Exodus: An Americana Fantasy

exodus_gods_and_kings_movie-3840x2160

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

I was wary about going to see Exodus: Gods and Kings following initial reports of racist casting and frequent bad reviews but I also really wanted to see what director Ridley Scott was doing with stereoscopy in his second 3D feature. For all that his first 3D feature, Prometheus (2012) was met with mixed reviews, I thought it offered really exciting visual fields that made good use of varied depth planes. It was interesting to see how Scott transferred his use of stereoscopy from a science fiction setting in which great liberty could be taken with the visual scenarios to Exodus’s biblical setting which, although fantastical in many ways, had to stick more closely to real-world elaborations of depth.

In many ways, Exodus adhered to the formula that is being used across various 3D action blockbusters: development of depth-rich vistas in positive parallax space during opening sequences; initial battle/action scenes where very little material protrudes into the auditorium; then a general ramping up of the depth budget so that the climatic action scenes make use of all available depth planes and unashamedly assault viewers with material coming towards them. Although formulaic, the depth fields that were constructed in this system were extensive and rich in detail, proving that Scott and his stereographic team have a good eye for how to use 3D technology in dynamic ways.

From the beginning of the film there were nice subtle touches such as the way framing in stereoscopic depth works in the opening scene. As we see slaves constructing buildings in Memphis, our view is bordered by what seems to be a square framed doorway or other architectural opening that sits relatively close to us while the slaves are positioned deeper within the view. It forces us to peer in towards them, suggesting a specifically directed view into the past rather than immediate access to it. In subsequent scenes, where Rameses and his father discuss the impeding battle of Kadesh, interior architecture space with tall columns, archways, and carefully positioned furniture create a type of sculpted space where the relationships between the characters, each other and the space they operate is clear.

1418156739454

Throughout the film there is good use of two major movement types that use stereoscopic depth in particular ways. In the first, objects frequently come down the z-axis (from deep within the screen space) towards the audience. For example, chariots galloping towards the cameras in battle scenes. Stereoscopic depth planes enhance the sense of impeding proximity and the feeling that these objects might just reach us. When these shots take place in expansive landscapes, they enhance a type of sublime spatial relation between us and the objects. The most dramatic of these shots is towards the end when the Red Sea tsunami comes ever so close to engulfing us, the waves rearing up in threatening extended takes. In the second type of movement, cameras travel into the scene, enhancing our visual exploration of deep space. They most often produce a type of lingering gaze that allows us to feel as if we are slowly investigating the visual world presented to us and this is in contrast to the restless and frantic cameras that characterise a lot of other Hollywood 3D films. Like all good contemporary 3D films, underwater scenes are used to submerge the audience into thick, tactile visual fields. When the River Nile fills with blood, this space thickens further in gruesome ways. Not long after, the gruesome depictions are extended when stereoscopy enhances the details in the horrible textures of the Egyptians’ plague infected skin.

But does any of this redeem the film’s unwise casting choices and Eurocentric retelling of what are considered to be historical events? I don’t think it does and I think that it furthermore points to an interesting scenario in which 3D visual systems can become about nostalgia as much as the technology of the future. Whereas Prometheus updated science fiction visual fields to show how our cinematic future might operate, Exodus harks back to a certain Technicolor golden age of twentieth century cinema.

exodus

When Moses is exiled from his home with Rameses in Memphis, his true calling as a cinematic biblical figure begins. We see various shots of his stoic face, framed by head scarves and textured by his grizzly beard. Taken as stills, these images could easily be iconic shots from a 1950s studio catalogue for Old Testament themed films. When projected in stereoscopic depth, the extra detail livens and exaggerates this familiar picture. As his character develops, and as stereoscopy enhances his presence as well as the landscapes around him, Moses is the perfect figure to return us to the two dominating depictions of male heroes in the 1950s era: the biblical epic and the Western, in which the hero is a fearless pioneer. Working through a familiar character arc, Moses has his moments of doubt but his steely determination always returns. Even when surrounded by others, he is a lone figure that must press on ahead. But it is also a film about landscapes, and man’s small role amongst the sublime. Stereoscopic depth planes take the familiar surfaces of the biblical epic and the Western and revitalise them so we can see them, and our supposed role in them, anew. With the all-white cast, this film becomes the perfect Americana fantasy of what Egypt was, rooted in our twentieth century culture rather than any greater historical outlook.

Advertisements

The Last of the Hobbits: 3D and HFR

hob3_advtix_fb_843x504_rev

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

From a technology point of view, there’s not too much to say about the latest instalment of The Hobbit that hasn’t already been said in relation to the first two films. Jackson’s use of stereoscopy continues in much the same way as before: frequent use of shallow focus means that depth isn’t fully explored; rapid editing limits scenes with more extensive depth of field from being fully developed; and when shots are longer, there are somewhat emphatic and insistent roaming cameras that distract from the spatial relations of the diegesis. The film also seems to follow certain unwritten studio rules, that if you are going to throw objects towards the audience in negative parallax space then these moments are to be restricted to battle scenes or must make use of gentle materials such as snow and dust motes that won’t impact too greatly upon the viewer. If ever there was a template for conservative and formulaic use of stereoscopy in contemporary cinema then The Hobbit Trilogy certainly provides it.

HBT3-fs-340682.DNG

Most interesting is that the pinnacle of its technological revolution, High Frame Rate (HFR), seems to have been gently swept under the carpet. This was the year in which least press attention was given to HFR with only a few articles seriously analysing it, such as The Verge or The Guardian declaring that “the HFR armies are hoping no one notices them sheepishly sidling off the field of battle.” Although there were plenty of HFR screenings at the local multiplex in Scotland where I was temporarily based, there was little to advertise them as such. I would imagine that most viewers were unaware if they saw it in HFR or the standard 24 frames per second.

In some ways, this will be good news for Jackson and the studios because audiences not noticing HFR signals that the latest film has moved away from the ‘video-game’ look that was so heavily criticised in the first film. However, it also points to a lack of the startling new visual fields that I found in place in An Unexpected Journey. The hyper-tactility that came from greater detail in close-ups and the exploration of textured surfaces has all but disappeared as Jackson has toned down and ‘smoothed out’ the visual field that HFR produces. What does remain, however is an intensified contrast between light and dark tones which gives it some of the video look. One of the ways this may eventually be overcome is through the combination of HFR and better High Dynamic Range. High Dynamic Range would also potentially boost the 3D that is used with HFR by compensating for some of the light loss experienced when using 3D glasses. As it stands, however, HFR in The Battle of the Five Armies is not justifying the upgrade to projectors required for its exhibition.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

Equally dissatisfying in the screening that I went to, HFR had reduced strobing (one of its greatest marketing claims) but has produced a whole new visual problem. In various scenes with fast moving action, there were strange jumps in the depth fields. When characters moved past other characters or objects at speed, instead of a reduction in strobing, it seems as if they jumped behind or in front of the depth plane that they should be on. Whether this was due to some error in projection or an artefact within the film as a whole, I don’t know and I’ll have to try to get to another HFR screening to find out.

Thorin-Oakenshield-the-hobbit-battlee-of-the-five-armies

While the reason for using HFR throughout the trilogy was purported to be a technical solution to overcome technical problems in 3D cinema, it was also widely claimed (by both Jackson and other supporters such as James Cameron) to provide greater levels of realism and a more immersive visual field. It is ironic then that every aspect of the plot and acting seems to be over dramatic in this film. Of course, the film represents the climax of an epic trilogy and the action has to be ramped up but the howling face on Smaug as he breathes his last breath, the long look of anguish on Bard’s face as his son appears felled by Smaug, Lickspittle screaming ‘why me’ on the banks of the lake, and the solipsistic musings of Thorin make for a pantomime ending to three films. The visual technology is able to show these moments in greater detail but realism and immersion are hard to come by.