Cyclopean 3D: Life with a Beautiful Woman

By José Sarmiento Hinojosa


Keep investigating the depth. Things are not as one would expect.
Ken Jacobs – The Guests1

Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling,
its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.
Susan Sontag – On Photography2

It is known throughout the history of movies, in the endless twists and turns of narrative and experimental films, that the truth itself (whatever we feel it is), will be revealed for us or hidden from us for a predetermined time, and that we will question forever what it is that wasn’t shown to us or we will discover something that was considerably hidden, something behind our perception, maybe hinted in our consciousness but not at all explicit. This happens, and has happened since the beginning of film: the discovery and rediscovery (and relativity) of this truth has even brought film criticism to pop up to the scene, and its ratio or depth has left us with a true knowledge that hopefully fed our soul, or at least a question to dwell on for a long time.

But, the unraveling of a hidden truth rarely transverses the plasticity of the object of cinema itself, namely the proper basis of filmed image itself: celluloid. When Ken Jacobs started with his anagylphs and three dimensional experiments (a third dimension effect that wasn’t at all similar to the technological 3D of multiplex cinemas) as early as 1997, something truly unique was being born. Even if we think as celluloid as the plastic element in which light (and other materials) intervene (and it certainly has been the case for experimental filmmakers who approached the film material as a canvas, like Stan Brakhage, or used the plasticity of the element for dramatic purposes in film, like Monte Hellman did in Two-Lane Blacktop), nobody until then had explored the possibilities of material third dimension  like Jacobs did in his Nervous System, anaglyph films and further on in his kodachrome photographic footage experiment Cyclopean 3D. Let’s even remember the structural/materialist filmmakers like Peter Kubelka (who actually showcased the celluloid reels he made for Arnulf Rainer) claiming that the importance of the shape of film was crucial and of more importance than the context (fixed shots, flickering effect, loop printing, etc.),


A live presentation of The Nervous System Magic Lantern

The Early Experiments: The Nervous System

Even some of the early Eadweard Muybridge experiments hinted to this preoccupation for the third dimension, the separation of the two known dimensions with depth, and even a fourth one: time.  For Jacobs, the concern was about the trails that the image path transverses as a plastic reality that can be used to trick the brain into see what is not there: hence the early experiments with The Nervous System, a 3D apparatus patented by Jacobs himself, in which found strips of film were presented in an exposed choreography of sorts.

 “The flicker… is something, in my experience, discovered by Alfons Schilling of Vienna, living nearby in Manhattan in the ‘Seventies and the one other person I knew doing interesting work in 3D.  We traded discoveries and sometimes equipment.  I had been inducing depth in early 2D imagery via a shuttle mechanism I’d contrived that alternated (very slowly changing) views of adjacent frames in an identical pair of film-prints.  The fascination with beginning-cinema had begun with Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son towards the end of the Sixties.  It led to the even earlier period when capturing of life-movement had been the interest and before story prevailed. I felt myself one of the guys, the inventors, with the difference that my interest had shifted to the brain itself and its capacity for being wonderfully mistaken. Alfons, working with stereo color slides, was attempting to get my depth effects via alternation (without spectacles) with a simpler device, the spinning shutter, set before a 3D slide projector.  The flicker slipped in! And unimaginable depth events commenced to happen.  He enjoined me to make use of this earliest of shutter designs and my work with film advanced.  The shuttle had created rather flat figures in deep space but now one saw (and moved and reshaped) rounded, voluptuous figures.”3

Now, the interest of Jacobs in finding new aspects to found footage which completely overturned the role of the spectator and the filmmaker go beyond the anthropological interest: it is also a political statement devoid from knowing what is hidden from us. For Jacobs, the ill-induced minds of Capitalism trained the human brain to see reality as two-dimensional, hiding aspects of reality that were deemed to be “harmful” for society. With this analogy, the surfaces of the images presented by Jacobs were also of rediscovering nature, one that gave the image a new life. “If one fails to pick up on the story, nothing could be more boring than the inactive surface of standard cinema.” Vertigo inducing, and not to be seen by people with epilepsy, the fast flickering images of Jacobs induced a complex paradox: the idea of rediscovering the hidden behind the surface of images being bombarded constantly with them. This idea was as radical as it was revolutionary, and Jacobs proceeded to do the “magic lantern” in which only the projector gave place to a series of images that were given movement and depth without the presence of celluloid. These experiments, with film had the projector as protagonist, gave place to his work on video, with the anaglyph as the new tool for the rediscovery of found footage.


The Scenic Route (2008)

Anaglyphs: Tom Tom Club, Gift of Fire, The Roses, The Scenic Route

According to the Merriam – Webster dictionary, an anaglyph is “a stereoscopic motion or still picture in which the right component of a composite image usually red in color is superposed on the left component in a contrasting color to produce a three-dimensional effect when viewed through correspondingly colored filters in the form of spectacles3. With the old and cyan 3D specs (or just two gelatin films of the same color, one for each eye) one could discover in different comic books or several films (especially in the 50’s, the golden era of disposable anaglyph glasses) a simulation of depth in the image which gave a complete textural modification to it”. Jacobs’ experiments with anaglyphs were properly made on video, disposing of the two-projector system to intervene the image source and transpose it into a different format.

A sequel (or remake) of Tom Tom, the Piper’s son, Anaglyph Tom (Tom with Puffy Cheeks) shared with its original material the curiosity of the exploration throughout the image surface. This time, the elements of …Piper’s son (via optical printer) which were deconstructed to its mere elements (to their most basic elements, batches of hazy clouds which were parts of the original images), rediscovering new narratives of the images, claimed a new quality, the property of depth, and presented throughout the background of cinema history, the 3D color make place to a whole new universe of perspective.

Gift of Fire: Nineteen (Obscure) Frames that Changed the World (2007) went beyond that first intuition. The film revolves around what would be the first film images in history: Louis-Aimé-Augustin Le Prince’s original 1888 footage of Leeds Bridge. This original discovery/recovery of a mundane scene turns out to be of a monumental scope, since it depicts the birth of moving image, and explores the capabilities of the images to be molded into a representation that provides us with more that the initial information of the source. Given, there’s also Jacobs reflection on the subject (Le Prince’s story, cinema history and such), and also fragments of legendary films like Eisenstein’s battle Potemkin. Originally conceived for installation, Gift of Fire represents one of the essential approaches to the molding of sight and perception, in a plastic but also metaphysical dimension.


We are obligated to note that Jacobs’ interest for the brain deceptions reached not only the cinematic but was also presented in written word. His Poems for the Crossed Eyes (1989/97, published in Desistfilm here and commented here) also play with this conception.

End of intermission

The Scenic Route (2008) used stereographs to recreate dimension, and also added the effect of time on image. Again, the political hints of Jacobs aren’t quite hints “It’s not enough to see movies in depth. Look into Nazi war criminal Reinhard Gehlen and the forming of the CIA” this stereographic method, somewhat similar to the flickering effect of image (and further put to use in Seeking the Monkey King) it’s not a pleasant view to enjoy, it demands either complete attention or just losing yourself into it. Either way, it’s a disorienting experience of discovery: “It’s the spaces between elements that one breathes in…” says Jacobs, and in that we find the essence of the exercise in plasticity.

For The Guests (2011), a four minute short, Jacobs made use of the 1896 footage from Charles Moisson (the Lumière inventor/projectionist) sister’s wedding. Words from Jacobs, taken from the video itself read as follows: “3-D is all in the mind. Yes, it’s out there too, but the seeing of 3-D depends on lighting speed mental calculations. Two eyes set 2 ½ inches apart send two flat pictures to the mind to be minutely compared. Tiny shifts in where things are, contradictions in how they appear from one picture to the next, are resolved by the mind to produce 3-D.We see a vast deep world, alright, somewhere in the theater of the mind.”4 Decomposed fragments of the original footage are extended as long as necessary: in clear contrast of the flickering effect of the Nervous System technique, here we contemplate extensively on the image movement, as we were supposed to be aware of every single contraction or expansion of the same. The effect, where images in print slowly become ghosts of the past, is a clear example of the recreation of memory in a vessel that can circumnavigate the mind as profoundly as one wishes, and that can turn a single moving image into a whole cinematic event.


Cyclopean 3D: Life with a Beautiful Woman

A kodachrome photographic experiment, Cyclopean 3D: Life with a Beautiful Woman (2011), made in occasion of Ken and Flo Jacobs’ fiftieth anniversary returned to the flickering stereoscopic effect of 3D via rescued photographs of Jacobs’ family and friends from the 60’s. The formal perfection of the film is outstanding, yet one can cast a familiar and intimate atmosphere. Another condition of memory, melancholy, comes to order, and gives part to one of the warmest films Jacobs has ever done. A true act of love.

Final Words

The material meets the metaphysical. The metaphysical meets the political. The sole action of intervening a surface or material can have immense connotation in the hands of an adequate artist: light, eye, brain, celluloid, binary code, the social, all elements of perfect machinery created by Ken Jacobs and celebrated by us. Trick the brain, rediscover, and resuscitate a memory. It’s all in perfect balance. And as Jacobs would say: “As for mistakes in perception, they can be fun, and can teach us modesty as regards knowledge of The Truth of Things. Religion is bullshit, philosophy falls short. Simple luck in being born with a constitution that can take a steady diet of bewilderment gets us through.”


1Jacobs, Ken: The Guests (2011), installation video.
2Sontag, Susan: On photography pg.1 copyright ©2005 by RosettaBooks, LLC  “Paracinema, Flicker and 3D. Interview with Ken Jacobs” byb François Bovier and Adeena Mey (
4Jacobs, Ken: The Guests (2011), installation video.