Monday, October 14, 2013

How's The 3D In 'Gravity'?


The best 3D film of the year? Ordinarily conservative critics have fallen over themselves to proclaim Gravity a landmark cinematic event, ranking it amongst distinguished 3D peers like Avatar, Hugo and Life Of Pi. James Cameron, the king of commercially successful 3D films, told Variety "I think it's the best space photography ever done, I think it’s the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time." Riding a wave of breathless hype, Gravity broke US October box-office records, and is fast becoming the 'word of mouth' hit of the year. So... does it live up to the praise? Is Gravity a ground-breaking achievement in 3D film-making?

Post-converted / Natively Rendered 3D:

Modern-day 3D films are produced through three broadly classifiable means; 'native 3D' (where the majority of the movie was shot with stereoscopically capable cameras that have two lenses to capture the information in 'true' 3D), 'post-converted 3D' (where the film was shot largely in 2D by a camera that had one lens, and then later converted into stereo by a company that separates out layers of the 2D footage digitally) or what we at 3Defence call 'rendered 3D'. Often the latter might be a film like Toy Story 3; a digital construction where animated characters exist inside a virtual environment that has mathematically accurate axes, horizons and depth. Wall-E or Up's 3D effects are not automated by any means, but their film-makers do have a geographical point of reference when applying stereo to their rendered footage. Pixar's reconstruction team re-made Finding Nemo 3D in this way, modifying source elements to render out to stereo footage in a way that made sense physically... but in actuality differed from its 2D predecessor. It's all a little bit confusing, and is not nearly as straight-forward as you'd think!

Anyway, that's a gigantic tangent, but we bring it up because Gravity defies classification. The very concept of "post" production is moot; nearly every shot is a 'special effect' stitched together by talented rotoscopers, artists and technicians. When you see a shot of George Clooney's face, it was shot in 'mono' using a 2D camera rig, then post-converted into 3D by Prime Focus World. Complicating definition though is that this face was then superimposed inside a digital spacesuit, which was then placed into a virtual environment, such as the Hubble telescope or the exterior of the ISS. The resulting face is thus just another layer of a natively rendered output. Closer to one of Pixar's rendered 3D films than the post-converted 3D of World War Z. As fiendishly complex as it is to explain this, it must have been doubly more so to actually film it! Gravity was originally due for a November 2012 release date, but the film was granted another half a year to get its effects 'just right', and we can safely say you won't believe your eyes.

The only comparison in modern cinema, as best as we know, is Avatar. While Avatar is famed for being a 'native 3D' film, and indeed much of it was filmed with real 3D cameras on real sound-stages with real humans, a large portion of that movie was rendered through Weta Digital's server farms, with animated characters interacting with filmed ones, creating an 'informed' 3D post-conversion. Gravity, it seems, was made with a similar approach. We can therefore label Gravity as something of a 3D anomaly; a post-converted / natively rendered 3D film.

Does the 3D 'pop'?

Despite the title, there sure are a lot of scenes set in a zero-gravity environment. The possibility of things floating out towards the audience is endless, and doubly so because Gravity is a largely digital creation. The only thing stopping this from happening ad nauseam is Oscar-nominated director Alfonso Cuarón's curative tastes. Negative parallax effects in Gravity are used sparingly, but when they are used they are at optimum points in the narrative, with a pre-determined purpose. Cuarón deploys such 'popping out at the audience' moments in the same way that a master roller-coaster designer might give their riders a brief moment of respite... before then flinging them into an unforeseen and terrifying corkscrew. In Gravity, these 3D effects are therefore used as some sort of appropriately inverse cliffhanger; a second or two of levity before a new and even more dire situation is revealed. The overt manipulation of the audience's emotions is stunning in its simplicity. Cuarón giveth and Cuarón taketh away our movie-going delight in a way that hasn't been seen since the heydays of Kubrick or Spielberg.

How's the depth of the 3D?

The great thing about space is that it's infinite. The terrifying thing about it is also... that it's infinite. From a cinematic perspective, we've never seen that scale conveyed before. We've all seen space-walks on-screen, but we've never felt like one wrong move by an astronaut might send our favourite character spinning into an endless purgatory of relentless high-speed rotation. Space has never been as dangerous as it is in Gravity. Very quickly, you learn to fear "the blind" that exists outside of Earth's orbit, where stars stretch out into a distant blanket of darkness. Of course, you'll also learn to fear what lurks within Earth's orbit, hurtling around the planet at many thousands of miles per hour, approaching far too rapidly from a distant horizon. And you'll appreciate too that a hasty descent to Earth could kill a rogue traveller in their spacesuit, as the continents of our world loom discomfortingly large. Ordinary "Sci-Fi" genre pictures usually rely on exposition to explain all this to their audience, but in Gravity these chilling facts are often conveyed visually; we innately understand the primal fear of our heroes plight, by layers of depth masterfully created by Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.

Did it make sense to add 3D to Gravity?

In the '90s and early 2000s, directors were ramping up excitement levels by shaking the camera and rapidy cutting from one high octane shot to the next. Gravity proves that cinema is able to move beyond such gimmicks, with its long, steady, shots and fluid choreography. Perhaps it might not have seemed the 'perfect' candidate for 3D a few years ago, but coming at the end of a Hollywood blockbuster season stuffed to the gills of shaky-cam 3D epics, Gravity's deliberate pacing and meticulous camera-work seem positively inspired. 3Defence was reminded (as we learned from The Wizard Of Oz recently) that audience's eyes crave the ability to rove around a stereo frame. There is a noticeable feeling of "immersion" when we are allowed to choose what to focus on within a deep-focus shot. More than anything, Gravity showed us that a new language of film-making is possibly still to come for "the best" 3D experience. This is a modern medium that is still finding its feet, and Gravity can rightly be considered a new touchstone for future directors to build upon.

The film itself

Gravity, at the time of writing, has an average rating of 96% on Metacritic. That's not to say the film is "perfect", but it does mean that hardened reviewers are imploring their readers to see Gravity on the biggest screen possible, at their soonest convenience. If it's not clear already, we at 3Defence consider this more of a 'thrill ride' than a cerebral and thought-provoking epic. We don't mean to diminish Gravity's impact in saying that though. We just want to warn you that this has more in common with Sandra Bullock's Speed than it does with Cuarón's thinking-man's sci-fi epic Children Of Men. From our perspective, that's a good thing. Provided you go in with those expectations, you'll have a white-knuckle thrill-ride, the likes of which you can usually only find in a theme park.

If we had to archive one version, should we save the 2D or the 3D?

It's hard to know right now if the hype for this film will last into the next few decades or not. It's unlikely that people in 3013 will look back at Gravity in the same way as they do for 2001: A Space Odyssey or Voyage Dans La Lune. But as of this moment in time, Gravity is a monumental success as much because of its usage of 3D as its taught plot or excellent casting choices. The 3D version is the definitive version as best as we can see, and - if for no other reason than an eventual curio in the ongoing development of modern stereoscopic cinema - the 3D version of Gravity is the one we'd advocate be archived. It's hopefully going to show the way forward for other directors who will build on the lessons taught to them by Cuarón and his team. It certainly looks like another 3D film that will reap Oscars and Golden Globes come early 2014!