“Side by Side”: eyewitness to film history

The impact of digital technology is being felt—for better and worse—across a wide variety of cultural sectors (books, music, photography). One of the most prominent disruptions has been in the rapid evolution of tools used to shoot, distribute, and project motion pictures.

The new documentary, Side by Side provides an insightful record of this moment in the film industry—the migration from traditional film capture, duplication, and delivery to digital cinema technology. It offers a thoughtful exploration of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going in this industry.

Written and directed by Christopher Kenneally, it is co-produced and narrated by actor Keanu Reeves who brings his own front-of-camera experience into the mix.

It’s easy to be giddy about the incredible new possibilities enabled by emerging technology. And it’s easy to be maudlin and nostalgic for old mediums and formats. Side by Side provides an unsentimental platform for prominent and passionate advocates—pro and con—to examine in more detail different facets of the transition.

“You can’t shoot 3D on film…so film has been dead in my heart for ten years” —James Cameron, director

“I hate 3D. I put on those glasses, I get sick to my stomach. The whole 3D phenomenon, it’s a marketing scheme, isn’t it?”
—Wally Pfister, cinematographer 

There is mainstream (George Lucas, James Cameron) and esoteric (Lars von Trier, David Lynch, Lena Dunham) support for digital filmmaking that enables advanced effects and  “democratizes” access.

There are also persuasive diatribes (from director Christopher Nolan, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and others) noting what is sacrificed, tangible and intangible, with the loss of the chemical film process and accompanying workflow.

I try not to do reviews here, but Side by Side is an excellent, entertaining film.  Balanced, beautiful to look at (in handsome 2D), it’s a must for anyone who cares about this business. Martin Scorsese, fresh off his triumphant 3D Hugo gets the last word: “How do you use it to tell a story? It’s up to the filmmaker.”

 

Oscar Nominations mark a new era in 3D

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences 2012 Oscar nominations have been announced and two 3D favorites are being recognized.

Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” tops the list with 11 nominations, and Wim Wenders’ “Pina” has been nominated for best documentary feature.

Other important 3D films—Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams“—were not nominated, and “Pina”, Germany’s entry for best foreign film, was crowded out of that category by stiff competition.

Oscar nominations along with the accompanying recognition and campaigns will raise the profile of any film. In the case of these two ground-breaking films it adds gravitas to the field of 3D filmmaking and proves that the popular success of “Avatar” was not a fluke but the beginning of a new golden age in 3D cinema.

Next Generation User Interface: 3D?

A friend sent me a link to a TED talk from earlier this year that presses us think about 3D—physical space really—in a whole new way. Much of this blog is focusses on 3D as a visual, media-oriented experience but John Underkoffler’s talk explores 3D interaction as the next generation of user interfaces.

Remember drooling over the fancy gesture-based human/computer interaction in the futuristic scifi film Minority Report a few years ago? I do.  Underkoffler led the team that developed that interface—dubbed the “g-speak Spatial Operating Environment”—and his company, Oblong Industries, is now developing it for real life applications for media, consumer, manufacturing, and technology applications.

Another 3D breakthrough as we continue to realize the world isn’t flat.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo 3D debuts: the golden age is here

My review in seven words: the film is excellent, go see it. 

But I’m not here to review films. This is a blog about 3D so this post is going to be about Scorsese’s first 3D film Hugo, a new landmark in 3D filmmaking.

Martin Scorsese has made a fantastic film on at least two distinct levels.  It’s a great story told beautifully.  Plus it’s a turning point in filmmaking that examines another major turning point in filmmaking history with great insight and love.

Visually it’s gorgeous, very well suited for 3D treatment.  Hugo is full of dark moody interior shots that lend themselves beautifully to the low light limitations of 3D. Lush period sets, lots of steam, snow, oversized clockworks—these all work very well in 3D.

Scorsese has also mastered the art of expressive 3D close-ups.  Having an incredibly talented cast certainly helps, but there is an intimacy in his technique that I haven’t seen before. It adds to the story.

Sidebar: at the showing I attended there was something funny going on with the right side of the screen, not in every scene, but many. It looked like perhaps some alignment was off.  I was seated slightly to the left in the theatre, but not far enough to make a difference. It was distracting (so was the row of eight little boys loudly chewing popcorn behind me) but not enough to keep me from being completely caught up in the film.

Hugo is a story-driven film, not the effects-driven cross-merchandised product so many people have come to dread.  The story is a powerful one, featuring an archetype most of us can identify with—the plucky resourceful orphan. From Dickens’ Oliver Twist and David Copperfield to Harry Potter, it’s a great formula.  When you see it bring tissues.

Georges Méliès (1861 to 1938)

But there’s another very meaningful level to the film centered on Georges Méliès, an early enthusiastic pioneer of spectacular cinematic visual effects.  In gorgeous and (as far as I can tell) quite accurate flashbacks Scorsese captures his delight in the new technology, the highs and lows of the business, as well as the risks of ridicule, ignominy, and obscurity.

Méliès took what was literally a sideshow gimmick and turned it into the most important storytelling tool since the invention of the printing press and moveable type. You see where I’m going with this? 

This had special resonance for me.  There are parallels with the artistic tribulations of 3D and I had an overwhelming sense of the historical moment—the cinema crossroads if you will—we’re at today.

Scorsese is a prominent film preservationist, cineaste, and promoter of film history—as well as one of the most respected directors of our time. His study of and respect for film history is visible in every frame.  He shows the seminal L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat or The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station by the Lumière brothers—one of the first things I blogged about here.  Even the film’s poster depicts little Hugo dangling from a clock hand in an homage to Harold Lloyd.  With this film Scorsese now joins the ranks of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog as pioneers elevating a lowly gimmick into a powerful storytelling tool, an art.

With every 3D film of artistic quality and integrity released the industry gains important experience and the negative stereotypes about 3D are eroded a bit more.

3D isn’t finished—it’s just getting started

Our culture is nostalgic.  The good old days always seem to be behind us.  Every generation believes the parade’s gone by. With Hugo we are finally seeing what 3D can do in the hands of a visionary filmmaker—from my vantage point I am increasingly convinced that the golden age of 3D film is just beginning.

Stop the Presses! 3D actually GOOD for children?

This should make some industry insiders very very happy. The American Optometric Association (AOA) is releasing a report called 3D in the Classroom subtitled “See Well, Learn Well”. (See the announcement by clicking here).

Contrary to recent gloom-and-doom reports about the perils of 3D—including headaches, nausea, and damage to the vision of young children—the AOA is asserting that its research shows not only does use of 3D significantly enhance learning in the classroom, it’s useful in early identification of vision problems for early intervention and treatment. According to the AOA:

“…New 3D opportunities are underscored by two essential facts, 1) children often learn faster and retain more information in the 3D environment, and 2) the ability to perceive 3D and learn in 3D requires precise elements of ‘vision fitness’. Importantly, 3D vision fitness skills associated with eye alignment, eye tracking, and balanced and corrected refractive errors are also associated with improved overall reading and learning abilities.”

The announcement continues:

“The recent emergence of innovative 3D presentation technologies and 3D content in movie theaters, in the home, in video games and now in the classroom , perhaps surprisingly, provides  a unique public health opportunity. The ability to perceive depth in a 3D presentation – known as ‘stereopsis’– turns out to be a highly sensitive test of a range of vision health indicators.  It is much more sensitive than the standard eye chart that has been in use for 150 years, because it requires that both eyes function in a coordinated manner, as they converge, focus and track the 3D image.”

Variety has an excellent article by Michael Sullivan putting this into context for the high stakes emerging 3D business which ranges far beyond education to encompass entertainment, advertising, and gaming.  Addressing industry warning labels (Nintendo 3DS for example) he says:

“AOA began speaking out after Nintendo attached a warning on its new 3DS stating that the effect should not be used for children younger than 6. In a statement, the AOA disputed that assertion, saying, ‘Since vision develops from birth, it is crucial to uncover the type of vision disorders that may interfere with Nintendo 3D viewing at an early age. Accordingly, children younger than 6 can use the 3DS in 3D mode if their visual system is developing normally.’ Labels on most 3DTV sets also warn against prolonged viewing, despite the fact that there is no medical evidence that substantiates these warnings.”

My opinion: this is closer to a credible scientific insight than the alarmist news reports that have been proliferating recently.  But I am filing this under “Business of 3D” as well as “Science of 3D” because, well, I’m essentially a skeptic.  Debates around the dangers of smoking and climate change teach us that it’s not enough to see what is being said—it’s important to always see who is saying it and what’s in it for them.

So far, however, the pedigree of this report looks excellent and that’s great news for the 3D industry.  Stay tuned.

UPDATE! the report is available online here.

Trailer: Titanic 3D

Yep.  Box office record-breaking Titanic is back for more.  This time in 3D. Painstakingly converted (I heard James Cameron say it cost $18 million to do) it will be released in April 2012, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sailing of the doomed ocean liner.

Here’s a trailer, in 2D, to get you in the mood!

Trailer: Flying Monsters 3D

Sir David Attenborough’s new film Flying Monsters 3Dis a documentary utilizing live action (Sir David and other experts) as well as CGI to bring fossils dancing to life and recreate the astounding creatures known as pterosaurs. It is geeky fun, kids will love it and it will make you think.

 

 

Titanic and Pterosaurs in 3D at IBC 2011

Amsterdam, September 12, 2011: IBC Theatre.  James Cameron and Vincent Pace showed off 18 minutes of Titanic converted to 3D as well as clips from their upcoming Cirque du Soleil film, while noted documentary film maker Sir David Attenborough screened his Flying Monsters 3D.

Aimed at broadcasters, the evening started with Don Shaw from Christie Digital (the projector people) talking about the importance of higher frame rates for making 3D smoother—minimizing or eliminating “strobing” and other annoying effects. (More about frame rates another time). He showcased technology innovations—an end-to-end solution for broadcasting live alternative content in 3D to theatrical venues with greater ease (I’m very proud to say that the company where I work, International Datacasting, is part of the solution presented, as well as our partners at Sensio Technologies. My colleagues helped pull the demonstration off without a hitch, bravo!)

But the highlight of the event naturally was watching movies and looking to see if the technical and artistic bar has moved forward. James Cameron took the stage (amid a bunch of awards hoopla you can follow elsewhere) and preached the gospel of 3D: “Last year 21% all movie revenue came from 3D,” “I will shoot every movie going forward in 3D”, and my favorite: “Let me tell you about my new movie coming April 5, 2012, Titanic.”

Yes, Titanic is being converted to 3D with a release scheduled to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sailing (or as Cameron called it a “trifecta of good marketing.”)  Cameron emphasized that it is always preferable to shoot in 3D rather than convert a film but where it’s not possible “there’s conversion and there’s conversion” saying he wouldn’t have spent $18 million adding 3D if he didn’t think the results would be worth it.

James Cameron at IBC Big Screen, September 12, 2011 (photo: Diana Cantu's iPhone)

Hollywood is rushing to convert 2D films to 3D with varying degrees of success.  The Titanic footage looked smooth and watchable.  The Cirque du Soleil footage which was captured in 3D is gorgeous. The 3D is subtle and restrained, it adds aesthetically to the content. I’ve seen the Cirque shows the clips were taken from and the 3D actually improved on them.

Flying Monsters 3D is a documentary by Sir David Attenborough, examining fossils of early flying dinosaurs or pterosaurs, and their evolution up to extinction.  With clever mingling of CGI, live action and 3D the film makes a serious subject a bit more whimsical and accessible.  The 3D looked good and lends itself well to scenes with flying.

The event was designed to help win over broadcasters to the merits of 3D and reassure them that the technology is catching up with promises.  Cameron’s emphasis on new dual work flow capabilities (shooting 2D and 3D simultaneously) helps. Live alternative programming and 3D television are both getting better, fast.  That’s a message broadcasters are starting to consider.

3D Lands at Schipol Airport

Arriving in Amsterdam the other morning (after a three-legged overnight flight) we were surprised and impressed to see a big  3D oops “6D” film/simulator/ride set up at Schipol Airport.  Colorful, shiny, with room for a dozen or so patrons to be strapped into bright yellow seats with red 3D glasses.  There’s a 3D screen (two Panasonic beamers with polarizing filters–top and bottom not side-by-side if you are interested). The “6D” refers to seats that move and other bells & whistles to augment and simulate the visual experience on the screen with tactile stimuli.

For €5 one can choose between a couple of titles (“Canyon Coaster” is what the gentleman recommended to us). Unfortunately after a transatlantic redeye flight the only title I was interested in was “Shower and Coffee” which they didn’t have so we declined.

We promised to stop by on our way out of town.  They have a high traffic spot by the front door but not with so much light as to make it unwatchable. There weren’t any customers when we were there–it’s awkward catching people on their way out or conversely on their way in before checkin, but it’s an interesting experiment.

Part of me worries that these are the products that give 3D a bad name, reinforcing that it’s a tool reserved for trying to make people barf.  But the other part of me says “the more the merrier.”

The “6D” simulation ride at Schipol Airport

Dispatch from IBC 2011

IBC 2011 conference and trade show, Amsterdam: James Cameron and Vincent Pace are working the show: evangelizing about 3D, previewing a new Cirque du Soleil 3D film, and calling themselves “myth-busters” on the technical, aesthetic, and business aspects of the industry.  Here’s a video of them  talking about next gen 3D technology, 3D in broadcast, and indulging in some forecasting (glasses-free 3D in three to five years!)

It’s a press conference followed by a brief interview.  Cameron makes the important point:

3D isn’t going to save a bad movie, it’s still going to be storytelling…3D is not a guarantee that you are going to have a great time. You might be watching a very high quality version of a very poor film.

We feel that it’s incumbent on us as 3D practitioners to maintain the highest possible standard. We don’t want the 3D to be the thing that was wrong with the movie. Let the movie be a dog but don’t let the 3D be the reason you didn’t like it.