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.

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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.

STEP UP: ALL IN

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.

My fictitious interview with Michael Bay

***All persons appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental***

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In your new film, Transformers: Age of Extinction, you have exceeded yourself with 2 hours and 45 mins of immense explosions, robots, explosions, cars, explosions, dinosaurs, explosions and more explosions.

Why thank you but don’t forget the love story between a young woman, her boyfriend and her father, that also came amongst the explosions.

 

2 hours 45 min is a lot of screen time. Was that a hard sell to the studio?

To begin with yes but once I had shown the storyboard with the dinosaurs they realised that this wasn’t something you could rush. Especially as the dinosaurs need their own specific type of explosion and we didn’t want that to get lost on the cutting room floor.

 

Your films have become well known for their diverse use of cinematic aesthetics: slow motion, lens flare, high angles, low angles, very high angles, very low angles. Since the last Transformers movie you have been adding 3D to this range. How does that change things?

Although it has its critics I see 3D as just another great part of the filmmaker’s tool-palette. If you want to engage your audience in the battle scenes it’s really great as you can throw dirt at them. If you want to engage your audience in a snow scene then you can throw snowflakes at them. If you want them to really appreciate the Transformers then you can throw bits of robots at them. If you want them to feel what it’s like to be in an exploding skyscraper then you can throw shattering glass at them. The possibilities are really endless.

 

It’s really interesting that one of the first sequences is set in an abandoned movie theatre. Were you trying to make a point about the art form?

I think sometimes we’re all just a little too deferential when it comes to talking about cinema so I thought, why not show some fun men kicking a football around the auditorium. It’s time to liven things up and have a bit of fun with the old cinema concept.

 

There are some pretty smart one-liners in this film. Is that something you take pride in?

It’s a funny thing because after we spent all the budget on the CG effects and creating the flash cars we realised we had forgotten to employ a screenwriter. As I sat around talking about it with my buddies we all imagined what the characters might say and it just kind of evolved from there. We did early screen tests with some of the local frat boys and they were really cool with it so we knew we were on to a winner.

 

With all the exciting battle scenes – you’re crossing two different continents here – was it hard to fit in strong character arcs?

Character whats?

 

Nicola Peltz playing 17 year old Tessa Yeager must represent one of the youngest female Transformer’s protagonists yet. Wait, is it fair to call her a protagonist?

Oh yes absolutely. Because Tessa is only a young woman she does spend a lot of the film screaming, cowering, shaking and looking for the love of her man but Tessa is also totally kick-ass. We made sure to include seconds, actually multiple seconds, of her fighting back against Galvatron’s army. You see her kicking things (her long legs really helped with that), rolling under things (she’s really skinny so that was easy) and running away from things (we thought it was a really smart move to design her costume so that she was in boots not heels).

 

What about some of the accusations that you might be sexualising a teenager in this portrayal?

You know that is something I take really seriously and we all thought about it for a long time. That’s why we have this really important speech at the beginning of the film where Lucas says she’s hot but it’s okay because she’s a teen-ager not a teenager and her dad really fights back, saying that’s not cool. By making that speech kind of funny it allowed us to relieve the tension and address the elephant in the room. We call this type of thing catharsis. It allows us to get all those problems out of the way so that during the rest of the film audiences can take pleasure in what is a very healthy, beautiful young body. Also, even though we repeatedly mention that Tessa is a teenager, Nicola is 19 in real life and audiences know that so it makes it much more okay for them to see her as a sexual figure.

 

We’ve got a new type of weapon in this film, something called the ‘seed.’ Is that a metaphor for something else?

I’ll leave it for audiences to interpret it for themselves but, you know, without a guy’s seed none of us would be here.

 

It’s really common for Hollywood to include product placement these days. You seem to have some very striking examples.

It’s funny because I get a lot of stick about that but the whole scene with Bud Light was there because I really do enjoy Bud Light and if robots had just attacked me I would want a long hard suck on some Bud Light. When we got to China I realised that their milk cartons are really delicious so it just made sense to have one of the characters take a drink from it. And you know what, Victoria’s Secret is everywhere in China.

 

What can we look forward to in the next one?

I don’t want to give away the ending but we see Optimus Prime heading to a different territory and so I’ve already got a team of designers working on the type of explosions that will be most appropriate for where he ends up.

 

Thanks Michael. On a final note, what do you say to the haters?

They love to hate, and I don’t care; let them hate. They’re still going to see the movie! I think it’s good to get a little tension. Very good… I used to get bothered by it. But I think it’s good to get the dialogue going. It makes me think, and it keeps me on my toes, so it’s good.

May 2014 3D Round Up: Transformative Bodies and Dynamic Space

*** warning: spoilers ***

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X-Men Days of Future Past (2014), Godzilla (2014) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

The May batch of 3D films weren’t exactly screen firsts. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), X-Men Days of Future Past (2014) and Godzilla (2014) have had many previous incarnations on the big and the small screen. But their renewal in 3D sequels/remakes comes at a time when stereoscopy has embedded itself as the must-have visual version for blockbuster box office success. I’m not going to try to cover everything these films are doing in 3D but thought that it would be good to draw out some comparisons of the way they are using state of the art stereoscopic and CGI technologies to play with the bodies and objects they put into our screen spaces.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is different from the other two in that this is the second time we have seen the screen favourite Spider-Man appear in stereoscopy. In 2012, arachnids crawled towards the viewer and explosions detonated around the screen space in The Amazing Spider-Man. However, the sequel seems even more willing than the first to explore the full extent of screen space and, as a demonstration of Hollywood’s recent turn from James Cameron’s invocation to remain conservative with use of negative parallax space, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t hold back from pushing objects towards its audiences. In the opening sequence when we see Peter Parker’s parents aboard a private airplane, the first of the film’s many explosions take place. As an assailant shoots bullets through the plane, the vehicle goes into free fall, the engine explodes, and shattering glass and other stereoscopic debris are hurled around the auditorium. The shot ends when the plane seems to fly straight towards the audience. Even before this, we see the film’s experimentation with stereoscopic visuality. One of the first shots is of a skyscraper and it plays with the way rain can enter into auditorium space in a new iteration of the typical rain falling into or out of negative parallax space as well as the typical display of skyscraper buildings in 3D cinema. As rain falls in front of us vertically, the cameras tilt so that the building they are facing is now inclined towards us and the rain, that was until this moment a type of curtain between us and the building, now streams directly towards us. The rain attaches us to the action in the film at the same time that the presence of grand scale is suggested by skyscrapers in stereoscopic depth. This focus on the New York skyscraper setting was an element that attracted critics to the use of 3D in the previous film and in this film, the stereoscopic effects, as Spider-Man swoops through the skyscrapers, seem even smoother. Our first look at Parker dressed as Spider-Man is an over the shoulder shot of him diving down a skyscraper, his leap into positive parallax space creating vertiginous sensations of falling through the air. The subsequent use of slow motion to demonstrate Spider-Man’s position in space, before he carries on swooping from one building to the next, indicates the extent to which the film is confident in its use of stereoscopic techniques and the visceral sensations they can provoke. This type of display is repeated not long after when a truck runs into the side of a bus. Slow motion combines with stereoscopic placement of action across a wide field of positive and negative parallax space so that we can see the exact positioning of characters and metal vehicles as the impact of the crash throws bodies around the interior of the bus. In many ways this is a departure from the chaos cinema of Michael Bay and other Hollywood directors where action and, particularly, crashes are so high paced that we can barely register what is happening in individual shots and instead are only left with the impression of pandemonium.

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X-Men Days of Future Past’s first foray into stereoscopic space is also one that builds upon prior Hollywood visual trends but displays a confidence in its ability to use the full range of stereoscopic space. Although the film starts with a gloomy opening on an apocalyptic earth (a gloominess made even darker by stereoscopic light loss and shallow focus) there is soon a dramatic virtual phantom ride through what seems to be DNA (an indication of the genetic source of difference between the mutant and human characters in the film). In this scene, light is stronger and everything within the CG structures seem sharper, with blue metallic tinges. When we return to the gloomy visual field which we are told is a future Moscow, there is now rain creating a thick space in the auditorium between action and audience. Liquid, as a bridge between film and viewer positions, is returned to throughout the film. When sprinklers are set off in the Pentagon’s kitchen (as Logan and other characters attempt to break out Morpheus) water seems to enter every part of the screen space. Working in a similar way to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, there is then a spectacular use of slow motion that shows Peter Maximoff (working at high speed) repositioning bodies and objects as they move through space. This includes bullets travelling towards characters and arms reaching for guns. In this way, the film takes the visual dynamic of the bullet time effect developed in The Matrix (1999) but uses stereoscopic depth in order to let audiences see precisely how objects and bodies relate to each other in space. The sense of a traversable scene that can be explored by the eye is allowed to play out in full because of the slow pace of the action, once again countering the tendencies of chaos cinema.

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This then takes us to Godzilla, again a stereoscopic first, but one that seems to be rooted in the conservative dialogue around 3D cinema that was prominent when Avatar (2009) tried to set a new quality level for 3D films. Shortly after the opening credits of 2D archive footage, we see panoramic views of a lush green jungle which suggests the film is likely to follow the depictions of stereoscopic landscapes put in place by Avatar. Indeed, there is a tendency to keep action within positive parallax space throughout the film. This is further indicated to the viewer by the frequent use of titles that contain place names positioned around the zero parallax point, indicating where the screen might be. They suggest a boundary between auditorium space and the space of the diegesis. Unlike Pacific Rim (2013), stereoscopic spatial relations are not able to give the same weight and scale to the gigantic monsters they depict and there is an overall sense throughout the film that stereoscopic space is barely explored.

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If we return to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it is not just that it makes better use of stereoscopic space than Godzilla, it also integrates new CGI effects with stereoscopy in dynamic ways. In particular, CGI and stereoscopic effects are combined to completely transform bodies in screen space. When the film’s new baddie, Max, awakens from an electric encounter in the eel tank, he is revealed to have a completely different type of body: a body of light based on pulsating, barely containable energy. This transformation is complete when he is given a new name: Electro. Stereoscopy allows us to see the texture of his new, semi-translucent body as it throbs with the energy vibrating within it. The depth planes provided by stereoscopy and the way they fashion volume means that the unstable contours of this ‘light’ body are more keenly felt. In the remaining scenes with Max, he emits his own light as well as draws light away from other energy sources. This play of light reminds us that the cinematic images displaying him are themselves created by light and are as volatile as his new explosive body. There is more slow motion as Max enters the world outside the Oscorp building and deflects police bullets coming towards him, in this way showing the film’s willingness to display the exact ways in which this play of light functions.

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In X-Men Days of Future Past, CGI characters dominate the film’s events in a future Moscow. Even more so than previous X-Men films, each character’s body seems to have a visual transformative capacity. They morph into liquid states, pulsating fields of light, metallic surfaces and ice structures. These bodies are able to splinter across a dynamic range of stereoscopic space as well as flow around the auditorium. Like Electro, those that are based upon the use of light and energy pulse and vibrate, creating visual fields that have their own vigorous tactility and often seem to radiate light and heat towards us, breaking down distance between our bodies and theirs. These CGI bodies are capturing the morphing capability of animation that until recently live action bodies could not fully incorporate.

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It is telling then, that Godzilla is more conservative in its stereoscopic use of transformative bodies. The giant insects, Motu, and Godzilla have very similar powers to Electro whereby then can suck power from the grid and throb with red and orange power glowing beneath their skins. They demonstrate the ability of CGI effects to transform bodies in ways not possible in the analogue versions of Godzilla. However, when these transformative states occur, their bodies are normally buried within positive parallax space and their energy is never given the chance to radiate towards the viewer.

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Much can be said about the different merits of each film’s plot and characterisation and much has already been written up in various reviews. What I have hoped to highlight here is that stereoscopy in Hollywood action blockbusters has undergone a change in recent years from relatively conservative use of depth planes, particularly those in negative parallax, to a more confident use of screen space. Yet as Godzilla proves, this is not always the case and there is the still the ability for stereoscopic visuality to be used in very different ways from one film to the next.

The Almost Full Circle of Vertical Media

Could our grandparents have imagined a scenario in which we stand in a renovated Victorian theatre, hear an alert on our phone, look down to see a link to an amateur cat video, watch it on a screen not much longer than our thumb, pause the video to save it for later and then walk into the auditorium in order to view a two-hour Hollywood production in wide screen 3D with Dolby Atmos sound?

This is my media landscape.

Do I know what my media landscape will be like in five, ten or fifty years’ time?

No. But I can imagine it.

One of the processes of imagining it has been to look at screen technology and see what has happened to the distinct media of my childhood: the book, the painting, the film and the television programme. In the 1980s they only occasionally converged. Today, I have devices of varying sizes – the smart phone, the tablet, the e-reader, the laptop, the desktop monitor, the HD TV, the cinema at the bottom of my street – that can display them all. The biggest of these are fixed; the smallest can be rotated within my hands and, like the magician’s sleight of hand trick, can change the frame of my media so rapidly that I barely notice the frame is there at all.

So here is a premise, or perhaps a question: if the screen can be flipped, why can’t the content be flipped?

This is the question that has formed the basis for my experiments with vertical media for the last couple of years. These are experiments with colleagues and friends in New Zealand as well as the wider, thinly connected, but sometimes interested, networks of social media peers across the globe. The first experiment was a guttural, almost petulant, response to a video that said that moving-images could not be vertical:

because motion pictures have always been horizontal, television are horizontal, computer screens are horizontal, people’s eyes are horizontal …None of the latter statements are absolute truths (especially not the limited understanding of how our eyes receive and process images).

Some of the very first moving-images, Muybridge’s studies of motion, were in a portrait framing.

Some of the most recent moving-images for advertising displays have been in a vertical format.

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 http://vimeo.com/groups/tallscreen/videos/75845877

The only way to respond to such absurdities (and for many more follow #verticalvideo on Twitter) was with further absurdities: the vertical cinema manifesto

 

Like all good absurdities, there is a heavy dose of truth with in them and my article with Maddy Glen articulates this more clearly.

With these two absurd extremes now posited – a world in which we are banned from portrait framing and a world in which only portrait framing is allowed – the middle ground was less opaque and available for experimentation. This led to three more films, Heaven, Eddie’s Adventure and our entry to the 2013 New Zealand 48 Hours film competition, Vic Dreams. It also led to a workshop to see what else could happen and a glimpse into the other end of the world where other practitioners (Aram Bartholl, Gregory Gutenko, Vertical Cinema Rotterdam, David Neal) were finding their own way through vertical possibilities.

Why, then, is our latest experimentation – the 2014 entry into the 48 hours competition – seemingly a rejection of the vertical form?

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At a first glance this may seem to be the case. It is the first film I have worked on in two years that is in a horizontal format. In its most basic premise Waiting for Morgan is the tale of an aspiring cinema pioneer, James, who gives up everything to invest in the promise of a new vertical cinema that never comes to fruition. Blinded by his excitement in the new technology, James does not realise that he is the emperor waiting for new clothes that never arrive.

Hopefully at a second glance it becomes clear that this is us, back in the middle ground of experimentation and analysis, finding our way through our contemporary media landscape. Like all technological businesses, moving-image industries are in a constant race for the next big thing (HD, 3D, HFR, Ultra HD, 4K, 8K). The establishment of new technologies is often driven by the creativity, love and inventiveness of individual pioneers but it is rarely taken into the mainstream unless it can serve market-driven commercial models. 3D cinema is a good case study as its technological developments and innovations were kept alive through the boom and bust periods of the 1950s and 80s due to the perseverance and dedication of stereoscopic aficionados. However, 3D cinema only became part of a sustainable mainstream context when Hollywood devised a revenue system to make it profitable. Vertical media is currently the preserve of independent and avant-garde experimental filmmakers or amateur filmmakers on YouTube and Facebook (who may not even realise their participation in a new aesthetic). It is unlikely to become part of mainstream culture unless it becomes profitable.

In the same way that 3D cinema is no better and no worse than 2D cinema, vertical framing is not a replacement for horizontal aspect ratios. However, it may become a popular aesthetic when utilised, and made profitable, in new media scenarios. Our new screen environments – rotatable phones and tablets; vertical monitors in airports and train stations- are quite possibly the sites for a new moving-image culture. In our short film, all of this is missed by our protagonist James who is hoping to jump on the bandwagon for the next big thing rather than take stock of the possibilities available to him.

For me (and I hope it is also true of the talented crew and actors who co-created Waiting for Morgan) James’ dying dream does not represent the end of new technological possibilities: an affirmation that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Instead, it highlights what happens when we become driven by individual excitement and forget to look around and take on the advice of the others around us. Had James considered the tablet in his hands or had a more honest conversation with his wife Moira, then his dream might still have been alive.

Within this context, Waiting for Morgan is a modern-day Icarus tale. The message isn’t to give up on the dream of flying, just that soaring too high, without heeding the advice of others is always a potential danger. All those who say vertical framing is wrong and should be ended now, will see many of the early pioneers fall into the sea but from my scholarly perspective I hope to also see some others take flight in interesting and unexpected ways.

 

The 3D female body: Pompeii and Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Pompeii (2014) Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

 

The recent 3D Hollywood outputs haven’t exactly had inspiring narratives or complex plots. My first thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) were that it went something like: formulaic opening battle, bang bang explosion, complicated conspiracy plot, bang bang explosion, more bang bang, the end. It did, however, far exceed Pompeii’s (2014) rather limited combination of Spartacus (various versions) and the Horse Whisperer (1998). Both films combine some good stereoscopic depth of field with varying degrees of spectacular effects although neither uses 3D technology in a particularly innovative way. However, together, they helped me think through some recent ideas I have had concerning the presentation of bodies, particularly female bodies, in 3D cinema. These are still somewhat speculative and will most likely rely on secondary viewings of the films once they have been released on Blu-ray but I thought it was worth a first shot at articulating them.

For me, one of the defining effects of 3D cinema is the ability to present the curves and contours of objects, particularly human bodies, in greater depth. The potential this has for emphasising sexual female curves has already been drawn upon with great glee in exploitation-style 3D films such as Piranha 3D (2010) and the even more obviously titled Piranha 3DD (2012). At the same time, stereoscopy also has the potential to counteract the Photoshop induced drive towards reducing female bodies into slighter and slighter proportions. Stereoscopic depth is often most interesting and most present in its tactile invitation to audiences when depicting, full, rounded forms. There is no reason why female bodies cannot be celebrated within this context.

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Suffice to say, both 3D films reviewed here, Captain America and Pompeii eschew this possibility. This is not to say that they don’t give significant screen time and agency to their female protagonists, Black Widow and Cassia respectively. Rather, it is their visual development of these characters that lets down a thankful (although not yet fully complete) tendency in Hollywood towards rebalancing gender roles on screen.

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Emily Browning, as co-protagonist Cassia in Pompeii, offers an example of how the human form can be emphasised and/or distorted in stereoscopy. Browning’s distinctive facial features, particularly her high cheek bones, have long allowed her to have enigmatic screen appeal. However, in Pompeii, the attempt to emphasise her slim sinewy body frame while retaining sexualised curves (a seemingly Barbie inspired ideal for many Hollywood filmmakers) means that her body often has a type of elongated stereoscopic protrusion towards the cameras. When her face is shot in the same way, her cheekbones and other features take on an eerie sense of exaggeration that looks distorted in comparison to Milo’s (Kit Harrington) more proportioned composure (albeit with some extreme muscles). This is not simply a case of the filmmakers shooting a body the way it is (in this case a particularly slim body). Instead, control of the separation between the cameras as well as manipulation of the convergence angles means that the filmmakers are able to sculpt depth proportions the way they wish. In this case, it seems that an attempt to foreground the curves of Browning’s breasts and her distinctive cheekbones has led to an unnatural distortion of the rest of her body, an aspect that would not be apparent in the 2D version. While I am usually in favour of expressive uses of stereoscopy that aren’t caught up in concerns for naturalistic representation, questions have to be asked about how modifications and exaggerations of depth are played out in different ways across different gendered bodies.

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In a slightly different way, Black Widow is un-shot in Captain America in order to look particularly wispy. By this I mean that instead of distorting Scarlet Johansson’s body in stereoscopic depth, full shots of her body are avoided. In doing so, the impossible ideal of her super slim but equally voluptuous body is left as only a possibility. This is not to deny that Scarlet Johansson is naturally slim and curvy, but as the criticism directed to the poster of Black Widow prior to the film’s release made clear, certain attributes of her body have been enhanced for reasons that are beyond character development. In order to maintain the illusion of a figure that was clearly Photoshopped within the poster, Black Widow’s body is rarely presented in full on screen. She is frequently framed in head shots or at a distance, dashing between other objects, so that it is impossible to determine the full outline of her frame. When her whole body is displayed, it is either so rapidly that her tightly wrapped costume is not available for scrutiny or, in the case of her undercover trip through the mall with Captain America, the plot necessitates she wears a baggy hoodie. While some of the frequent cutaways and reluctance to display her whole body can be explained by the likelihood that a stunt double was employed for many shots, the depiction of her body is very different from that of Captain America and Sam Wilson who are often presented in tight t-shirts during lengthy shots where they face the camera. In Captain America, then, the difficulty of presenting Black Widow’s impossible body in stereoscopy is avoided while the ability to fully celebrate the muscular contours of Captain America and Sam Wilson is maintained.

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In each film the existence of male protagonists, who have bodies displayed in different ways in stereoscopic depth, points to the extent that this is an issue of gender and not simply an accidental turn. It is true that each film has male bodies that are presented in tight clothing and/or without clothing in a way that suggests the male body is as sexually exploited as the female body. However, my tentative thought process is that the 3D cameras are willing to emphasise the men’s existent features rather than distort their bodies into impossible ideals. It is only the female form that is being contorted into a twenty-first century desire for a super slim frame with bulging sexual parts.

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Ken Jacobs, The Pulfrich Effect and Time Based Stereoscopy

ken460Ken Jacobs with wife Flo Jacobs

At a time when film industries are currently working on perfecting 3D cinema delivery, numerous guides and projects aim at perfecting the image’s illusion and making the viewing experience as smooth as possible. In commercial entertainment contexts this makes sense and meets demands expected by many audiences. However, it occludes, to some extent, the potential for artists to use stereoscopic techniques to work against cinema’s perfect illusion and test our relationship with moving-images. One such artist who has been working in this field for numerous decades is Ken Jacobs. Based in the US, Jacobs has experimented with different stereoscopic technologies since the 1960s and, now in his 80s, utilises new digital technologies to continue that work.

As part of their current exhibition on Cinema & Painting, The Adam Art Gallery in Wellington screened two of Jacob’s stereoscopic films at the local Lighthouse Cuba cinema. Both films push the limits of how stereoscopy can be used to produce three-dimensional space and both films draw upon early cinema to reimagine how cinema might be perceived. Neither film makes use of traditional stereoscopy whereby two flat images with a parallax separation are created at exactly the same time and are then brought together to create the illusion of depth. Instead, the images are separated by time. However, each film does makes use of the fundamentals of stereoscopy: by creating two different images for each eye and using viewing technologies to bring those images back together, they seem to produce one image with additional depth qualities.

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The first film, Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896 (1990), incorporates a fairly unique exhibition process with its use of the Pulfrich effect. Developed as a theoretical study by Carl Pulfrich in 1922, the Pulfrich effect works on the basis that if one eye is covered with a filter when watching moving images, each eye will receive visual data at slightly different times. As Ken Jacobs put it in his video introduction to the event, one eye sees the current image and the other eye sees an image from the recent past. When the images being viewed incorporate horizontal motion, the different images received by each eye come together to create the sensation of depth. In Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896, Jacobs put this to the test by showing footage of early Lumière films that constantly incorporated cameras in motion: mainly views from moving boats and moving trains. When viewed without the filter, we have a record of some of the earliest moving-images. Their black and white, often over-exposed and/or deteriorated quality gives us a glimpse of a past that is now gone. The objects and figures that appear in the footage are ghostly incarnations gesturing to us from a place that we will never know, made all the more distant because no sound has been added to the footage. When you place the filter over one eye, an eerie sense of depth suddenly appears. It is not the same sharp illusion of depth that can be found in contemporary digital stereoscopy, but there is a subtle shift in which the clear position of the screen’s plane disappears and the material elements of the footage float in a less determined space. Much of the footage incorporated by Jacobs has water at the bottom of the space. It laps towards us and heightens the sensation of fluid space that can reach into the auditorium. At various points the footage is placed upside down. Although no obvious reason for this choice is provided, it acts as a reminder that there is a highly mediated cinema mechanism functioning between us and these ghosts of the past.

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The second film, The Guests (2013), uses another technique entirely. Taking an early Lumière film that was gifted to Jacobs and his wife, Flo, images are once again separated by time but projected to audiences in an entirely different way. Flo painstakingly cut apart the different frames in the film and pasted them onto glass slides, alternating the frames so that every odd frame could be used for one eye and every even frame could be used for the other eye. Initially these were displayed in a carousel so that audiences could receive the different images for each eye simultaneously. Later, they were converted into DCP files so that they could be displayed on 3D capable screens. In this instance, the odd frames arrive at one eye and the even frames arrive at the other eye through 3D glasses. Because the 3D glasses filter the images so that each eye receives only one set of images, the eyes are then able to fuse these images into one image.

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The initial film was of a wedding party in Paris climbing the steps of the church. Because the people in the film were moving roughly in one direction, the alternating frames are mainly the same but with a slight change in position of the characters. This allows the eyes to be tricked in to believing that they are each seeing the same image but shot from slightly different positions. In this way, the eyes create an illusion of stereoscopic depth. Because objects in the background have not changed position, the process is not dissimilar to the production of stereoscopic depth in traditional 3D films where some objects are placed at a zero parallax point (no separation between them) and others seem to come towards the audience or recede away from the audience depending on the level of parallax separation between them. Of course, the changing temporal relations and the unruly movement of characters in the original film means the creation of depth in The Guests is not a perfect process. Instead, the result is another set of eerie images where the depth relations of some characters and objects pop out and shift in unexpected ways. During the course of The Guests, Jacobs slows down the images so that what was once a one-minute film is now stretched to around 70 minutes. Although this extended length puts huge demands on the attention span of the audience and some argument might be made in favour of a shorter exercise or the display of the film in a gallery where audiences can choose to come and go as they please, The Guests is extremely effective in the way it asks us to reconsider the visual illusion of stereoscopy and the illusion that is at work in all cinema. The way in which characters’ limbs and heads seem to pop out or recede behind other body parts illustrates the false wholeness that is projected in all cinema, but often emphasised in 3D cinema.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this programme of Jacobs’ work was the emphasis on time. The video introduction made it clear that this is an enduring interest of Jacobs and his wife Flo. Their ability to bring forth a consideration of time is what is often missing from the focus on spatial relations that so often dominate discussions of 3D media.

300 Negative Parallax Effects

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 300: The Rise of an Empire (2014)

While the first 300 film (2006) seemed to revel in a slightly camp and very visual exaggeration of the prowess of the 300 Spartan warriors who fought the mighty Persian army in 480 BC, the latest film 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) tries to take itself much more seriously. Not quite a prequel and not quite a sequel, Rise of an Empire is fairly unique in the way that it begins its narrative a little before the events of the first film and then parallels them, providing a different perspective on the wider political events of the time, before finishing just after the point at which the first film came to a halt. In this way, we are witness to (fictional) events at Marathon where the Greek Themistokles fells the Persian King Darius with a single arrow, setting off a serious of events in which Darius’ son Xerxes takes the throne and seeks vengeance against the Greeks. In what could be considered a response to critiques of the exploitative elements of the first film (a nice summary can be found here), the gratuitous display of ‘freaks’ (transgendered, disabled and otherwise different bodies), lesbian titillation and uncomfortable rape, is very much reduced. Rise of an Empire has even inserted a ‘feminist’ antagonist, the sword wielding Persian navy commander Artemisia. The film also allows Queen Gorgo of Sparta to return in an enhanced and stronger role. However, the way in which Artemisia’s military strategy is not complete until she instigates an awkward sexual seduction shows that Rise of an Empire cannot fully shake off Hollywood’s idea of where woman gain their power from. This is all the more sad when we consider that Artemisia really was a navy commander working for Xerxes and was praised for her excellent skills in battle yet the film significantly alters much of what is known about her. There is also the rather difficult problem of the lead actors’ wooden performances and an uninspiring script that’s sole pattern is battle-exposition-battle-exposition-battle. Which is all very much a shame as the 3D effects are rather good.

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In the beginning of the film we enter into a dust filled room with a frieze of the fallen 300 warriors positioned on the back wall. Dust motes float around this room and towards us in the auditorium, creating a thick space that characterizes almost all the scenes in the film. Through a combination of dust motes in interior shots, floating organic particles in exterior landscapes and burning embers in the battle scenes, few moments of the film display clear, empty space between the audience and the characters. In the opening depiction of battle scenes liquid, particularly blood, splatters on the cameras. Although these shots were initially filmed with one camera, the post-production conversion created two virtual camera perspectives (one for the left and eye and one for the right eye), each of which were virtually splattered with liquid. In the first instance this liquid on the cameras seems to suggest a screen that exists between the events and the audience in the auditorium, a contradiction of previous shots in which elements of the film seemed to come right out towards us. This process is repeated when a type of lens flare produces the hexagons of light that also seem to rest on top of the image and similarly create a screen barrier. However, the position of this screen constantly shifts as it is placed at different points in negative and parallax space. Rather than suggesting a stable barrier between the film’s events and our place in the auditorium, these moments enhance the sense of thick space and demonstrate that it is constantly permeable and open to our touch. When combined with the forward motion of cameras we are reminded of the POV perspectives in video games which immerse us in tactile yet frenetic environment, particularly those with similar splattering on the virtual cameras.

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Like many 3D films, liquid spaces are incorporated for their ability to provide justification for spectacular visual moments where liquid almost, but never quite, reaches and overwhelms our bodies. Various droplets are flung around the auditorium space and waves threaten to crash on top of us. Often these are drops of blood, producing that same sense of shock and delight that occurs when exploitation films project bodily fluids towards us. In the 3D film they come even closer. There are also gentler but no less dramatic moments such as the point when Xerxes emerges, reborn as a god, from a pool deep within a hermits’ cave. As his new body emerges from the pool, golden waves spread out and lap at the edge of the screen space. They suggest a liquid flow that joins the various planes from the back of the screen space through to the position of the viewer.

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This presentation is true to the visual field set up in the first film where optical elements were enhanced, spectacular and constantly calling attention to themselves. Rise of an Empire even manages to retain one of the major visual characteristics of 300: the combination of heavily diffused light and shallow focus. The type of flatter, ambiguous space created by this visual tendency is normally contradictory to stereoscopic filming that aims to show the full depth relations of objects in its visual field. However, in shots created in this way the main focal points, such as close-ups on characters’ heads, allows the rounded contours of objects to come forth in ways that could not be achieved in 2D versions. Throughout these processes the visual effects in Rise of an Empire are no more distracting than the first film, but their constant appearance in auditorium space enhances the tactility of the visual field. If the point of spectacle is to overwhelm the senses then Rise of an Empire successfully achieves that goal.

Rise of an Empire just goes to show that the tools are there (and I would quite happily suggest the post-production tools are there) to create expressive and visually enthralling stereoscopic cinema that doesn’t have to be tied to the classical cinema’s concern with realism. Here’s hoping that these tools will be coupled with better scripts and performances next time.