Life of Pi: Saccharine Spectacle

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Based on the book, Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, the 2012 film faithfully retains the premise of a boy, Pi Patel, who is trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker after the ship transporting the Patel family and their troupe of zoological animals to Canada is sunk. Making the most of the current capability of CG effects, the tiger and other animals (hybrids between real footage and digital reconstruction) seamlessly integrate with the human actors and carefully crafted landscapes. The use of 3D was deemed good enough to warrant praise from fervently anti-3D critics Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode . Director Ang Lee has been enthusiastic about using stereoscopic technology and his film provides a clear case for using 3D techniques for a spectacular form of visual storytelling.

The introduction to the film begins with slow, often static shots of the Patel family’s zoological gardens. Animals graze amongst a luscious backdrop of delicately arranged trees, plants and shrubbery while hanging branches and dripping leaves frame the vistas. There is a strong sense that the black borders of the cinema screen provide the edge of a window into a tranquil, tropical world. Only occasionally, a bird flies around the space and crosses between the world behind that window and the auditorium space where the audience is seated. The gentle pacing of the opening shots and the film’s unobtrusive contemplation of the creatures is reminiscent of the numerous IMAX 3D wildlife documentaries that continue to be popular. When a lizard faces the camera and sticks its tongue out towards us, it seems to be saying, ‘look at me’ in a brief moment that foretells the greater spectacle that is yet to come.

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As a pool of water ebbs into the auditorium beneath some pink flamingos, we are given the first glimpse of the liquid underbelly that will rock us gently (and more forcefully) throughout the rest of the film. A number of recent 3D films such as Sanctum (2011), Piranha 3D (2010), Titanic 3D (2012), The Three Musketeers (2011) and Bait 3D (2012) have made effective use of water at the bottom of the screen space as it dissolves the barrier between the content of the film and the auditorium; audiences can no longer see where the bottom of the screen begins and their safe space in the theatre ends. While this play on the optic senses is particularly clear when the water takes up only a portion of the vertical screen space, there are many other moments in Life of Pi when a liquid constitution overwhelms the view. There are numerous shots filmed from under the water where bubbles and small pieces of jetsam drift in negative parallax to the viewer and the space between the audience and the screen seems to become thick and heavy. In a couple of these shots, Pi’s floating body hangs into the auditorium space. In other shots, particularly the stormy, tempestuous moments when Pi is stuck out at sea, the camera is not placed underwater but torrents of liquid gush around the scenes with the never-realised threat of engulfing the audience. The ephemeral nature of these effects is enhanced in a particular shot when there is a slow dissolve between Pi’s uncle in the swimming pool and Pi in his Canadian house. The strange change of screen quality from a liquescent texture to defined objects separated in deep space makes it clear that the film builds upon and advertises its illusions.

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One of the most stunning of the film’s visual moments takes place when Pi, trapped on his raft, wakes up to find himself surrounded by gleaming phosphorescent jellyfish. They provide a wide tapestry of neon patterns shining through the inky waters where Pi rests. By gleefully disturbing them with his hand, his action inadvertently calls a huge blue whale to the surface of the water which, dripping with phosphorescent decoration, leaps high into the air and turns Pi and the raft upside down. In the trailers for the film, this moment seems so overtly spectacular that I originally presumed it was part of a dream sequence. Instead, the film carefully builds it extravagant landscapes and its fantastical moments towards a crescendo at this point so that this moment seems fully integrated into the fictional world in which Pi exists.

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True to the book, Life of Pi’s fantastical tale tries to convince you that it will make you believe in god. While the film (and the book) is open to a pluralistic notion of faith as made apparent by Pi’s non-contradictory ability to assimilate tenets of Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity, the attention to channelling creed detracts from a more simple awe. The magical power of the film’s visual effects and the beautiful majesty of Richard Parker are enough to remind us that the world around us has an infinite capacity to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. The rich simplicity of a boy and a tiger trapped alone at sea (a concept that was supposedly unfilmable) is a testament to the human mind’s imaginative energy. It is not something that needs to be reduced to moral tales yet much of the dialogue between the human characters does just that. The clearest examples take place during conversations between Pi and the writer in Pi’s Canadian house and between the Patel family at their dinner table. True to the new editing language that is being developed for 3D cinema, the camera is held static on the scene and lengthy takes allow the action to unfold in detail. Set mostly in positive parallax, the screen frame is the oft conceived window onto events. And, as with most 3D cinema, this is not a window onto a pure representation of our visual world but instead produces a type of hyper-reality in the visual field that is in part due to the grand scale of the figures and partly because of the slightly different contouring that stereoscopic depth produces. The effect is that we are suspended in close proximity to the characters and drawn into their slightly unreal world without any escape as they state their benign messages. In contrast to the spectacular 3D effects that allow the audience’s mind to leap into new places, these scenes dull the opulent fantasy narrative to a saccharine, easily digested tale.

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HFR3D The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey HFR3D

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Part One

After watching the midnight screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) last night, I’ve tried to make sense of the huge audio and visual overload that I experienced. I have to confess that I spent so much time staring intently at the 48 frames per second 3D footage that I barely followed the plot and completely missed out on the exposition at the beginning. There are many critics and reviewers writing on this film so I’m going to leave the narrative elements to one side and focus entirely on the visual quality of what I saw. This film needs repeat viewings so these are initial thoughts and my plan is to watch it in 24fps next week to come up with a part 2 blog for comparison.

 

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Having begun with controversy (claims of nausea, a cheap television look) The Hobbit’s higher frame rate has divided critics into those who hate it, love it or think that we will need to recondition ourselves to accept it as the future of cinema.  One of the greatest problems is that our lack of experience with higher frame rates in the cinema, let alone the combination with 3D technology, means that it is uncertain whether the frame rate, the 4K resolution or the stereoscopic effects produce the difference in aesthetic quality.

I think the test case of just one film leaves it too early to tell but I did notice that the aesthetic shook me up and opened my eyes in a way that hasn’t happened since I first saw spectacular 3D cinema. The startling quality of the higher fame rate 3D visual image appears with the MGM lion prior to the credits. The detailed textures of its fur and skin curve within the contours of its stereoscopic dimensions. It appears set away from us, within the black frame provided by the backdrop, but it has a tactile appearance that seems ready to be touched.

When the film’s first shot begins, there is an immediate sense of the Hobbit’s unique aesthetic. The glares of light bouncing off Bilbo and the wooden structure of his hobbit house give the film that televisual feel that has been so fervently noted. Throughout the film at least half of the scenes have a sense of this aesthetic, made prominent by the way in which unnatural highlights are picked out of characters’ skin, hair and costume. There is often a bright sheen to their faces or a luminescent halo emanating from lightly coloured hair. The effect is particularly obvious when Gandalf’s hat frequently picks up a radiant glow along its outer rim. When there is a particularly strong light source in a scene, such as the glow of the chimney’s fire when Bilbo talks to Gandalf in his home, it diminishes this televisual highlighting and gives a more expressive, painterly quality to the visual field. However many scenes have multiple light sources such as one shortly afterwards when light glints from Thorin’s face, individual candles produce bright beams and a shining blue arc of moonlight flashes off the windowsill. The overall effect is jarring because it seems as if objects and elements operate in their own individual spaces rather than integrate together as a wider visual field. It is exasperated by the way the camera seems unable to pick out the depth graduations in its black and similarly dark toned materials, meaning that elements such as Thorin’s black clothing appears as a flat solid silhouette. They stand alone, rather than integrates smoothly, into the stereoscopic depth provided in the film. The pictures below show an example of this flattening effect. I should say that these images are (as far as I know) set photos rather than stills but feature the same problems with light and colour that I found watching the film. If you look closely at the dark edges of the clothing you can see that they seem to abruptly end and lie flat on top of the other features in the scene.

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Another aspect that adds to this problem of non-integration are the scenes with rain. Although there are not that many of them, the high definition makes it possible to see that, although rain is falling, it is not actually striking the character’ faces. A few smudged raindrops on their skin do not make up for the fact that the rain seems on a separate plane.

The paradox is that, on the one hand, this jarring sensation gives the overall scene an uncanny, somewhat unnatural state because our eyes are used to seeing minute variations in light and depth between objects rather than sharp jumps and contrasts. On the other hand, high definition footage and the higher frame rate pick out incredible detail in much of the objects so that they seem to be intensely similar (although larger in scale) to those we might see around us in our visual world. It is thus possible to understand the difficulty faced by initial audiences when confronted with this type of aesthetic, one that is seemingly both unnatural and too real, a type of hyper-real.

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It seems as if the aesthetic works best in the close-ups and extreme close-ups. There is often a level of detail that is astonishingly intricate particularly in the many shots of different character’s faces. The combination of detail with rounded stereoscopic contours is unlike anything else that has been projected onto mainstream screens before. It often feels as if people and objects could be touched and their textures felt. The ugliest and most terrifying of the creatures in the film such as the trolls, the Goblin King and Azog have round, jutting contours which are allowed to hang into the auditorium by the stereoscopic effects. They bulge and protrude towards us. When Gollum appears there is a particularly striking moment when we see him contemplate the riddles. His facial muscles stretch and contort while his eyes gleam with concentration. Although he is unlike anything that exists in our real world, he seems incredibly palpable and present. When these shots shift to mid-shots, such as shots of Bilbo outside his house, there is a strange disparity between the intense and life-like quality of his upper body and the way it seems to rest on a separate plane from the scenery behind him, much like the pop-up book or cardboard cut out effect that has been criticised in prior 3D films.

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In some ways, the most interesting scenes are those that get beyond this hyper-realism and create a more expressive aesthetic. At the end of the dwarves’ first battle with some orcs there are a number of dissolves between shots of the dwarves. This creates a ghostly, eerie effect that is intriguing and stimulating without the jarring effect of the obtrusive highlights on other shots. Even more spectacular are the scenes when Bilbo has places the ring on his finger and appears invisible to the other characters. In a similar way to Peter Jackson’s earlier Lord of the Rings films, the shots change into a greyscale tonal set with distinctive and emphatic motion blur effects. Shot stereoscopically, the shots are spectacular with the ghost like movement and blurry layers appearing as if they could wash over the auditorium.

As Cinema Blend has pointed out, the film makes limited use of the possibility to project material into the auditorium via negative parallax. The majority of shots are set up so that action appears to take place at the far side of the screen and stretching away from us. Although the depths effects are achieved in a smooth and consistent way, most noticeably the lack of strobing in movement due to the higher frame rate, it often feels as if the depth budget isn’t used as strongly as it could be. Inside Bilbo’s house it often feels as if there is quite a shallow depth of field which seem strange considering the clear use of stereoscopy in the shots. Similarly, there are a number of overhead shots looking down crevices and deep rocky caverns. In other 3D films these shots often produce a vertigo like sensation that reminds audiences of the illusion of depth that stereoscopy can create. In this film, these shots seem tamed. Whether it is due to the higher frame rate or the way in which they have been filmed, there is not the same visceral quality that can be found in other films.

There are, nonetheless, some moments when the stereoscopic effects are striking. In a couple of instances birds flutter out of the screen towards the audience and in a moment towards the end of the film, Gandalf nudges a butterfly towards the auditorium.  When Gollum has finished with his riddles he looks down into a pool of water where he is situated and we see his reflection taking up the full screen space. Little particles in the water float out towards us and there is a slight sense of rippling across the screen area, creating a thick, penetrable space.

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Most effective is probably the way stereoscopy allows some of the depth configurations of the fictional environment to become apparent. Although, as I mentioned, a number of mid-shots seem to have a cardboard cut out configuration of depth planes, there are others where the dimensions of the landscape are acutely obvious. Shortly after a number of the dwarves’ ponies have gone missing, Bilbo and a couple of dwarves creep through the forest to look for them. An entangled mass of branches and tree trunks emerges as a fully three dimensional space

Although many of these effects will be replicated in small screen versions of The Hobbit, the 48fps 3D theatrical screenings project a visual experience that is entirely cinematic. This is primarily due to scale.  There is a somewhat awe-inspiring sensation of a tangible visual field that is intensified because everything seems so huge. As I said at the beginning, it is not clear whether the frame rate, the 4K resolution or the stereoscopic effects produce the difference in aesthetic quality. I suspect that much of the televisual feel comes from the 4K resolution, the lighting used and decisions made in post-production but the easiest way to find out is to see in 24fps as well.