The Eye-Popping Realism of James Butterfield's New 3-D Unleashes the Beast in the Box

updated 07/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It wasn't just any Three Stooges rerun that popped onto 18,000 Los Angeles TV sets one night last December. In this one, as a critic said, the TV audience found itself "at the other end of oncoming knives, spiraling meat cleavers and bowlheaded Moe Howard's patented finger pokes in the eye."

Watching that show from behind a sophisticated version of the green-and-red glasses worn by 3-D moviegoers in the '50s was James Butterfield, whose radically updated technique debuted that night on American TV. It soon will be tried on cable in Alaska and on broadcast TV in Toronto. He sat nervously in his Sherman Oaks home with his wife, Eglantina, and some friends. "I kept waiting for someone to say, 'This is ridiculous.' But they were all saying, 'Wow, look at this!' "

It was the same kind of childlike wonder that Butterfield, now 60, felt 45 years ago when "my mother took me to a store in Chicago and I saw my first demonstration of TV. I was so taken with it I began to study in a TV engineering school that had just opened." After serving in WW II as, among other things, a radar specialist, Butterfield earned a liberal arts degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago while continuing his study of TV. Then in 1951 he went to Mexico on vacation and found that Latin America fascinated him almost as much as TV. "I was inspired by gaucho matinee idols," he says. "I tried to paint my hair black and grow a mustache. But I was a natural blond. That irritated me." While still in Mexico, Butterfield contracted polio. He spent close to a month in an iron lung and, fearing he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, settled on a sedentary career for himself: He would write for TV. Eventually he was walking again—and he was one of the biggest TV producers in Mexico (using the pseudonym Jaime del Campo). With the money he earned, Butterfield set up a lab and began inventing, eventually collecting more than 50 patents for all manner of video miracles: early video discs, color TV systems, a 3-D camera and a 3-D microscope that allows brain surgeons to see what they're doing in depth.

Butterfield didn't invent 3-D TV, he's only perfecting it. A Scotsman, John Logie Baird, received a U.S. patent for 3-D TV in 1944, and Hollywood made 50-plus 3-D flicks in the 1950s, including Dial M for Murder and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Today Japanese television uses a rudimentary 3-D process for some children's shows, but 3-D has never caught on in the U.S. because the early systems were crude and the Federal Communications Commission seldom allows broadcasts that require a viewer to obtain special sets or glasses for viewing.

But the advent of pay TV, with less stringent FCC regulations, has permitted Butterfield to utilize his wizardry. His L.A. experiment was on the subscription-only Selec TV, which gave its subscribers coupons redeemable at Sears for 3-D glasses, and it was a success: More than 30 percent of the audience watched Butterfield's show.

He uses a method called Anaglyph, which is as old as the related Victorian stereoscopes, in which each eye looks at a different picture; then the brain puts them together, creating the illusion of depth. The problem in TV was how to display two separate pictures on one screen. Butterfield does it with colors: red and green. The viewer wears 3-D glasses with one green lens and one red lens. The eye with the red lens sees everything as red and so distinguishes only the red image on the screen, not the green one. The other eye, behind the green filter, sees only the green image. Together, they create one picture with depth.

"We're hoping this isn't a fad," Butterfield says. "We hope this will lead to more 3-D movies' being shot." That is already happening. The United Artists Theatre Circuit, for instance, reportedly will spend $60 million on six 3-D pictures in the next four years to compete with videocassettes, pay TV and other new entertainment forms. Butterfield's technical colleague, Daniel Symmes, says, "People have become very sophisticated about what they hear and what they watch. They have a desire for sensory stimulation."

And Butterfield plans to offer that. His electronic 3-D Video Process takes old 3-D movies and translates them onto videotape. He's also just come up with a way to show 3-D in full color and hopes to broadcast live 3-D for Canadian TV next fall. Likely subjects: sporting events and rock concerts. His big dream is a system that will not require special glasses—one that in about 10 years will give a picture that you can see around and behind, as in holography. "The way I look at it," Butterfield says, "we're trying to reproduce reality."

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