How an accidental brush by an autistic savant with a silent movie classic has changed one of the world’s most recognizable films into Hollywood’s first 3D motion picture.
By Carl Hernz
For those not familiar with the ways of children with autism, a toy in our hands can all too often serve its original purpose but for a limited amount of time.
This was so for my View-Master viewer and its View-Master reels which (if you are not familiar with them) contained sets of tiny matching photographs, left and right stereo images to be exact. By studying these and the minute differences between the pictures, I began to teach myself the art of stereography at the “advanced” age of 5. (Of course, humorously speaking, this may have been somewhat “late” considering that I had mastered reading at age 3 and writing at age 4. Was this a sign that I was beginning to slow down in my old age?)
As I stated in the outset, the mind of a child on the spectrum can often require learning how one’s toys work, and that meant taking apart these birthday gifts that my parents had given to me just a few weeks before.
I was horribly punished for doing all this too, just as I was for anything associated with my autism at that stage in my life. My parents were the self-absorbed types, always aiming to be the picture-perfect nuclear family of the early 1970s, with a nest full of three well-behaved sons, a split-level home with not one but two color TVs (my dad worked in television), and of course no room whatsoever for a child who found sitting in crowds overwhelming and who rocked back and forth all the time. Repeated slaps to the face in batches of 12 to 15 in one sitting, a couple of punches to the nose until it bled or having furniture tossed at me as attempts to cease my stimming were the closest to behavioral therapy ever applied to what others came to call “the Rocking Boy of Avondale Lane.”
Like many children who grow up on the autism spectrum, I had intense interests that bordered on obsession. My main one was 3D. From the moment my parents got me that first View-Master viewer, I totally lost myself in how the optical illusion of three-dimensional photography, art, and image reproduction was accomplished, and I was determined to reproduce the effect and master the art and science myself.
Yet just attempting to grow up in my own household where I habitually had my nose broken, was knocked unconscious in response to meltdowns or was regularly slapped in the face in the manner one dribbles a basketball between their hands until the heat generated from the friction was the only thing that stopped my parents from administering further abuse was a whirlwind that admittedly dipped a bit into my hobby time.
There was also my school life to endure. For one thing I never grew to my normal weight during my school years because I couldn’t step foot into the school cafeteria on account of the noise of kid clamour and rush of smells that assaulted my senses. When my parents found out that I started sitting outside on the building steps instead of going into the cafeteria for lunch I was denied meals at home as punishment. You might wonder how I survived childhood at all. I surely wasn’t raised by parents who wanted to admit to or consider the possibility that their son might be autistic.
In my late teen years I would eventually find my way out of my parents’ house with the help of an aunt who was of no blood relation. I grew up to pursue work in the commercial art and copy writing fields and became very successful. It is funny, but as a child I also had a keen interest in designing logos and making up commercials, escaping from the onslaught of sensory overload of a classroom din by drawing made-up logos and writing commercial scripts for which I often got in trouble with teachers for doing. “You’ll never get anywhere doing anything like this,” one teacher told me as she grabbed such artwork for a cleanser logo I was working on instead of my classwork. “No one will ever pay you to do worthless things like this!”
After 9 months of working as a graphic designer at my first advertising agency when I was only 26 years old, I won my first three Addy Awards at the state level for graphic design. The agency was charging clients $100,000 an hour for my work.
Despite commercial success, adult life was difficult in the sense that I didn’t understand people at all. It seemed that there was this barrier between me and the rest of the world. People seemed to be walking high above me whereas I sat way down below. If it were not for my gifts and talents, I would not be able to survive at all. Luckily, I could do most of my work in isolation. So I dreaded the times when I would have to be in a group. Though I yearned to be close to others, except for one or two people I would meet in life that I have truly connected with, human contacts were minimal.
As the years went on I also found myself struggling to walk and move with ease. I would be diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease. I saw this as the end of a career that had just begun, but was also secretly relieved that I didn’t have to be around people as much anymore. Thinking I would spend time doing some film work on the side, I sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida for my condition.
While working to put together a humorous short film for the World Parkinson Congress in 2010, I was given permission and access to various films from an archive. I was handed one film however that I didn’t request: the 1925 original silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera.
Unlike other movies, it exists in two formats (two reels, basically). Each frame has a matching shot from a slightly different angle. When I inquired I was assured that this was not a 3D picture, as only 3D movies are filmed, stored and preserved in this manner. But when I pulled two frames together and used a cross-eyed viewing technique that allows the brain to process left and right stereo images together without the use of a 3D stereoscope, I saw an authentic stereo effect.
I immediately took this film home and, with the help of film editing equipment, began examining the film prints I had on hand. There were indeed 3D matches throughout from beginning to end, but they were either out of sync with one another or they skipped a few frames. Sometimes there were one too many left frames on one strip of film or too many right frames of a certain image on the other strip. Or one of the matching frames at first glance did not look to be a match, but it would simply turn out to be that the processing had badly warped over time. With the use of computer technology I made corrections and developed a crude but matching working 3D print.
After a search for some missing left and right frames proved fruitful, I discovered that 75% of the original film existed in 3D. The other 25% was either badly damaged or just could not be found. But the end result of seeing the film in 3D was something I was totally unprepared for.
Sequences came alive in 3D that revealed a layered action. Especially the sets in Phantom appear designed to take advantage of 3D production as nowhere does one see painted backdrops or designs as one would expect in a 2D film of the 1920s. The long corridors and dark tunnels of the underground world of the Phantom were painstakingly created, with each scene designed to have three layers of depth, both still and active.
Personally, I am uncomfortable with announcing that we have all the empirical evidence we need to say this was all done on purpose to make a 3D movie. Perhaps this was just the result of some “happy accident.” Yet this has not been the opinion of some of my colleagues. The late Hollywood 3D historian Ray Zone who was hoping to work on the restoration project with me (until his untimely passing) was of the opinion that the film showed signs that this was nothing less but an early attempt to make a genuine stereoscopic film. While I only got to work with him for one day, I learned more from him about the possibilities for this project than anyone else. (A special shout of thanks goes out to Jim Chabin, President of the Advanced Imaging Society for introducing us.)
Since this initial discovery I have had time to focus on my health and get a more precise diagnosis and better treatment for my neurological problems. My PD diagnosis was changed to a Parkinson’s plus syndrome called “episodic ataxia.” And it was during treatment and further study of my neurological symptoms that all things eventually led to an official diagnosis of ASD by a neuropsychologist.
Closer focus on my abilities in the field of language (I was speaking 11 by age 21–and can still teach myself any that I wish to expose myself to), not to mention questions raised on how I was able to make the discovery regarding The Phantom of the Opera when other stereographers were convinced it showed no signs of 3D eventually lead to a further diagnosis of savant syndrome.
Today at age 51, I look back at a life where I have been able to succeed in the face of great opposition, rejection, and abuse. I like to think I am not that unique, that we all have the ability in us to reach into our depths and find the strength in us needed to reach out into the beyond. And into that beyond I keep going. I have had a successful stint as a model and, believe it or not, a stand up comic. I wrote a humorous blog for two years about what it was like to be diagnosed with PD that went viral. And I have now just started a new blog about my life with ASD.
The future looks great, with the 3D restoration (hopefully) to be completely in time for the 100th anniversary of the original film’s release in 2025.
While the bridges of family could not be repaired, at least the film is one masterpiece that can be restored. And to think that despite the darkness of all I had to endure, despite the pain and abuse and neglect I had to live through, what I initially found comfort and fascination with in the world still managed to see me through all of it.
To think that it all started with that View-Master that I got when I was 5 that, thankfully, I had the drive to take apart.
An award-winning graphic designer and copy writer, Carl Hernz has worked in every form of media, from the printed page, television, to film. His work has been seen around the world for companies such as Omni Hotels, Humana, and the Houston Chronicle. He has worked with some of the world’s most famous photographers and designers throughout his career.
Best known for his major 3D discovery in 2010, Carl is also a prolific comedy writer. For two years he wrote a lighthearted blog entitled, I Has the Parkinson’s, which was an international success and received rave reviews.
Today Carl is sharing his life experience about growing up on the autism spectrum and surviving physical child abuse on a new blog entitled The Rocking Boy at therockingboy.wordpress.com with his similar flair for finding smiles through the tearful.