Would sir like glasses with that? – Thoughts on formats

Ye Olde 3D.

Ye Olde 3D.

Time for some nerdy stuff. Well, nerd-lite if you will, these are just some musings.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, film and cinema have seen numerous advances in technology; from the ongoing digital revolution to blu-ray discs. New formats for viewing films have also emerged so that nowadays we have more options to choose from when embarking on a journey into the cinematic world at our local multiplex. A trio of formats has emerged, each offering a marked difference compared to a standard viewing format. IMAX, 3D, and HFR (and various combinations of them) are available across the country with only the latter being a relatively new addition, and only in select locations. So what are they? And what do they bring to the film-watching experience? Perhaps more crucially, are they any better than good old 2D, in which we have been viewing movies for many many years?

Let’s start with IMAX. The term itself is an acronym for Image Maximum and describes the greater size and resolution of the film used in the specialist IMAX cameras. IMAX films were initially used as exhibitions for museums and adventure-parks, but increasingly the format is being offered as a way to see your average blockbuster. This trend is often a post-production conversion of the film into the IMAX format, but in some cases does seem to offer the enhanced quality obtained from filming directly into the format. To date, I have seen two films that have been upgraded to IMAX; Avengers Assemble and Gravity. While the former offered little improvement over its 2D cousin, the latter was lent a great sense of immersion thanks to the IMAX format. As mentioned in my review, I saw Gravity on the largest IMAX screen in the country and the experience was well worth the few extra bob that I had to fork out for it. Having a screen that completely fills your field of view whilst still looking as sharp as ever has a knack for drawing you in – it almost makes the film inescapable. The superior IMAX sound then adds the icing on the cake as it engulfs your senses, and in this case, pulls you out to the edge of space, right into Sandy Bullock’s helmet.

It is somewhat of a rarity but there are some feature films that have been partially shot using IMAX cameras, including The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and Star Trek Into Darkness. Out of these I have only seen The Dark Knight Rises in an IMAX screening and the transition from normal scenes to IMAX were hardly noticeable, but…watch the blu-ray at home and the appearance of black bars is pretty jarring. I’d love to see a film entirely shot in IMAX but that seems unlikely due to the cumbersome nature of the IMAX cameras, although saying that, Christopher Nolan has reportedly used more IMAX than ever before in his latest project; Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan getting the IMAX view on set.

Christopher Nolan getting the IMAX view on set.

Moving on to the third dimension. Its resurgence in recent years is not the first attempt at establishing itself as a permanent choice at the cinema. I won’t go into the history too much but 3D has actually been around longer than most people think with confirmed experiments into stereoscopy as early as the 1920’s. In the last craze before the current one, around the 70s and 80s, 3D popped up mainly attached to horror features and those of an even less savoury nature. It had its day but the technology wasn’t great and it fizzled out. Now thanks to James Cameron and a few others, 3D has made another spirited assault on the box office, ironically asking us to find new depths in our wallets for some extra depth on the screen.

I’ve seen my fair share of 3D screenings; Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Avengers Assemble, The Hobbit, Amazing Spider-man 2 to name a few, and quite honestly I’m not a fan but my opinion has wavered slightly on my past few outings. It can’t be denied that Avatar was a breakthrough and the added depth was quite impressive. It couldn’t save Avatar from mediocrity but audiences flocked to see it, even going again to see the special edition – how 9 more minutes of Pandora justifies another ticket I’ll never understand! the 3D craze has an ugly side though, and around the time of Avatar, studios were keen to get in on the act and started to retrofit films shot in 2D into 3D. This made for some poor viewing experiences and at worst induced headaches in audiences. It also appeared as nothing more than a gimmick to increase profits based on more expensive tickets – there’s only so many times an object can be thrown out of the screen towards you before it gets old. 3D tickets sales have seen a decline and there have been complaints from audiences, especially parents who have to amass a small fortune in order to take their children to see the latest Pixar or Dreamworks offering. There’s also the issue of 3D screenings being considerably darker light-wise than regular 2D and the need for those hipster-esque glasses. Many believe 3D won’t be around for long, but it’s still here today and at the end of every trailer I see the options for 3D presentation and I’m not so sure we’ll see its demise this time…

The question I often ask myself is, does 3D add anything beyond the obvious, to a film? I’d have to answer that for the most part it doesn’t. But the problem is not with the format, but its use.

Almost every blockbuster film marketed to the widest audience will have 3D as a viewing option. It’s always there, sometimes even against the wishes of the director. It’s added on to drive up ticket prices, slapped on without a care – overused. The only way I can see 3D working is not as a gimmick, but as a cinematography tool, used in the same way as lighting and framing to generate immersion. A great example of this is on display in Gravity. Space is an inky black vastness where depth is indiscernible, but with 3D, Gravity was able to give a sense of space and position for the people and objects it focused on. I have yet to see the 2D version of Gravity so I might be about to eat my words but I can’t see 3D sticking around any other way.

But there is one more twist in the tale; the appearance of HFR 3D. HFR stands for High Frame Rate and is where the film is shot and projected at 48 frames per second as opposed the to the usual cinematic 24 frames. The only films, along with film-maker, to embrace this genuinely new format has been Peter Jackson with The Hobbit trilogy. These films have been shot in 3D at a higher frame rate with the express purpose that they be viewed in that way. When the footage premièred it was met with a wall of disapproval with many likening it to an HD television broadcast – “BBC live from Middle Earth”.

Peter Jackson with one of the many Red Epic cameras used to film The Hobbit trilogy.

Peter Jackson with one of the many Red Epic cameras used to film The Hobbit trilogy.

I’ve made a point to see both Hobbit films released so far in HFR 3D, and it’s left me sitting on the fence. The first moments viewing an HFR film are very strange indeed and take some getting used to. Everything on screen seems to be moving at a much faster pace – the opening shots of Bilbo walking round Bag End looked like a scene from The Benny Hill Show! Thanks in part to the length of these Middle Earth adventures, you should be adjusted before the first major action sequences arrive which is where HFR produces its trump card. The benefit of those added frames is that action becomes buttery smooth and for the first I could see every swing of the sword and every flailing limb. It’s a marked difference. As to whether HFR makes 3D more bearable? I can’t say, but perhaps the complete lack of new HFR films on the horizon speaks for itself. It’s an interesting format and a real game-changer but many see a move away from 24 fps as cinema turning its back on its own heritage – Cinema is almost by definition, at 24 frames.

Overall, pure cinema and film-making is unlikely to be drastically changed by these formats. IMAX gives a boost in visual and audio fidelity but at a cost, 3D is more often a gimmick but has the potential to be used as a tool, and HFR is likely to go the way of the Dodo very soon. Many of the greatest films had none of these extras and are still moving people today – cinema simply needs a camera for filming and a screen for projection, and I think it’ll retain that essence for many years to come.

Besides, 2D tickets are still cheaper than 3D ones!

Rebirth in Space – Gravity (2013) Review

Gravity Poster

Unable to put up with the hype any longer, my friend Brad and I went to see Gravity. Not wanting to miss out on the possibility of a unique experience, we coughed up the extra dough and went all-out for IMAX 3D, on the biggest IMAX in the UK no less! As well as being a thoroughly decent chap for accompanying me on this cinematic journey, Brad also earns the title of (first) ‘Guest Reviewer’, as he adds his review to this blog post. Without further ado, this is what we thought.

Kyle’s review

Space is a void that has fascinated mankind, and in turn film-makers, from the very beginning. Cinema has used space as a setting for films ever since the 1902 French movie, Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), which contains the iconic shot of a rocket crashed into one of the eyes of the moon. It’s fascinating subject matter; a place that in universe-terms seems so close to us, and yet somehow still so far away above the sky that we see. Very few people ever experience space and it’s like another world to us. Gravity is the latest film to take place in space, orbiting just above the earth and like no other film before it, it draws us in to experience the events that befall a group of astronauts. Cuarón’s film is a fully immersive cinematic experience that brings us back to the big screen in a big way.

The plot, despite being set in the vastness of outer space, isn’t that big. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first mission, along with experienced astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), on his last mission. They are servicing the Hubble Telescope when they hear that a Russian satellite has been accidentally blown up and has sent space wreckage hurtling their way. They need to get to safety, but the situation quickly escalates from bad to worse. This is a very personal story that deals intimately with the plight of the astronauts and their fight for survival in the most inhospitable environment known to man. This closeness to the icy grip of space, only just beyond the astronauts helmets, adds to the tension; you feel like they are in danger most of the time and air is at a premium. The action set-pieces are frantic and punctuated superbly by the score composed by Steven Price. I expected the tension to last the entirety of the film but was surprised when Gravity allowed moments of calm before the next onslaught of misfortune. This is definitely a thriller, but I wasn’t gripping my seat the entire time.

Kowalski (Clooney) hangs in.

Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) hangs in.

This is much to the film’s advantage though, because it is in these moments where we get a chance to marvel at the stunning and often strikingly beautiful cinematography. The latest technology is on display here as Cuarón masterfully frees the camera into weightlessness allowing us to float along with the protagonists. The opening shot of the film is so brilliant and immersive that it’s easy to not even notice the technicality behind it. So mesmerised are we with our first lofty view of planet Earth that you barely notice as a shuttle slowly sails into view, and in one seamless shot we are taken from far away to right up close with the characters, gliding around them to get our bearings. The gorgeous visuals are aided by the 3D, I feel for the first time being used to its full potential. Cuarón has seen the third dimension not as a gimmick to poke objects out of the screen, but as a tool to create a believable sense of depth. I think Gravity is the most apt subject matter for 3D; combining with the weightless floaty behaviour of the camera, spacial relations are developed – you immediately get where things are. The first-person shots, although much maligned by some people, are some of my favourites. This is the closest I will ever come to being in space and I didn’t even leave the ground.

Sandra Bullock is given the greatest chance to shine in Gravity, as we follow her character for the majority of the film. Her performance is both emotional and physical and while I didn’t feel instantly connected to her, during the aftermath of one action sequence where she reassesses her situation, I was suddenly hooked and invested until the end. With palpable fear, her heavy breathing is enough to ratchet up the tension but not enough to irritate. Clooney is perhaps a little too comedic and blasé but I think he is there to anchor Bullock’s nervy Dr. Stone.

Dr. Ryan Stone attempts to escape her dire situation.

Dr. Ryan Stone attempts to escape her dire situation.

Unsurprisingly enough, my lasting impression of Gravity is the visuals, and in all fairness they dominate the entire production turning it into a cinematic experience (honestly, you need to see this in the cinema). I also like the use of imagery to convey themes of struggle, evolution, and rebirth. Nowhere is this better shown than when Dr. Ryan Stone, aboard the ISS, curls into the foetal position in zero-g, reminding me of the Star-Child of 2001: A Space Odyssey floating above the Earth. Stanley Kubrick’s space epic broke cinematic ground back in its day, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity does much the same today. An incredible step forward and an incredible film.

‘Guest Reviewer’ Brad’s review

Gravity is a film with many interesting parts, whose whole is more than the sum of its parts. It has great action sequences with a semi-twist; in most action films the characters can fight back, but there isn’t much you can do to combat empty (or not so empty) space. The 3D is really good and whenever it is used obviously, it is to great effect, especially in one memorable scene where you feel like your eyes are being assaulted by space debris. What changed the film from a good one to a great one was some of the other scenes. I think these sections of the film were very well done and helped you identify with the main characters. The scene that stuck with me the most was the one where Ryan (Sandra Bullock) is trying to get in radio contact with another space station, and only finds a random Russian messing around with the radio. The way she reacts is in my opinion, the way a real person would (often this isn’t the case with action films). There are other scenes where the pace changes and you get a chance to get your breath back, or just sit back and reflect on what has passed, another thing that really adds to the film.

I have just two negative things to mention. The first is this; most of the problems that the characters have to deal with don’t come as a surprise, in fact you’re usually told/see what the next issue will be. The second is George Clooney’s character – Matt. He isn’t bad, but never before has anyone been so calm and seemingly happy in a situation like this. It would have been nice to see a bit more emotion from Clooney; Bullock’s character certainly doesn’t suffer from this problem.

Finally, onto the ending. Often I am disappointed by the endings in films; most have too many and either fit into the “everyone lived happily ever after” or “see the sequel” categories. Fortunately Gravity doesn’t suffer from this issue. Does it have an amazing ending? I’m not sure. However, what I am sure about is that it doesn’t have a bad ending and it feels satisfactory.