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By Geoffrey Sherrard

What is the attraction of a slice of life we can hold in our hand?

This is the first MacroMedia ShockWaved article that is not about MacroMedia's ShockWave technology itself. It is about another visual technology, lenticular optics that also was revolutionary at the time it was first deployed (in the 1940's). Almost everyone has seen examples of it but hardly anyone knows it by name. Encyclopedias don't mention it. Engineering databases don't reference it. There are no textbooks about it, no manuals, nothing. Nevertheless, almost sixty years later, it is still blowing people's minds.

The odd truth about lenticular optics is that, unlike ShockWave, no other use besides mind boggling has been found for it. It's only commercial application has been novelty toys, novelty advertisements, & astounding demonstrations of lenticular optics. The principle behind it is deceptively simple: look at it from a different angle & you see a different picture. How that is accomplished is quite a trick. It's also a secret. Basically, a lenticular lens sheet is laminated to an image that has been encrypted (usually in vertical slits) such that the lenses register with the slits. Usually the lens sheet is also used in the camera or the darkroom to accomplish the encryption.

All of this allows the creation of two distinct effects: autostereo images, which are three dimensional images that do not require a viewer to be seen, & auto-animations, which appear to be in motion as you tilt them (or walk by). The two effects may be combined into moving 3D, or 4D, as it is called by lenticular cognoscenti.

No one is credited with exactly inventing the process, but Victor Anderson is its undisputed father. Robert Munn, its reigning genius, brings the background to light Victor Anderson worked with the Sperry corporation during World War II. There was a lot of 3D imaging used during the war, instructional stuff like how to use a bomb sight. The advent of plastics around the same time made lenticular optics commercially viable. The lens sheets could be made of plastic instead of glass. Anderson got together with some backers & got the whole thing going even though plastic was in its infancy. The plastic that VariView used in the early days was made out of this stuff that gave off this really foul smell. It smelled like vomit. If you went into the VariView plant, the whole place smelled like this rank shit. Butyl Acetate is the name of the plastic. They don't use it any more. Victor had to really break his ass to get stuff to work right.VariView was actually the process name Victor Anderson used in the his first company, Pictorial Productions. Later, it became commonly used as the name of the company itself, so popular was the process.

Anderson elaborates: The first application was just after the Second World War when I made the 'I Like Ike!' buttons. That was the first animated button ever made. From there I did a whole series of animations for Cheerios, I made about 40 million of them. Originally they stuck them to the outside of the box, but they were so intriguing that they were frequently stolen even before they made the stores' shelves. So that was when breakfast cereals first started putting things 'Free Inside.'

It was always a big problem trying to explain what you were doing. You can't explain it. You have to see it. I did a really big one once for a billboard, a big eye that winked as you went by. The trouble with that one was that it caused a lot of accidents. We were out testing it to see how it looked to pedestrians. Three little kids were walking by & they were looking up at the thing, naturally, because we were all looking up at it, & one of the little kids says to the other one, Well, I have one of those! Isn't that an astonishing thing? That he related the little wiggle picture he'd gotten from a cereal box to a billboard that was a long ways away, that changed as they walked past?

Munn, who with Sara Cook & Gary Darrow runs Depthography, Inc, describes his own obsession:

First I checked out holograms, & that was a dead end. I checked out holograms when they had them at the World's Fair in 1964 - 65 & it was the same jazz. I mean, they've upped the ante a little since then, they've made them color, but you've still got to stand on your damn head to see them. & it looks like a puddle of gasoline with that chroma. By the time you've got everything right, you still see this murky thing that looks like Dizzy Gillespie on a bad night.

Then a friend of mine called me up & said 'There's something on the Sunday Times Auction Page that you'll get a kick out of.' I get the Auction Page, I look at a few things that I think she might have been referring to, & all of them were, like, no big deal. Then I see '3D Advertising Company. VariView. 3D cameras...'& all this stuff & it starts listing all the equipment. I call up my friend Henry, & I say 'VariView. They're lenticular, right?' He says, 'Yeah, yeah, Victor Anderson.' I go to the auction. I didn't know anything about this technically at all. I went in there with some money; I figured maybe I could get a camera or two, part of a screen, & if I was lucky, I could figure out how to use it. Most of the people who were there were there to get political buttons. Because they were, & still are, a huge collector's item. All that jazz was bagged up separate because the auctioneers knew that shit was valuable. & they let that stuff go at a buck a badge for like 10,000 badges. So that's where the auction was at. People were buying the forklifts they're buying cabinets, shelves, they're not buying any of the STUFF!!! They're not buying the cameras.

For VariView to produce the stuff, this is what had to happen: They had to shoot the image. They had to have separations made. They used a special press that they had made that had some kind of incredibly fine degree of registration like a 1/10,000 of an inch. In a four color press, you have to run four separate prints, & if the registration is even slightly off, it's no good. You get moir patterns & dot structure problems that look like bad op art. I didn't get the press. I couldn't move it even if I had the money to buy it. So I was doing it photographically. & step by step I got better with the camera, too. I modified it to do more than it was doing.

;In 1990 I met up with this computer guy Oppenheimer & I saw these other people that had these computer lenticulars that were really bad. The lenticular part was the bad part. The computer art was good but suffered from the limitations of their knowledge of lenticulars. I figured if I could just whip out some computer stuff & get my effect where you can just walk right up to it & hold it in your hands, then boy we'll really have some drama.

Eventually that led to 2D into 3D via the computer. VariView used to do it by cutting the original into pieces & putting them at different levels, but it didn't look real at all. With the computer, we can put anything at any of over a million layers, & place them algorithmically. & everyday, we think of something else.

The lenticular optics reproduced here by MacroMedia's ShockWave are from three collections. One is Sheldon Aronowitz's. Sheldon has what is documented to be the world's largest collection of 3D images, & in the top ten of lenticulars. His interest extends past the passive, he recently produced the Viewmaster reels for the IMAX 3D spectacular, Across the Sea of Time. We also thank Steven & Gary of Alphaville for access to their vast collection. Lastly, one very kind collector went out of his way to allow us to photograph his dazzling collection, but asked to remain anonymous.

My own work with lenticulars began & ended in 1959, when I was three. I had a flicker picture ring that I for some reason I thought was the answer to all questions everywhere. I had to share this knowledge with the world, so I asked my father to take a picture of the ring, thinking that the magic could be captured by a Brownie. Nearly 40 years later, technology has finally caught up with me.

Glow is a New York magazine about the world. It is published quarterly by GreenLynx Media, Inc. Copyright 1996, All Rights Reserved.

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Click here for the Robert Munn bio.

Click here for the Sara Cook bio.