Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Lipton attended Cornell University, starting with electrical engineering before switching to physics. He admitted he was a “mediocre student” until he figured out what he really loved. He had already become a little bit famous for something he did when he was 19: he wrote a poem that a group of singers liked, who made it into a song. The singers: Peter, Paul, and Mary; Peter Yarrow was a classmate of Lipton’s at Cornell, and Lipton used Peter’s typewriter to “get the poem out of his head” — and left it in the typewriter. The resulting song: “Puff the Magic Dragon” — a massive hit five years later, in 1963. Yarrow had to track Lipton down to ensure he got royalties from his words. Sadly, Yarrow lost the paper Lipton’s poem was typed upon.
But Lipton should probably be better known for his work in the film industry. He made shorts of his own, most notably Let a Thousand Parks Bloom (1969), about People’s Park in Berkeley, Calif., which was played at the Tate Liverpool Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Lipton wrote extensively about filmmaking for trade magazines and books, most notably Lipton on Filmmaking (1979). Royalties from that book — and Puff — were enough to support him, so Lipton put his time into what really interested him: Lipton was a pioneer of projected 3D images. He founded StereoGraphics Corp. in 1980 to develop his prototype of a flicker-free, field-sequential 3D display system, which worked by doubling the display rate of images. That overcame a big problem inherent in 3D motion picture projection: flicker, because in the old red/green filter system, each eye of viewers could clearly see only half the available images. By 1989 Lipton was able to patent his “active ZScreen polarization filter,” which used a circularly polarized liquid crystal filter placed in front of a projector, which can then display both the left and right halves of a stereo pair at the same time when the user wears polarized glasses, which didn’t change the colors of the images.
Real D Cinema bought out StereoGraphics in 2005, and Lipton’s technology was the basis for the “RealD” cinema system, which at the time of his death was in use on more than 30,000 3D theater screens around the world. “The motion picture industry has made billions of dollars from my invention,” Lipton said, “and they would be in the red and not the black if I had not done what I did.” He stayed at the company as RealD’s Chief Technology Officer until 2009. He then turned to researching the full history of the motion picture industry, which he divided into “glass” (projected glass slides, starting with Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens’ invention of the magic lantern in 1659), “celluloid” (film), and “digital” (where we are now). The result was another book, The Cinema in Flux: The Evolution of Motion Picture Technology from the Magic Lantern to the Digital Era *, published in 2021. The International 3D Society gave Lipton its 2011 Century Award for Lifetime Achievement. By 2015, he held 68 patents related to stereography. Leonard “Lenny” Lipton died in Los Angeles on October 5 from brain cancer. He was 82.