in color; the other, and the more fascinating, is to achieve the stereoscopic effect.

Once or twice in a picture with special lighting effects I have come close to my ideal and that without the use of the double lens on the camera. I sometimes envy the scenic photographer who puts his camera on the front of an engine and, with the scenery off at one side constantly changing, can rival the effect produced by the double lens which produces real stereoscopy.

Years ago when I was a girl every parlor table had its stereoscopic viewer together with a collection of views mounted on cardboard. My father had a rare collection which he has left me consisting of some 250 views of America, taken about 1860 by the London Stereoscopic Company. I value these very highly.

I have made several attempts to make stereoscopic moving pictures practicable, but of course my writing and directing has kept me too busy to go into the mechanical end of stereoscopy photography very deeply.

The stereoscope is an optical instrument for uniting into one image two plane representations as seen by each eye separately and giving to them the appearance of relief and solidity. It seems strange that the problem of stereoscopic cinematography has not been made commercially practicable when as far back as 1858 stereoscopic pictures were thrown on a screen by means of the stereopticon or magic lantern.

Many inventors have come forward and have claimed success, but moving picture producers are still using the one lens camera. The trouble has been that every ‘solution’ has required that the spectator be equipped with an apparatus to view the pictures and this, of course, is impracticable.

Prisms, mirrors, shutters and other appliances have been used to convey the impression of solidity and relief, but most of these appliances have detracted from the spectator’s enjoyment and have been rejected by theatre owners in a majority of cases. When the direct projection on a screen of stereoscopic pictures comes from one strip of film and not from two synchronized reels a great step forward in stereoscopic photography will have been made.

Stereoscopic photography would do away with a great deal of the eye strain of which some picture patrons still complain, but which has now been reduced to an inappreciable minimum so far as the majority of theatre goers is concerned.

Some years ago at the Hotel Astor I attended a stereoscopic performance. Every guest was required to don a pair of red and green glasses. When the film was viewed through these glasses the illusion of relief and solidity was attained but when the glasses were taken off the picture became almost a blur.

The inventors of the process used a camera equipped with two lenses which operated at the same time as those on an ordinary Eastman, Veriscopy, Monobloc or Palmos ‘still’ camera. One of the reels was toned in green and the other in red after having first been photographed in black and white.

The two camera lenses were separated by the same distance as that between the human eyes. The green and red eyeglasses given the spectators brought the effect of relief, more successfully in the exterior scenes than in the interior, but many in the audience grew tired of holding the stereoscopic viewers up to their eyes and then all illusion was lost. No theatre owner would care to assume the expense of providing his thousands of patrons with special glasses to view the pictures.

I should like to see stereoscopic cinematography realized for another reason. I believe in preparedness for war no matter whether war comes or not. Now stereoscopic ‘stills’ were of great value to the Allied armies during the world war.

I saw an illustration of this when two photographs were submitted to me by my cameraman who was in the signal corps of the American army during the war. One of the views, taken with an ordinary camera, showed what appeared to be German aeroplane hangars in a certain location behind the German lines. Another view, a double photograph taken with a stereoscopic still camera from an aeroplane, showed the same hangars, or what purported to be hangars.

The stereoscopic camera gave the German camouflage away, however. While trees and other buildings were shown up in relief the hangars were discovered merely to be ‘flats’ or imitation hangar roofs laid flat on the ground. No bombs were wasted by the American army on these camouflaged hangars as the result of that stereoscopic photograph. How immensely useful a stereoscopic moving picture camera would be in war time!

Some day, however, I am sure that problem will be solved. I know an oculist in Hollywood who is sure he has the solution, and I have a cameraman in my studio who is equally certain that he will be successful. Now comes a dispatch from Chicago saying that at last the problem has really been ‘solved.’

I hope so. I am a forward looking woman and I promise that if commercially practicable stereoscopic projection has been discovered I will be the first producer in Los Angeles to install a double lens camera in my studio.

In my last four plays, What Do Men Want? What’s Worth While? Two Wise Wives, and To Please One Woman I had hundreds of stereoscopic views made in addition to the regular ‘still’ photos reproduced in the magazines. I keep the stereo photos for my own amusement as well as to aid my production manager when he is designing new sets.”


‘Hollywood Hokum’ (14/5/1921) in Motion Picture News, p.3066

‘Mlle Chic’ (20/5/1916) ‘The Greatest Woman Director in the World’ in Moving Picture Weekly; reprinted inMartin F. Norden (2019) Lois Weber: Interviews, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, pp.60-63

Weber, Lois (1/5/1921) ‘Remember Telescopic Pictures Out at Grandma’s House’ in New Orleans Item; reprinted in Norden, Lois Weber, pp.130-132

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