Monday, April 30, 2012

China and its requited love for Titanic 3D

April's nearly over, so it seems appropriate to look back at its biggest 3D movie: Titanic 3D. The Western film critic community were gentle on the release, some going so far as to reconsider their opinions from 1997. The box office grosses State-side were OK enough, but they didn't reflect the massive amount of work that Cameron and his team went through to convert the 2D film to 3D. In my opinion, it's the best conversion we've yet seen. The real news though? Nope, not that film critics were once again embracing a film they were once embarrassed about. Nor was it that the 3D was tasteful and well executed. No, the real news on this film's re-release is based far away in... China.

Titanic's 3D re-release gave the film one last amazing box-office accomplishment: its launch in April became the highest grossing opening weekend ever to hit China. Ever. It made more there in one weekend than it has in the entirety of its US release to date (over several weeks of playing in American theatres). It made $67 million in one weekend, and a week later has now doubled that figure to an extraordinary $127 million. It will continue to gross more, well into May. The Wall Street Journal picked up on this and ran a brief post on it:

I'm not satisfied with their theories though. To summarise, the 'Journal suggest that Titanic's rejuvenated popularity could be due to its narrative's links to traditional Chinese folklore, and it could also be because it adds a fantasy romance into the middle of a drama about the divide between the upper and lower classes. I think they could have gone further with their theories though, so let's play some out. For one thing: it's in 3D. The previous record holder of the Opening Weekend box-office gross record was... Transformers: The Dark Side Of The Moon. That film was another epic ode to mass destruction, also lensed and distributed in 3D. Before that? The previous record was Avatar, still another epic ode to mass destruction, also lensed and distributed in 3D, and to date (I think) the highest grossing film of all time in the Chinese market. Sensing a trend here?

So. Why have three, 3D, butt-numbingly-long action films, made by two alpha male directors.. reaped in around half a billion dollars in China in 3 years? The most obvious answer is that, well, multiplexes exist there now. Huge screens, dozens of theatres in one place, hundreds of rows, all kitted out with 3D projectors. In fact, China has the second most 3D screens of any nation on the globe, and there's clearly a market there, just itching for a chance to put on their glasses. It's impossible (well, rather hard) to pirate 3D the experience of a sold-out theatre when the film's also distributed in 3D. I'd wager that the audience is there in general for any 3D film, provided it's a guaranteed spectacle. The spectacle had best be on a gigantic scale though, and preferably as close to a theme-park ride as cinematically possible. In fact, if you could just make a theme-park based on the film, that'd be ideal.

Titanic itself though, is special. I wonder if the theories on its Chinese popularity could be taken further. The film's set at the end of an era; one where stuffy colonialism is slowly being overtaken by vibrant upstarts. It's a period of time where bizarre traditions are being questioned; where the concept of female norms are being outright overthrown; and the concept of a classless society is almost within reach. Of course, at the same time, characters like Billy Zane's Cal are on the verge of busting into the mega-rich billionaire statuses enjoyed by many in the boom times of the 1920s. Titanic represents a time where the invention of new technologies made global travel possible and conceivable for the masses. I don't think it's outrageous to suggest there are more than a few parallels between China in 2012 and Britain in 1912.

There's one more idea I'd like to suggest, and it's a touch more controversial than the previous ones. I wonder if the role of 'authority' in Titanic and Avatar lend themselves to an overwhelmingly responsive Chinese audience. The characters who are 'in charge' in both films are really interesting. They're portrayed as well-meaning, deeply concerned for the well-being of their people, they're true to their belief structures, and they stand by their moral codes. They are, however, eventually shown to be unable to bend the populace to their will. Their usage of powerful, modern, technology is not enough to control and calm the masses. Deep down, I suspect all people feel these views. I wonder if Titanic's popularity is really because it's a well-made spectacle that uses a history lesson to show 'authority figures' can be wrong sometimes... despite their best intentions.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Frame rates - framing the debate

The debate about cinematic frame rates has heated up again this week, thanks to the upcoming release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Subtitle Adventure. Peter Jackson's been filming it (in native 3D) at 48 frames per second, and Warner Brothers intend to distribute it in this format too. For those of you who don't know, movies have been screened at 24 frames per second for much of the last century. So when The Hobbit finally hits, it's going to fundamentally re-adjust how our eyes interpret what a 3D film is. It's a change I'll be talking a lot about here at 3Defence in 2012.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, but we've been given a fantastic sneak peek at the future today, by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News. He's been branching out into video-based content recently, and today his YouTube series hit a high watermark. Episode IV in the series (ha) sees Knowles interview special-effects guru Douglas Trumbull. This is important for the frame-rate debate, because there's no more of an authoritative source on the matter than Trumbull. In the clip below he discusses his past experiments with frame-rate alterations and where he sees us headed in the not-too-distant future. Of course, 3D comes up a lot too:

It's exciting to hear smart people debating a topic that, essentially, boils down to two questions:
  1. How can we give people a better quality experience in a theatre?
  2. How can we make 3D easier on the eye?
Trumbull, as he has been for decades now, looks further afield than those questions though, asking also "how can we improve brightness to an acceptable level?" and "can we do this without causing too much burden for the new owners of expensive digital projectors?" It would seem motion-blur could conceivably be removed entirely from the 3D cinema-going experience in only a few years' time.

Back in 2012 though, there's been a lot of negativity dished out to Warner Brothers and Peter Jackson this week. They unveiled footage of The Hobbit at 48 frames per second to a room full of people who took to Twitter lambasting its 'made for daytime TV' aesthetic. Their basic argument is that the clips shown were too smooth. We're used to a certain amount of stutter and jutter in action scenes, and I wager they were deeply shocked by its removal. Perhaps because of TV's patchy history with (sometimes) overly smooth movement, it may have given the audience the impression the film looked cheaper than its multi-gazillion dollar budget truly is. Jackson has since had to defend the work publicly, and you can read what he has to say on the matter here. To me at least, the arguments against his views haven't seemed all that well articulated yet. I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt for now, bearing in mind he's a Best Director Oscar winner; made about 3 billion dollars with the Lord of the Rings series; helped bring Spielberg onboard to make his first mo-cap'd 3D film; and owns the world's best visual effects studio. Read the article to make up your mind on the matter.

If you're feeling apathetic on the issue (e.g.: "movies have been fine by me for 100 years, people need to focus on telling good stories for me to be happy"), perhaps I can persuade you to view this wonderful comparison tool. It clearly shows the bluriness we tolerate when we view cinema at 24 frames per second, and hints at what we might be in for in December when Jackson and his crew release The Hobbit:

The difference will be even more remarkable if James Cameron does push ahead and releases Avatar 2 at 60 frames per second: 

Kids, we're in for a wild ride in the next few years. Buckle up.

Friday, April 13, 2012

3Defence's Mission

I created 3Defence because 3D cinema deserves better analysis than it's got in the years since Avatar's release. In early 2010, the film reviewing community seemed to be singing along with James Cameron, "the future's so bright I gotta wear shades". Sadly, the lustre wore off quickly. Two years on, it now feels like the 3D technique is considered, by film critics at least, to be dead in the water and barely able to be resuscitated by the likes of Scott, Scorsese and Spielberg. Venerable and respected reviewers often write flip statements, urging their readers to see the 2D version of a film, without providing justification or context about their reasoning for their preference. And you know what? I went to University to study Film and its history, and I expect more than this crass "reviewing" from our leading practitioners in film criticism.

More than a century into its existence, Film is undergoing another metamorphosis. It's tempting, given the prior additions of montage, sound, anaglyph 3D, CinemaScope, Technicolor, CGI, 5.1 mixes etc, to think the changes happening before our eyes in 2012 are as incremental as what we've seen in the past. We should not be tempted to think this way though. The Cinema as we know it is undergoing a brutal and fundamental shift in every way possible, and we're not doing a good job of writing about what it's like to experience these changes. Movies are sent to theatres encrypted on a massive hard-drive now, and screened with clinical precision at a session time that was remotely pre-arranged and authorised online. Everything about the film-making, screening and cinema-going process has changed, but our generation's critics have so far failed to debate it in a sensible and reasoned way. We are failing future film historians. And that, my friends, is why 3Defence exists.

3Defence's mission is to:
  • Be readable, relatable, and be brimming with content that University students of the future can use
  • Take as a given that current costs associated with 3D conversion or production mean studios will likely 'play it safe' in genres that are known to be generally successful and hugely popular with the theatregoing public. i.e.: the mainstream is all we're getting for a while, and that's fine.
  • Assume an 'innocent until proven guilty' mentality for each new film's usage of the 3D technique
  • 3D conversions of a 2D-shot movie will be covered by the above rule; they're acceptable as a concept
  • Discuss the possible reasons why the 3D technique was applied the way it was
  • If we deem something to be 'bad 3D' - consider how the technique may have been better utilised. Compare similar films to help assess this.
  • Consider which is the 'definitive' version of a film: the 2D, or the 3D. To help with this, ask "if the Library of Congress had to archive only one version... which should it be?"
  • Debate whether a 2D-only film may have suited a supplementary 3D release
  • Preview upcoming technologies in film distribution that will aid and abet the release of future 3D films
So. Let's begin.