Ken Jacobs, The Pulfrich Effect and Time Based Stereoscopy

ken460Ken Jacobs with wife Flo Jacobs

At a time when film industries are currently working on perfecting 3D cinema delivery, numerous guides and projects aim at perfecting the image’s illusion and making the viewing experience as smooth as possible. In commercial entertainment contexts this makes sense and meets demands expected by many audiences. However, it occludes, to some extent, the potential for artists to use stereoscopic techniques to work against cinema’s perfect illusion and test our relationship with moving-images. One such artist who has been working in this field for numerous decades is Ken Jacobs. Based in the US, Jacobs has experimented with different stereoscopic technologies since the 1960s and, now in his 80s, utilises new digital technologies to continue that work.

As part of their current exhibition on Cinema & Painting, The Adam Art Gallery in Wellington screened two of Jacob’s stereoscopic films at the local Lighthouse Cuba cinema. Both films push the limits of how stereoscopy can be used to produce three-dimensional space and both films draw upon early cinema to reimagine how cinema might be perceived. Neither film makes use of traditional stereoscopy whereby two flat images with a parallax separation are created at exactly the same time and are then brought together to create the illusion of depth. Instead, the images are separated by time. However, each film does makes use of the fundamentals of stereoscopy: by creating two different images for each eye and using viewing technologies to bring those images back together, they seem to produce one image with additional depth qualities.


The first film, Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896 (1990), incorporates a fairly unique exhibition process with its use of the Pulfrich effect. Developed as a theoretical study by Carl Pulfrich in 1922, the Pulfrich effect works on the basis that if one eye is covered with a filter when watching moving images, each eye will receive visual data at slightly different times. As Ken Jacobs put it in his video introduction to the event, one eye sees the current image and the other eye sees an image from the recent past. When the images being viewed incorporate horizontal motion, the different images received by each eye come together to create the sensation of depth. In Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896, Jacobs put this to the test by showing footage of early Lumière films that constantly incorporated cameras in motion: mainly views from moving boats and moving trains. When viewed without the filter, we have a record of some of the earliest moving-images. Their black and white, often over-exposed and/or deteriorated quality gives us a glimpse of a past that is now gone. The objects and figures that appear in the footage are ghostly incarnations gesturing to us from a place that we will never know, made all the more distant because no sound has been added to the footage. When you place the filter over one eye, an eerie sense of depth suddenly appears. It is not the same sharp illusion of depth that can be found in contemporary digital stereoscopy, but there is a subtle shift in which the clear position of the screen’s plane disappears and the material elements of the footage float in a less determined space. Much of the footage incorporated by Jacobs has water at the bottom of the space. It laps towards us and heightens the sensation of fluid space that can reach into the auditorium. At various points the footage is placed upside down. Although no obvious reason for this choice is provided, it acts as a reminder that there is a highly mediated cinema mechanism functioning between us and these ghosts of the past.


The second film, The Guests (2013), uses another technique entirely. Taking an early Lumière film that was gifted to Jacobs and his wife, Flo, images are once again separated by time but projected to audiences in an entirely different way. Flo painstakingly cut apart the different frames in the film and pasted them onto glass slides, alternating the frames so that every odd frame could be used for one eye and every even frame could be used for the other eye. Initially these were displayed in a carousel so that audiences could receive the different images for each eye simultaneously. Later, they were converted into DCP files so that they could be displayed on 3D capable screens. In this instance, the odd frames arrive at one eye and the even frames arrive at the other eye through 3D glasses. Because the 3D glasses filter the images so that each eye receives only one set of images, the eyes are then able to fuse these images into one image.


The initial film was of a wedding party in Paris climbing the steps of the church. Because the people in the film were moving roughly in one direction, the alternating frames are mainly the same but with a slight change in position of the characters. This allows the eyes to be tricked in to believing that they are each seeing the same image but shot from slightly different positions. In this way, the eyes create an illusion of stereoscopic depth. Because objects in the background have not changed position, the process is not dissimilar to the production of stereoscopic depth in traditional 3D films where some objects are placed at a zero parallax point (no separation between them) and others seem to come towards the audience or recede away from the audience depending on the level of parallax separation between them. Of course, the changing temporal relations and the unruly movement of characters in the original film means the creation of depth in The Guests is not a perfect process. Instead, the result is another set of eerie images where the depth relations of some characters and objects pop out and shift in unexpected ways. During the course of The Guests, Jacobs slows down the images so that what was once a one-minute film is now stretched to around 70 minutes. Although this extended length puts huge demands on the attention span of the audience and some argument might be made in favour of a shorter exercise or the display of the film in a gallery where audiences can choose to come and go as they please, The Guests is extremely effective in the way it asks us to reconsider the visual illusion of stereoscopy and the illusion that is at work in all cinema. The way in which characters’ limbs and heads seem to pop out or recede behind other body parts illustrates the false wholeness that is projected in all cinema, but often emphasised in 3D cinema.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this programme of Jacobs’ work was the emphasis on time. The video introduction made it clear that this is an enduring interest of Jacobs and his wife Flo. Their ability to bring forth a consideration of time is what is often missing from the focus on spatial relations that so often dominate discussions of 3D media.

300 Negative Parallax Effects


 300: The Rise of an Empire (2014)

While the first 300 film (2006) seemed to revel in a slightly camp and very visual exaggeration of the prowess of the 300 Spartan warriors who fought the mighty Persian army in 480 BC, the latest film 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) tries to take itself much more seriously. Not quite a prequel and not quite a sequel, Rise of an Empire is fairly unique in the way that it begins its narrative a little before the events of the first film and then parallels them, providing a different perspective on the wider political events of the time, before finishing just after the point at which the first film came to a halt. In this way, we are witness to (fictional) events at Marathon where the Greek Themistokles fells the Persian King Darius with a single arrow, setting off a serious of events in which Darius’ son Xerxes takes the throne and seeks vengeance against the Greeks. In what could be considered a response to critiques of the exploitative elements of the first film (a nice summary can be found here), the gratuitous display of ‘freaks’ (transgendered, disabled and otherwise different bodies), lesbian titillation and uncomfortable rape, is very much reduced. Rise of an Empire has even inserted a ‘feminist’ antagonist, the sword wielding Persian navy commander Artemisia. The film also allows Queen Gorgo of Sparta to return in an enhanced and stronger role. However, the way in which Artemisia’s military strategy is not complete until she instigates an awkward sexual seduction shows that Rise of an Empire cannot fully shake off Hollywood’s idea of where woman gain their power from. This is all the more sad when we consider that Artemisia really was a navy commander working for Xerxes and was praised for her excellent skills in battle yet the film significantly alters much of what is known about her. There is also the rather difficult problem of the lead actors’ wooden performances and an uninspiring script that’s sole pattern is battle-exposition-battle-exposition-battle. Which is all very much a shame as the 3D effects are rather good.


In the beginning of the film we enter into a dust filled room with a frieze of the fallen 300 warriors positioned on the back wall. Dust motes float around this room and towards us in the auditorium, creating a thick space that characterizes almost all the scenes in the film. Through a combination of dust motes in interior shots, floating organic particles in exterior landscapes and burning embers in the battle scenes, few moments of the film display clear, empty space between the audience and the characters. In the opening depiction of battle scenes liquid, particularly blood, splatters on the cameras. Although these shots were initially filmed with one camera, the post-production conversion created two virtual camera perspectives (one for the left and eye and one for the right eye), each of which were virtually splattered with liquid. In the first instance this liquid on the cameras seems to suggest a screen that exists between the events and the audience in the auditorium, a contradiction of previous shots in which elements of the film seemed to come right out towards us. This process is repeated when a type of lens flare produces the hexagons of light that also seem to rest on top of the image and similarly create a screen barrier. However, the position of this screen constantly shifts as it is placed at different points in negative and parallax space. Rather than suggesting a stable barrier between the film’s events and our place in the auditorium, these moments enhance the sense of thick space and demonstrate that it is constantly permeable and open to our touch. When combined with the forward motion of cameras we are reminded of the POV perspectives in video games which immerse us in tactile yet frenetic environment, particularly those with similar splattering on the virtual cameras.


Like many 3D films, liquid spaces are incorporated for their ability to provide justification for spectacular visual moments where liquid almost, but never quite, reaches and overwhelms our bodies. Various droplets are flung around the auditorium space and waves threaten to crash on top of us. Often these are drops of blood, producing that same sense of shock and delight that occurs when exploitation films project bodily fluids towards us. In the 3D film they come even closer. There are also gentler but no less dramatic moments such as the point when Xerxes emerges, reborn as a god, from a pool deep within a hermits’ cave. As his new body emerges from the pool, golden waves spread out and lap at the edge of the screen space. They suggest a liquid flow that joins the various planes from the back of the screen space through to the position of the viewer.

Film Review 300 Rise of An Empire

This presentation is true to the visual field set up in the first film where optical elements were enhanced, spectacular and constantly calling attention to themselves. Rise of an Empire even manages to retain one of the major visual characteristics of 300: the combination of heavily diffused light and shallow focus. The type of flatter, ambiguous space created by this visual tendency is normally contradictory to stereoscopic filming that aims to show the full depth relations of objects in its visual field. However, in shots created in this way the main focal points, such as close-ups on characters’ heads, allows the rounded contours of objects to come forth in ways that could not be achieved in 2D versions. Throughout these processes the visual effects in Rise of an Empire are no more distracting than the first film, but their constant appearance in auditorium space enhances the tactility of the visual field. If the point of spectacle is to overwhelm the senses then Rise of an Empire successfully achieves that goal.

Rise of an Empire just goes to show that the tools are there (and I would quite happily suggest the post-production tools are there) to create expressive and visually enthralling stereoscopic cinema that doesn’t have to be tied to the classical cinema’s concern with realism. Here’s hoping that these tools will be coupled with better scripts and performances next time.