If you think of stereoscopic 3D as a recent phenomenon, you couldn't be more wrong. In fact, stereo photographs (known as 'stereoviews') were the in-thing as early as the 1860s.
One popular series was Les Diableries, which portrayed sculpted clay vignettes of daily life in Hell. Shocking for their time, they may remind contemporary audiences of the devilish art typical of hard rock album covers. So it's perhaps not surprising that rock god Brian May is the man behind their 2014 revival, in the form of CG animation One Night in Hell, to be screened in cinemas and on Sky 3D & Sky Arts tonight at 7:40pm.
We caught up with him to find out what lies behind his passion for bringing 19th century 3D into the 21st...
Stereoscopy is not a recent interest for May; in fact, it's been a lifelong passion, he reveals. His fascination began during his 1950s childhood, around the age of seven.
"In those days, you got a little stereo card in your Weetabix box. Two little pictures that looked flat and not particularly interesting," he recalls. "But then you'd send away one-and-sixpence and a packet top for your stereoscope. And suddenly those two little flat pictures turn into a magic window which you feel you could walk through and touch. I was blown away."
With a bright and inquiring mind, the youngster figured how it all worked, and started taking sequential photos to create his own stereo cards. "I also used to spend my time in school drawing 3D pictures," he adds. "I'd start off with two pictures which were almost identical and then move things in the right image and not the left one.
"I figured out how to free-view as well, so every wallpaper I was looking at I was letting my eyes relax and fusing it in 3D. It became an obsession."
Later in life, as a physics student at Imperial College London, May started collecting vintage stereo cards from Christies. A hobby quickly became a lifetime's work: he now has over 100,000 cards in his collection, and is considered a worldwide authority on the subject.
Back to life
But the beauty and art of vintage stereoscopy has never just been a private matter for Brian May, who's keen to share his obsession with the world. So he recently became owner of The London Stereoscopic Company – which at its height produced stereoscopic cards in their millions – and relaunched it as a publishing company.
May also invented a new kind of viewer that could be packaged with the books, enabling readers to experience the stereoscopic scenes in both print and on the iPad.
And now the 3D obsessive has realised another ambition, with the satanic scenes portrayed in the Diableries series being brought to life as a modern animation, entitled 'One Night in Hell'.
"It's always been the dream, really," he smiles. But it was only when he met film producer Paul Laikin of Unanico Group that it started to become a reality.
"Paul he got really inspired by our book on the Diableries, and it started from there," May explains. "Instead of doing stop motion like Ray Harryhausen, he's recreated these clay models in CGI and animated them using 3DS Max."
May has been blown away by how quickly Laikin's team has put the film together. "Once they've got their 3D space mapped out they can do anything," he enthuses.
The whole project has been done and dusted in less than a year by Unanico, and that even includes an augmented reality app you can download from iTunes. This inserts the dancing devils of the animation into the view being filmed by your phone's camera, so you can create your own Diableries scenes.
May was closely involved in the creation of both the app and the animation, which was directed and written by Jason Jameson and James Hall and is – suitably enough – six minutes and 66 seconds long.
"I've lived with these cards for 40 or 50 years so there isn't a lot that I don't know about them," he says. "But there isn't a lot that Paul and his people don't know about CGI. So we're quite a good combination really. And there's a bit of music involved as well so I came in handy there."
May has written music for dozens of iconic movies, from The Rocky Horror Show to Flash Gordon, but for One Night in Hell he wanted to do something a little different. He's been a lifelong fan of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and so took the opportunity to record it with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.
"In my strange mind, the climax of the piece is very triumphant and it exactly fits the rhythm of We Will Rock You, my own song," he explains. "So I found myself on a plane to Prague and performing the overture for the first time with an electric guitar."
If that all sounds a bit random, the choice of music is very relevant to the subject of the 1860s-themed animation, he explains.
"Tchiakovsy wrote it about Napoleon the First – Bonaparte – and it was a heroic tribute to the bravery of men who went to war for their country," he says. "But after he ended up seeing what Napoleon was doing he became disillusioned and he scratched out the dedication to him.
"The Diableries were made during the reign of Napoleon III – a time when no one would have been allowed to play the 1812 Overture. So it's very apt that the devil would want to play it with his infernal orchestra in the animation."
It all adds up to an explosive experience, all the better for being viewed in stereoscopic 3D. And depending on how the short is received, there are plans to make a feature-length animated movie, May adds – so watch this space...
- One Night in Hell will premiere on Sky 3D & Sky Arts on 31 October, 7:40pm, and will be available from iTunes for £1.99
- The film's soundtrack, composed by Brian May, is now available on iTunes for 79p
- A related app, Diableries, is now available from the App Store, £1.99