Long before becoming a member of the legendary British rock band Queen, guitarist Brian May had exercised another personal passion since childhood: stereoscopic pictures, which consist of two photographs of the same object that when seen with a stereoscope produce a 3D image. In the 1960s, he came across a Diablerie, a type of French stereoscopic card from the mid-19th century whose image is from a diorama depicting a unique vision of hell rendered in a Victorian context, evoking both spookiness and humor.
From the 1860s to 1900s, these stereoscopic cards were popular in France. May, who has a Ph.D., had amassed a collection of them that are now featured in the brand new-book, "Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell," which he co-authored with Denis Pellerin and Paula Richardson Fleming. This collection of Diableries, which follows up May's previous stereoscopic book "A Village Lost and Found," were scanned and restored from the original stereo cards for publication. The book also comes with a stereoscope that May himself designed so the reader can place it on the page and see the Diablerie images come to life in 3D.
"I've been searching them out all around the world ever since," May, who will be in New York on Monday to promote the book, told CBSNews.com of the Diableries. "They're pretty hard to find. But if you find them, they have such beauty and they just knock you out. As soon as you look at them in the stereoscope, you're walking into a parallel universe of skeletons and devils. To me, it's astounding -- it's a sort of magic that we don't really see in the 21st century. So this book is a portal, I hope, to true Victorian devilish stereoscopy."
While the images in "Diableries" depict a fantasy world of skeletons and devils, they also convey a commentary on the political and social times of France at that time. "These people were actually using their art to say things like that," May says, "to undercut the ruling class, particularly Napoleon III, whom they obviously hated. So there's a lot of that in these dioramas as well, there is a lot of satire - and very dangerous satire because they were liable to be put in prison at any time for saying things like this."
These images from the 19th century seem like a long way from the computer-generated 3D that today's viewers are accustomed to seeing in movie theaters. But May says of vintage stereoscopy: "With this view, you are getting the correct geometry, so it should be a very immersive experience. You should feel like you could really touch these figures. We've all seen 'Avatar,' and I love the 3D movies -- but in fact, the Victorian version is a more perfect way of of getting stereoscopic information to your brain. With a stereoscope you get a perfect reconstruction of the scene in your head. It's very solid and very real."
The "Diableries" book is just one of several projects May has recently been involved in. Last week, he was in Baltimore for the kickoff of the "We Will Rock You" musical tour in North America. With a story that is set in the future and features 24 Queen songs, "We Will Rock You" has been a hit in London where it originated -- and has been performed in more than 20 countries. May was a special guest on the tour's opening night in the States. "There's a real nice spot [in the show] there it's set up for a guitar hero, so for a moment I can be a guitar hero," he said. "It makes people happy, it makes me happy. It also makes the cast happy because it's sort of an endorsement of their incredible work. And my God, they are an incredible cast and band."
May credits the ongoing success of "We Will Rock You" to the production team's dedication. "It's been a hard road because we got slaughtered with the reviews when we first opened in London," he said. "But the quality came through and the word of mouth kept us going. And it just grew and grew and grew. We just had our 12th anniversary and it's stronger than ever in London. The dream was to do the all-American version and then take it around theaters in the States. It took us a while but finally we're doing it."
This year marks a special milestone in the career of Queen, which May formed with Roger Taylor, John Deacon and the late Freddie Mercury in the early '70s: It's the 40th anniversary of the band's self-titled debut record. Even long after Queen had scored numerous hits and performed on some of the world's biggest stages, the band's success still amazes May. "We thought, 'Yeah, yeah, we can conquer the world,'" he said. "It's still incredible. I still wake up and think, 'My God, that really did happen,' and people all around the world know our songs and enjoy them, and the songs are part of their lives. It's an incredible thing, particularly with songs as 'We Will Rock You,' 'We Are the Champions' and 'Bohemian Rhapsody.'" They're part of everyone's life scripts. We had a dream of doing great gigs and everything, but it happened way way way bigger than we could have anticipated."
Queen, which these days consists of May and Taylor, has occasionally played live in recent years -- last month, the band performed at the iHeart Music Radio Festival in Las Vegas with pop singer Adam Lambert. "He's great, he's amazing," May says of the "American Idol" alum. "He's a wonderful singer and interpreter. He's a great entertainer and he's a great guy to work with. It's on the cards that we might do some stuff together. We're looking at what's possible."
Since the death of lead singer Mercury in 1991, Queen's popularity has continued to grow, and there are more projects related to the band in the pipeline. First, there's a new Queen record planned for possibly next year that would include previously unreleased material, such as Mercury's back in the '80s. "More and more we're thinking, 'Well this album could have some new stuff on it,'" said May, "and that would make it much more interesting for fans. I've been working quite seriously in the studio putting things together a little bit in the style of the 'Made in Heaven' album. We worked with scraps there -- in some cases we just had a couple of lines from Freddie and we wove stuff around it. I don't think the whole album will be new material but certainly a part of it could be."
And there's also the upcoming movie planned on the life of Mercury, which at one point had cast Sacha Baron Cohen as the lead before he left the project. "It's great," May said of its current progress. "We're very close to an announcement, which again will surprise quite a few people. We think we have a director, we think we have a star. It's just a question of tying up some contracts and dotting some i's. I don't want to pin anyone down, but we're looking good."
As for May, his musical solo efforts are concentrated on working with British singer Kerry Ellis, who had appeared in the "We Will Rock You" musical. "I prefer making music which has songs," he said. "I don't regard myself as a good enough singer to carry that really. To me, it's really great to be working with a great singer again. That's my solo output at the moment. And that's what I enjoy: the writing, the production and the arrangement, but working with a singer."