Bwana Devil promised “a lion in your lap”. Friday the 13th 3D and the sundry other horror films that followed its model thrust various sharp implements towards your eyeballs. Perfect Eduction 6: Maid For You, as I reported here, presses a tit in your face. All of these films are essentially exploitation films that use 3D as a gimmick, something extra to distract from their otherwise basic formulas.
On Monday I went to see Up again as part of the Barbican’s Animate the World Festival, with specs and on a big screen, as it was intended, and it really struck me what a different kettle of fish this film is from the bulk of 3D offerings that the format’s detractors wheel out to predict that the party’s over before it’s even begun. I seem to recall at the time of its original release a number of critics saying that the story could just have easily have been presented “flat”. This seems an odd thing to say, rather like suggesting that The Robe would have been fine in Academy Ratio, Star Wars would have worked just as well in monochrome or Shrek could have been made as live action. For a start, these films were made primarily with a theatrical audience in mind, even if most people are more likely to experience them on the small screen, which now provides the largest share of the film industry’s revenues. Narrative content and presentational style are two separate aspects of a film, so to point to the limitations of one to criticise the other is a red herring.
But in any case, Up presents a rare case where these two facets work in tandem. Like Toy Story, it boasts a perfectly-crafted script (I’m talking in terms of structure rather than content), that draws attention to the tricks it is playing with the new medium it is showcasing (CG in the case of Toy Story). To say it would work just as well in 2D baffles me. Take for example the scenes set inside the otherwise claustrophobic confines of Mr Fredricksen’s house, in which the landscape through which it is floating can be spied through the windows and doors, giving a dynamism and richness of detail that wouldn’t be present in its flat presentation, or the use of fog and cloud effects as objects and characters emerge from the distance. I won’t argue the case for this particular film much further, but let’s just say it worked for me.
Lets look at the other good example from last year, Coraline. David Bordwell makes some fascinating observations about this film’s style in this posting from his website, in particular the skewing of perspectives and manipulation of depth cues in several of the scenes in the alternate worlds that its main character explores. This toying with the volumetric dimensions represented on the screen is not something that a critic might find easy to put into words, but it does have a tangible effect on mood and atmosphere.
With the huge glut of films coming out in 3D this year, it’s been difficult to sort out the wheat from the chaff. To the list of titles I mentioned in my opening paragraph that adopt 3D as a gimmick, we might add the following that make use of the revived format (albeit using new technology): Scar (2007), My Bloody Valentine 3D (2008) and The Final Destination (2009), all genre films whose appeal is mainly visceral. Then there are concert films such as Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert (2008) that attempt to replicate the excitement of being there, but let’s face it, if you’re not into the music, you probably wouldn’t want to be there anyway. The two main titles exploiting 3D that have aired so far this year in the UK, Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans, were not filmed using the process, they were converted in post-production: in other words, they were not conceived with this technology in mind, so did not use it to its best advantage. Yes, it’s easy to dismiss 3D if you’re only looking at titles such as these, none of which were particularly groundbreaking on a narrative level and most of which just weren’t satisfactory entertainment full stop. (As an interesting aide, I just heard that the recently released StreetDance 3D is currently out-performing Robin Hood and Prince of Persia at the UK box office.)
It is also important to remember the obvious, that the most successful 3D films of last year were CG animations: Up, Monsters vs. Aliens and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs . These are presumably easier to produce in 3D, as they are created using 3D models on the computer, so the flat versions are only rendered as 2D projections of the same created objects. And lest we forget it, Avatar itself was essentially a CG animation with integrated live-action footage.
With regards to the aesthetics of 3D, I want to return to my previous discussion of the widescreen formats that emerged in the 1950s. The showcase “documentaries” with which Cinerama and Todd-AO were released, This is Cinerama (1952) and The Thrill of Todd-AO (1955), both featured lengthy sequences filmed with the camera positioned on a rollercoaster, promising you the thrill of being there in the front seat; this came at a time when theme parks were popping up across America, with the film industry getting directly involved when the Walt Disney Company opened Disneyland in 1955. In such films, audiences could experience all the thrills of Coney Island without having to go there. Cinema’s decline as a quotidian form of entertainment throughout the decades saw releases of a smaller number of higher-budgeted films, instead marketed under the rubric of “events”, “blockbusters” or, tellingly, “rollercoaster movies”. The showcasing of new exhibition technologies in this fashion didn’t end in the 1950s. I vividly remember my first trip to an IMAX cinema in Paris in 1993, where I swayed giddily in my seat during a screening of Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets (the film was actually made in 1984), thrust into the spectatorial position of a passenger in an ultralight aircraft soaring over vast crevices. It felt like I was witnessing cinema for the very first time.
Doesn’t this all sound remarkably familiar? Didn’t Avatar aim for exactly this effect in its climactic battle scenes? Doesn’t Up itself, and countless other titles, boasts its share of sequences that exploit this form of cinematic dynamism, the sensation of plunging ever forward into the unknown or providing the viewer with a front-of-the-seat that perspective that would be impossible to replicate in reality?
Cinerama, Todd-AO and IMAX are as much characterised by the size of their screens as their dimensions, so that the images projected upon them occupy the whole visual field, with the edge of the frame, the proscenium and all other features external to the film itself falling outside this range. In his book Widescreen Cinema, John Belton argues that this changed the very nature of the viewing experience: “In positioning the spectator at the center of a semicircular arc that filled the field of vision, widescreen processes both centered and decentered the spectator. The spectator was physically centered in the theater, but his or her attention was dispersed across a wider area; the horizontal field of view of Cinemarama (at 146 degrees) was so extensive that the spectator did not know where to concentrate attention… These extreme widescreen processes encouraged the spectator constantly to redirect his or her interest across a panoramic field of view.” In other words, cinema changed in the 1950s to a more active, rather than passive, form of entertainment.
In Avatar, we can see this in the opening scenes on Pandora, as our eyes dart around the screen in what are known as saccadic movements to take in every detail of this rich alien environment. This form of presentation largely informed the style of CinemaScope films such as The Robe, in which our eyes scan the scene, fixing on individual details and piecing them together in our minds. Taking this theoretical route to its extremes, we could argue that each individual viewer might have experienced a different film by fixing on the myriad of different details within the frame, and that the film would not have been the same exact experience upon repeated viewings.
This form of active perceptual participation came earlier than widescreen, as David Bordwell points out in his On the History of Film Style (1998), with the introduction of deep focus techniques such as those pioneered by the cinematographer Gregg Toland most famously in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1942), allowing staging within a standard ratio using the full depth of the scene, what French critics such as André Bazin labelled profondeur du champ. If we look at the evolution of films style, whereas the silent films championed as art in the 1920s used montage to construct a scene through individual shots, and the classical early sound cinema of Hollywood in the 1930s used découpage to break down a scene and reassemble it (like your typical television drama), profondeur du champ kept editing to a minimum. All of the relevant details of a scene could be combined in a single frame, in the foreground, middle-ground and background, there for the viewer to seek out rather than have his or her eye guided by the edit (Incidentally, Bordwell expands upon this in this other piece on his website.) 3D heightens this effect, and there are numerous moments in Up and Coraline in which action and incidental details are juxtaposed in the foreground and background for comic or dramatic effect.
This active form of viewing approximates live theatre, where the audience’s concentration is not channelled into one area by a limited frame, and it is worth pointing out that the worthy nature of a lot of CinemaScope titles, often historical or religious epics, optimised this sense of spectacle to bring cinema closer to “legitimate theatre”. The wide, lateral strip of the CinemaScope format was also perfectly suited for the depiction of spectacular panoramic landscapes, a salient feature of the American Westerns produced in this era. Fixed scenes are a characteristic of CinemaScope, whereas Motion in Depth, as opposed to profondeur du champ’s staging in depth, is something of a rarity, unlike Cinerama or IMAX productions.
It is where Motion in Depth is introduced that we experience another, more primal, mode of viewing, closer to the “rollercoaster” than “legitimate theatre”, arguably more passive than active, as we place our experience wholly in the hands of the director in the same way as we did when the editor reigned when montage and découpage were considered the height of cinematic art (cf. Jean-Luc Godard: “Every edit is a lie”). This is essentially the issue I had with Avatar, as I discussed in my first musings on the subject of 3D back in December. In its latter stages, we are not encouraged to participate in exploring the onscreen world as we are in Coraline or Up. We are forced to sit back and marvel at the technological wizardry of James Cameron – and following on from Godard’s maxim, I couldn’t but help notice that Avatar’s action scenes, like those of Michael Bay or Roland Emerich, featured one hell of a lot of edits!
Anyway, these were just random thoughts I had at the time, encouraged by some of the ideas in Thomas Lamarre’s recently published Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation and put forth perhaps a little vaguely, mainly as a discussion point, as something to think about a little more: the idea that such hyper-kinetic Motion in Depth scenes equate with realism, whereas in reality it is a form of realism I refer to as cinerealism, one which is only possible in cinema as opposed to an everyday reality. I argued that technological advances don’t make films more realistic, they make them more cinerealistic.
Rather than pursue the political or theoretical ramifications of this here, I want to end with another fruitful path of looking at the possible appeal of such dynamic action sequences as those contained at the end of Avatar. First of all, I acknowledge that the categorising of viewing modes into “active” and “passive” as problematic. What I am referring to here is the viewing experience, the visual processes involved in processing static scenes and dynamic motion-in-depth sequences, regardless of narrative content. If I define active viewing as scanning the details of a static tableau as if looking at a painting or theatre stage, and passive as fixing the central origin that the camera is moving towards on the retina, with the rest of the image whizzing past in the peripheral vision as if the viewer were hurtling forward on the front of a rollercoaster, it is not to apply a value-judgement that one is intellectually superior to the other, just that the visual processes are very different. Finding fault with the narrative of Avatar is something that comes about through higher-level thought processes than those that take place in the visual cortex, the same processes that we engage to piece together the meanings of arthouse films by directors such as Theo Angelopoulos, Bela Tarr and Hou Hsiao Hsien. In fact, there’s been a bit of a hub-hub following Nick James’ piece in Sight and Sound earlier this year, which claimed that such examples of “slow cinema” were easier for film critics to champion as “challenging” or “artistic” because they necessitated a different manner of viewing and their content was slight – see here. There has to be a more fundamental reason why general audiences prefer the thrill of Avatar or Michael Bay while they are bored by the static tableau of “slow cinema”.
Psychology tells us that motion, depth, form, and colour are all handled separately within different areas of the visual cortex and integrated at a higher level to give the experience of seeing. I’m simplifying things a little here, but if you don’t believe, take a look here, here and here. We know this from studying different animals, that most mammals do not have the capacity for colour vision, and that a frog’s visual system is primarily geared towards detecting motion – surround it with dead, immobile flies and it will starve to death. So on the basic level of pure aesthetics, a different part of the brain is stimulated by form (the details the eye scans across in active modes of viewing) than by movement or colour (a subject I want to address in a future posting, but it is often viewed as a “biological luxury” and is not essential for humans to function in the world, just liven it up a bit).
Motion in depth stimulates different parts of the brain. The information that is fed into pour visual cortexes comes from the optic flow of our peripheral visual, more than our foveal vision (the fovea being the area of the retina where visual acuity and colour perception is highest). The fovea, used during the scanning of an image to discern its form, is densely packed with photoreceptors known as cones. In the peripheral image, there a different form of photoreceptor predominates, rods, which as you can see by this article here [the rods are better motion sensor] are “responsible for our dark-adapted, or scotopic, vision…the rods are better motion sensor”. At low levels of light, it is difficult to detect colours such as red and discern visual details, but you’ll notice something whizzing past your head pretty sharpish!
So it is this part of the brain that thrills to Avatar’s virtuoso dragon battles and This is Cinerama’s rollercoaster rides, and clearly we love it, as sensations of movement are a widely reported part of any psychedelic experience. A good number of writers, including Paul Devereux in The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia , have hypothesised that the notion of witches riding on broomsticks derived from their use of natural hallucinogens, activating the part of the brain that perceives movement without the external stimulation provided via the optic nerves. A key part of shamanic rituals is that they often take place in conditions of sensory deprivation, in low-lighting conditions, at night or underground. David Lewis-Williams sees the very origins of art in the trance-like states attained in shamanic rituals in his book The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art , a brilliant study of Paleolithic cave art and the biological mechanisms that may have invoked it. Ideas of “vision quests” and psychedelic “trips” derive from these artificially invoked sensations of motions. I refer you also to this fascinating article on the geometric basis of tunnel hallucinations here.
This is why I am so eager to see the results of Werner Herzog’s recently announced 3D documentary on primitive cave art. As one of the world’s most insightful filmmakers, I am sure he’s going to lead us through all manner of exciting visual possibilities in his study of mankind’s most basic reproductions of his environment using today’s cutting edge technology.
I should point out that I’m not entirely sure what conclusions I am stumbling towards with these perhaps rambling posts, just that there might be other ways of looking at cinema, animation and 3D in particular, in which form, format, technology and content are all inextricably linked. I intend to look more closely next time at the issue of colour in film, in relation to James Cameron’s suggestion that 3D would become the standard format in a couple of years, “definitely less than the 25 years it took colour movies.”
Links to the rest of these articles:
Cinematism, Realism, and Spectacle part 1: Avatar