Thursday, April 24, 2008

Unsung Geniuses: Florence Thomas of ViewMaster

Florence Thomas viewmaster reels
Most fans of the tiny fantasy worlds glimpsed through the lens of a View-Master viewer are probably unaware of the name Florence Thomas. Thomas was the Portland, Oregon sculptor employed by the makers of the 3-D viewer to create miniature dioramas of fairy tales and pop culture scenes which she then photographed for reproduction into the iconic circular white reels that have delighted children and adult collectors for decades.

Thomas produced her first reels for View-Master in 1946 --a series of Fairy Tales and Mother Goose rhymes that are still in circulation. According to one source, Thomas "developed special methods of close-up stereo photography and modeling which is now in common use by major motion picture studios" (John Waldsmith, Stereo Views, 1991). She created scenes of such detail and attractiveness that you feel you could step inside and look around a corner at a complete world. Besides the Fairy Tales, these worlds included versions of the Frankenstein and Dracula stories, scenes from the comic strip Peanuts, and 3-D versions of animated cartoons like The Flintstones. Amazingly, all of the puppet-like figures were sculpted from clay and the scenes were shot using a single-lens camera (not a stereo camera) that was moved on a track to get the stereo shot. Sometimes the models were moved slightly between shots to enhance the 3-D effect. During her heyday, Thomas appeared on television and radio to satisfy the curiosity of the children who consumed View-Masters by the millions in the 1950s and 60s. Today, she is largely forgotten except for a few collectors. You can see her at work (in 3-D, of course!) on this collector's reel. A tv appearance is available on this dvd.

Thomas trained a successor, Joe Liptak, seen below shooting a scene from the Disney Robin Hood set. The work of these two geniuses, lovingly crafted three-dimensional stories, live on in the creations of artists like Vladimir, recently profiled in The Believer magazine.
joe liptak viewmaster view-master

6 comments:

Wes said...

What a great article! I will never forget the joy of playing with my Viewmaster as a kid. It was always an escape.

gil baker said...

This stuff is exquisite! And thanks for answering a perplexion for most of my generation--i.e., "who did these lovely dioramas."
If you have ANY information on how these things were put together, the scale sizes, the fate of the dioramas, the lenses used, please, please email me at gilcreature@gmail.com. Thanks!!

Bryan said...

That's all I know!

Francesca Slone said...

My hat is off to this amazing woman and what she achieved! It's so cool to see how far 3D imagery has come since the Viewmaster. It used to be a concept reserved only for pictures, but we've got entire movies in 3D these days. The Viewmaster was in almost every household in the advent of its popularity, and now we've got 3D movies on Blu-Ray. And to think it all started with a small toy that resembled a pair of binoculars!

Walt Srocki said...

Are these model scenes still around?

Anonymous said...

That is not Joe Liptak in the picture as Identified...I know because he was my godfather...he created the miniatures for photos , just as Florence did...it was delightful, as a kid, to visit his studio and see all the characters we were familiar with lining the shelves ...