7.10.11

another dimension...new galaxy?

Those not of a geeky persuasion (if that is you, thank you for gracing my blog with your acceptably cool self!) may not have heard a large hubbub in the nerd community regarding the release of the star wars saga on blu-rayI thought I loved the Lucas lunch-ticket that is star wars as much as the next man, but I would be sorely mistaken with regard to the nuances which are causing the collective vitriol of the geek community to rise such as has never been seen before. Granted Lucas has made some major blunders in his days as he rode about on Lando’s dashing cloak tails, but adding an additional “Nooo!” here or there does not really undermine the emotion of an individual scene or the scope of the overall saga. I am currently here to offer a small saving grace to Mr Lucas in this bleak hour of fanboy insurrection in the form of a trend which has been darkening our screens far worse than repeated re-hashings of star wars ever could.


There has been rumour abound regarding the eventual release of the entire star wars saga in 3D. Where Lucas has spared himself – as well as us, the viewers – is that this plan was formulated in 2005, mere moments after the release of Episode III and subsequently withheld from production by Lucas himself. The issue is in the differing way in which we, the audience are sold the concept of 3D, Lucas’ plans would include a transposing of two dimensional imagery into a three dimensional medium at great expense and as has been shown some significant detriment to the look and feel of a film. Lucas believes that this transfer technology is not yet advanced enough to give star wars the credibility it would need to hold its own as a 3D film in the current market, less so as the saga would begin with the ropey-at-best ‘Phantom menace’.

It may shock a lot of people but, of the slew of advertised ‘3D’ films released since the recent resurgence of the concept only two have been shot with an actual 3D camera. ‘Avatar’ by pioneer of the latest step in the technology James Cameron is now the biggest grossing film in history, partly due to advertising and timing but also because the lush feel of the alien environment was translated across the screen to audiences with respect and proper use of the new system. Reinventing the use of 3D for cinema, Cameron cast aside the jaded ‘jumping from the screen’ gimmicks of the past to do what three dimensional space does to each of us every day, create depth.  The use of 3D in ‘Avatar’ added considerable weight to the concept of cinema as an experience, an event yet to be rivalled by the meteoric rises in home theatre technology. This is one of the major arguments against the transpositional use of 3D, that covertly it uses the ‘experience’ angle as an excuse to draw people back to what was a mildly flailing industry at increased revenue. If you can’t recreate it at home then cinema becomes a closed market filled with a captive audience given no choice but to swallow poorly produced films sold on an experience while being kept from the details to make adequate choices in their viewing.    

The only other movie which filmed live actors using a 3D camera was aptly Disney’s much anticipated sequel to the tech-heavy 80’s cult classic ‘Tron: Legacy’. Tron used 3D to its full potential by openly telling its audience that the first 20 minutes or so of the film was not in 3D so that revealing The Grid, in all its depth and glory, was a truly glorious experience and once again 3D was used to give you a greater feel of a world beyond your imagination. Not wishing to cause confusion, there have been other 3D films which create the real depth effect of filming with two cameras although these cameras didn't actually exist. CG and animated films have an upper hand in the 3D stakes as it costs them next to nothing to drop in another camera to render from a different angle, so catching something like ‘Up’, ‘Toy story 3’ or ‘How to train your dragon’ come under the canvas of ‘real 3D’ in as much as each scene was filmed using two cameras from different angles to create a depth of vision when projected and polarised.

The differentiation I’m attempting to put forth is in process, in the modern idea of 3D films a distinction should be made between those shot in 3D i.e. with a two camera setup, including the use of CG render cameras and those films which are shot like a regular film and later transposed to a three dimensional state through a conversion process. The reason the later is a problem is that it is sold to the audience as an experience, with the same kudos and price-tag one can expect from a 3D film but, ultimately is a very different creature, born only to elicit a larger profit at the audience’s expense.    
The process of converting a 2D film into 3D is a case of hours spent pulling apart an image to create layers which were not previously there, much like the layering technique in Photoshop. This is a time consuming and expensive task requiring 150-300 people per film at a cost of 50-100 thousand dollars per minute of converted film. The layers are not created as a batch throughout the whole film, and while auto-conversion software is under heavy development, the film must be picked apart and layers created frame by frame.

The average cinema summer blockbuster is approximately ninety minutes long; with twenty four frames each second it projects, at a cost of $50k per minute:

90 x 60 = 5400 second in the average film
5400 x 24 = 129,600 frames per film

90 x 50,000 = $4.5 million the cost of conversion

This summation rings true as it was said to have cost as much for the ten weeks of work done to convert the recent ‘Clash of the titans’ remake from its former two dimensional state into the 3D version.
That cost obviously paid dividends to the films final box office figures in as much as it being sold to audiences as a 3D film pulled in final takings in excess of $493 million. One would think that the cost of filming Clash of the titans directly in 3D in the way that Avatar and Tron were produced would have incurred considerable additional expense. Sadly this was not the case highlighting the fact that audiences are being sold an inferior experience under the same name as what could be a truly inspirational filmmaking tool.

The comparisons between Clash of the titans and Tron speaks volumes as to how the process of making money in the modern movie industry works but raises so many questions as to why things are done one way and not another. Both films are relatively similar in terms of production, both being part of the sci-fi / fantasy genre computer generated sets and characters filled much of the backdrop to both films. Big name stars took lesser roles and let the leads to younger, upcoming stars. The two films even compare quite adeptly in monetary terms, Tron cost Disney $170 million and took a little over $400 million worldwide, while Titans ran a budget of $125 million and brought in $493 million at the box office. And while a difference of $93 million is big news to you or I, in the global film market that is no more than a win by the nose.

There are undoubtedly a myriad of reasons, too variable to consider, as to what draws an audience and which demographic a particular movie is attempting to hit. These factors mark each individual ticket sale, but when it transpires that 48% of the audience for Clash of the titans opted to see the movie in its original two dimensional state one has to wonder how considerable the taking increase could have been if it had been filmed in 3D as opposed to converted.

Creating layers from a flat image may add marginal depth to a scene but what you end up with is a series of paper thin sheets dancing in front of each other, a far cry from the multi-facetted world we view around us. It also detracts from the techniques used by filmmakers to create depth without the gimmick, depth of field and use of focus are part of a cinematographers arsenal to provide the audience with greater sense of the world within their film. Another bugbear is the glasses themselves which noticeably reduce the amount of light between screen and eye; it has been seen in some cases to reduce the projected and intended light by a full ‘stop’, meaning half as much light is getting to the viewer as is intended with no sign of compensation. Other issues with the conversion process have been made pointedly by venerated name in the film business; Christopher Nolan has flat refused to film the final part of his Batman cycle in 3D, while veteran movie critic Robert Ebert has slated the conversion process from the start.

All I all the problem, for me, boils down to how little of this information is passed down to those who are expected to pay for the (often negligible) privilege of a 3D movie. I wholly back cinema as an experience which is often unrivalled by even the best home cinema setups, but being sold that experience underhandedly at an increased rate is not something I can abide.
So next time you think about a film please ask yourself whether the benefits of 3D (in whatever manifestation) outweigh the additional cost. In the end we, as the movie going public, vote for a concept with our wallets, if we don’t approve then its up to the studios and industry as a whole to follow the demand of its audience.

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