As you’ll have no doubt have gathered from this series of articles, unlike Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode, I am fascinated by the new wave of 3D releases, both in terms of aesthetics and industry trends, and so last weekend I indulged this fascination by going to see StreetDance 3D at the Peckham Multiplex and Toy Story 3D at the Empire Leicester Square, two very different films, both of which throw up very different issues. Judging by the parade of trailers before the screenings, it seems that Kermode is mistaken on the count that “3D has never been the future of cinema. It is, was, and always will be the past.” All of the animations previewed for release later this year are to be released in both 2D and 3D versions, so clearly there’s been enough invested in promoting this new format for exhibitors to pull out at this late stage in the game. In fact, Toy Story 3D’s Summer rival, Shrek Forever After, was premiering in the cinema next door at exactly the same time. Unlike the earlier boom in the 1950s or the 1980s revival, which in reality only ever amounted to a handful of titles like Jaws 3-D (1983) and Amityville 3-D (1983), there’s already a sizeable canon of films to analyse and, from the evidence of the two under discussion here, one can already detect signs of stylistic innovation.
I’m a little more sympathetic to Ebert’s claim that it is just a way for the industry to charge more for admissions. The Peckham Multiplex not only put a £1.50 surcharge on the ticket, they also forced me to buy the glasses, which cost another quid, although this at least means I can keep them for future presentations at this venue (Space Chimps 3D? Well, maybe one has to draw the line somewhere…) As an aside, the glasses provided to view the system used to project StreetDance 3D, RealD, appear to be incompatible with Toy Story’s Disney Digital 3-D system, so already we seem to be in a war of formats, although I assume that the projectors being rolled out across the world can handle both systems, and any differences between these formats are at the production level. There’s some info about this on Wikipedia, with RealD described as “the world’s most widely used technology for watching 3D movies in theatres and the cheapest to install and maintain,” while Disney Digital 3-D is actually a brand, “not a presentation nor a production format or technology. Films advertised as Disney Digital 3-D come from a number of sources, film, digital camera as well as animation software, and can be presented using any digital 3D technology.” I wonder what the projection technology actually was for Toy Story was then, seeing as my RealD glasses didn’t work for it?
The trouble most critics are likely to have with explaining the appeal of 3D is that it is often difficult to describe the aesthetic aspects of cinema in basic words. It is something one feels at a deeper level than words can often do justice to. It is also difficult to illustrate the formal aspects of 3D on a 2-dimensional screen, such as the one you’re looking at this article on now, and besides, publicity stills don’t always accurately represent the scenes as they appear in the actual film, nor can they convey movement. My ideas are therefore based largely on my impressions while watching the film.
There’s a further trade-off to these new productions that the widescreen formats never had to deal with – while CinemaScope titles eventually found themselves on television within the first decade of this new anamorphic projection system, reframed and re-cut to fit 4:3 screens, they were made to be shown in cinemas. As soon as widescreen became a standard but it was acknowledged that a great deal of viewers would watch the film on television, directors came up with strategies to limit this damage, by centrally positioning the characters in the frame, for example, so that it didn’t matter if the edges fell outside of the TV screen – many even oversaw the TV edits of their films. Now that widescreen TVs are the norm, reframing for domestic viewing is no longer an issue.
Comparing the switchover from standard to widescreen ratios with the adoption of full colour is also interesting. Colour was, perhaps to a lesser extent than 3D, also associated with added spectacle, arguably a needless luxury as far as most viewers were concerned, judging by the several decades it took to become a production standard, and not something that necessarily contributed to any sense of “realism”. Look back to the early Technicolor productions and you’ll see it was originally associated with non-realistic, fantasy genres such as animation, or musicals, while serious dramas such as On the Waterfront (1954) remained in monochrome. I think the contrast between the colour and monochrome sequences in The Wizard of Oz (1939) perfectly illustrates this point (made, not by me, but by Ed Buscombe in the essay “Sound and Colour.” in Movies and Methods vol. 2, ed. Bill Nichols, 1985).
It was several decades before colour became the norm for filmmakers, due to the cost of the film stock. If you remember that the BBC only began colour broadcasting in 1967, any films shown on UK TV would have been viewed in black and white anyway. It was after this point that the number of films actually produced in monochrome started to decline, with black and white films coming to be seen as old fashioned. Interestingly, the UK’s first colour TV broadcasts were matches in the Wimbledon tennis tournament (see more here), while the UK’s first 3D broadcast, on February 6 of this year, was also sport, the England Vs Wales rugby match, although it was mainly seen this way by viewers attending participating cinemas (see here). Still, with 3D ready flat-screen TVs now a reality, who knows how long it will be before such broadcasts become the norm? And what will this mean for cinema?
Still, at the moment, it is assumed that the majority of viewers for the latest wave of 3D titles such as those by Disney/Pixar will be watching the film at home, not projected in 3D. Here’s the compromise: films must be made that use the format in a way that persuades viewers it is worth paying that bit extra, and yet take care that their impact is not diminished on the flat screen.
This compromise is much in evidence in StreetDance 3D. Thinking about it a little more, this film is the first actual live-action film produced in 3D that I’ve caught in the cinema, distinguishing it from the other titles I’ve written about, which are either animations such as Coraline or Up, films which make heavy use of CG such as Avatar, or films which were rendered as 3D in post-production such as Clash of the Titans or Alice in Wonderland. For those who’ve not heard anything about it yet, it’s a pretty fascinating title, a British film realised on a relatively modest budget of £4.5m that took more at the UK box office than Ridley Scott’s new Robin Hood film (budget $200m+) and Prince of Persia ($150m) in the first week of its release on 21 May. It’ll no doubt do pretty good business internationally too, for a film of this scale. It’s already been sold to almost 30 countries. You can read more about this surprise box office success on the websites of The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times, or indeed the film’s own website.
You won’t hear serious film critics talking much about the film though. It’s thoroughly lowbrow entertainment aimed at a teenage demographic, one of its hooks being the performances of Diversity, the East London street dance group that famously beat Susan Boyle to win last year’s season of the ITV competition Britain’s Got Talent. The plot isn’t much to write home about either: a young South London girl working at a sandwich bar leads her dance posse to success after drafting the failing students of a snooty ballet school, under the encouragement of their teacher, Charlotte Rampling (the only real name actor in the film). It’s an exuberant wish-fulfillment fantasy in the vein of the TV series Glee or Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance, a title from 1983 that wasn’t made in 3D. Lets face it, it’s really not aimed at people like me, but you may be surprised to hear it, I enjoyed its naive razzle-dazzle far more than I did Avatar.
Here is a film that uses 3D in a totally different way from what we have been led to expect by previous releases. There are precious few moments of objects coming out of the screen at you, although a hat is flung out into our faces at the end of one early dance number, and there’s a riotous food fight in the ballet school’s cafeteria which I thought looked pretty good. What really impresses is the use of depth, the sense of a lived in space beyond the plane of the screen; the framing of shots along the ballet school corridor that stretches into the distance, the vistas of London bathed in a cosy sunset glow that evoke a city far different from the one of my daily experience. And then there are the dance scenes themselves, whether they take place in shopping malls, nightclubs or the ballet academy’s class room. These look best in static wide angle shots, which create a depth of field in which all of the dancers remain in focus. There’s no need to break down these scenes of action into bewildering flurries of MTV-style edits, although this has been the norm for these types of sequences since the 1980s, an aesthetic cultivated by the rise of the pop promo, and an aesthetic which the film struggles to resist. Can we imagine this sort of style applied to old-school martial arts films such as the finest work of Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, where the real-life gymnastic depicted on the screen are what causes viewers to sit up and gasp, rather than the fake CG-enhanced Matrix-styled sequences we’ve all become so inured to?
This is where the compromise come in, though, because as successful as it has been upon its theatrical release, a larger part of the film’s revenues are sure to come from DVD sales for people viewing it flat. The sensation of dancing bodies arranged and moving through a palpable volumetric space is not only sure to be lost on TV, it will also look decidedly unspectacular in comparison to films such as Flashdance, that ‘cheat’ by cutting up and reassembling the breathtaking real-life action of the performance in an attempt to create something more spectacular. Projected on 3D in the cinema, these straight filmed performances are impressive enough, they don’t need editing to make them look any more dynamic (and again, one is reminded of Jean-Luc Godard’s statement about cinema, that “Every edit is a lie”). We also have the luxury of allowing our eyes to roam around the various moving figures on the screen, be they in the background or the foreground. We don’t get this on the small screen.
Filmmakers working in 3D need to be mindful about such intrinsic aesthetic considerations though. For one thing, dazzling montages of short cuts can really give you a headache. Stereoscopic images might trick the brain into believing we’re looking through a window into the distance, but our eyes are still focussed on a flat screen a fixed distance away from our noses. Static shots allow us to take in the details across the whole scene. Moving shots give our eyes time to adjust to the illusion that we’re part of the scene. Rapid edits between shots of different focal lengths jar and confuse, which is why so many people claimed that Avatar hurt their eyes. They’re probably not lying.
This seems to present another interesting aspect of 3D. If you look closely at some of these screen shots, you’ll notice that they are composed in accordance with 2D film aesthetics. If the camera is focused closely on a foreground object or character, then the background is thrown out of focus. The use of narrow angle lenses strive for this very effect. Take a look at this shot of Carly in the foreground. It is clearly composed to draw the eye to the details of Carly’s face, and yet if this were reality, the viewer would also be able to change their focus onto the dancers behind her, which here remain a blur. Our sense of reality is shattered, as we are made aware of the constraints of the camera lens. Here, the use of focus serves the same effect as an edit. We are forced to concentrate on one specific detail, rather than look around the scene looking for other salient features that may, or may not, be a part of the narrative.
Compare this with the shot below. The ballet dancers are arranged in a straight line perpendicular to the camera, with each figure afforded equal prominence by the focal length of the lens. They are clearly the subject of our gaze. However, rather than depict an out-of-focus background space behind them, the painted backdrop prevents our eyes from looking past them. Some viewers might wonder what lies beyond the screen obstructing their view. Most, in reality, probably won’t, but at least they have the freedom to do so, rather than being made aware of the role of the camera in framing what they can or can’t see. They won’t feel like their missing something taking place in a background blur.
In my previous posting, I talked a little about staging in depth (profondeur du champ), which David Bordwell goes into inconsiderable detail in his book On the History of Film Style (1998). 3D is clearly ideally suited to this type of scenic composition. It encourages our brains to compose our own narratives from the details we can see on the screen, in the foreground and the background, and across the multitudes of depth planes in between. A long static shot of characters moving along the Z-axis, into or out of the screen, for example, down a corridor (inventively lit so that certain details are hidden by real-life phenomena such as shadows, we might imagine), along a road, or as in this case within the space of a stage, also seems a good use of 3D, as relative size is also a depth cue that works in tandem with stereoscopic vision, to heighten the sense of realism.
As well as causing huge headaches for 3D film viewers, rapid editing shifts the balance of power to the director and editor. Controlled focuses within narrow depths of field might not cause headaches, but they similarly highlight the viewer’s passive role in the film. From this I draw my conclusions that using long depths of field is the best use of the 3D screen. (There was another thing I noticed though: when the film cuts from mid shots or close-ups to the extremely wide shots of the dance group onscreen, it gave the odd effect of the figures appearing to shrink in size to Lilliputian dimensions.)
Camera lenses have certain physical constraints, particularly in different lighting conditions, so that if focusing on something particularly close in the foreground, the background will be out of focus. I don’t know as much as I’d like to on the issue of to what extent modern 3D camera equipment is limited by these real-world practicalities, but the field of CG animation most certainly isn’t. It should permit every depth plane of the image to be in as sharp a focus as the next. Toy Story 3D uses the 3D format in a way that is effective and yet doesn’t draw attention to itself. And yet if we look at this scene here, we can see Andy in sharp focus, holding Woody and Buzz Lightyear (slightly out of focus) and the background of his bedroom (out of focus). The virtual camera is emulating the focal depth of a real-life camera.
One of the things I’ve often mentioned as strange about CG animation is that in its attempts to be realistic, it emulates camera-lens realism, introducing such details as lens flares and camera judders in action sequences. But the thing is, it doesn’t have to replicate the same sense of depth of field. This is an stylistic choice. This scene (perhaps not the best example, but the best I could find on the web, and again, I make the point that publicity stills might not accurately reflect how the scene looks in the film) could have been rendered so that everything would be in perfect focus. I don’t intend this as a criticism of the film (which, like all of Pixar’s releases, raises the bar for CG animation even further). For all I know, it might look really strange if everything was in totally sharp focus, perhaps because viewers are habituated to a lens-based reality in cinema.
This is just a point to ponder, and it applies to live-action too. If the backgrounds of StreetDance 3D were in completely sharp focus in the close-up scenes of the characters, would this look really bizarre too? I’ve no answer to this, but aside from my observations that I found the wide-angle shots the most impressive, the point I am making is that 3D makes possible a radically different onscreen reality than that which we have become accustomed to in cinema. That animators are already beginning to explore its potentials is evidenced by the short animation Day & Night that accompanies Toy Story 3D, which I found fascinating. I can’t sum up its experimental approach of juxtaposing 2D and 3D any more succinctly than its Wikipedia entry, which describes its approach thus: “The insides of the characters are computer animated, the use of a masking technique allows the 2D characters to be windows into a 3D CGI day or night world inside them.”
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