Chaplin in 3D. Wait, don’t run away

Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street (1917)
Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street (1917)

The reviews are already in for German film-maker Uwe Boll’s latest venture, and it isn’t even ready to view yet. “Worst idea ever,” said Anne Thompson on Indiewire. Wretched and doomed,” tweeted Roger Ebert. Thompson’s Indiewire blogpost reports that a representative of the German distributor Kinostar has approached a “major studio” with a pitch for “one 90 minute 3D movie titled Chaplin 3D – Little Tramp’s Adventure.” The plan involves the conversion of several Chaplin films into 3D, which will then be compiled into one feature-length movie. Retro-fitted 3D is rarely a happy experience, so even if the idea of Chaplin drunkenly tumbling down steps and into your lap, or skating wobbily past your nose, appeals, this doesn’t bode well. When you consider Boll’s critical reputation, which is somewhere between “joke” and ”criminal” this project is beginning to look disastrous. Led, perhaps, by Ebert, the reaction to the story on Twitter yesterday was of near-universal revulsion.

The truth is, there is more to this Chaplin in 3D story than meets the eye. Or both eyes. Clarification and elaboration arrives courtesy of a revelatory post by film preservationist David Shepard on the Nitrateville forum:

Serge Bromberg and I are among the people involved in this project. The principals, a film company in Istanbul which has been operating successfully for more than 70 years, is run by people of integrity; their proprietary 3-D conversion process is far superior to any other I have seen. Even the folks at Association Chaplin were impressed.

L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna or Technicolor scanned our earliest generation nitrate negatives to 2K and have done the highest quality of frame-by-frame image restoration of which they are capable for THE IMMIGRANT, THE RINK and EASY STREET. The films will be presented in b&w, at 20 fps, with new large-orchestra scores by Robert Israel, but in 3-D.

Obviously, Chaplin’s films are about performance; they are not highly pictorial films like, for example, those of Maurice Tourneur; we think they will look and sound wonderful and that the 3-D conversion does them no violence. We hope they will be rolled out first as family concerts with live orchestral performance, moving later on to other platforms with the recorded scores.

Obviously the intended audience is not the readers of Nitrateville, although you will not be excluded from attending the shows to see them for yourselves. If this project is successful it will be expanded to other silent films that can also deliver excellent experiences to 21st century audiences. We hope it will promote some awareness of silent films to many people who now do not have them even on their radar. Think of it as a solution for one of the performance arts (along with opera and classical music) for which the present audience is rapidly aging out, and for which something innovative must be done to insure their survival.

So, the precious films are in the hands of the experts, not a multiple Razzie-winner, and we can be fairly certain that they will look and sound great, due to the restoration and rescoring work. Those who share Mark Kermode’s aversion to 3D in all its forms will still have qualms, of course, but Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Hugo (2011) may well be about to charm cinephiles into a newfound love of stereoscopy. Chaplin himself shot 3D test footage for The Circus (1928), though the fact that he dropped the idea may tell us as much as the fact that he attempted it. He was also known, of course, to retrospectively rework his films, such as when he added a voiceover and music to The Gold Rush in the 1940s.

It is a little saddening to think that the way to “promote some awareness of silent films to many people who now do not have them even on their radar” is to change them so radically. However, the recent re-release of Giorgio’s Moroder’s Metropolis has reminded us of the unusual paths many people take towards an appreciation of silent cinema. Could a three-dimensional rendering of Chaplin movies create a new generation of silent film fans, just as his colourised, intertitle-free Metropolis did in the 1980s?

As for Uwe Boll’s involvement? A red herring, or perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that he has worked with Geraldine Chaplin in the past (on 2005’s BloodRayne). Remember that Suzanne Lloyd has endorsed the 3D conversion of her grandfather Harold’s most famous scene from Safety Last.

I don’t need to tell you that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and doubtless we all have opinions on whether this project is likely to succeed in pleasing either existing or potential silent film fans. The Tramp is not quite in the perilous position we feared, and for now I recommend keeping an open mind.

6 thoughts on “Chaplin in 3D. Wait, don’t run away”

  1. Bleurrgh! Oh well, Chaplin has been exploited by every conceivable technology – including a very cute videogame back in the day – don’t see why 3-D should be any different. And I’m sure those motives about bringing Chaplin to the people are as noble as they sound.

  2. You don’t need to do this to classics, watch them for what they are! Chaplin was a visionary and a great entertainer, this idea of turning his picture into 3D just diminishes from the purpose of his films, leave them be and let’s enjoy them for what they are!

  3. IMHO Chaplin made some 3-D yourself. I remember that part of “The Circus” was shot by 2 cameras…

    1. All of The Circus, and all of Chaplin’s films from the beginning of his Mutual contract on as well, were shot with at least 2 cameras. But not for the purpose of 3D. There were some experiments shot by his long time cameraman, Rollie Totheroh, using a single camera with a rotating synchronized shutter, that exposed every other frame to a right eye, or left eye view, and using an ND filter on one eye’s view. (see Pulfrich Effect for an explanation as to why this technique might have been expected to result in a 3D image.) I believe those tests were made after The Circus was completed. The film cans were clearly labeled “Rollie – personal”, so I’m not sure how involved Chaplin was. He does not appear in any of the footage I’ve seen.

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