Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away

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Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (2012) is another stereoscopic film brought to us by James Cameron and his PACE group’s 3D services.  Although the director is Adam Adamson, the Cameron brand has been heavily added to the film. It is a situation not dissimilar to the promotion of Sanctum (2011) which, even with all the fanfare about the film’s 3D technology, could not prevent a critical panning. Like Sanctum, Worlds Away would appear to offer the perfect subject matter for a stereoscopic film. While the former focused on a caving expedition and thus presented many opportunities to depict depth-rich cavernous spaces, the latter displays the Canadian Cirque du Soleil troupe performing spectacular movements in space. Nonetheless, neither film provides a viewing experience that is worthy of audience attention for the better part of two hours.

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As with many of the Cameron/PACE group films, the 3D effects in Worlds Away are conservative yet effective.  Although the stereoscopic effects are not particularly strong in one of the opening scenes in a circus tent (with very little content placed in negative parallax), they do help to position the male aerialist in space when he begins his trapeze routine. The contours of his body are clearly defined amongst a vast empty space towards the top of the circus tent. When he misses the second trapeze that is waiting for him, he falls to and then through the sandy floor, instigating a set of fantasy sequences during which the main female character, Mia, follows in his wake.  Many of these fantasy sequences are based in water, often by using a large pool at the bottom of the stage set that the performers occupy. This provides an effective basis for using negative parallax effects. On the one hand underwater shots are used, allowing the performers and the various streams of bubbles they create to float and drift around a thick, tactile auditorium space. On the other hand, slow motion sequences of the water cascading upward and outwards from the pool means that droplets and torrents of water are aimed directly towards the audience. The film also makes use of a shot set-up common in other 3D films whereby the top of the water is placed along the lower section of the screen space. This means that the viewer is given the sense of occupying the same liquid place as the bottom of the film. Other light/transparent materials such as dry ice, smoke, and fire occupy a similar place so that the audience often feels that there is a physical bridge between the auditorium and the screen content.

Cirque du Soleil : Worlds Away

One would hope that these stereoscopic effects would focus the audience and their position in relation to the film in order to help them feel close to the dynamic action of the circus performers. However, the effects more clearly highlight the cavernous stage set and leave the audience at a greater distance from the film’s action. This is not the case at the beginning of the film when basic titles are placed inside the film’s opening images of a train station and the outside of the circus space. When Mia first appears, she and the camera travel into the long passage between circus tents and stalls, beginning a journey into depth. For those who are familiar with Cirque du Soleil, the most striking part of this scene is the small-town travelling showman nature of the circus that is presented. Cirque du Soleil is famous world-wide for its extravagant, spectacular shows with residency in high-level sites such as Vegas and multiple troupes of circus artists who are top-ranking in international circles. Cirque is a far cry from the homely, slightly downtrodden circus community presented at the beginning of the film. Whereas the showman at the foot of the big-top in Worlds Away has to do his best to entice audiences in, Cirque rarely fails to fill its shows. The use of the small circus set-up creates an intimacy with the audience for the film and promises a tender, close-up view of the film’s circus acts. Nonetheless, the subsequent fantasy sequences depict large spaces barely filled by the performers no matter how expert their gymnastics.

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Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the heavy use of editing throughout. I am somewhat biased in this regard as I am a dedicated fan of aerial performances and come from a school of thought that suggests long takes are the most effective technique for showing bodily movement. Worlds Away frequently cuts between an array of angles so that is impossible to see how the performers execute their moves from start to finish. Instead of making the action more exciting, the editing dulls the magnitude of what the human bodies are achieving, as it seems that their moves could be down to commonplace cinematic trickery rather than skill and achievement on their part. All in all, it felt as if an excellent opportunity to show human movement was missed and the film is little more than an advert, asking audiences to see the live shows where their view will be both stereoscopic and uninterrupted by the filmmaker’s meddling.

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