Sunday, September 29, 2013

How's The 3D In 'The Wizard Of Oz 3D'?


Ask anyone of Generation Y "what's the oldest film you've ever seen?" and there's a very good chance that (after some prodding) the answer is The Wizard Of Oz. The Victor Fleming film was released in 1939, with World War II a month away from breaking out in Europe. Bizarrely - considering its legacy nowadays - Oz was something of a commercial misfire for MGM at the time. One of the studio's most lavish and expensive productions, it took a few re-releases for The Wizard Of Oz to fully recoup its costs and, more importantly, to be seen by subsequent generations as a landmark event in cinema. The better part of a century later, Warner Brothers now owns the film's rights, and Dorothy's had more "special anniversary box-sets" released than 3Defence cares to count. Warners probably figured out that, after fans have already bought the film on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray in 2009, they needed to do something particularly special this time around. So, for a limited time only, viewers get to see the film on IMAX screens around the world, in post-converted 3D. How'd they do with the stereo? Is this re-release worth the trip to the big screen?

Post-Converted 3D:

This is actually the second 3D trip to Oz viewers get this year; Sam Raimi's native-3D Oz The Great And Powerful underwhelmed us in April. The Wizard Of Oz is a different beast entirely, because it's the oldest live-action feature film to be converted into 3D. It's much older than the likes of Titanic 3D or Jurassic Park, which both benefited from being originally filmed with cutting-edge 1990s technology. Put simply, getting any version of Oz onto the big-screen in a format that discerning audiences would find tolerable is hard enough; and getting a 3D version looking good seems nigh-on impossible. So, let's take a moment to discuss the restoration of the film, and then we can take a closer look at the technical feat of the stereo-conversion.

Filmed with a mixture of three-strip Technicolor and sepia-toned black & white footage, The Wizard Of Oz conformed to the original Academy aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (aka "4:3"). This means it fits better on the screen of your square-looking 1990s CRT TV than it does to your rectangular 16:9 LED TV from the mid-2000s. Likewise, if you project it correctly on a modern-day big-screen, the film will leave vertical 'letter-boxing' lines to the left and right of the image. It's unusual for 3D films to deal with this framing, though we've seen varieties of the square look in Katy Perry's 3D backstage footage and the Raimi Oz film's opening sequence.

The aspect ratio's reasonably easy to accommodate though. The real challenge for any team restoring Wizard Of Oz is the Technicolor negatives. The version you're familiar with of the film is actually an amazing combination of three strips of differently coloured images, layered on top of one another to form an image that makes sense visually as 'realistic colour'. Most Wizard Of Oz re-releases to date have been restorations of that 'end product': the original combination print. What makes the 2013 restoration different though, is that the studio restored and scanned each of the original three colourized layers again (cyan, magenta and yellow) then combined them again into a fresh combination print. The restoration team had a further challenge too - some of these negatives had shrunk to different sizes from one another! What was once "35mm" film was now 34mm in some cases! The team had their work cut out for them. Because of such quirks in this process, you're effectively watching a different film than audiences did in 1939. You're watching a sharper image than the original audiences ever had the chance to; processing these images digitally allowed the restoration team to precisely align each layer on top of one another, and removed the chance of accidental blurring occurring if a strip of film was misaligned.

After months of work, Warner Brothers were able to give Prime Focus World a 4K print that looked more crisp and detailed than any print of the film to date. As the firm's CEO put it, "to be trusted with one of the best known films of all time – an important part of American popular culture – is truly humbling." One challenge unique to this conversion is the average length of each shot in the film; being a 1930s MGM musical, the cuts from one shot to another are purposeful and at a much slower pace than the rapid-fire edits of a modern-day musical like Les Misérables or Chicago. As a consequence, Prime Focus World had to be just as purposeful with how they chose to use 3D in a shot that might run upwards of 30 seconds, lest audience's eyes wander about the frame and find gaps or errors in the chosen stereo effects. All up, the conversion took around 16 months to complete, which possibly makes it the longest conversion in film history.

Does The Wizard Of Oz's 3D 'pop'?

Warner Brothers' Chief Preservation Officer, Ned Price said to Variety “I don’t like 3D unless it’s really good 3D ... so I was probably a good pick to rein in the people we worked with. They’re very good people over at Prime Focus but I think I kept them honest.” Needless to say, Price largely avoided having flying monkeys pop out of the screen, or fireballs thrown at the audience. The few elements of the film that extend towards the screen are usually associated with the Wicked Witch, whose angular nose, fingers and hat occasionally venture outwards. However, the film is largely free of any "gimmicky" popping effects, and the 3D effects used are as conservative as Price's tastes allowed.

How's the depth of the 3D?

Until now, the backgrounds of The Wizard Of Oz looked either like very obvious matte paintings, or they looked like giant hand-painted backdrops that had reasonably obvious lines to the floor. Children might not notice, but adults surely did. In the 3D conversion process, Prime Focus World had to choose whether they made the backdrop look more 'flat' or if they enhance the suggested depth within it. They chose the latter, so the rolling green hills of Oz now look like they exist in three-dimensional space, albeit that they don't look like the pastures back home in Kansas. The effect of this is that the world of Oz feels more stylized than it did in previous versions, and now looks like a particularly fantastical land that feels effortlessly part-animated and part-photo-real. The effect is startling and breathes new life into each image. The haunted forests now stretch out for miles and you feel like lions-and-tigers-and-bears might actually lurk there. The witch's castle looms large over the landscape, as foreboding and terrifying as anything from The Two Towers. Munchkinland now seems brimming with more munchkins than ever before, because you can see how many dozens of characters are moving in the deep background of the wonderful sets there. The tornadoes in Kansas will seem more threatening than you remembered them, and more perilously close to the house Dorothy escapes to. Oz, for the first time in years, feels alive.

Did it make sense to add 3D to The Wizard Of Oz?

With its bright lights, vivid colours, inventive choreography, fantastical settings and varying planes of action (the Munchkins hiding in bushes when Dorothy first arrived were a real treat), The Wizard Of Oz is a natural fit with 3D. Many of the medium's current limitations are avoided thanks to the slow paced editing, locked-down camera work and artificially-lit studio sets. The only reason we can think of avoiding the conversion is that it would be very hard to pull off, and could seriously risk ruining the reputation of a beloved classic if done badly.

The film itself

3Defence has seen The Wizard Of Oz on the big-screen several times over the years, projected in 2D using 35mm. We've obviously all seen the film on TV sets throughout the past few decades, in varying quality of restoration or bastardization of the film's ratios or technical set-up. Throughout every permutation though, the unmistakable genius of the music, acting, set design, costumes, make-up and directing shine through. It doesn't matter what mood you're in, you'll be hooked by the episodic nature of the film's plot, and constantly be surprised at how breezy the narrative is. It's hard to define, but The Wizard Of Oz is one of those films that can hook in viewers of all ages, at any time of day, at any time in film history since its release. It truly is a magical piece of cinema.

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

This question is one we ask for each 3Defence film review. Normally it's an easy enough one to answer, and we tend to side with the 2D version as often as we side with its 3D counterpart. Today though, we are asked to judge the nostalgic memory of a 2D cinematic classic, against the cold hard reality that no version of it exists that looks as detailed or as 'clear' as the 2013's version's remaster. This particular 3Defence reviewer has seen the film dozens of times, but has never seen it in such startling clarity as he did yesterday in IMAX 3D. The film's soundtrack and visuals have never been so lively, and you'll see details that enhance (rather than detract, like say the Star Wars Special Editions) a film that is already a masterpiece. The Scarecrow's makeup alone is worth the price of admission. In 3D, you'll pick up every texture available to be seen, and each detail adds to a more positive impression of the whole film. We're going to say "archive the 3D!" in this case, and we reserve the right to this opinion until an 8K (or suitably ludicrous) 2D remaster release is unveiled for the film's 80th Anniversary!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Gravity - the best 3D film of 2013?

Alfonso Cuarón's upcoming 3D film Gravity has critics spellbound, and looks to be this year's "Must-See 3D Film". Set miles above Earth, the film stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as a pair of astronauts who... have to deal with gravity after a high-speed encounter with space debris. Gravity premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, and immediately started generating Oscar-buzz from the dumbstruck audience.

It sounds like cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's first 3D outing is a doozy, technically-speaking. Breathless reviewers have described long, unbroken, takes that last in the range of 10 - 15 minutes. HitFix's Drew McWeeny appropriately summed up most people's reactions: "It is increasingly rare that I look at an effects-heavy film and don't know immediately how they did it. With Gravity, I'm not even sure what was real and what wasn't." Indeed, if you watch any of the film's trailers or TV Spots, there's a good chance you'll have the same reaction:

So, what of the 3D? 3Defence hasn't had a chance to catch a sneak-peek yet, but we can report the media has spoken very favourably of the 3D effects used. Cuarón designed the film with an IMAX 3D release in mind, and has apparently made dizzying use of the medium, with epic shots of Earth set beyond the stratosphere. In these pictures released this week, you get a chance to see for yourself what the fuss is about. What do you think? Will this be another over-hyped release, or one that will help strengthen 3D's reputation in 2013?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

China's Love For 3D Kaiju, One-Eyed Monsters, And Stereo Raptors

As we enter a new season of movie-going, the Chinese box-office continues to buck worldwide trends in 3D movie attendance. A month ago, the industry had written off Pacific Rim as a well-intentioned exercise in geek-pandering. Jurassic Park 3D had proved that audiences were never going to go crazy for 3D re-releases. Monsters University was a middling Pixar effort. Midway through September though, China has re-written the history books for all three films, and again challenged expectations of the global audience for 3D.

Pacific Rim's experience was the most startling for the industry: a gigantic movie in every sense of the word, it was always destined to do earn more "internationally" than "domestically". It's reasonably common for big Hollywood action pictures to earn 60% of their total gross in the wider worldwide marketplace, and the other 40% or so of their gross comes from the avidly movie-going State-side domestic audience. What no-one expected to happen this year though? A case where a Hollywood tentpole earned less in the USA than it earned in China. At the time of writing, Pacific Rim has just pipped over the $100 million mark in the US... and in the People's Republic it has earned $111 million, with more on the way. In fact, Pacific Rim's opening weekend  was Warner Brothers' highest ever.

So, why did China go ga-ga for Pacific Rim? For one thing, the Guillermo Del Toro picture feels tailor-made for a global audience; it doesn't feel like an American-flag waving sci-fi pic in the vein of Transformers, and it certainly avoided the New York-set locations that giant monsters like King Kong, Cloverfield and 1998's Godzilla have already ravaged. In fact, Pacific Rim's largest fight scenes were set in Hong Kong, and that surely played a part in the Chinese audience's affection for the film.

Of course, the other thing Pacific Rim had going for it was Rinko Kikuchi playing a pivotal starring role. While she's not Chinese, she is an Asian woman cast as the main character in a film that would ordinarily been stacked full of Ben Affleck / Bruce Willis / Liv Tyler types. There is no doubt that this helped sell Pacific Rim as a 'different' feeling blockbuster. And if 2013's box-office grosses are anything to go by, people are actively avoiding anything that feels too 'samesy' these days. That's true no matter what country you live in. Worldwide audiences have passed on RIPD, partly because it felt too similar to Men In Black. Many avoided The Lone Ranger on the basis that it was Johnny Depp doing his usual schtick. Pacific Rim, to Western audiences at least, might well have seemed like more of the Godzilla / King Kong gimmickery they're accustomed to. But to China, it felt sufficiently unique to justify a near-stampede through their multiplex turnstiles.

That 'special difference', from their perspective? 3D, and some stunning CGI. China's certainly seen its fair share of kaiju films (which are historically more of a Japanese cinematic phenomenon), but there's never been one this expensive. There's a saying that you've gotta spend money to make money, and Pacific Rim's Chinese box-office grosses prove there's still some truth to that expression. Audiences there determined they weren't going to watch this on a pirated VCD or DVD: Pacific Rim in 3D was a family event that had to be experienced on the big-screen. Certainly the Del Toro film's outstanding performance proves that Chinese movie-goers still think that 3D elevates a film to 'event status', provided the film's content matches their tastes. On the basis of Pacific Rim's performance, you can expect to see fewer big-budget cowboy films in the next decade, and a much larger number of 3D monster films set in China!

Speaking of 3D monster films... Jurassic Park 3D has exceeded all expectations in China. Its opening day was the fourth highest of the year (trailing only the 3D films Man Of Steel, Pacific Rim and the 2D Furious 6). The 20 year old movie has now ruled the Chinese box-office two weeks in a row. So, why the love for Jurassic Park? In the West, Jurassic Park 3D's middling success was considered by most to be fuelled by a general nostalgia for the film. It's a beloved classic these days, regardless of its flaws, and the re-release was generally well-received by Western media. In 1993, Western audiences were watching the film repeatedly, while China's movie theatres missed out on the Spielberg dino-pic entirely. There was no doubt a pent-up and long-held desire by many Chinese to see the film on the big-screen for the first time. Still, that doesn't explain why the film gripped their box-office for a fortnight. Hollywood explanation? Again, China's apparent love of 3D movie-going. It costs roughly $20 million to post-convert a 2D classic film to 3D, but given that China alone has earned Jurassic Park 3D $50 million+  (with more to come) then it's safe to expect more 3D re-releases that are targeted specifically for the Chinese market's tastes. Don't expect to see Saving Private Ryan 3D any time soon, but we at 3Defence wouldn't be surprised if we see a Jaws 3D conversion released soon!

And Monsters University 3D? Why does that warrant a mention? Well, in comparison to some of Pixar's efforts in China, the Billy Crystal-voiced effort absolutely dominated the box-office. It smashed the record for a highest grossing single-day of an animated film in Hong Kong, beating the tallies of several other 3D films, including Pixar's own Toy Story 3. In mainland China too, the film is on its way to surpassing Toy Story 3's grosses, to become Pixar's most successful film ever there. Traditionally, Pixar films have underperformed in China, especially when compared to their counterparts like Dreamworks or Blue Sky Studios. Most marketing in the country is handled by the same two firms, so advertising is usually not blamed for this phenomenon. Rather, the studio's films - that often praise rebellious and forward-thinking anti-hero figures - are considered the reason Chinese audiences don't gravitate towards Pixar films. Brave, Pixar's first film about a woman, was criticised there for being "too American", despite being set in Scotland and starring Billy Connolly! So why would Monsters University - set in a very American campus, rampant with variants of beer pong and college frat-boy hijinks - not suffer the same fate? Could we attribute that to a continued desire to see 3D films? Or is it just that Monsters Inc. was an already established brand in the country? It's hard to say. In any case, the prequel's performance this year is noteworthy, if only because the film itself is regarded much worse by Western critics than films like Brave and Up. If the next Pixar film outpaces Monsters' performance, then we'll know for sure that 3D is continuing to drive the Chinese box-office.