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?

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Flat flat flat Thor: The Dark World

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Thor: The Dark World (2013) Directed by Alan Taylor

 

For me, Thor: The Dark World, felt somewhat flat, which is the opposite of the intended effect considering the amount of money spent on its stereoscopic conversion. Initially I analysed this seeming flatness through attention to the aesthetic development of the film but it was only after a little more thought that I realised the flatness came from a different, but related source: my lack of engagement with the characters and narrative. Perhaps because Thor introduced more comic gags then recent Hollywood action efforts (with the exception of the Iron Man films) it struggled to ground itself in a strong story that I cared about. I had no interest in any of the characters of where they were going in the film. While this is suggestive of narrative flaws it was a problem that was supported and extenuated through the way the 3D effects were used.

The film pivots around a dangerous energy source that has the ability to change the fate of the universe. This substance, aether, is displayed as a red, liquid like substance that often ebbs and flows in a bulbous form. Its tactile surface tantalises the viewer with the promise of touch when it is introduced at the beginning of the film but it is kept at a distance through its placement in mainly positive parallax space. This is a tendency that is maintained in the introduction of the characters and the actions scenes in which they are placed. Like many contemporary stereoscopic action films, the beginning of the film has relatively conservative 3D effects and most of the action is placed in positive parallax. This is true even when the opening battle amongst the protagonists and antagonists, the Asgardians and the Dark Elves, throws explosive and exploding material. Fast editing and an intense soundtrack give the sense of a chaotic unruly environment but little of the material breaches the traditional boundary between film and audience. In a later battle on another of the worlds, Vanaheim, there is a similarly unruly space created amongst a hilly landscape,but cascading showers of soil and splintering weapons seem to emerge only as far as a zero parallax plane before a cut takes place. Alternatively, this material spreads from left to right (or vice versa) rather than towards or away from the audience.

 

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It is only in quieter moments, when characters converse with one another, (almost always in pairs rather than in greater numbers) that negative parallax space is used In the first half of the film. In the shot/reverse-shot set up that occurs in these scenes, a shoulder or arm from the character in the foreground will breach the screen plane at the side of the screen space. Alternatively, characters are framed in a two shot whereby a diagonal perspective line appears to run from down screen left or right into the screen space. At the audience end of this diagonal line is usually some furniture or architecture that has the same effect of bulging towards the audience as the aforementioned limbs. These shots remind the audience that stereoscopic effects are being deployed but their singularity amongst otherwise ‘flat’ scenes means that it is hard for the film to produce the same engaging depth levels as other, more successful, 3D films. The only exception is when central character, Thor, and his female assistant, Sif, converse in a festive drinking hall. Dust and embers swirl around them and into the auditorium, creating a feeling of shared space between audience and characters. In this scene, a particular intimacy is achieved that is absent in much of the rest of the film. That Sif is only a minor character and a similar scene is not set up between Thor and his main love interest, Dr Jane Foster, is telling of the rushed nature of the film that does not truly develop any of its characters beyond information that is already known in the Marvel franchise films.

 

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Like other 3D action films, the stereoscopic effects do grow as the actions scenes increase in intensity towards the finale. The fight scenes between one of the enemy’s Kursed creatures and the Asgardians allow embers to blast towards the audience. Later when more of the Dark Elves arrive, various stereoscopic debris is hurtled around the screen space.  In most cases, the increased stereoscopy takes place amongst speedily edited action scenes so that little time is given for the sense of depth that it brings to develop.

On the one hand, this is suggestive of a fairly conservative tendency in Hollywood 3D cinema that has been championed by filmmakers such as James Cameron who wish to remove the perception of ‘gimmickery’ often associated with 3D. Yet this seems odd considering the various comic scenes that take place in the film suggesting that Thor, like the Iron Man films, is trying to move away from a deferential comic book adventure towards something that is more dynamic and interesting. On the other hand, the limited use of 3D effects may be the result of the film’s conversion process. While the conversion technology used has produced a sophisticated visual field, as evident in the fairly good approximation of depth in the characters’ faces, there is frequent use of shallow focus and even when deep focus is used, the sense of expanded depth planes that is achieved in native stereoscopy is missing. When Dr Foster and her colleagues stumble across an unworldly porthole in an abandoned factory space in London there are various shots of lengthy warehouse spaces, long corridors and deep stairwells. Even though stereoscopic depth cues are used in these shots, a true sense of receding depth is barely perceptible.

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The advances in stereoscopic conversion technology mean that the cardboard cut-out effect that was long hailed as the main problem for stereoscopic conversions is no longer a worry. In this light, supporters of conversion technology such as Barry Sandrew are claiming that there is no reason why films cannot be shot in 2D and converted. However, the emphasis that technology is no longer a barrier elides the initial fear of stereographers who were less concerned with clunky technology and more concerned that filmmakers would not design their films in 3D. With movies such as this one, the visual outcome is now a smooth, painless 3D but it is also a conservative mise-en-scene that does not capture the full potential of stereoscopy’s unique visual quality. Elsewhere I have argued that we have to be careful not to demonise conversion technology under a technological determinist rubric but we do have to consider whether it is acting as a barrier to encouraging directors to truly conceive their films as stereoscopic works. Although Thor is an enjoyable film and a well-placed addition to the Marvel franchise, its 3D effects are somewhat forgettable and indicative of the current range of Hollywood blockbusters where stereoscopy is only conceived as an afterthought.