Monday, June 11, 2012

Can we compare 2012's 3D movies to early (2D) Technicolor classics?

Over the weekend I bought the Blu Ray for the gorgeous film The Red Shoes. Since its restoration in 2009, it has grown in its reputation amongst cinephiles, so the movie's remembered as a Technicolor gem. The colour used is painterly in tone, with vibrant reds that seem to pirouette off the screen. Glorious hues and fluid movement in a film like The Red Shoes remind us that 3D isn't needed to make movies seem 'alive'.

I mention this, because regular reader Andy tipped us about a great Tumblr post written by Rian Johnson. The post is partially about the "polarised polemic" being used in the 3D "debate". Johnson's opinions are worth considering, because he's a good director and writer (he made indie-hit Brick, followed it up with the under-seen Brothers Bloom, and he's about to kick our asses with the upcoming Bruce Willis / Joseph Gordon-Levitt time-travel thriller, Looper). Anyway, Johnson suggests that we should frame the discussion on 3D by looking back in time at the development of... colour.

Johnson recalls that, in the early days of cinema, we were happy enough to see colour hand-painted onto black-and-white images. As time went on though, we ditched that particular technique, but we didn't ditch the intent it represented. We came up with new tools and better applications of the technique - like The Red Shoes' gorgeous usage of Technicolor - but we never forgot the core goal was to provide beautiful images in colour to rapt audiences. It took us until 2001 to finally get full control over the tone of a feature film, when The Coen Brothers unleashed the computer-assisted O Brother Where Art Thou. That movie will be long remembered for its stunning, autumnal, yellow glow:

The Tumblr post by Johnson starts pessimistically about the way we're collectively discussing 3D, but he ends his post with the optimism of a gleeful fan-boy. The reason for his newfound enthusiasm is the realisation that we've got a long way to go. If we can agree that, in principle, 3D is something that most people agree is visually arresting... then we're going to have a wild ride in the next few decades. Johnson's comparison to colour allows us to compare where we're at with our usage of 3D in 2012. He suggests we might be at a point where our 3D is as blunt as the hand-painted films of the early 20th Century. If that's true, then the next stage in the development for 3D is likely to be as ground-breaking a shift forward as the difference between the image of Charlie Chaplin above and those around it from The Red Shoes. To Johnson, this upcoming evolution seems like a reason to be darned excited about the future of 3D cinema. To us here at 3Defence, it just makes us glad we live in an age where we can have our cake and eat it too. We can watch Men In Black 3-D in the multiplexes, and then return home to Blu Ray images like this as well:

Just in case you missed it the first time, you should read Johnson's full post here:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How good is the 3D in Prometheus? (spoiler-free!)

Prometheus is the most eagerly awaited sci-fi film since Inception. Geeks around the world have been losing their mind with the release of each new trailer, and it's subsequently taken on "Event Film" status. Despite all this, Prometheus is saddled with a lot of baggage. It's Ridley Scott's first science fiction film since Blade Runner; it may-or-may-not-be a prequel to Alien; it's Fox's biggest film since Avatar; it's Scott's first 3D movie; it's hopefully Michael Fassbender's home-run performance and.... well. You get the picture. Let's put that all aside, and focus on the 3D. Because this article's aimed at people who haven't seen the film yet, I'll try and keep it relatively spoiler-free. If you want the experience to be completely pure though, disconnect the internet, and run to the nearest big screen you can find!

Native 3D:

Ridley Scott on the set of Prometheus
3Defence has already written an article about how Prometheus was shot in native 3D. What we've learned since though has been - pun intended - illuminating. The biggest problem for the crew was that the wider Alien series is famous for it's dark shadows, and 3D 's infamously low light levels don't play particularly well with that aesthetic. The team apparently solved this problem in a cunning way: they filmed the sets quite brightly, and dialled that brightness back down again in post production. As Scott himself put it, it's better this way so that, "when I grade it, the digital grading will have something to pick up. If there’s nothing to pick up, there’s nothing to pick up." After all, it's easier to add darkness to movies than it is to add light. So, when you see sinister black hallways in Prometheus, they're the darkest shade of it you've yet seen in a 3D film. The good news is, where there's meant to be light (this, after all, being a thrill-ride of a movie; you're only meant to see what Ridley Scott wants you to see), you'll see it, and it'll look glorious. The better news is, this film was shot by the gifted cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who is most famous for his pioneering work in native 3D done for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. He's taken his previous work to a whole new level with Prometheus though!

Does the 3D 'pop'?

Rarely. There are a few moments where debris breaks through the imagined wall of the screen, but not with the intent of 'coming out at the audience'. If anything, this technique is used to show as much depth as possible in one frame, usually helping heighten the story in a meaningful way. If anything 'pops' from the screen it's likely an interactive hologram, jet exhaust, flames or falling pieces of removed to make sure I don't reveal spoilers.

How's the depth of the 3D?

Immersive. Wonderous. Cavernous! Hallways stretch for miles into the background. The planet the crew land on is a barren and wide-open wasteland, the likes of which we've not yet seen in 3D. Some shots set in space are superior to the opening minutes of similar footage in Avatar. The humans in this film are often dwarved by removed to make sure I don't reveal spoilers objects that are gigantically bigger than themselves, and the 3D effect helps heighten a bizarre sense of claustrophobic agoraphobia. It's like you're terrifingly confined in a massive space. Meanwhile, the ship Prometheus itself is brightly lit - to contrast the claustoagrophobicnes, no doubt - but the ship hides many darkened spaces inside that constantly make you aware there's more to it than meets the eye. All in all, the added depth to this film makes you really feel like you've been to a real place in a distant and faraway land. What more could you ask for from a science-fiction film?

Does it make sense to add 3D to this film?

No. At least, not on paper. If anything, making this film in 3D could have been seen as a ruthless money-grabbing ploy. In hindsight though, it was a genius decision. After a long few months of post-converted 3D films being released to our multiplexes, it's refreshing to finally see a film of Prometheus' quality, planned to be shot in the format from the start, and delivered to us by a cinematic master. Somewhat ironically - considering the film itself is about the cycle of creation, and a will to survive - Ridley's delivered a movie that re-writes the rule-book of how a 3D film can look. For a long time I thought a 3D movie needed either over-saturated colours (Avatar / Tron: Legacy) or brightly lit interiors (Hugo) to look great... turns out it can look good in relentlessly dark hallways, filled with dark shadowy removed to make I don't reveal spoilers things too .

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

I'm going to go with the 2D option on this one. Perhaps that's a controversial choice, given I've just raved about the 3D for several paragraphs. Allow me to explain: the images of Prometheus are so crisp, so pristine, that you don't need to add glasses to make them perfect. Each shot is so well framed that depth is implied, and when things explode (and they do, frequently) you will be covering your eyes with your hands anyway. So, in a hypothetical "the house is on fire, you can only save one version of the film" moment, I'd grab the 2D print and hope I could come back to save the 3D one afterwards. In this case, the overall strength of Dariusz Wolski's cinematography is so striking that I think the film will continue to be remembered as a defining moment in sci-fi/horror history, regardless of the medium used to screen it.