Stereoscopic Samurai: 47 Ronin

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47 Ronin

I imagine that the filmmaking team behind 47 Ronin don’t very much care that they received two star reviews in The Guardian. This is, after all, a film that mixes traditional Japanese folklore with Keanu Reeves as the hero and an English speaking Japanese cast surrounded by CGI dragons and monstrous humans. It is not exactly Academy Award fare and although the film sidesteps the dubious politics of having a white man play a Japanese protagonist by situating Reeve’s character Kai as a ‘half-breed,’ it is certain director Carl Erik Rinsch isn’t expecting to win any prizes for cultural sensitivity. I do imagine that they are a more concerned about early reports that the film will be the greatest box office flop of 2013. There is very much the sense that this is a film that aimed high, not just with its $175+ million budget but with star pull in both Keanu Reeves and well known Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada as well as significant effort put into creating CGI effects. Yet the results did not fully come together. Rather than an authentic period piece with a twist that could interest Japanese aficionados or a full B-movie exploitation tone that could camp up the fantasy elements and implausible witch craft (which could also help explain why 49 year old Keanu is supposedly the same age as 32 year old co-star Kô Shibasaki), the film falls somewhere in between. I’ll leave other commentators to contemplate quite what went wrong (or right if they are so inclined) with the narrative and dialogue and instead focus on how the use of 3D represents an effort within the film that strives hard but doesn’t quite make it.

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In the same way that much work was put into the rest of the film, 47 Ronin was shot in 3D rather than taking the easier (although not always cheaper) option of shooting normally and converting the film in post-production. The director is on record as saying that he recognised the limitations of shooting with 3D cameras and decided to forego a handheld camera style in favour of a more suitable classical style. Where this effort is evident is in effective use of negative parallax for scenes of stereoscopic debris. By this I don’t necessarily mean scenes that involve physical debris (although some of 47 Ronin’s battle scenes do include this) but scenes that utilise small, fragmented objects and particles that float and fly around the auditorium. One of these is a scene of the Ronin travelling on horseback through snow. The delicate flakes swirl ferociously around the space between the audience and the film when the characters are out on open land and float more gently towards the viewer in the village shots. It’s a type of scene that is becoming familiar in other stereoscopic films (Hara-Kiri, Hugo, Prometheus, G.I. Joe Retaliation, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The Great Gatsby) to the point where one wonders if the scene is written specifically for the effect. This type of planning would confirm critics’ fear that gimmicky 3D effects are used at the expense of narrative but it can also suggest a sensual use of style to drive setting rather than a reliance purely on plot motivation.

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Although 47 Ronin avoids the ubiquitous underwater scene that is currently used to show off stereoscopic effects in many blockbusters (for example, Bait 3D, G.I. Joe Retaliation, Gravity, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug), it does successfully use fire to create a sense of the film overwhelming the audience. Even more so than The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug’s recent fire breathing dragon sequences, 47 Ronin provides flame soaked vistas that break down a sense of separation between the audience and action. In a similar way, when the monks of an evil forest are awakened, their yellow robes extend and swoosh around the auditorium in long semi-transparent layers. They seemingly spread through us as much as they saturate the characters who are trying to escape them.

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Other battle scenes are also made more visceral through the use of action tumbling towards the viewers in negative parallax. One of the positive outcomes is that it helps stitch together the seams of virtual CG creations and the live action filming. The first instance where this happens is when the samurai (later to become the 47 Ronin) are hunting a mythical beast in the forest. When the beast finally appears, stereoscopic debris (splintering branches, clods of earth and other mobile material) combines with fast cuts to mean that the audience is distracted and the beast is more imagined than seen. It effectively prevents too close a comparison between the digital beast and the live action characters whilst retaining a sense of the power and ferocity of the beast. The extent to which this is an effective tactic can be seen in other scenes when these distractions are not employed and the audience is allowed to gaze on CG creations. The fortress belonging to antagonist Lord Kira looks little more than a basic digital model. The same is true of many Japanese landscapes that look painted on behind the principal action.

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This tendency to put great effort into making individual scenes look incredible while leaving others to look hurriedly finished extends to the use of shot set ups. While some shots effectively capture the depth relations of the space in which the characters interact, most use the contemporary stylistic tendency to pull and shift focus at every opportunity. With fuzzy backgrounds and foregrounds in many shots, the depth relations of objects are unclear. In many close-ups and mid-shots, the actors look somewhat flat. This is not because of any inert cardboard cut-out 3D effect but because it is impossible to view them in relation to the objects around them. Our eyes rely on various depth cues to perceive depth and when lighting and focus are combined to remove extra depth cues, the stereoscopy is not enough to prevent something from looking flat.

The coming weeks will allow executives to fully realise how much money 47 Ronin will lose. In terms of 3D cinema’s development, it proves that stereoscopy is able to provide additions to the film that could not be found in its 2D version but, as always, it is a mixed bag when directors and studios are too reliant on stylistic tendencies that work better in 2D cinema.

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HFR Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***

Although I watched The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug last Friday, it has taken me quite a few days to write up my comments. Mainly this comes from the sheer difficulty of comparing the visual effects in this film with the earlier An Unexpected Journey that I last saw in the cinema almost 12 months ago. In particular, I’m talking about the 48 frames per second higher frame rate (HFR) that has been the technological distinction point of the Hobbit trilogy. When An Unexpected Journey came out last year the HFR was set to solve many of the visual artefacts that had been plaguing 3D cinema since its digital reincarnation in the early 2000s. However it quickly garnered criticism for making the film look ‘too video,’ ‘too HD’ and even ‘too real.I loved it and hated it. Close-ups had intense spectacular detail that combined with stereoscopic effects to produce an overwhelming sense of the film’s presence in the auditorium while light dispersion around characters and objects produced strange, ugly contrasts that often flattened them in mid and wide shots.

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When watching The Desolation of Smaug last week, I found the eye-opening and delightful difference of the first film’s visual effects were completely absent. On the one hand this poses a philosophical question about how we remember and evaluate subjective visual experiences. Had I simply become used to HFR, having watched an entire film already; have I watched so many 3D films in the last 12 months that I can no longer be mesmerised by stereoscopic effects, even if they are in HFR; or was I so tired of watching dwarves caper around Middle Earth that I couldn’t be bothered focusing my attention on the visual details?

On the other hand it asks us to pay careful attention to the way new visual technologies are implemented. Evidence from director Peter Jackson has stated that he changed the use of HFR on the second film in order to ‘improve’ the use of HFR. In his words, “When I did the color timing this year, the color grading, I spent a lot of time experimenting with ways we could soften the image and make it look a bit more filmic. Not more like 35 mm film necessarily, but just to take the HD quality away from it, which I think I did reasonably successfully.” Although Jackson is convinced that this allowed him to retain the strengths of HFR, I wonder if it diminished the sharpness and clarity that made the close-ups in the initial film so stunning. For example, the MGM Lion that appeared prior to An Unexpected Journey’s credits was the closest I have ever felt to being in the same space as a live animal during a film. However, the same MGM Lion prior to The Desolation of Smaug looked only slightly more stereoscopic than the MGM Lion in front of most MGM films. This suggests to me that the HFR has been toned down too much via the Pro-Mist colour diffusing tool that Jackson describes using. However, before I speak too soon, I am open to the possibility that someone who has worked on the film will tell me that the Lion is exactly the same in both film, leading me back to the conundrum of subjective visual memory that is making it so hard to evaluate how the different films operate (ideally a cinema will show both films in HFR back to back at some point).

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Regardless, of what the changes to HFR have done to the clarity of close-ups, The Desolation of Smaug still has visual artefacts that suggest the results Jackson was hoping for have not yet been achieved.  In the opening shots of Bree village there is still a sense of the video feel. The cluttered objects that litter the narrow street and the inside of the tavern where we find Thorin and Gandalf should be perfect for 3D. However, the combination of HFR and HD means that there is a sense that they are in built sets rather than ‘real’ environments. This type of construction led one critic to say “though Jackson succeeded in smoothing much of that over in the second installment, at times I still felt I was standing around a movie set rather than watching a film.”

An aspect that exasperated this, particularly in the opening scene, was the use of pans and mobile cameras that, while working well in traditional cinema, become cheesy and overemphatic in HFR 3D.  In this type of shot, the cameras appear to take on a more subjective position as the precise movement of their motion suggest a living, moving observer. Although this could be used to great effect in point-of-view shots, it clashes with the intended omniscient observer set-up by Jackson’s relatively classical visual storytelling. This problem returns throughout the film as Peter Jackson is worse than James Cameron for refusing to allow the cameras to stay still. Rather than letting audiences soak in the visual details of shots or explore the stereoscopic depth relations between objects, the film continuously sweeps and soars around.

Furthermore, the difficulties Jackson’s team faced when trying to combine actors of the same size when they are playing characters of radically different sizes (dwarves and humans for example) becomes apparent. Often the cuts between different shots bring with them changes to spatial planes but rather than seeming to show a new angle on a scenario they seem to show a completely different space. To an extent this is hidden by extensive use of pulled focus but this aspect, like the soaring cameras, only goes so far in hiding new problematic artefacts created by HFR. The result is a glimpse at the potential for a spectacular visual field but one that is not brought to fruition.

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As with the previous film, the close-ups are much more effective and show the potential for digital 3D to create stunning details that cannot be seen elsewhere. This is particularly true when the heads of evil creatures such as wolves and a large black bear seem to hang into the auditorium and break the safe space between viewer and film.  Throughout the film, the violation of space between audience and traditional screen film is very limited, in a way that is in keeping with An Unexpected Journey. The brief occasions when bees buzz around the auditorium and bluebird flutter towards the audience are the only really exceptional uses of negative parallax. However there are a few other instances when stereoscopic depth planes are used to good effect. The first occurs when Bilbo and the dwarves are captured by giant spiders in the forest. Well known as the source of many phobias, the spiders are invoked firstly through their gigantic, encompassing webs. They produce a sticky yet transparent material that stretches towards the audience and as the cameras travel through them, they suggest uncomfortable sensations on the skin. Later, when the dwarves find themselves catapulted down a fast flowing stream in wooden barrels, the stereoscopic effects create a sense of shared, overwhelming liquid space in which the audience could easily slip under and become engulfed by the water. This is particularly true when the cameras position us half bobbing in and out of the water in the same way as the barrels. Lastly, when the dragon Smaug is awakened, the flows of coins that tumble off his skin seem to submerge the audience underneath them. A similar effect happens when he breathes fire towards the audience and at one point showers them with molten gold.

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In each case, these moments suggest the potential for 3D HFR to be tactile and engrossing in ways that cannot be achieved by other cinema technologies. However, these moments are relatively rare in the film’s almost 3 hour length. For fans of The Hobbit narrative this aspect may be welcome as it provides less distraction from the journey of Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves. For someone like me, who finds the films mildly boring, the fascinating visual appeal provided by HFR in An Unexpected Journey is no longer there to provide welcome relief in The Desolation of Smaug.

 

 

 

Doctor Doctor Doctor 3D

The Day of the Doctor

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***to avoid confusion concerning the multiple actors playing The Doctor in this episode, I will refer to The Doctor by the actors’ names rather than the character***

In the same period that the Fiftieth Anniversary episode of Doctor Who, The Day of the Doctor was broadcast around the world, a number of cinemas showed it in 3D. It was so popular in New Zealand that it reached third place in the weekend box office charts. I saw it Wellington’s Embassy theatre where, on its third showing, it was full of Dr Who fans.

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Before the episode fully began there was an introduction by Matt Smith who directly addressed the audience. Intercut with some shots of David Tennant, they worked as a double act to highlight that the presentation would be in 3D and that there were possibly Zygons (shape shifting enemies from the television series) in the auditorium. Playing on the premise that audience members would have put on their 3D glasses, they conducted a simple test whereby viewers could tell if their neighbours had been taken over by a Zygon depending on whether one of the glasses’ lenses became darker when viewed with one eye closed (a trick that depends on the way the polarising filters in the glasses operates). On the one hand, this introduction spoke to fans of the show by utilising their previous knowledge of the Zygons in order to create humour. There was also a moment when David Tennant warned the audience about the protrusion of Matt Smith’s chin in 3D, similarly playing on fan familiarity with the TV show. On the other hand, the introduction made it clear that the stereoscopic elements would be integral to the episode and would be unashamedly playful and obtrusive.

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When the episode did begin it felt as if the 3D effects had travelled back in time. The first scenes with the doctor’s assistant Clara had artefacts such as strobing and harsh parallax jumps that brought about a sense of discomfort in the viewing process.  I hadn’t these seen since the earlier wave of digital 3D films. The 3D effects were so clunky that when Clara and Matt Smith were brought into the National Gallery in London in order to see a painting called No More, I thought the painting had accidentally been misaligned so as to appear stereoscopic rather then flat.  Instead, further dialogue from the characters pointed out that the painting was purposefully unusual in its qualities as a stereoscopic painting. Although the 3D effects could have been more effectively constructed in the scenes leading up to this moment, they were successful in creating a visual field that is unique to the 3D viewing process. The painting took on an unearthly quality that suited the development of the plot. At the same time that this moment begged the question of what viewers would have seen when watching the show in 2D, it made the case for why 3D can operate as a distinct, and unique visual environment.

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The rest of the episode continued to make this case by utilising a number of depth fields and by displaying a wide range of stereoscopic effects. These ranged from the relatively gentle, for example when the paperback Matt Smith is reading in the Tardis bulges towards the audience, to the more extreme, when objects fly into the auditorium during the war scenes with the newly introduced doctor, John Hurt. Throughout the episode, there were a number of close-ups on the doctors’ enigmatic faces. While these close-ups, and their enhancements in 3D, played upon the eccentricity of the characters and their quirky visual appeal, they also helped to make the doctors feel more present in the auditorium.

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As the episode progressed, the stereoscopic effects felt increasingly smoother and they were able to do what the best contemporary 3D films can do, which is to give audiences the sense of a thick, materially present space which is shared between the film and the auditorium. The episode was also effective in showing that there are strong visual moments when it makes sense to hurl and protrude objects towards the viewers’ space. From the sound of excited and happy fans in the auditorium where I watched the episode, there was little sense that the 3D was estranging them or making it hard for them to invest in the latest instalment in the Dr Who adventures. Instead, there was genuine delight in seeing the doctors on the big screen and in  stereoscopic 3D.