And now for something completely different: Vertical Cinema

Most of my research involves analysis of 3D cinema and other high budget digital films but a side project that I have been working on with colleague Maddy Glen looks at the very low end of filmmaking on mobile media devices. I am particularly interested in the opportunities mobile media present for turning traditional filmmaking modes on their head. In our recent project, we have been looking at this literally by seeing what happens when you change the conventional horizontal alignment to a vertical presentation.

 

The technology to do so exists as mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets can both film in a vertical format and can exhibit the content in a vertical manner as well (you may need to lock the setting on the tablet or phone so that it doesn’t flip the content back to horizontal). Nonetheless, there is still a lot of stigma attached to filming in this way as it has mainly occurred in amateur videos with the suggestion that the vertical alignment was used by mistake. With this in mind we created a hybrid film that mixes both horizontal and vertical formats to produce a new Vertical Cinema Manifesto.

 

 

The Vertical Cinema Manifesto was created as a direct response to Glove and Boot’s Vertical Video Syndrome – A PSA.

 

 

While Vertical Video Syndrome – A PSA is fantastically made and incredibly funny, it does maintain the notion that vertical filming is an erroneous and unprofessional way of creating content. The comments on YouTube and the response videos reflect this. We are hoping to widen the debate a little and will shortly be making a piece that will be shot and exhibited entirely in vertical

If you are interested in this project you can read more on my other blog Vertical Cinema.

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The Hobbit Part 2

The-Hobbit-poster-2

 

Although I managed to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 24fps around a week after I saw it in 48fps, it turned out the Christmas and New Year got in the way of writing up the second part of my post until now. The advantage to this is that I’ve had the chance to catch up on a lot of the dialogue around the difference between 48 and 24fps as well as reflect on what it does for the 3D experience.  Below is a short list of some of the articles that have interesting points to make about the various technical incarnations of this film before I go on to develop further my own ideas about what it felt like to see the film in 24fps 3D.

 

Ted Schilowitz from RED (the company that made the cameras used on The Hobbit) asks audiences to be opened minded about higher frame rate but also explains a lot of the technological considerations for exhibition:

http://www.3dfocus.co.uk/3d-news-2/3d-film/be-open-minded-says-schilowitz-from-red-about-hfr-3d/11469

 

An interesting tech-heavy pieces that suggest the 3D 48fps version of The Hobbit won’t be available for viewing on Blu-Ray:

http://3dhd.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/the-hobbit-1920×108048-per-view-cannot-be-viewed-from-blu-ray-3d/?goback=.gde_3671_member_197400685

 

Gareth Daley, the 3D camera supervisor, explains what it was like to work in the new format:

http://www.3dfocus.co.uk/3d-news-2/3d-film/3d-camera-supervisor-the-hobbit-talks-high-frame-rates/11443

 

Jason Gorber from Twitch Film suggests The Hobbit looks like broadcast video but also offers a balanced approach to how the visual experience will be received by different audiences:

http://twitchfilm.com/2012/12/an-unknown-journey-the-hobbit-brings-high-frame-rates-to-the-masses.html

 

Jen Yamato takes a cognitive-perception studies approach to explaining why 48fps looks ‘bad.’ While I think there are some fundamental flaws in the arguments presented here and the response comments take this up in full, it is nonetheless an interesting piece:

http://movieline.com/2012/12/14/hobbit-high-frame-rate-science-48-frames-per-second/

 

Popular Mechanics explains how the 48fps threw up some new challenged for the 3D effects and how these were overcome. For example, the filmmaking team could no longer cheat the difference in height between Gandalf and the dwarves in the way they had previously:

http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/digital/3d/the-secrets-behind-the-hobbits-3d-wizardry-14851524?click=main_sr

 

Cnet’s poll of 3000 viewers on whether or not they liked 48fps:

http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-33199_7-57559560-221/poll-did-you-like-the-smoother-hfr-hobbit/

 

Vincent Laforet is another writer who attempts to use scientific theory to explain why 48fps is unsatisfactory.  Although I don’t agree with many of his points, he does offer a very detailed breakdown of the viewing experience in 3 different versions of the film:

http://gizmodo.com/5969817/the-hobbit-an-unexpected-masterclass-in-why-48-fps-fails

 

Devin Faraci offers an initial breakdown of reviewer reactions to the new format:

http://badassdigest.com/2012/12/04/does-anybody-like-48fps-in-the-hobbit/

 

423 Digital hosts a discussion between various experts on the technical considerations of HFR3D and how it worked in The Hobbit:

http://423digital.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/3d-experts-weigh-in-on-the-hobbits-usage-of-hfr-3d-423-digital/

 

 

martin-freeman-the-hobbit

 

One of the main reasons for shooting in a higher frame rate was to reduce the strobing or visible jerking that occurs when content is shot in 24 fps and so it was this that I was looking out for when Middle Earth appeared on screen again. The first visible strobing occurred in the marketplace at Dale towards the beginning of the film when a number of characters moved quickly through the crowded streets, normally on some kind of axis from left to right. It happened again when Bilbo ran off after the dwarves to begin his adventure and at other points throughout the film. It’s not a quality that can be seen in every scene and it does seem that you become accustomed to it as you do to other visual elements such as the stereoscopic effect or computer generated chacters. Although the strobing didn’t ruin the visual experience, it was easy to feel my eyes reacting to and trying hard to process the scene in a way that hadn’t occurred in the higher frame version. It is this labour that reminds us we are in an active engagement with a visual object and not something that I necessarily see as a negative aspect of the viewing experience but it does run contrary to Hollywood’s expressed desire for immersive entertainment experiences in which the aim is, presumably, to relax into the film and leave behind any sense of effort or exertion.

 

From the beginning of The Hobbit it quickly became apparent that, compared to 48fps, it was harder to pick out details in the shots so that in the Lonely Mountain it was impossible to discern the minutia of its construction as the pans moved rapidly past the architecture. Similarly, gone was the intensity of seeing every fine hair and gently ingrained line on the close up of Bilbo Baggins’ hand or the sharp twitching in Gollum’s eyes. However, it is worth noting that this was an impression that I took away only having seen the film previously in 48fps and not something that I imagine I would have noticed if I had seen it in 24fps first. To think about what you lose with only 24 frames per second is to assume that there is something worth showing in a higher frame rate.

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

 

In my previous post I wrote about the way that it was the lighting that immediately called attention to itself in the 48fps version of The Hobbit. Many critics have spoken about the glaring, television soap opera aesthetic and the best reason I could find for this was due to the way highlights, lowlights and contrasts functioned in the film. Unsurprisingly, then, I spent a lot of time trying to focus on the lighting when I watched the 24fps version (not easy with the intense action happening in each shot and the fast cutting between them). What I noticed this time around was that Gandalf’s hat no longer seemed to have the distinct halo of light bouncing off its rim. Inside Bilbo’s house lighting sources seemed to blend together rather than form distinct, competing, points. Balin’s white hair no longer has a sharp bluish tint that extends beyond it but instead seems softer and more golden. However, I did notice that when the dwarves were camped for the night, there was a blue tone over the mountain crop were they rested that itself looked eerily unfamiliar and similar to something you might find in a videogame.  Nonetheless, there was overall a visual flow between objects, scenery and characters in 24fps that seemed less off-putting than the 48fps counterpart.

 

It is strange, then, to find this quote from the director about the work done with the 48fps footage, “The whites were being clipped, and we weren’t getting the dips and the shadows, which were giving it a slightly electronic sort of video look,” said Jackson. “We’ve completely re-designed the way we convert the data from the camera into the image. The highlights and shadows roll off more, giving it a much more filmic look.” My feelings are that the highlights and shadows are still not rolling off sufficiently and are thus drawing attention to themselves but, rather than leaving me pessimistic about the higher frame rate technology, it gives me a lot of hope that its visual performance can be modified and improved into something we haven’t yet been able to imagine. We only need to look at the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) to realise how far CGI has been able to come. It would be a shame not to allow higher frame rate technology the same opportunity to develop.

 

ilm03_young-sherlock

 

I think that there are also criticisms of the CGI that can be levelled at each version of the film which become more noticeable on multiple viewings. It pains me to write this because I admire Weta Digital for its ground breaking work on numerous productions and was particularly impressed by the digital imagery in Prometheus (2012) and The Avengers (2012) this year. Nonetheless, I found that the introduction of Azog and other creatures during a battle scene made it clear that these were digital manifestations from a different world than the human actors shining through make-up and costume. There was that uncanny feeling of smoothness so often seen in CGI creations that flashes warning to your eyes that you are seeing something not quite possible in our own visual world (an effect not given by the prosthetic enhanced dwarves, elves, hobbits and wizards). The distinction was made particularly prominent when the battle scene featuring Azog and orcs was intercut with scenes of Balin telling the tale of the events. Balin was quite clearly not digitally rendered, making the digital scenes on the battle field more overtly different. Had the scenes not been intercut, it is quite possible that my eyes would have accepted the digital world as an aesthetic in its own right but the direct comparison between the shots forced me to try and consider why I seemed to be looking at two different worlds. The digital effects also seemed to let down the numerous scenes with rain as they looked as if the liquid had been a digital add-on, even in the 24fps version. Similarly, the artificial backdrops, particularly Rivendell, looked like matt paintings that, while sophisticated in their use of colour, lighting and flowing waterfalls, could not be mistaken for real landscapes. This is a shame because the film does have the best version of Gollum to grace cinema thus far and the work on his scenes are stunning; even more so when enhanced by the detail afforded by 48fps.

 

bilbo-rivendell-hobbit-trailer-280x170

 

Watching the film in 24fps allowed me to consider the use of 3D again and to come to the conclusion that there is a relatively conservative use of stereoscopy in The Hobbit. Often when people refer to conservative 3D effects they mean that there are less objects thrown around in negative parallax. While this was the case, it is also the case that a somewhat shallow depth of field is employed throughout. This was noticeable in Bilbo’s house but even in the landscape shots there was a sense of stereoscopic effect but not the sense that I was witness to a fully three-dimensional landscape. Yet even with this in mind, there are some great extreme close-ups that utilise the contouring effect of stereoscopic filming, such as those on the Dwalin’s head where his bald curves shine magnificently above the rough protruding edges of his beard. Later when Bilbo wakes up after the dwarves’ dinner party, he is stretched out fully across the screen space. There is something in the moment as he hangs slightly in negative parallax that makes him seem incredibly touchable. Even without the same level of details as 48fps, when the trolls’ heads poke out into the auditorium, they seem remarkably present.

 

trolls

 

The visual techniques and unique aesthetic employed in the 48fps version of The Hobbit has provoked more debate than any film of the last few decades, even the much discussed Avatar (2009). For me, this is one of the most exciting aspects of cinema: the potential for constant renewal and change. What will become of The Hobbit is yet to be seen but as I write it has already nudged beyond the $800 million box office mark and that is before its China release. Although it seems an indulgence to draw out The Hobbit’s short story into three feature length films it offers a wonderful opportunity for the development of a significantly new style of visual storytelling.

Completion

The Vertical Cinema Manifesto is here! With our video completed it has now been uploaded to YouTube.

As a response to the popular YouTube video ‘Vertical Video Syndrome – A PSA’, challenging their claims against the vertical video format, we expect to get a few comments thoroughly opposing our call to make vertical cinema accepted. Although our video does not aim to take itself too seriously, we are going to integrate these comments, the good and the bad, into our article about vertical cinema and our filmmaking process.

 

Thank You

Thank you to everyone who helped us make the film.

Firstly, a thank you to James and Michele for being the actors in our video.

michele copy

james copy

Also thanks to Abi Beatson for the use of your amazing voice for our V.O.

More thanks to:

Bernard Blackburn

Cathy McCullagh

Gregor Cameron

Jesse Gonzales

Kendra Marston

La’Chelle Pretorius

Morna Lorden

Paul Wolframm

Yvette Butcher

References

Maddy here

Throughout the film we used collected film footage and still images. The film clips we chose were from Charlie’s Angels (2000), The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), and Transformers (2007); all of which work to highlight how the female body if often shot in the horizontal format.

bodypan

The quotes used for the ‘feminist film scholar’ interview were take from Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ essay. The three we used were:

“Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into spectacle itself.”

“Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.”

“The alternative is the thrill that comes from leaving the past behind without rejecting it, transcending outworn or oppressive forms, or daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive a new language of desire.”

The still images of the famous female figures photographed vertically included; female directors Tracey Moffatt, Kathryn Bigelow, Maya Deren, and Chantal Akerman, and the female musicians used were Patti Smith, Grace Jones, and Nina Simone.

nina-simone

Miriam here

We also wanted to pay homage to some of the great radical filmmaking of the 1960s and 1970s so the background imageswe used for the title cards (often just textured film grain) all came from La hora de los hornos: Notas y testimonios sobre el neocolonialismo, la violencia y la liberación (1968). It’s one of my favourite films from the New Latin American Cinema movement and has incredibly powerful audio visual juxtaposition

Creative Commons Music

Maddy here

To find the music to accompany our images we visited the website http://soundcloud.com to access music under a creative commons license, allowing us to download and use the music for free and without copyright issues.

Firstly, we wanted to find a track that suited the tone of our manifesto; music that matched our direct call to action. Punk music with female vocals seemed a good fit. After plenty of listening we decided on this track from SoundCloud – http://soundcloud.com/search?q[fulltext]=pessima+amiga

Next, we wanted to find a track that worked with the sleazy tone of our ‘Italian Director’ interview. For this we used the appropriately overworked ‘Summertime’. Finding a cover here – http://soundcloud.com/jazz-odyssey/sets/jazz-odyssey/