300 Negative Parallax Effects

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 300: The Rise of an Empire (2014)

While the first 300 film (2006) seemed to revel in a slightly camp and very visual exaggeration of the prowess of the 300 Spartan warriors who fought the mighty Persian army in 480 BC, the latest film 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) tries to take itself much more seriously. Not quite a prequel and not quite a sequel, Rise of an Empire is fairly unique in the way that it begins its narrative a little before the events of the first film and then parallels them, providing a different perspective on the wider political events of the time, before finishing just after the point at which the first film came to a halt. In this way, we are witness to (fictional) events at Marathon where the Greek Themistokles fells the Persian King Darius with a single arrow, setting off a serious of events in which Darius’ son Xerxes takes the throne and seeks vengeance against the Greeks. In what could be considered a response to critiques of the exploitative elements of the first film (a nice summary can be found here), the gratuitous display of ‘freaks’ (transgendered, disabled and otherwise different bodies), lesbian titillation and uncomfortable rape, is very much reduced. Rise of an Empire has even inserted a ‘feminist’ antagonist, the sword wielding Persian navy commander Artemisia. The film also allows Queen Gorgo of Sparta to return in an enhanced and stronger role. However, the way in which Artemisia’s military strategy is not complete until she instigates an awkward sexual seduction shows that Rise of an Empire cannot fully shake off Hollywood’s idea of where woman gain their power from. This is all the more sad when we consider that Artemisia really was a navy commander working for Xerxes and was praised for her excellent skills in battle yet the film significantly alters much of what is known about her. There is also the rather difficult problem of the lead actors’ wooden performances and an uninspiring script that’s sole pattern is battle-exposition-battle-exposition-battle. Which is all very much a shame as the 3D effects are rather good.

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In the beginning of the film we enter into a dust filled room with a frieze of the fallen 300 warriors positioned on the back wall. Dust motes float around this room and towards us in the auditorium, creating a thick space that characterizes almost all the scenes in the film. Through a combination of dust motes in interior shots, floating organic particles in exterior landscapes and burning embers in the battle scenes, few moments of the film display clear, empty space between the audience and the characters. In the opening depiction of battle scenes liquid, particularly blood, splatters on the cameras. Although these shots were initially filmed with one camera, the post-production conversion created two virtual camera perspectives (one for the left and eye and one for the right eye), each of which were virtually splattered with liquid. In the first instance this liquid on the cameras seems to suggest a screen that exists between the events and the audience in the auditorium, a contradiction of previous shots in which elements of the film seemed to come right out towards us. This process is repeated when a type of lens flare produces the hexagons of light that also seem to rest on top of the image and similarly create a screen barrier. However, the position of this screen constantly shifts as it is placed at different points in negative and parallax space. Rather than suggesting a stable barrier between the film’s events and our place in the auditorium, these moments enhance the sense of thick space and demonstrate that it is constantly permeable and open to our touch. When combined with the forward motion of cameras we are reminded of the POV perspectives in video games which immerse us in tactile yet frenetic environment, particularly those with similar splattering on the virtual cameras.

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Like many 3D films, liquid spaces are incorporated for their ability to provide justification for spectacular visual moments where liquid almost, but never quite, reaches and overwhelms our bodies. Various droplets are flung around the auditorium space and waves threaten to crash on top of us. Often these are drops of blood, producing that same sense of shock and delight that occurs when exploitation films project bodily fluids towards us. In the 3D film they come even closer. There are also gentler but no less dramatic moments such as the point when Xerxes emerges, reborn as a god, from a pool deep within a hermits’ cave. As his new body emerges from the pool, golden waves spread out and lap at the edge of the screen space. They suggest a liquid flow that joins the various planes from the back of the screen space through to the position of the viewer.

Film Review 300 Rise of An Empire

This presentation is true to the visual field set up in the first film where optical elements were enhanced, spectacular and constantly calling attention to themselves. Rise of an Empire even manages to retain one of the major visual characteristics of 300: the combination of heavily diffused light and shallow focus. The type of flatter, ambiguous space created by this visual tendency is normally contradictory to stereoscopic filming that aims to show the full depth relations of objects in its visual field. However, in shots created in this way the main focal points, such as close-ups on characters’ heads, allows the rounded contours of objects to come forth in ways that could not be achieved in 2D versions. Throughout these processes the visual effects in Rise of an Empire are no more distracting than the first film, but their constant appearance in auditorium space enhances the tactility of the visual field. If the point of spectacle is to overwhelm the senses then Rise of an Empire successfully achieves that goal.

Rise of an Empire just goes to show that the tools are there (and I would quite happily suggest the post-production tools are there) to create expressive and visually enthralling stereoscopic cinema that doesn’t have to be tied to the classical cinema’s concern with realism. Here’s hoping that these tools will be coupled with better scripts and performances next time.

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