Into the Vatican Museums in Stereoscopic Depth

GE DIGITAL CAMERA The Vatican Museums 3D (2014) Directed by Marco Pianigiani

Art house cinemas (and even the bigger multiplexes) have expanded their content in recent years. Whereas their programmes used to exclusively exhibit feature films from around the world, with the occasional short film thrown in, they now have new content that includes screenings of live theatre performances, world-renowned opera and various concerts. One of the newest developments has been to showcase museum content such as the British Museum’s Pompeii Live exploration of their 2013 exhibition. In a further update, Sky 3D in Italy has combined its expertise in stereoscopic technology with this desire for viewing content that is usually location bound to produce a view into the Vatican Museums in Rome. Although the completed film is in some ways closer to a traditional documentary than some of the other expanded content, it does produce a unique, experiential view of parts of the museums and their artworks. With this in mind, it promises audiences they can “literally immerse themselves in the great masterpieces of art history: “enter” the paintings of Caravaggio and, with unprecedented realism, touch Laocoön and the Belvedere Torso, and feel swathed by the figures in the Sistine Chapel that have never seemed so real before.

There is, unsurprisingly, a niche audience for this content, particularly as it combines a type of alternative art fare with 3D technology that is not normally aimed at the demographic for art-house works. Exhibition possibilities have increased as a number of art house cinemas have installed 3D projection equipment in recent years but, unsurprising, when I saw it in Wellington, it was in the smallest room of the Lighthouse Cuba cinema. Nonetheless, for a Saturday morning screening it was very busy. The audience eagerly toyed with the 3D glasses as we watched a 2D trailer for the Royal Ballet UK’s live performance of Swan Lake. This was not the public who are so accustomed to the 3D blockbusters in the multiplexes that they barely take note of their darkened spectacles.

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The beginning of the film takes into account this attentive audience, beginning with a partial glimpse of blurry fingers that take up a large portion of the screen space. We are asked to feel our way around the images before we are given any grounding in space or time. In a subsequent shot dust is shaken off hands and swirled around, a male face in close-up is veiled by some unknown material and a water droplet hits a mass of water before rippling out towards us. This is the film’s acknowledgment that it has a wide range of stereoscopic depth to play with and that it isn’t afraid to use it. It is quite a few shots later before we enter into a series of halls in the museums, each combining perspectival viewpoints and deep space to hint at the stretches of space that host the vast collection of artworks.

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Finally we come to some of the famous sculptures and it becomes clear that this is a film about art but not about flat art. The slow moving cameras allow the 3D to develop into rich depth planes and the sculptures hang out, but don’t dart out towards us. Close-ups on their bulging and receding contours give us very precise texture and various cuts between different angles means it takes us a while to build up a mental picture of the sculpture’s full spatial relations. Even with a voice-over narration and cut-aways to interviews with historian Professor Antonio Paolucci, the focus is on a tactile exploration of the visual fields rather than access to facts and figures. This tactile exploration is emphasised by more of the sensual shots that populate the opening of the film, including further material that seems to reach into our space such as clouds, dust, embers and flowers. In each case, these shots are only tangentially related to the narration of the museums’ history. They are almost gratuitous but ultimately play a role in helping us feel within close proximity to the films visual fields and, by extension, within touching distance of the artworks themselves.

While many of these shots allow us the sense that we are able to explore the textures and contours of the artworks and the spaces that house them, the mixture between a shallow focus on the sculptures and deep focus on the halls that contain the various pieces means that our gaze is being strongly directed in specific ways. We do not have the same freedom as physical visitors to the museums or virtual visitors that enter into tours of museum spaces through technologies such as Google Street View’s museum version. Yet for what we may lose by not being able to traverse the museums ourselves, we gain from the sensory addition of tactile visual fields as well as emotive music that adds to the sensual experience.

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The art history lesson presented in the documentary offers very little that is new to audiences with even just a basic knowledge of Italian art and there are even concerns about historical inaccuracies within the film. Nonetheless, it successfully reframes our knowledge of the artworks through the use of stereoscopic spectacle that gives us, particularly those of us without the means to travel to Italy, a chance to experience them in ways not possible with 2D representations. Traditionalists will likely balk at the way many of the most famous paintings are given enforced parallax separation so that new depth planes are created between their various parts. It is this technique that allows us to “enter” the paintings and perceive them with a different view. The film thus forsakes realism to give us a somewhat uncanny view but one that engages us in new and vivid ways. These factors, combined with the sensory, tactile depth fields means that The Vatican Museums 3D is the cinematic equivalent of an exquisite coffee-table book.

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