About the Author of
The Cinema in Flux
Lenny Lipton self-portrait
Lenny Lipton

Lenny Lipton, an American inventor, author, and songwriter, was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940. He was the lead inventor of the technology that enabled the film industry to project feature films in 3-D. He founded StereoGraphics Corporation in 1980 and in 1981 demonstrated the flickerless stereoscopic projection technique that is the basis for 80,000 theatrical cinema installations. He is the primary inventor of the ZScreen electro-optical modulator, introduced in 1988 and used for molecular modeling and aerial mapping visualization. In 1996 he was honored by the Smithsonian Institution for the invention of CrystalEyes, introduced by StereoGraphics in 1989, the first electronic eyewear for stereoscopic visualization such as molecular modeling, aerial mapping, and medical imaging. NASA used it to remotely drive the Mars Rovers and Lockheed to design the upgrade for the Hubble Space Telescope. He has been granted more than 70 United States Patents in the field of electronic stereoscopic displays.

Lenny Lipton and Martin Scorsese
Lenny Lipton and Martin Scorsese

During his tenure as Chief Technology Officer of RealD, which acquired StereoGraphics in 2005, he helped adapt the ZScreen for theatrical projection, which is installed in more than 30,000 cinema auditoria worldwide. After more than a century of effort 3-D has become an ongoing part of theatrical filmmaking. In 2007 he was featured as the physicist of the month in Physics World magazine. In 2008, on behalf of RealD, he received an award from the Society for Information Display, for the invention of the ZScreen. He was invited to speak at the Cinémathèque Française in 2009; his exposure to the Cinémathèque’s collection led to the writing of The Cinema in Flux. He is a Fellow of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers and of the International Society for Optics and Photonics. In 2011 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Advanced Imaging Society and was also profiled in The Wall Street Journal.

Puff the Magic Dragon book cover
Puff the Magic Dragon book cover

As a college freshman, in 1959, he wrote the poem that became the song Puff the Magic Dragon. He has independently produced 25 films, some of which have aired on PBS, Italian television, and the BBC, and are now in the Pacific Film Archive collection at the University of California. In the 1970s he received a grant from the American Film Institute to produce his film Revelation of the Foundation. His book, Independent Filmmaking, published in 1972, was in print for 20 years, and he is the author of the standard reference, Foundations of the Stereoscopic Cinema, published in 1982. 

Lenny has written articles for American Cinematographerthe Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Journal, and other publications. He has been a cultural representative for the United States Department of State to Venezuela and Brazil and has been a juror at film festivals in South America and Europe. His film, Let a Thousand Parks Bloom, was exhibited at the Tate Liverpool Museum (2005) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (2007). Lenny Lipton was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940, and graduated from Cornell, with an A.B. in physics. He makes his home in Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon with his wife Julie and family.


02 Jul 2007

Lenny Lipton is chief technology officer at REAL D, a company developing products for digital 3D imaging in Los Angeles, California
Lenny Lipton from Physics World Magazine

How did you first become interested in physics?

I was not like other children in my neighbourhood or school, and I wasn’t like my parents. From an early age I built things, like telephones and projectors, and painted, sculpted and spent time alone when other children were out playing. I read about scientists in the school library and dreamt of being a space explorer; and I loved the science fiction of H G Wells and Robert Heinlein. But the truth is that I don’t know how I got interested in physics. In retrospect, I’d have to say it was nature because it certainly wasn’t nurture.

Where did you study physics and how much did you enjoy it?

I got my undergraduate degree in physics at Cornell University. I started in electrical engineering but I felt the physics students were closer to my more eccentric and independently minded personality. I loved the idea of physics more than doing it; I hated problem sets with a passion. The opinions of my professors were decidedly split on the subject of my abilities – some thought I was a lost cause but a couple saw the spark of something.

How did you become interested in stereoscopic images?

When I was about 10, there was a stereoscopic boom. I became aware of 3D photography, comic books and movies. I began to do my own experiments on the polarization of light, and started designing stereoscopic projectors. For me, stereoscopic images were a thing of wonder and beauty, and I never saw the difference between the art and science of stereopsis.

How did your career develop after you graduated?

I had an independent income from song royalties (I wrote the lyrics to “Puff the Magic Dragon” while at university) and then a book that I wrote (Independent Filmmaking), which stayed in print for 20 years. So I could do whatever I wanted. I made films and wrote books for about a decade, but then one day in 1972, it suddenly occurred to me that my calling was stereoscopic imaging, and that has stayed with me for the last 35 years.

What are some of your career highlights?

Not many people have the chance to make the kind of contribution I have, and it has been through dumb luck as much as anything else. I created the electronic stereoscopic display industry – not on my own, but if I had never been born it would have taken a different shape or may have been delayed. I turned out to be a good systems designer, and I concentrated on creating an infrastructure for stereoscopic imaging after my founding of StereoGraphics Corporation in 1980. It took a decade of effort. I also turned out to be a pretty good inventor of components and I designed a very early optically compensated liquid-crystal device. That made possible CrystalEyes, the first practical electronic stereoscopic product for computer graphics and video, which is used a lot for molecular modelling. I also invented the ZScreen polarization modulator, inspired by Jim Fergasen, which is the basis for my firm’s 3D movie projector that is now in 700 cinemas worldwide.

What are you working on now at REAL D?

We need to be able to send left and right images – stereopairs – over a single satellite feed from live events to cinemas and I am working on a high quality multiplexing approach to do this. I am also working on the next generation of the projection system, but I cannot tell you any more about that. Very few people know how to do good cinema stereo photography, so I am spending some time working with the major film studios to get their creative people up to speed. I love that part of the job. Finally, we are making progress with electronic displays to produce fine stereoscopic images that can be viewed without eyewear – what people call the “holy grail” in this field.

How has your physics background helped you in your career?

I had a great education at Cornell but I was a decidedly mediocre student. I am a creative and determined person, and I got a lot smarter once I found a field I loved. I see the world becoming one in which children are pointed in the direction of money as an end in itself. I hate living in that kind of a world. Schools need to be more accepting of eccentric people with a different point of view because we are the people who make the difference. We are the people who invent.


JULY 14, 2011
By Michelle Kung
Los Angeles

Over the course of several decades, Lenny Lipton, a prolific inventor of 3-D technology and the founder of StereoGraphics Corp., has had a front-row seat at the evolution of 3-D theatrical films. He has racked up more than 50 patents (including one as “Lenny Liptoh”) in or related to the field, and believes that unlike the short-lived boom of the 1950s, today’s 3-D movement—which extends beyond films to television programming and channels, video games and mobile devices—is here to stay.

But while excitement for stereoscopic content is building overall, the format is at a crossroads as far as some movie audiences are concerned. “The 3-D boom of the 1950s was a true boom because for a couple of years, you had 50 or 60 3-D pictures of good and bad quality being released,” Mr. Lipton, 71, recently recalled from his home here. “In the early 1980s, you had maybe a handful of 3-D films released, but they were stinkers. Now we’re back to the usual mix of good and bad 3-D films, but audiences are raising questions about the format.” 

Modern 3-D films typically carry a ticket surcharge of $2 to $4 and are increasingly being rejected by U.S. movie-goers in favor of 2-D films. Ticket sales for 3-D showings of movies like “Green Lantern” and “Cars 2” are only 40% to 45% of domestic box office, compared with higher percentages in years past. With the summer halfway over, film-industry and movie-theater executives are closely monitoring the performance of such 3-D releases as Friday’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II”—not to mention such holiday releases as Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of TinTin”—to gauge the format’s popularity. 

“My expertise is more on the technology than the business side, but it seems to me that if you’re going to charge people more money to see a 3-D movie, you better deliver or people will become especially disappointed, because they’ve spent a premium,” Mr. Lipton says. “At the creative end, you’ve got a lot of people who are learning how to use the medium. In the next three years, it won’t cost very much more to make a 3-D movie than a 2-D movie and people will learn and the technology will advance.” 

Mr. Lipton first became intrigued by the concept of stereoscopic, or three-dimensional, imagery when growing up in post-World War II New York. As a boy he often accompanied his mother to the Brooklyn Paramount and other neighborhood movie palaces to bask in the majesty of the elaborately decorated lobbies and Golden Era films that were shown. 

“The movie palaces were the closest thing we had to royalty or nobility,” Mr. Lipton recently recalled. “It was wonderful—and then suddenly it was 3-D.” 

It wasn’t long before Mr. Lipton began drawing 3-D comic books with red and green crayons on tracing paper, constructing lenses from cardboard tubes and magnifying glasses, and building projectors to have shows for other kids in his neighborhood. His interest continued at Cornell University, where he majored in physics and wrote what he calls his equivalent of a MacArthur “genius” grant: the words to what would become the popular Peter, Paul and Mary song, “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Thus blessed with financial security, Mr. Lipton became a filmmaker, author and stereoscopic inventor. 

One thing turning off today’s 3-D movie audiences, Mr. Lipton says, is projection quality. Films can often appear darker than their 2-D counterparts thanks to the type of 3-D eyewear being worn, the use of the wrong equipment for a specific theater, or the age of the projector’s light source. “Lamps and digital projectors are very costly,” Mr. Lipton explained. So after the lamps start to get dim, theater owners have “a temptation to use them past their rated life.” 

The brightness issue did not exist in the ’50s, Mr. Lipton says, because “the theaters were using two projectors” to display the 3-D images, one for each eye, “and that immediately doubled the brightness.” Also, he says, “the screens were smaller.” The problem back then, he says, “was getting the two projectors to run like one—it was just beyond a projectionist’s ability.” (Modern 3-D systems use a single digital projector that quickly alternates between images seen by the left and right eyes.) 

“Another thing people talk about nowadays is movies that are converted from 2-D to 3-D,” he says. “Well, sometimes the 3-D conversion houses do a good job and everything looks just fine, and sometimes they don’t.” 

When it comes to conversions, the most important thing there, he says, “is the expertise of the conversion house and the eyeballs of the stereographer” managing the 3-D look. Another factor is the final cut. “You’ve got a lot of processes going on in order to make the images look right, so if you recut the movie in the week or so before release—which does happen—then you may be throwing out shots that took a lot of effort and you don’t always have time to finish the new shots,” he says. 

However, he adds, there are also movies that are shot in 3-D that haven’t come out well. He says that from a 3-D perspective, Disney’s latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” film “looked mediocre” and that its “Tron Legacy,” “was just a terrible job of stereoscopic filmmaking,” even though it made a lot of money. “But the same studio also produced a beautiful, veritable stereoscopic masterpiece, ‘Tangled,’ so you never know.” 

In terms of content, Mr. Lipton—after offering the caveat that “most” movies “fail and most of them aren’t any good. 3-D is not going to help that”—noted that 3-D remains a cinematic genre largely “for younger people, much like horror and science fiction is.” 

“The first modern 3-D movie was ‘Chicken Little’ [from 2005], and that’s really a terrible-looking film in terms of its stereoscopic aspect,” Mr. Lipton says. “But very rapidly, Disney, and then Pixar and Sony Pictures Imageworks began to turn out really excellent, terrific 3-D movies. So we’ve seen a progression of the stereoscopic cinema evolve from just being movies for little kids to being for an older demographic. . . . That may be part of the attendance issues, because older people may be a more discerning crowd that expects more than kids do.” 

As Hollywood wrestles with the 3-D theatrical experience, Mr. Lipton says that he’s paying attention to the development of new 3-D cameras. Current 3-D movies are shot by two cameras. “Getting those two devices to work like one is a big pain, and also the devices are klutzy,” he says. He’d like to see the development of a proper stereoscopic camera that had the look and feel of a typical production camera. “Then you wouldn’t have another three or four extra people on the set, which is what makes a lot of production more costly and slows down the process,” he says. 

He notes that most new televisions soon will have 3-D capabilities built in. And Mr. Lipton is even working on a deep-sea show demo for a 3-D TV network with noted marine photographer Bob Talbot. “My group is trying to get a bunch of TV shows started because the 3-D television networks have no content,” he said. 

He also has high hopes for 3-D tablets, which he said may be the “hottest thing for stereoscopic imaging that ever happened.” He added, “I don’t think anybody ever planned it that way, but the stereoscopic image will be beautiful, if it’s as good as what I’ve seen at the tradeshows.” 

“I can hardly wait,” he concluded. “It will be really fun.” 

Ms. Kung writes about arts and entertainment for the Journal and co-produces the Speakeasy blog. 

Uncle John's Bathroom Reader


Uncle John's Bathroom Reader


Nov 15, 1988


“Puff the Magic Dragon” is probably one of the best-known folk songs in the world. But is it really about drugs? Here’s the answer, from Behind the Hits, by Bob Shannon.

Lenny Lipton’s first year of college wasn’t easy. Not because he was homesick—he was glad to finally be out of Brooklyn—but for some reason, he was having a hard time getting used to being on his own. There were so many things to think about: girls; money; a career. Growing up obviously wasn’t going to be easy. Lenny secretly began to miss his childhood.

The fall of 1958 and winter of 1959 passed. So did Lenny, who managed to survive at Cornell in spite of his emotional turmoil. And then one evening in the spring of 1959, a few days after his nineteenth birthday, Lenny made one of the most important decisions of his life. He decided to go to the library.

He was supposed to have dinner that night with a friend who lived off-campus, but it was still early. So Lenny wandered over to the library in the Cornell Student Union. He scanned the shelves until he found a volume of poems by Ogden Nash, then pulled it from the shelves and retired to a chair with it. Lenny was struck by a simple rhyme about the “Really-o Truly-o Dragon.” In fact, he was inspired by it. “If Ogden Nash can write that kind of stuff, so can I,” he thought.

Lenny returned the book and left the library and headed for his friend’s house. As he walked down the hill that led from Cornell into the town of Ithaca, he thought of Ogden Nash’s dragon. And then he thought of his own dragon. As he ap­proached his friend’s house, Lenny incorporated his dragon into a little poem about a subject that was never far from his mind in those days—the end of childhood.

When Lenny got to 343 State Street, he knocked on the door. No answer. Apparently neither his friend nor his friend’s roommate, Peter Yarrow, was home. But Lenny wanted to get this poem onto paper, so he went inside anyway. He headed straight for a typewriter—which happened be Yarrow’s. Lenny sat down and began typing as fast as he could. In three minutes, he typed out his poem—and then he got up and left. He didn’t bother taking “Puff the Magic Dragon” with him. He didn’t care, he’d gotten it out of his system, He just left it sitting In the typewriter. 

Folk music was popular at Cornell in the late ’50s, and Peter Yarrow was a big man in the folk scene. Although he was still an undergraduate, he taught a class on folk music, performed, and often organized concerts. As Lipton tells it, Yarrow returned home that night, found the poem sitting in his typewriter, and wrote a melody for it. Eventually, Yarrow became part of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and they included the song about “Puff” in their act.

Years went by, and Lipton forgot all about this three-minute poem. Until a friend from Cornell happened to mention that he’d seen Peter Yarrow perform “Puff” with his new group. Yarrow had told him that Lenny had written it. Was it true?

Suddenly, Lenny’s little poem came back to him.

In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, one inevitably runs into stories about unscrupulous operators who’ve stolen songs from their rightful owners. So it’s nice to be able to write about a case in which an honest man went out of his way to find a writer. That’s what happened here. When it began to look as if “Puff” was really going to be worth something, Peter Yarrow tracked Lenny Lipton down to let him know about it, And he’s always listed Lipton as co-writer—even when Lenny didn’t remember having invented the world’s most popular dragon.

For years, people have speculated about the meaning of “Puff.” But Lenny is quite clear about what was on his mind when he wrote it: “Loss of innocence, and having to face an adult world,” he says. “It’s surely not about drugs. I can tell you that at Cornell in 1959, no one smoked grass.” None of the “suggestive” names were thought out—they just popped into his head as he was walking along that night. “I find the fact that people interpret it as a drug song annoying,” he says. “It would be insidious to propagandize about drugs in a song for little kids. I think it’s a very sentimental tune.”

It’s had remarkable success for a poem that took three minutes to compose. It reached Number Two on the national charts in 1963, and in the ’70s became the basis of a continuing series of children’s cartoons.