Jupiter Ascending: A Spectacular 3D Conversion


Jupiter Ascending (2015) Andy Wachowski and Lena Wachowski

It is not entirely surprising that the Wachowski siblings have completed their first stereoscopic 3D film, Jupiter Ascending (2015). For all that their post-Matrix films have had mixed reviews they have gained a reputation for spectacular visual fields with beautiful art design and cinematography. Unafraid to use the latest digital effects technology, their dramatic vision incorporates almost every tool going in an attempt to awe their audiences. While this science fiction fantasy about an intergalactic family feud is a post-production 3D conversion rather than a film that was shot with stereoscopic technology, it finds its place amongst recent conversions that are almost impossible to tell apart from their native 3D counterparts.


One of the most difficult effects for 3D conversions to achieve is sufficient rounded depth in the close-ups on characters’ heads. Unlike CGI creatures and landscapes, the human figure, particularly its facial details are intimately known to us at a subconscious level. Faking the spatial relations between its constituent parts is easily noticeable to audiences and many 3D conversions have avoided this by keeping faces almost planar (frequently placed at the zero parallax point). In contrast, Jupiter Ascending has produced full, rounded depth in the various close-ups of its human protagonists. Rather than remove spatial relations from the scene, the shallow focus behind them in most of the close-ups allows us to focus on the coarse details of their skin and the exact protrusions of cheekbones, noses and other facial features. At one point in the film, a close-up on bad-guy Balem’s face extends forcefully into the auditorium. He may be leering at another character off-screen but he seems to be sneering directly at us.


One of the aspects that help stereoscopic depth develop in the film is the use of slow moving (virtual) cameras. While many stereographers prefer longer, static shots so that depth planes can be explored in full by audience members who are unencumbered by overtly directional camera work, many contemporary 3D films feature restless camerawork that constantly drags the visual focus of their audiences around. Jupiter Ascending reaches a happy compromise in which depth planes are given time to develop but camera movement aids motion through and exploration of the different spatial relations.


Another aspect is that the film uses every contemporary stereoscopic depth enhancement trick going. Following in the footsteps of other 3D science fiction action films such as Iron Man 3 (2013) and The Avengers (2012), characters (particularly the hunters) are shown to have augmented vision, so that we see the data fields they see on top of the landscapes around them. This allows the film to present layered depth fields where computational and visual data mix in more spectacular ways than are possible in 2D versions. In addition, many of the characters can morph in and out of visibility (as can their weapons and transport vehicles) and, in doing so, become momentarily translucent. As with the data fields, this allows for multiple depth planes to overlap. Like other 3D films, there is also a use of liquid fields to create seemingly thick spaces shared by the film and audiences in the auditorium. The first is the chamber in which Balem’s brother Titus plays with semi-nude females. Although there is no restriction to their breathing within this thick space, it does seem to have the same effect on their bodies as liquid, allowing them to glide and drift. Floating fragments and bubbles that become tactile in stereoscopic depth texture the space. There are also similar liquid like spaces that are used to transport characters from the ground into awaiting spacecrafts. Copying recent films such as The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), a skyscraper battle scene relatively early in the film allows for various descending, vertiginous shots and spacecraft phantom rides through the buildings. And, in homage to the lens flare enthusiasts currently working with 3D (J J Abrams and Michael Bay) there is a pointed use of artificial lens flare, dramatically sending shafts of hexagonal light towards us in stereoscopic depth when protagonists Jupiter and Caine are driving through wheat fields in the country (in 3D films lens flare is only ever a post-production add-on as it is impossible to achieve across two cameras simultaneously). Finally, for audience members waiting to see what kind of frightening creatures will invade their auditorium space, once Jupiter and Caine have reached an old country house, bees swarm around them and then perilously close to us.


This collection of visual tricks isn’t only restricted to the use of stereoscopy. One of the main characteristics of the film is that the Wachowski siblings have thrown together every science fiction/fantasy visual trope of the past century in a spectacular melee. There are, amongst other things, winged reptilian creatures who work alongside human colleagues, complex space craft with old world colonial designs, skinny, naked, bald aliens, mind-blanking devices, space vortexes opening up holes in the starscape, humanoid robots and Frankenstein lightning bolts emanating from the room in which another baddie, Kalique, undergoes gene therapy. The film moves between highly futuristic CGI weapons and data visualisation, and a steampunk style combination of wooden frames, clockwork mechanisms and electronic devices. Unsurprisingly, the plot struggles to be found amongst this stunning free-for-all. I don’t think it matters very much. It is not a film built on its sophisticated narrative or character interactions but rather a testament to, maybe even a show reel for, the great achievements in visual effects that have been achieved over the last century of cinema.