May 2014 3D Round Up: Transformative Bodies and Dynamic Space

*** warning: spoilers ***

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X-Men Days of Future Past (2014), Godzilla (2014) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

The May batch of 3D films weren’t exactly screen firsts. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), X-Men Days of Future Past (2014) and Godzilla (2014) have had many previous incarnations on the big and the small screen. But their renewal in 3D sequels/remakes comes at a time when stereoscopy has embedded itself as the must-have visual version for blockbuster box office success. I’m not going to try to cover everything these films are doing in 3D but thought that it would be good to draw out some comparisons of the way they are using state of the art stereoscopic and CGI technologies to play with the bodies and objects they put into our screen spaces.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is different from the other two in that this is the second time we have seen the screen favourite Spider-Man appear in stereoscopy. In 2012, arachnids crawled towards the viewer and explosions detonated around the screen space in The Amazing Spider-Man. However, the sequel seems even more willing than the first to explore the full extent of screen space and, as a demonstration of Hollywood’s recent turn from James Cameron’s invocation to remain conservative with use of negative parallax space, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t hold back from pushing objects towards its audiences. In the opening sequence when we see Peter Parker’s parents aboard a private airplane, the first of the film’s many explosions take place. As an assailant shoots bullets through the plane, the vehicle goes into free fall, the engine explodes, and shattering glass and other stereoscopic debris are hurled around the auditorium. The shot ends when the plane seems to fly straight towards the audience. Even before this, we see the film’s experimentation with stereoscopic visuality. One of the first shots is of a skyscraper and it plays with the way rain can enter into auditorium space in a new iteration of the typical rain falling into or out of negative parallax space as well as the typical display of skyscraper buildings in 3D cinema. As rain falls in front of us vertically, the cameras tilt so that the building they are facing is now inclined towards us and the rain, that was until this moment a type of curtain between us and the building, now streams directly towards us. The rain attaches us to the action in the film at the same time that the presence of grand scale is suggested by skyscrapers in stereoscopic depth. This focus on the New York skyscraper setting was an element that attracted critics to the use of 3D in the previous film and in this film, the stereoscopic effects, as Spider-Man swoops through the skyscrapers, seem even smoother. Our first look at Parker dressed as Spider-Man is an over the shoulder shot of him diving down a skyscraper, his leap into positive parallax space creating vertiginous sensations of falling through the air. The subsequent use of slow motion to demonstrate Spider-Man’s position in space, before he carries on swooping from one building to the next, indicates the extent to which the film is confident in its use of stereoscopic techniques and the visceral sensations they can provoke. This type of display is repeated not long after when a truck runs into the side of a bus. Slow motion combines with stereoscopic placement of action across a wide field of positive and negative parallax space so that we can see the exact positioning of characters and metal vehicles as the impact of the crash throws bodies around the interior of the bus. In many ways this is a departure from the chaos cinema of Michael Bay and other Hollywood directors where action and, particularly, crashes are so high paced that we can barely register what is happening in individual shots and instead are only left with the impression of pandemonium.

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X-Men Days of Future Past’s first foray into stereoscopic space is also one that builds upon prior Hollywood visual trends but displays a confidence in its ability to use the full range of stereoscopic space. Although the film starts with a gloomy opening on an apocalyptic earth (a gloominess made even darker by stereoscopic light loss and shallow focus) there is soon a dramatic virtual phantom ride through what seems to be DNA (an indication of the genetic source of difference between the mutant and human characters in the film). In this scene, light is stronger and everything within the CG structures seem sharper, with blue metallic tinges. When we return to the gloomy visual field which we are told is a future Moscow, there is now rain creating a thick space in the auditorium between action and audience. Liquid, as a bridge between film and viewer positions, is returned to throughout the film. When sprinklers are set off in the Pentagon’s kitchen (as Logan and other characters attempt to break out Morpheus) water seems to enter every part of the screen space. Working in a similar way to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, there is then a spectacular use of slow motion that shows Peter Maximoff (working at high speed) repositioning bodies and objects as they move through space. This includes bullets travelling towards characters and arms reaching for guns. In this way, the film takes the visual dynamic of the bullet time effect developed in The Matrix (1999) but uses stereoscopic depth in order to let audiences see precisely how objects and bodies relate to each other in space. The sense of a traversable scene that can be explored by the eye is allowed to play out in full because of the slow pace of the action, once again countering the tendencies of chaos cinema.

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This then takes us to Godzilla, again a stereoscopic first, but one that seems to be rooted in the conservative dialogue around 3D cinema that was prominent when Avatar (2009) tried to set a new quality level for 3D films. Shortly after the opening credits of 2D archive footage, we see panoramic views of a lush green jungle which suggests the film is likely to follow the depictions of stereoscopic landscapes put in place by Avatar. Indeed, there is a tendency to keep action within positive parallax space throughout the film. This is further indicated to the viewer by the frequent use of titles that contain place names positioned around the zero parallax point, indicating where the screen might be. They suggest a boundary between auditorium space and the space of the diegesis. Unlike Pacific Rim (2013), stereoscopic spatial relations are not able to give the same weight and scale to the gigantic monsters they depict and there is an overall sense throughout the film that stereoscopic space is barely explored.

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If we return to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it is not just that it makes better use of stereoscopic space than Godzilla, it also integrates new CGI effects with stereoscopy in dynamic ways. In particular, CGI and stereoscopic effects are combined to completely transform bodies in screen space. When the film’s new baddie, Max, awakens from an electric encounter in the eel tank, he is revealed to have a completely different type of body: a body of light based on pulsating, barely containable energy. This transformation is complete when he is given a new name: Electro. Stereoscopy allows us to see the texture of his new, semi-translucent body as it throbs with the energy vibrating within it. The depth planes provided by stereoscopy and the way they fashion volume means that the unstable contours of this ‘light’ body are more keenly felt. In the remaining scenes with Max, he emits his own light as well as draws light away from other energy sources. This play of light reminds us that the cinematic images displaying him are themselves created by light and are as volatile as his new explosive body. There is more slow motion as Max enters the world outside the Oscorp building and deflects police bullets coming towards him, in this way showing the film’s willingness to display the exact ways in which this play of light functions.

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In X-Men Days of Future Past, CGI characters dominate the film’s events in a future Moscow. Even more so than previous X-Men films, each character’s body seems to have a visual transformative capacity. They morph into liquid states, pulsating fields of light, metallic surfaces and ice structures. These bodies are able to splinter across a dynamic range of stereoscopic space as well as flow around the auditorium. Like Electro, those that are based upon the use of light and energy pulse and vibrate, creating visual fields that have their own vigorous tactility and often seem to radiate light and heat towards us, breaking down distance between our bodies and theirs. These CGI bodies are capturing the morphing capability of animation that until recently live action bodies could not fully incorporate.

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It is telling then, that Godzilla is more conservative in its stereoscopic use of transformative bodies. The giant insects, Motu, and Godzilla have very similar powers to Electro whereby then can suck power from the grid and throb with red and orange power glowing beneath their skins. They demonstrate the ability of CGI effects to transform bodies in ways not possible in the analogue versions of Godzilla. However, when these transformative states occur, their bodies are normally buried within positive parallax space and their energy is never given the chance to radiate towards the viewer.

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Much can be said about the different merits of each film’s plot and characterisation and much has already been written up in various reviews. What I have hoped to highlight here is that stereoscopy in Hollywood action blockbusters has undergone a change in recent years from relatively conservative use of depth planes, particularly those in negative parallax, to a more confident use of screen space. Yet as Godzilla proves, this is not always the case and there is the still the ability for stereoscopic visuality to be used in very different ways from one film to the next.

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