Saturday, June 7, 2014

How's the 3D in 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2'?

Background

The fifth Spider-Man film in 15 years, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is also Spidey’s second 3D film. We were reasonably underwhelmed by the 'original' The Amazing Spider-Man, despite it being shot in native 3D. How does the most recent sequel fare in comparison? Read on for all the details on the film’s post-converted 3D, its depth, effects and whether or not we should save the 2D or 3D versions for archival purposes.

Post-Converted 3D

Unlike its immediate predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was largely shot on film, and post-converted to 3D. This task fell to Legend 3D, and Stereo Supervisor Ed W. Marsh. The company has a mixed record with its stereo conversions. Some of their earlier work left much to be desired (eg: Alice In Wonderland and Green Hornet). Like much of the conversion industry, they've upped their game in recent years (eg: Top Gun, Man Of Steel). The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is another  massive step forward for them; average viewers won't realise this film was post-converted 3D.

A film, made on film!
That's a misleading sentence though, because much of the film is not 'post-converted' in the truest sense. Due to the web-slinging nature of the film, large sequences of the film feature hundreds of composite effects shots, most of which would have been digitally rendered directly to stereo by the effects studio in charge. Consequently, most of the action scenes you see in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 are 'rendered 3D', and are therefore as 'native' as the computer generated character they feature.


The movie is a warm looking one, perhaps afforded a softer image by filming on film. Of course, even in 2D you can tell the difference between a digitally shot image and one filmed on celluloid. We mention the film's warmth here primarily because it makes for a nice change, amongst many of its contemporaries. The scenes with Peter & Gwen are radiant, in a way that is as much about the leads' performances as the technical goings-on behind the camera.


 How's the depth of the 3D?


The Amazing Spider-Man from a few years ago had a depth problem. The action scenes were vibrant, but the dialogue scenes were not. Its sequel has learned a few things from this. Half of the dialogue scenes are just as boring as they were last time around, but the other half are staged in locations that emphasize depth. For example, Peter Parker catches up with a - rich - old school friend, and they spend a few minutes talking in a room, separated by an oppressively large stairwell. They then go to a river's side to continue their discussion, which is staged fairly traditionally. But the boys then begin a stone-throwing competition. Each stone thrown goes further and further, and eventually Peter's powers let rip and his stone is seen skipping across a hundred foot of water. These are slights of the hand, allowing for an engaging image while also getting through truckloads of exposition nad 'character development'.


Then, of course, there's the action scenes. When 'Spidey Sense' is triggered, the viewer is allowed to see the world as Spider-Man sees it; the camera can roam in and out of space and time to focus on what's important. As time slows down, and the camera speeds up, the action takes on a balletic quality. This is the most nimble and agile Spider-Man we've seen on screen yet, and his contortionist nature is all the more miraculous in 'bullet-time'. These scenes frequently use focus, color and camera movements to convey geography and choreography. For example (this requires bullet-points to communicate the progression, sorry):
  • Spider-Man might begin a shot in mid-air in the foreground,
  • the camera then whips over to a falling pedestrian, 
  • the camera zooms in on something that endangers that pedestrian (eg: an electrified handrail),
  • the focus then is pulled again and we see Spider-Man, now in the background, engineer his web slinging perfectly,
  • his web then reaches out and prevents a death in the foreground.
This type of sequence repeats itself in key moments throughout the film. Each iteration shows more and more variety of depth, building towards a pivotal showdown between the hero and his adversaries. The showdown, high above the ground, uses stereo-emphasised depth to communicate the peril our hero faces. When a web misses its target, we feel as pained as the hero does. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 uses the bullet-time technique to make for a more engaging 3D image, while enhancing the narrative too. The slow motion allows our eyes to take a rest from camera blur and post-converted characters, and when 'real time' comes back the shock of reality is sometimes made intentionally jarring. Its an overtly manipulative technique, and it works well in 3D.

Does the 3D 'pop'?

The 3D in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is largely in keeping with the modern stereo aesthetic; aggressive negative parallax is used sparingly. This seems like a missed opportunity. Electro's sparks could certainly have flown into the audience, and Spider-Man could have swung over our heads a few times. That gimmick was essentially what made people pay to see Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark and it would work well in this series too. It's not fashionable to have this opinion, but in 3Defence's view, this series has a 'dork' of a main character, and it'd be in keeping with his nature to make a visual joke or two using negative parallax.

Did it make sense to add 3D to The Amazing Spider-Man 2?

It absolutely made sense to distribute The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 3D. The primary villain is bright blue neon coloured, and he fights with startling blue blasts of electricity that illuminate any night time scene. The primary hero is primary coloured himself, and - when he's not battling Electro - is often shot in daylight, in broad and open exteriors. When he's web slinging, there's a deliberately vertigo inducing quality, as we focus on our hero in the foreground while a busy background of skyscrapers rapidly pass behind him. This is the most '3D appropriate' entry in the series so far.

The film itself

The Amazing Spider-Man 2's tagline was "his greatest battle begins". The issue 3Defence has with this film is that "his greatest battle" should have been split into more movies. There's so much going on in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - much of it interesting and of worth - that the film feels rushed and chaotic. Perhaps if an extra half hour were added to its running time, it would have allowed things to settle. Perhaps rogue story elements like Peter Parker's parents' research could have been eliminated to free up more character development. In any case, the film is highly engaging, it just feels like a second draft; bloated with great ideas and poorly cut down for coherency. The "greatest" thing we could say for the film is that it is the closest we've come since Sam Raimi's own Spider-Man 2 to perfect web-slinging action. If you've ever read a Spidey comic, you owe it to yourself to check the film out, just for that alone.

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

The 3D version of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the definitive version to archive. Unlike its predecessor, the film-makers made great decisions here, and designed an engaging 3D experience that you'll remember long after you leave the theatre. The depth of field afforded, and emphasised, by stereo gives the audience a reason to watch the film with glasses on. Legend3D should be proud of their work.

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