Mad Max: Manic Stereoscopy

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-lovely-dayMad Max: Fury Road (2015) Directed by George Miller

There are various interesting things to say about Mad Max: Fury Road, not least that it has provoked an outcry from self-labelled men’s rights groups who are outraged at its inclusion of female action heroes. However, as ever, I’m going to concentrate on its use of stereoscopy, particularly what it offers in a (northern hemisphere) summer of superhero franchise and big blockbuster reboots that are also using the format.

In comparison to the first Mad Max film made in 1979, on a ridiculously small budget of around $350,000 but able to gross more than $100 million, this film displays its high budget, no expenses spared, burnt ochre, post-apocalyptic world in every shot. Although much has been made of its use of in-camera stunts and effects, its world creation relies heavily on post-production tools that emphasise and hyper-stylise the manic landscape in which Max now finds himself. One of these tools is stereoscopic conversion, eschewing certain stereographers’ purist sensibilities for shooting 3D films with two cameras. As I have argued previously, the standard of conversions in recent years has improved such that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between films shot in 3D and those that have been augmented in post-production. On the one hand Mad Max: Fury Road has not reached the more sophisticated levels of depth articulation that occur in some of these conversions (such as Jupiter Ascending). In particular it shies away from lingering on human heads in close-up and tends to leave them relatively flat around the zero parallax point. On the other hand it creates its own cinematic use of stereoscopy that pertains less to a realist elaboration of depth relations and instead builds the visceral, embodied assault on its audiences that the other visual elements are aiming for.

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When we open on a landscape shot with the camera moving slowly around the figure of Max standing next to a desert vehicle, it points to the potential for the sublime: the small human contemplating their position amongst overwhelming forces. But this potential is quickly swept away through a frenzied series of speedily edited action shots, intensified close-ups that barely let us register what is happening, an agitated sound track, and the usual assault of stereoscopic debris. First and foremost is the use of the desert setting to seemingly cover us in suffocating clouds of dust and sand but there is also a scene early on when Max is submerged in water and bubbles stream towards us as he struggles to escape the liquid. Towards the beginning of the first chase scene (the film really consists of only two chase scenes, briefly broken up by some dialogue in the desert) the vehicles roll into a gigantic dust storm that resembles the wall of water in the recent Exodus: Gods and Kings. For a while it seems that we might once again confront the sublime but we are quickly placed deep within this dust cloud where objects come hurtling towards us. Various embers, sparks and wayward shrapnel escape the heavy duty vehicles to fly at the audience while the fight scenes allow a further onslaught of material excess. There is little time for concentration here, or for depth planes to develop extensively. Instead we barely have time to take in all the visual information, particularly the characters’ faces that flash at us with their painted, modified and deformed features.

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While the film is thus following certain tendencies of stereoscopic stimulus found in the more hyperactive 3D films, it also introduces another quality that is rarely seen (or at least not purposefully). During Max’s initial flight and capture action is speeded up so that there is a jerky quality to the moving images. Various points in the film that suggest his subjective interaction with events return to this accelerated pace in which strobing rather than smooth articulation of space is apparent. This works in opposition to the recent development is higher frame rate filming that were introduced in order to smooth out 3D scenes so that the image would become more ‘realistic’ and supposedly more pleasurable. Ignoring this, Mad Max: Fury Road brings the artefacts of stereoscopic visuality that don’t conform to our natural vision back into play. While it is not at the level of recent avant-garde works such as Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D, it does show that post-production conversions do not always need to aim for a naturalistic visual field.

A dialogue count in this film would reveal a scarcity of words normally reserved for the slow art house film and in some ways the excessive visual qualities of the film take it away from the mainstream where narrative is so often prized. This quality, combined with the stereoscopic excess in the film, means that Mad Max: Fury Road stands out from the other 3D blockbusters we are going to see this year. With other films in the series supposedly in development, it will be interesting to see how this manic visuality can be maintained.

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3 Comments

  1. Rickyrockard

     /  January 25, 2016

    I’ve just discovered your blog and it’s excellent! Thank-you for taking the time to write down your thoughts.

    On MM:FR, something which might be of interest is the cinematographer’s comments (http://m.hitfix.com/in-contention/how-mad-max-fury-road-lured-oscar-winner-john-seale-back-behind-the-camera) that 3D was never a consideration during shooting (although we also know George Miler had intended to shoot in native 3D but changed plans at the last minute so I guess the consideration for 3D was already there in terms of framing?). Also the cinematographer talks about George Miller insisting the action and focal point of the frame be centred at all times (which helped the viewing experience and really brought something new to the table in terms of shooting action scenes).

    Reply
  2. Geoff Rickard

     /  January 27, 2016

    Hi Miriam, I just stumbled upon your blog as I was looking for some critical writing on the stereoscopy in SW:TFA and am having a little read through your previous posts.

    They’re really well written and make a very nice read. Just what I was looking for – an informed opinion on 3D and it’s affect on a film.

    As for Mad Max, you may be interested to read an interview which I found a while ago but may still be of interest: http://www.hitfix.com/in-contention/how-mad-max-fury-road-lured-oscar-winner-john-seale-back-behind-the-camera

    In the interview John Seale makes a couple of interesting points:

    1) that 3D wasn’t a consideration during the shoot (although we know that George Miller intended to shoot in native 3D until the last minute).
    2) that George insisted on centre-framing every single shot (which would definitely make watching in 3D a lot easier!).

    Anyway, keep up the good work and thanks again for posting your thoughts.

    Reply
  3. thanks Geoff. Those comments are really helpful and an interesting link. It’s funny how the 3D wasn’t a consideration during the shoot but the centre-framing really helps draw the eye along the z-axis. Definitely a film I want to look at again more closely once I’ve got the Blu-ray

    Reply

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