Stereoscopic Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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***spoilers***

I am the worst of the 30-something cliched Star Wars fans. Having fallen in love with the original three as a small child and having hated the first three when they were released in digital splendor, I have just enough experience to be highly opinionated but haven’t enough knowledge to hold my own in a proper Star Wars debate. There are plenty of us putting our opinion out there online and so I won’t pretend I can add much to analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ plot and characters even when I did like it a lot and fell in love with Rey and what she adds to a male-dominated global Hollywood. Instead, I’ll do what I usually do and write about what was going on with the stereoscopy in the film.

 

The Force Awakens should have been a stereographer’s dream film. It has everything you need to showcase the latest advancements in digital 3D technology: plentiful battle scenes allowing plot motivated material flying at you in the auditorium; vast science fiction landscapes to demonstrate positive parallax receding depth; large space crafts that produce the cavernous interiors that 3D depicts so well; phantom rides as the camera moves rapidly into scenes, made more exhilarating by stereoscopy; and various translucent telecommunication scenes that show the way different depth planes can layer on top of one another. But it was a post-production conversion to 3D and at times it shows.

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For starters, take the opening title – “A long time ago in a galaxy far away.” The neon blue letters on a black screen are faithful to the original but whereas the original had a slight analogue shake that softened them, these letters look they have been added using the Basic Title function in Final Cut. Although they are aligned, the contrast between the letters and the background sit uneasily in stereoscopic depth, not seeming to rest on a particular plane but rather floating somewhat out of synch. Following on, the famous explanatory text then nicely scrolls backwards into positive parallax space but a strong decision about the starscape behind it hasn’t been made.There is neither the textural fabric of stars (not stereoscopically accurate due to our inability to perceive stereoscopic depth when looking at objects that far away but visually beautiful) that have appeared in Gravity and The Martian nor is there a straightforward flat starscape at a distance. Instead, there is a rather weak dusting of twinkling lights that does nothing to engage the viewer as the starscape transitions into the opening shot of the planet Jakku. Complaining about this probably makes me seem very pedantic but these are the small details that a good stereographer or cinematographer with an eye for stereoscopy would work on.

 

Shortly after, when Poe Dameron and Lor San Tekka step outside to watch the First Order ships arrive, the rack focus technique is used to shift Poe out of focus in the foreground and bring Lor into focus in the background. Racking focus like this is common across contemporary Hollywood but it creates a more striking visual effect when performed in 3D cinema. It suddenly becomes more emphatic and there is a noticeable transition as two separate parts of the screen space seem to transform simultaneously. In the 2D version it is akin to our eyes gently shifting from one area to another whereas in the 3D version it seems like the visual world undergoes a significant change. In this way it is a little like the dolly zoom that was made famous in Jaws, a dramatic technique that adds tension and suspense to the scene. This would be fine if the scene needed the extra emphasis but it seems as if the shot was designed for the 2D version and was only meant to be a subtle shift from one character to the other. Throughout the film other shifts in focus occur that take on their own visual emphasis in 3D but seem to do so against the flow of the aesthetic and editing rather than with it.

 

Following a trend initiated in Avatar and epitomized in The Hobbit trilogy, roving cameras are used that sweep and soar with the characters as well as dart towards and away from them. Their use goes against orthodox approaches to stereoscopic filmmaking that prefer static shots and long takes so that the viewer’s eyes have time to take in extended depth relations. Nonetheless they fit a contemporary Hollywood style and public expectation for dramatic action scenes so it is unsurprising that the majority of 3D blockbusters use them. While some Hollywood 3D films are able to construct these shots so that they interact with the spatial configurations of objects in the back, mid and foreground, there is little evidence that this has taken place in The Force Awakens. Instead, stereoscopy is only able to enhance depth relations in a very limited way in these scenes.

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At the same time, post-production conversion technology has come a long way in the last few years and when there is ample material to work with, there is still the ability to produce scenes that are visually more dynamic than their 2D counterparts. In The Force Awakens this occurs most often in the close-ups on characters when the cameras finally rest and there are relatively static shots. For example, when Finn decides to defect from the First Order, every bead of sweat and furrow in his brow is clearly and intensely visible, an aspect matched during the close-up of Poe when he is tortured by Kylo Ren. In another relatively static shot, shortly after being introduced to Rey, we see her slide down a vast sand dune and the stereoscopy helps emphasise how small she is amongst the great trench of sand. While the film has been praised for not relying too heavily on CGI, one aspect that works well with the stereoscopy is the depiction of telecommunication scenes and holography. When the final piece of the holographic map is inserted and Hans Solo walks through the translucent data fields, it feels like we walk through it with him.

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As much as the telecommunications screens are a nod to our digital present, the film does a good job of pointing to the past. Surprisingly, the cheesy wipes and other transitions that haven’t been seen much in recent years work fine stereoscopically and don’t upset our visual sense of space and place. There are also occasional nods (whether intentional or not) to the famous moment in twentieth century 3D when Grace Kelly reaches her hand out directly towards the audience in Dial M for Murder. It occurs most often when characters reach for their lightsaber, a shot set-up that exists in the original films but becomes emphatic as it seems that they really do reach towards us at the same time we know they have no idea we are watching them.
There are hints, then, of how stereoscopy can add to the visual worlds created in the Star Wars franchise and in many ways this is what is most frustrating as it shows what could be achieved if a proper stereoscopy team were brought on board rather than merely handing over to the post-production team at the end. Whether or not Rian Johnson, director of the next two films, will take a different approach is yet to be seen but considering he wrote in 2012 that he would never shoot in 3D, I’m not too optimistic.

3D on Repeat: The Martian and The Walk

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Since I began writing about 3D films, and particularly since I began this blog, I’ve been trying to keep an eye on recurring themes, visual motifs and stylistic additions that might suggest an emerging consolidation of stereoscopic aesthetics in the new era of digital 3D cinema. In many ways this is an attempt to move beyond the popular discussions of 3D films that often reduce their unique aesthetic to a barrage of spears and other items flying at the audience. So far I’ve identified tendencies to use liquid fields (particularly when characters are submerged underwater), stereoscopic debris (small items such as shrapnel and dust motes fly around the screen space), vertiginous shots (often from the top of skyscrapers), and dynamic shifts between deep and shallow focus. It caught my attention that two recent films, The Martian (2015) and The Walk (2015), don’t just incorporate some of these elements but wholeheartedly copy tendencies in recent 3D films, specifically Gravity (2013) and The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013). I’m less interested in whether or not this replication was intentional and more interested in what it says about commercial film industries that are developing stylistic tendencies that build upon traditional cinema modes as well as incorporate the new possibilities that stereoscopy brings.

The closest comparison is between The Martian and Gravity. Even at plot level they are remarkably similar: in both films we begin with wise-cracking astronauts away from Planet Earth who are suddenly hit by a dangerous storm. In each case the protagonists of the films, Ryan Stone (Gravity) and Mark Watney (The Martian), are left to fend for themselves as they try to return home. Both films have gained attention for their dramatic yet potentially realist depictions of space with scientists weighing in on whether or not the events in Gravity and The Martian are plausible. With regards to 3D, the initial storm allows for effective use of stereoscopic debris with parts of a blown-up satellite hurtling towards the characters and audience in Gravity and sharp fragments from the dust storm flying around the screen space in The Martian. The encroachment of this material into the auditorium is a more subtle use of negative parallax space that critics tends to favour, justifying it as a necessary part of plot and character development rather than a gratuitous display. Although both films have been complimented on their use of realist stereoscopy, they both cheat depth relations a little for dramatic vistas. The human eye tends not to perceive stereoscopic depth beyond a certain point, and definitely not at the distance of far away stars and planet. Nonetheless, The Martian opens on a starscape that is textured with modulating depth. In Gravity, Earth seems to have similar depth-rich surfaces even though these would not be visible from the character’s viewpoint in space. Again, it is possible to see how this use of stereoscopy fits in with the more conservative applications of 3D that high budget Hollywood films tend to aim for and critics prefer.

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The main difference in the use of stereoscopic visual fields in Gravity and The Martian is the latter’s frequent landscape shots. In the depiction of Mars we see an alien land, as yet undiscovered compared to the overly familiar Earth which hangs beneath the characters in Gravity. The long shots of the rocky red terrain remind us of the actualities of early cinema but it is now stereoscopic technology, rather than the novelty of moving images, which delivers the attraction. When the storm arrives, dust clouds roll down across the screen space in a way not dissimilar to the spectacular shots of a wall of water ready to rain down on Moses and his followers in director Ridley Scott’s last stereoscopic film, Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). It is telling that Scott is able to build upon his own stereoscopic expertise as well as that of filmmakers going before him. Also worth noting is that The Martian has one sequence that is particularly unique. Although many 3D films have slow motion sequences, this is the first that I can remember to have a fast motion sequence. Occurring when scientists back on Earth are setting up an alphabet to emulate the one Watley places in front of the Pathfinder probe, the sped up motion has a distinct visual feel in stereoscopic depth.

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While the comparisons between The Martian and Gravity are obvious I think there also interesting comparisons between The Walk and the lesser known but arguably more compelling The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Whereas The Martian and Gravity aim for a realist aesthetic, The Walk and The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet deliver a hyper-expressive aesthetic infused with warm brown, and golden orange tones that suggest familiarity and nostalgia. In both films there is a journey of self development: the eponymous 10 year-old protagonist in The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is on a quest to reach the Smithsonian Institute in order to receive a prize for his prodigious work on perpetual motion and Philippe Petit is undertaking an expedition to New York to walk a high-wire between the Twin Towers. The former is surrounded by spectacular images that go beyond narrative development such as the frequent depictions of pop-up book versions of the characters and settings. The depth relations of these visual caesuras appear more vivid in stereoscopy. Early on in The Walk we are introduced to Petit’s earlier self in Paris in the 1970s. The shots are mainly in black and white but, using a style in place at the end of Schindler’s List (1993), certain objects are washed with desaturated colour. They are most often objects in the foreground: the navy blue of police officer uniforms, the spherical candy that Philippe throws towards the cameras before it lands in his mouth. In these moments stereoscopy further highlights their place in the foreground and both 3D effects and colour rendering becomes more expressive than might be found in other commercial films. This expressive quality allows us to accept the way that Petit seems to be constantly speaking directly to us and performing for us.

Drawing upon other 3D films set in urban locations, some of the strongest shots in The Walk are those that display the immensity of the skyscrapers. The first is an inversion of what we would expect: the cameras look up the Twin Towers rather than down them. As more of the action takes place at the top of the Twin Towers there are frequent opportunities to frighten us with vertiginous shots that look down their depths to the tiny streets below. What is strange, though, is the amount of artefacts such as ghosting and strobing that appear in a film that seems to have the budget and the aim to avoid them. The director of photography, Dariusz Wolski is no stranger to stereoscopic productions and is in fact the same director of photography who has worked on all of Ridley Scott’s 3D films including The Martian. Whether he has been supported by better stereographers during his work on previous 3D films or whether the design of the stereoscopic visual fields was taken out of his hands by the post-production company that converted The Walk to 3D, the result is much more disjointed and less fluid visual fields than in other recent Hollywood 3D films. It is a shame as it gives the impression of a slightly sloppy film that does not live up to the careful construction of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. The latter represents French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet successfully delivering a slice of Americana whereas The Walk represents a US director clumsily dealing with French protagonists. This is no more obvious than in the strange plot device that seem to be designed to accommodate the international cast and presumed English speaking audience. Petit supposedly wants to practice English, making his French compatriots speak to him primarily in that language. Although one of the other main characters, Papa Rudy, has been living and working in France for decades, his Czech background means the only common language he can find with Petit is English. These aspects are made all the more ridiculous by the poor foreign accents that the actors have.

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Regardless of the extent to which these films are more and less successful in their combination of narrative and stereoscopic visual fields, they each show the dramatic and expressive possibilities that contemporary digital 3D cinema can employ. It wouldn’t surprise me to see more repetitions of visual motifs and stylistic tendencies in the coming years but it also excites me to think, what will the next break-away style be?

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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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.

Jupiter Ascending: A Spectacular 3D Conversion

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Exodus: An Americana Fantasy

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Last of the Hobbits: 3D and HFR

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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.

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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.

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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.

Step Up All In: Spectacular Stereoscopic Dance

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I’ve always loved writing about dance in 3D films. I’m not the only one to think that stereoscopy is a good showcase for dance: the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg has filmed many of its ballets in 3D; SKY’s 3D channel heavily features dance; and Wim Wenders believes stereoscopy was the only way to represent Pina Bausch’s choreography in his experimental documentary Pina (2011). While critics thought that Pina (2011) was one of the first 3D films to prove the technique’s value, I was hooked earlier on StreetDance 3D (2010). Of course, not all 3D dance films are great and I found the last in the Step Up franchise, Step Up 4: Miami Heat (2012), hugely disappointing but I think that the latest offering Step Up All In (2014) is a return to form.

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Now of course there isn’t any plot worth talking about and the acting is so wooden you could build a house out of the young stars but it delivers exactly what it promises in the trailer: jaw-dropping, spectacular, laws of physics defying, dance moves. At a time in which most Hollywood 3D films dazzle us with unearthly CGI creations, Step Up All In provides something different in its display of human bodies that perform near-impossible feats of tremendous physical dexterity without the aid of cinematic tricks. Unlike the last film’s convoluted ‘flash mob’ premise, this film keeps the focus firmly on the formulaic journey of a dance team’s entry into a high-stakes competition where they have to dance their way from round to round. And while main character Sean may say ‘this isn’t just another dance competition’ it really is. Each of the rounds takes place in a different themed location but they are mainly dance halls in which the most important thing is how the performers dance their hearts out with only some snazzy costumes and a couple of props to aid them.

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The film takes a lot of liberty with traditional framing and editing techniques in order to present its dance to the audience. While the characters never directly address the audience in the cinema auditorium, they often seem to glance straight at us and perform more for our benefit than any audience within the film. In one of its first sequences, characters from The Mob crew perform in increasingly ridiculous costumes at different auditions. In each shot we either see the dancers face us as they perform to a panel of interviewers or we see the panel facing us as they watch the dancers. The two halves of the room never join up and instead it seems as if two groups of people are performing their exaggerated gestures and discussions for us. The stereoscopy gives these rooms deep space, enhancing the theatrical staging. Later in the film, when the dance crew are ostensibly rehearsing, they are really just performing some of their most impressive dance moves straight at the cameras. In each case, carefully controlled limbs and dexterous body parts cross into negative parallax space so that the dancers seem closer to us while the stereoscopy also helps enhance their contours.

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Although the depth design of the film is mainly used to highlight the dancers’ performances, Step Up All In is unashamed about throwing a few 3D ‘gimmicks’ around. Various objects such as hats and jets of water are hurled straight at the audience. Although critics like to berate 3D cinema for throwing objects into the auditorium (spears are a particular obsession), few films actually do so unless it is incidental debris hurtling towards us as a side effect from an explosion. Step Up All In, on the other hand, makes it clear that we are meant to feel as if these objects are coming right at us and are often choreographed in time with emphatic moments of the performances.

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At one moment in the final dance battle, a female dancer uses a fire extinguisher to create a type of scene change. In the first section of the dance routine, performers with fire torches dance amongst flames shooting from the ground to create a type of tribal, heat-infused spectacle. When turned on, the fire extinguisher momentarily halts the dance and its powder jets cover the cameras. Once the powder fades away, the set is bathed in blue light and a much colder scene provides the backdrop for the next set of dance moves. What was remarkable for me when I watched this was that as soon as the fire extinguisher’s powder shot towards me in negative parallax space, I felt a deep chill as if the room temperature really was changing. This type of synaesthesia, when stimulation of one sense (sight) leads to stimulation of another sense (temperature on the skin), is of course possible in 2D cinema but my feeling is that the incursion of the visual field into our auditorium space helps the transfer between senses intensify. All of this is made forceful in Step Up All In because the dramatic dance routines and the frenetic sound track bring us to a point in which we are open to feeling sensations in our body as if we were in the same room as the dancers.

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Step Up All In is unlikely to win many awards for quality cinema but it proves once again that stereoscopy can be applied to a range of genres. It is also a reminder that while narrative is important in many cinemas, there are diverse pleasures to be had in those that are more concerned with visual display. I’m hoping that the Step Up franchise continues to produce its formulaic plots as a platform for the world’s best contemporary dance and that it continues to do so in 3D.

World Cinema 3D

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Although I don’t particularly like the term world cinema, which in its current operation seems to represent any cinema that comes from outside Hollywood or isn’t English-language based, it is a starting point to think about the current state of 3D cinema. With the digital era of 3D cinema firmly ensconced, it is rare for a week to pass in which there isn’t a 3D film in the local multiplex and the new breed of quality movie-theatres – not quite art house but not the multiplex either – are increasingly equipped with 3D screens. Yet for all that exhibition sites have increased, in the English-speaking world at least, it’s the Hollywood film that dominates 3D screens. Over the past few years there has been a flurry of non-Hollywood 3D films including respected art house titles such as Pina (2011), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), Hara-Kiri (2011), TT3D: Closer to the Edge (2011) and Goodbye to Language 3D (2014) but their release has been restricted to limited runs, often only through the film festival circuit.

 

In a recent lecture, William Brown made the case for the development of more of these films, suggesting that the fast paced editing and explosive effects in many 3D blockbusters are unsuited to a stereoscopic visuality that needs time and space to expand in front of the viewer. We are also still in a relatively nascent stage of digital stereoscopic experimentation during which Hollywood films are closely policed for any material that might disrupt the viewing experience or depart from a close adherence to ‘story’. Films outside this system may be best placed to push the limits of what we think can be achieved by stereoscopic constructions of space and vision, as evidenced by Godard’s recent play with 3D technology.

 

As two 3D films (both screened as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival) show, non-Hollywood cinema offers an exciting arena to advance 3D cinema but the success of films in this arena depends on the way in which they use the stereoscopic technologies available to them. The first film, Amazonia 3D (2013) was shot as a Brazilian-French co-production over three years on location in the Amazon region of Brazil. The second film, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013) is a French-Canadian coproduction set in the US. Both have French directors and both have undertaken a slow distribution route around the film festival circuit.

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In many ways Amazonia 3D seems to have the perfect subject matter for 3D cinema. As the IMAX documentaries that maintained 3D cinema throughout the 1990s and early 2000s demonstrated, the natural world is a fruitful area for stereoscopic exploration. Enhanced depth fields can pick out aspects of landscapes that we can only dream of visiting while negative parallax placement can seem to bring us within touching distance of animals, fish and insects that we could never possibly get close to. Amazonia 3D exploits these desires through a fictional narrative that follows a Brazilian monkey’s journey through the Amazon rainforest. Its depiction of lush vegetation is familiar and we have already seen its opening images – aerial shots high above the jungle canopy – in commercially released 3D films, particularly Avatar (2009), Sanctum (2011) and Godzilla (2014). In these shots, and many others throughout the film, the focus is on positioning objects in positive parallax space, inside the frame provided by the borders of the cinema screen. This use of conservative parallax placement adheres to a policy that (while diminishing slightly in recent 3D releases) advocates receding constructions of depth rather than auditorium invasions.

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Throughout Amazonia 3D, we are given access to complex landscapes and rich textures, presented in foliage, lizards, jungle animals, birds and majestic trees but these are often either placed at a distance from us or extensive use of shallow focus flattens them out. There are only a few shots, for example when we see shafts of light streaming through the trees and the cameras seem able to pick up the floating daily mist, that provide us with the sense of thicker tactile viewing fields. Ironically, the most interesting use of stereoscopic visuality in this film is not when the Amazon landscapes are made to look more realistic but when they are pushed askew in a scene during which the monkey seems to hallucinate. His new vision of the world is shown to offer a palimpsest layering of objects that make depth relations in the visual field far more intriguing.

 

In contrast to the conservative use of stereoscopic filming techniques in Amazonia 3D, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet expands its depth budget far beyond many commercial 3D films. It signals at the very beginning of the film that it is more concerned with a presentational mode of visual being than a faithful capture of reality. The opening image of the film is the display of a pop-up book which caricatures some of the characters and events that will take place and each ‘chapter’ in the film is bookended by a similar pop-up book. The use of a pop-up book nods to one of the criticisms aimed at 3D cinema, that it produces what David Bordwell suggests is acoulisse effect” where “the planes we see look like like cardboard cutouts or the fake sections of theatre sets we call flats or wings (coulisses).” Rather than be afraid of this criticism, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet folds it into its display of visual wonder.

"The Selected works of T.S.Spivet" © Photo: Jan Thijs 2012

However, for all that the film revels in the way that it is able to create distinct planes of stereoscopic depth, it also proves that it can provide continuance along the z-axis. In an early shot in the film we are able to see every stalk of grass in the foreground while the hills in the background have their own dominating presence. The stalks of grass do not line up along a frontal plane but rather form part of a detailed landscape that recedes away from us along its own curves. Later in the film, various close-ups on characters’ faces take place and they not only bulge into negative parallax space but also make it clear that they are not operating on flat planes.

 

In its development of a story about a young, precocious, inventor named T.S. Spivet who departs on a journey to present his work at the Smithsonian, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet presents itself as a showy cinema, one in which the plot is frequently illustrated by voice-over, direct address to the cameras, diagrams and drawings superimposed onto shots and cutaways to aspects of T.S. Spivet’s imagination. It is a film that has left any possible presentation of reality behind and instead deals in hyper-reality. Stereoscopy supports this hyper-reality by using depth configurations to modify and expands aspects of the visual field, particularly through the extension of objects into the realm of the auditorium. It is this hyper-reality that I want to argue is one of the most effective ways to use stereoscopic visuality. Rather than becoming encumbered with trying to make 3D cinema as realistic as possible, the hyper-realist production acknowledges that 3D cinema is only ever one way of presenting visual fields and that one of the most interesting things that we can do is play with the permutations of that presentation.

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It would be unfair of me to suggest that The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet ‘gets it right’ while Amazonia 3D is unsuccessful as a 3D film. There is much pleasure to be found in each film and audience members will have their own reactions to the different uses of stereoscopic depth. However I would like to signal that The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet offers a better example of the type of stereoscopic experimentation that can take place outside of Hollywood.

Goodbye to Language 3D: Painful Sight

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Not so long ago I wrote about some of Ken Jacob’s stereoscopic films. Similar to his other avant-garde work, these films eschew smooth, realist representation of the world as we know it in favour of fragmented, disruptive and contemplative reflections on our visual processes. Unsurprisingly, now that Jean-Luc Godard has got his hands on stereoscopy, he is on a similar path. Even more so than Jacobs, his new feature film Goodbye to Language (2014) is about the displeasures of viewing and the impossibility of knowing through sight.

 

Godard’s earlier film, Week End (1967) is still used as a textbook example of how films can alienate and assault viewers. University students across the world are shown it as an example of the way our passive acceptance of moving images can be turned upside down. Plot development is refused, the audience is addressed directly and we are reminded of the fictiousness of all that we see. Even though most students hate it (including those that later come to vehemently love it) Week End is still used more than 40 years later as a successful counterpoint to the dominant tendency in Hollywood to immerse us in its fictions. Goodbye to Language continues many of Week End’s stylistic tendencies but presents them afresh through the use of stereoscopy to function as a new alienating rather than immersive technology.

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At the beginning of the film, white text rests around the plane of the screen’s surface, demonstrating the old elaboration of text in 2D cinema while bold red letters spell out ADIEU in overt negative parallax space. Because of their separation in different depth planes, the red text does not so much obscure the old order text as point to the palimpsest layering that takes place throughout the film. This is enforced a few seconds later when we see ‘2D’ placed somewhere deep in the screen space while ‘3D’ jumps towards us. The temporary and unstable nature of this optical illusion is complemented by a sound track that cuts out and abruptly shifts from one side of the auditorium to the next. It is not only painful to listen to but also makes the audiovisual experience continuously uncertain so that we are never quite sure what we are hearing or seeing. At one point a girl drinks from a cup of water and we seem to be seeing the stereoscopic image laid bare. Rather than one, three-dimensional image, we see two overlapping images as if we were seeing the parallax separation sans glasses even though the glasses are still firmly fixed on our faces. This is just one part of the various layering illusions in which nothing is fixed or stable.

 

Throughout this experience sight becomes painful. While previous films such as Week End made the viewing process displeasurable through abrupt edits, harassing sound fields and a refusal to develop a straightforward narrative, Goodbye to Language does all of this as well as invoke our bodily frontiers to strain the very muscles in our eyes. By using extreme parallax separation (that often makes objects appear frightening close to us in the auditorium) our eyes are forced to focus and converge at the limits of their ability. At a few times this tendency is taken to an extreme not seen before in 3D cinema. During a single shot, one camera shifts from its alignment with the other camera and follows a new visual path to a completely different part of the scene. In this moment, each eye is given an entirely different image and cannot resolve the two together (even though the eyes will try to do so). The only way to make visual sense of the scene is to close one eye in order to gain a clear view whilst forfeiting visual knowledge of the events being presented to the other eye. If palimpsest layering is one of the visual tools most likely to encourage a haptic, tactile, sense of vision in spectatorship, this form of compositing images produces a type of ultra haptic that is both fascinating and almost completely unbearable.

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Yet, for all that Godard is ahead of his time with his experiments in 3D, he is still a director that came of age in post-war Europe and this is no more obvious than in his depictions of the female body. There is one couple that is frequently returned to throughout the film: two conflicted and simultaneously indifferent people, lovers in an extramarital affair. This male and female are seen in various rooms of a domestic setting and, similar to characters in other Godard films, they ponder, swear, muse, defecate, squabble and fart. Frequently they are semi-clothed or nude but it is the woman whose body parts are continuously exposed to the cameras. Her breasts hang out of her dressing gown or her belly and pubic hair bulge towards the viewer. Her male partner, with the appendage that is most likely to ‘poke the viewer in the eye,’ so to speak, is more fully clothed or his nakedness is hidden amongst the recesses of positive parallax space. At one point, standing naked in the kitchen as he exits with his dressing gown on, she says to him “you can’t call this equality” but it isn’t clear if the film understands the problem that its female character is vocalising. Neither of their bodies are particularly erotic as the extreme parallax separation makes these bodies painful to view but it nonetheless seems a relic of the twentieth century that the female body is more fully exposed than her male counterpart in this new form of sight.

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While there is much more to be said about the content of the film, I will leave that to those who can contextualise more fully the themes and visually images that link this film with Godard’s past work. What is most interesting about this film for me, and an aspect that places it far closer to Jacob’s work than any contemporary mainstream 3D film, is the extent to which it would be entirely different if seen in a ‘flat’ version. Most commercial 3D filmmakers are aware that their film will also be screened in a variety of 2D formats (in the movie theatre, on DVD or Blu-ray in the home, on the airplane screen) and so limit the extent of their 3D visuality so that it doesn’t disrupt or prevent the 2D version from making sense. This does not mean that their 3D versions are equal to or can be reduced to the same visual experience as the 2D film but stereoscopy is often an enhancement and heightening of the visual processes that are already at work. In Goodbye to Language, on the other hand, the palimpsest layering that occurs throughout the film would be unavailable in 2D and the images would have a completely different type of resonance. We also see things not seen in other 3D films. It is only the second film I have seen (Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) was the first) that turns the cameras upside down, throwing askew our perception of where we are situated in relation to the images. Its obscene, insistent placement of objects within our auditorium space goes much further than other films, constantly making it clear that all of this is only an illusion. As much as it is a traditional stereographer’s nightmare, this film shows us that we need to take our processes of sight seriously and it asks us how we can ever believe in images that are presented to us.