Whatever | April 2010

Whatever | 3D or not 3D
Will Avatar take Hollywood to the next dimension, or are those glasses making us blind?

WhateverAvatarApr2010 Just before Christmas in 1952, United Artists released a functional African jungle adventure called Bwana Devil. The first feature to be exhibited in Natural Vision 3D, its publicity made the famous promise, “A lion in your lap!” Advertising standards would take a dim view of the flimsiness of this leonine proximity claim today, but desperate times – as the 1950s were for Hollywood during TV’s first boom – called for desperate measures.

Just before Christmas in 2009, 20th Century Fox released a functional Pandoran jungle adventure called Avatar. The first feature to be shot in 3D using various bespoke gizmos in the field of motion-capture, its publicity revolved around special tie-in bottles of Coke Zero and director James Cameron talking the film up big-style at sci-fi conventions. No explicit promises were made, but Avatar might have been sold with the guarantee, “Little floaty specs of ash caused by an air strike raining down around your shoulders like dandruff!”

This is not meant as a facetious comparison, even though I have carefully written it as one. In actual fact, not that much has changed between the lion in the lap and the dandruff down the back, except that 21st century audiences are less gullible and more reticent to tear themselves away from small glowing boxes. Bwana Devil did well enough at the box office, as did the knock-on 3D flea circuses that propagated in its wake – House Of Wax, It Came From Outer Space, Robot Monster, The Creature From The Black Lagoon – at least until the sums stopped adding up. But none of them performed like Avatar, even if figures are adjusted for inflation, which they never are or else Gone With The Wind would always be number one and the all-time box office charts would cease to act as a team-building exercise for studio accountants.

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The tin-hat difference between Bwana Devil and Avatar is that the former was conspicuous by its absence at the 25th Academy Awards – it was all 2D confections like High Noon and The Quiet Man that year – while the latter scored nine nominations at the 82nd. By the time you read this, you’ll know whether or not it took home Best Picture. If not, having already shamed his last film Titanic into second place with a world-beating $2.3 billion take (at time of going to press), Cameron will be able to dry his eyes on hundred dollar bills and toss them into a waste paper basket woven from the eyelashes of angels.

The twinkling aura of success that fizzes and pops around Avatar provides a welcome firework display to momentarily distract from an inconvenient truth: that the movies are in trouble. In posh film journal Sight & Sound, Nick James made his own prediction: that the Oscar will indeed go to Avatar, because, as he foresaw it, “this year the industry will vote for the financial, not the aesthetic Best Picture … The business will cheer the money, because they’re scared and they hope that 3D can save them.” In the same issue, Nick Roddick, writing as “Mr Busy”, penned a de facto obituary for Hollywood as we know it: “the studio system is like a dinosaur in a tar pit.” With execs being fired on a daily basis – two of them, Universal co-chairmen Marc Schmuger and David Linde announced that we live in “an era where brands have become the new stars” just before they received their redundancy packages – the impression is of an industry in panic. Why? Didn’t some film called Avatar just make, like, more money than any other film ever except Gone With The Wind and who cares about that old thing? Yes it did. In 17 days. (Now there’s a block graph on an overhead projector that’s going to make up for the lack of croissants at the News Corps shareholders meeting.)

Just as the success of Nirvana led to the signing of Tad, post-Avatar, film studios are literally sending completed blockbusters back to the menders and ordering up an extra dimension, from Clash Of The Titans to the final Harry Potter double-bill Deathly Hallows. The Times reported that LA’s celluloid-to-digital conversion labs are fully booked (“We can turn an older film into 3-D in around 16 weeks,” said the man at one such, Legend Films in San Diego), while super-geeks Peter Jackson and George Lucas are salivating at the prospect of running their respective sagas through the machine, just as Pixar have done with Toy Story. “2D or not 2D?” – that is not the question.

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I wish it was a passing craze, like Sensurround™, Illusion-O™ and Vinnie Jones™, but with 3D tellys being rolled out, 3D Blu-Ray on the horizon and 3D football matches bringing new meaning to collecting up the glasses in pubs, it may be that the man from cinema chain USC was right when he told the Times, “It’s no longer a gimmick, but an expectation.” Not in my house. And I speak as someone who queued up to see Friday The 13th 3D as a teenager in order to experience a pitchfork handle in my face. Nick James is astute when he describes Avatar as “a film for 15-year-olds that grown-ups enjoy for its technological breakthroughs.” I also worry that all this tech-fetishism makes gawping idiots of us all.

Hey, I’m all for the industry being saved – I really like films – but Avatar is not exactly a quick fix. It took years to make and cost $310 million, plus $150 to market. It would be cheaper to release an actual lion into every punter’s lap.

Having said that, those wraparound 3D specs did create the dazzling illusion that Camerons one-dimensional characters were two-dimensional.

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Whoooooooooooooooooo

TA130It’s not all Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary this week on Telly Addict, but some of it is: The Day Of The Doctor (not in 3D in our case) on BBC1; the lovely An Adventure In Space And Time on BBC2; plus some similarly nostalgic black-and-white footage from Dominic Sandbrook’s 60s-set Cold War Britain on BBC2; from a little less far back, some Gogglebox from last week on C4, reviewing the week before; and – a treat – Hinterland, or Y Gwyll, from S4C, a Scandi-style noir in Welsh that’s available here to view on their website, something I suggest you do, especially if you aren’t a Welsh speaker and can enjoy the language barrier and the concentration aid that is subtitles.

Pi-eyed

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I know. We’ve been here before, but I think the point still needs making, and I know I’m not the first, or only, cinephile to make it: but can we just stop with the 3D now, please?

It being the awards season, I’m doing my usual January mop-up of “awards movies” that slipped through my net, or else have not yet been released. (People are always asking me to comment on awards nominations and make predictions; this is easier if I have seen the films! If I hadn’t lost my voice, you would have seen me on BBC News possibly twice last week, but I’ve not been terribly well since making the foolhardy decision to stop working for a week over Christmas.) This week, valiantly, I’ve seen previews of Lincoln, Django Unchained and Flight, caught up with The Impossible and Argo, and I have Zero Dark Thirty booked in for Monday. Yesterday I finally saw Life Of Pi.

Why didn’t I see Life Of Pi when it came out in December? Apart from the demoralising Coldplay song all over the trailer? Because Life Of Pi is presented in, and was designed to be seen in, 3D. This, I understand, is because it’s based on a Booker Prize-winning book which is mainly about a boy trapped in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, and was thus considered a tricky sell, and might explain why it took a decade to get to the screen. So, for all its “arthouse” credentials – directed by Ang Lee, and accordingly taken very seriously by Sight & Sound, who put it on the cover of their December issue – it’s been cooked up and marketed as a magical holiday “event” movie. By presenting it in 3D, instead of a film about a boy on a boat based on a book, it becomes a spectacle you cannot afford to miss this Christmas/New Year; an “OMG” moment. (Incidentally, the print I saw yesterday came with a teaser imploring us to “share our feelings” about the film on Facebook and Twitter, which irked me to my boots.) Result: it’s been garlanded with nominations: three Golden Globes, 9 Baftas, 11 Oscars.

Now, my local cinema has been showing it in 3D and 2D, so the option was there, and I was grateful for that. (They were equally accommodating with The Hobbit, although my reasons for not having seen that yet are because I don’t have the energy.) However, with Pi, because I left it too late, there are far fewer convenient 2D screenings left, and I was forced to see it in 3D yesterday afternoon. Also, and I’ll be perfectly honest here, it was clearly going to be such a spectacle, maybe I ought to see it as Ang Lee intended. Maybe I ought to get over myself?

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Well, it was a bad decision. This is a visually sumptuous film, its first act shot in the actual region of India where Yann Martel’s novel is set. So, even before we get to the middle of the ocean after the shipwreck, there is much to feast the eyes upon. Except, the eyes are locked out of the film behind a perimeter fence; the 3D glasses. Now, I’m not going to blame “smears” this time. My 3D glasses were clean and clear. But the very act of putting them on, in order to unlock the illusion of three dimensionality, places a barrier between you and the light. The sun in Pondicherry is blazing and bright. I lifted my glasses to have a sneaky, blurred look at it: it was pure white in the sky above Pi as he went about his business. As soon as you lower the glasses, it is dulled. It is slushy grey. It’s no wonder 3D films work so badly when the action occurs at night.

The shipwreck scene, spectacularly done in CGI, with swelling waves and crashing water to make The Perfect Storm and Poseidon seem like cartoons (computer technology moves so fast), occurs at night. For all the wizardry at play, and the “depth” of the 3D, it’s so dark, you can barely make out what’s happening. The second half is where we get the meat of the matter: teenage boy and crouching tiger in single lifeboat on an often millpond-calm sea. Many amazing sights are laid on for us: flying fish, luminous plankton, a leaping humpback whale. These might be enhanced by the 3D, if the colours weren’t muddied by the 3D. I tire of wearing those specs, and I tire of watching films through them, even when the illusion has the desired effect of … well, making something look closer than it is, or making something look like it’s in front of another thing.

The benefits are far outweighed by the defects, for me. I look forward to seeing Life Of Pi on DVD, or TV, in 2D. I’m sure it will still be a visual feast. All the work that went into creating that tiger out of pixels will still be there to marvel at, and be moved by. The relationship between Pi and the tiger will still exist. The story will still be told. Ang Lee’s direction and vision will still be intact. But I won’t be wearing heavy glasses, and the colours will be glorious, instead of muted, and gloomy. It’s a price I’m prepared to pay. (Or not pay, as I understand some cinemas charge extra for 3D, which is a bloody cheek.)

I’ve seen 3D used cleverly, in Pina, for instance. And it’s used sympathetically in some of the sequences in Pi. (The effect of making swimmers look as if they are swimming in the sky is definitely enhanced by the trick.) But it’s not just muddying the colours, it’s muddying the artistic decisions being made by directors and studios.

Oh, and that tagline? I am always prepared to believe the unbelievable. It’s what I go to the cinema for. I don’t need assistance.

Glasses, ref!

As you’ve probably gathered by now, Thor is one of the better Marvel comics adaptations, in that it’s directed by someone with a more … let’s say it … Shakespearean take on the source material – Kenneth Branagh – and it’s faithful enough to the original comic to keep the fanboys onboard. I think if it has a trump card it’s the clever way it expects you to take the portentous, echoey Norse mythology scenes seriously, and then expects you to giggle at the fish-out-of-water scenes down on Earth, when Thor is stripped of his powers and banished to New Mexico in order to fall in love with Natalie Portman. Such mood-swings are dangerous in a big, fat film like Thor, But somehow, Branagh and his team of screenwriters pull this off. It’s almost two films for the price of one. Chris Hemsworth, an Australian beefcake whom I understand was in Home & Away, fills out the role of Thor very well, both physically (he’s like two Jamie Bambers squashed together) and in terms of the light comedy.

It’s a set-up story, with lots of set-up to set up – cue: portentous voiceover from Anthony Hopkins’ Odin – and it carefully tees up The Avengers, which is coming soon to a cinema near you. But for me, it was ruined. By the 3D.

I have nothing against 3D per se. It enhances Pixar movies. And in Pina it finds its true calling: bringing clarity and depth to physical artforms. But being chucked at every new blockbuster, as it now is, can only devalue it as a gimmick. Apparently the non-CGI footage in Thor was shot in 2D, and put through the machine in post-production. This, I think I’m right in saying, is what happened with Clash Of The Titans and I’m sure countless others leaping pathetically onto the bandwagon. I hate the way it’s becoming a default setting for noisy action movies. In fact, I admire any big blockbuster that feels confident enough in its own 2D merits to put itself out there naked, as it were. The 3D in Tron: Legacy was horrible, and detracted from the film. And I had the same demoralising feeling when I watched Thor, at the huge Odeon Leicester Square no less. The glasses were fresh from the packet, so my bad time wasn’t as a result of smeary lenses. It was the 3D itself: murky and blurry, and impossible to follow during fast-cut action sequences. Unlike in Pina, it subtracted clarity and depth. Result.

Why would a studio do this to its own product? It’s vandalism. I don’t much like putting on eyewear in a cinema, but when the 3D is good, you are transported away from the plastic wrapped round your head. I am told that 10% of us have a minor eye defect that means we can’t “translate” modern 3D anyway. I’m not one of those people, as I can appreciate the effect; I just don’t like it. Millions of dollars will have been spent creating the parallel fantasy universe of Asgard for Thor, but it is a dark world, and dark worlds become muddy and indistinct through 3D specs. Subtle effects still work well, such as floating fragments of ash or snow. (The best bit of Avatar in 3D was when the flecks of ash came down after they blew up a tree. The rest … well, I could take it or leave it. Actually, I saw Avatar in 2D on Sky Movies: it gained nothing from the third dimension except the ability to deceive with smoke and mirrors; in 2D it was just a so-so jungle movie.)

Can we just stop this now, then, please? Thor is not a bad movie. It’s actually a “solid” three-stars. But I have yet to see it in a form I can truly appreciate it in. Better wait for it to come on telly, then.

It’s the arts

Having scoured all the radio listings for the week ahead in the Saturday and Sunday papers, it seems clear that on Tuesday, a number of other programmes are being highlighted and chosen as picks of the day. But I would like to mention this one: 3D In Perspective, a half-hour documentary that’s on Radio 4 on Tuesday at 11.30am and thereafter, more conveniently, on the iPlayer.

I don’t get to make that make radio documentaries, but when I do, it always makes me wish I did more. In fact, a nice man at the FX Quiz on Wednesday approached me afterward to praise The G Word, the documentary I fronted for Radio 2, two years ago, about Goth. It was lovely to meet someone who’d heard it. I am careful not to absorb too much of the credit for these things: I may be the narrator, effectively, but all the work is going on beneath the surface. In the case of The G Word, it was a BBC producer called Helen.

In the case of 3D In Perspective, it was an independent producer called Tamsin. Sometimes, as with a documentary I presented for Radio 2 about Jaws, and one I presented for Radio 2 about tribute bands, you tweak and edit the script to suit your own style and sit in a booth and read it out. But I was a lot more heavily involved with the creation and making of this one, and this makes it all the more gratifying that I think it’s come out so well. Tamsin had the impossible task of honing hours of material down to 30 minutes, and having heard the result, I think she’s done an amazing job. All I can say is: I was fascinated by the subject, and by the insight of our many learned contributors

This is the official blurb for the programme:

Bringing together the science of 3D television with a wide-ranging history of art and entertainment, Andrew Collins examines our centuries-old fascination with representing the world that exists in three visual dimensions. In modern 3D entertainment, today’s technologists are fighting the same battles with geometry, depth of field, light and texture as 15th Century painters. Award-winning visual effects supervisor, Paddy Eason discusses the debt that 3D imaging owes to its painterly predecessors.

At The National Gallery, art historian Professor David Ekserdjian explains how, from the changing shape of a canvas to the arrival of oil paint, the architects and artists of the Renaissance, challenged our notions of reality. Andrew enters a world of optical illusion, trawling piles of perspective pictures and stereo photographs at The Bill Douglas Centre for The History of Cinema and Popular Culture. Lecturer in Victorian Studies, John Plunkett explains, the appeal of 18th and 19th century optical or ‘philosophical’ toys, made possible by good lenses and mirrors. Often dismissed as novelty, they emerged from groundbreaking research on the physiology of vision.

The history of 3D is littered with failed technologies, including 3D films that predate cinema sound. Professor Neil Dodgson from The Computer Laboratory in Cambridge is a 3D expert. He outlines the obstacles, in particular the poorly paid projectionist and ultimately the limitations of human vision. Neuroscientist Dr Sue Barry, understands the visceral appeal of 3D. Aged fifty, she experienced her first thrilling sense of 3D immersion after years of being ‘stereoblind’ and suggests why we are so preoccupied with experiencing virtual 3D space.

It is, as they’ll say at the end, a Testbed production for BBC Radio 4. If you seek it out, I hope you like it.