“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.”

 

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France takes aim at the silver screen

France’s Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée or CNC (in English “National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image”), is instituting an effort to ban silver screens across France and in the process making a strong statement on one of the nagging issues of digital cinema projection, low light levels, while dealing a serious blow for leading 3D exhibition systems.

Carole Lombard on the cover of a 1930 issue of "Silver Screen" magazine. The term is emotionally linked to the golden age of cinema.

Silver screens are synonymous with old school cinema, but in recent years they have become a required part of the kit for one of the most popular 3D exhibition systems, RealD.  They also tend to have a brightness differentiation so light levels drop off around the edges of the screen area creating a “hot spot” effect reminiscent of the old school movie experience. This compromises image quality for non-3D films and can impair viewing from some angles within the cinema.

The CNC on behalf of the French government is charged with  “supporting, regulating, negotiating, promoting and distributing, cooperating with local authorities, protecting film heritage.”  In the interest of improving image quality and visibility they are mandating that silver screens be phased out going forward. While the ban will not impact competitors Dolby and X-pand, RealD has a market share of about 75% of deployed 3D screens in France. The agreement to transition away from silver screens to bright white is being seen as a challenge to usability for 3D.

Variety has an excellent summary here, and the original announcement, billed as an agreement to guarantee quality in digital cinema, is available here (in French).

Planet3D comment: this is a reminder that technology has to keep up with quality demands.  It’s a commercial challenge, but in the final analysis audience experience is the most important thing.

The so-called "halo effect"

NY Public Library Launches Online Stereoscopic Archive

Planet3D features a section from a 19th century painting of a woman entertaining herself with a stereoscope.

In a brave, creative move the NY Public Library has made more than 40,000 stereograph images available online at a new site along with a tool it’s calling the “Stereogranimator.”

Stereoscopes are a fascinating part of 3D history. They remind us that 3D is not a new entertainment phenomenon but a technique we human beings have been playing with for a very long time.  The cards themselves are windows into other times and places—the stereo effect often brings a startling realism to a old-fashioned sepia image.

This Sterogranimator tool lets users select an image from the archive, render it as an animated gif and/or an anaglyph image (where two color offsets create the illusion of depth). These can then be shared in the online gallery (and in the case of the anaglyph images, viewed with red/blue glasses).

A page of frenetic flashing gifs or anaglyph pictures at first glance may seem, well, silly. Take some time to look at them and notice the subject that photographers chose to shoot (and site visitors chose to “stereoanimate”—the depth of images, the vantage points, the subject matter.  It will bring you closer to some pretty amazing people, places, and things.

While debate continues about 3D as a cheap commercial trick or powerful visual tool this project brings interesting insight and context.

Thanks NY Public Library.

From the private collection of Planet3D: before cats on the Internet there were stereoscopic cats.

 

3D and Sour Grapes

I have to be honest, when I started this blog I thought it was going to be a long time before 3D gained wide acceptance as more than a gimmick.  Audiences were weary of poke-in-the-eye hijinks and cheap, quickie cardboard conversions and there was very little to point to (Avatar and, um, Avatar 2?) as an alternative.

The tide is turning sooner than I expected.  According to The Hollywood Reporter, Scorsese’s Hugo actually “overperformed” at the box office on its opening weekend.  The film is a hit with audiences and critics, winning new respect and credibility for 3D.

I wanted this blog to be a forum to exchange ideas, debunk myths, and objectively consider the challenges of 3D, but now I’ve also got to find some polite ways to say “I told you so”.

There’s still a long way to go, but when I read things like this from the Irish Times, “Scorsese and 3D: enough already” it makes me smile.

PINA at Last

Let me just say upfront, this is not a review but a reaction. Or, more precisely, an appreciation. 

Some of us have been waiting for a long time to see Wim Wenders’ 3D debut—Pina about the legendary choreographer and dance company leader Pina Bausch.

I saw a brief, tantalizing clip at a conference last summer, and everyone I meet who has actually seen it is raving. But it has yet to achieve wide release and has been hard to find.

I finally got to see Pina this week as part of the events leading up to this weekend’s performances of the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch at Canada’s National Arts Centre. 

This is the 3D film I’ve been waiting for.

It’s gorgeous. Lyrical, subtle, joyful, witty, inspiring, and deeply moving.  The film presents four of Bausch’s modern dance pieces, interspersed with vignettes—danced and spoken by company members as well as some archival footage.

The backstory is heartbreaking—Bausch passed away before shooting could begin and never got a chance to see her very ephemeral art captured so lovingly on screen.  Her work is deeply emotional and very theatrical.  I’ve seen plays within films before (Olivier’s Henry V, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) but never anything that emulated the experience of being at a live performance so profoundly.

It’s great work, Wenders is a great filmmaker, but the masterful use of the 3D stereoscopy tool truly makes it transcendent.

The show sold out, the audience included a who’s who of the local art and museum scene. In the lobby people were offering to buy tickets off those who had them.

Unfortunately this was a single screening, in a sub-optimal oddly shaped theatre, with bad sound, cheap glasses, faulty AC and a technical snafu that made the first few minutes unwatchable (double image but not in 3D—hoots and howls from the upscale artsy crowd). I can’t wait to see it again, somewhere great.

I was accompanied by a couple artist friends who were ready to hate it.  They came away saying it was the best film they’d seen in ages.

The truth is, we are on the verge of a golden age of 3D as an artistic medium. Whether or not you care about modern dance—this film is a masterpiece.  In Pina 3D is not a gimmick but an essential component of telling the story and immersing us emotionally into what is on the screen.

I hope it wins every prize. I hope it inspires a new generation of filmmakers and audiences alike.  I know it inspires me.

Debating 3D: Cinema’s Real Killer is 3D?

The venerable Guardian newspaper in the UK recently ran a snarky piece by Stuart Heritage in its film blog: “Cinema’s Real Killer is 3D, not Video On Demand” which I thought would make a nice addition to our “Debating 3D” category.

Here’s a quote you might want to file away:

“This is something that’s been said a billion times elsewhere by everyone else – there’s nothing quite as soul-destroying as paying a little bit extra to spend two hours watching a shoddy 3D post-conversion job in a pair of uncomfortable glasses. Ditching the pretence that 3D is either a) the future of cinema or b) a good thing at all would also be a good start.”

To paraphrase from Monty Python and the Holy Grail,  “I’m not dead yet. I’m getting better!”

Dispatch from 3D World, NYC (part of CCW/Satcon/HD world)

This has been a hard post to write!  You know how little kids sometimes get so excited when describing something amazing that they stammer and ramble—unable to just spit it out?  That’s what I felt like after attending the excellent keynote session “Your World in 3D: Separating the Facts from the Hype” at 3D World in New York City last month.

There’s so much to say, so much to share, it’s hard to boil it down to a digestible blog post so I will summarize and probably be quoting this in the weeks and months to come.

The session kicked off with an introduction by Jim Chabit, CEO of the International 3D Society—an organization doing important work in bringing together a community around 3D.  (Full disclosure, I’m a card-carrying member). This group is putting together events, awards, and information to build some momentum for 3D.  Using facts and figures he asserted that 3D continues to do strong box office—especially internationally.  He also focused on some upcoming major releases in 3D—Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret (which got rave reviews for an unfinished cut screened at NY Film Festival a couple of days earlier), Spielberg’s Adventures of TinTin, and the James Cameron’s 3D conversion of Titanic.

Buzz Hays, Senior VP 3D Production at Sony is an incredibly knowledgeable and dynamic speaker.  He focused on some of the important technical issues and gave an overview of the stereoscopy training Sony has developed for film professionals.  These in-depth (forgive the pun) materials are aimed at fine-tuning 3D cinema skills. Sony has been offering this course to help raise the overall technical level in the industry.   He walked us through some of the key variables—tools that can be used for subtle (and no-so-subtle) effects.  We also saw examples of common pitfalls (misalignment, mismatchs, and distortions) that helped explain and quantify when/why 3D becomes more uncomfortable to watch.

This presentation clearly and eloquently articulates the flexibility of 3D as a tool.  When waved about recklessly it can be annoying and even uncomfortable.  When it’s wielded with finesse it adds depth on many levels to story telling.

John Cassy from Sky3D in the UK stressed the importance quality and variety in content. “If you think 3D can paper over the cracks, you will fail”.   He insists that quality 3D content relies on combining stories, people, and partnerships.  We saw gorgeous footage from upcoming releases: “Meerkats” (cute animals in awe-inspiring scenery) and “Kew Gardens” (luscious, HD/3D time-lapse shots from one of the world’s great botanical treasures).  He hailed Sir David Attenboroughfor being an early leader in 3D, the way he was an early pioneer of color TV 45 years ago.

Michael Duenas, DO, from the American Optometric Association (AOA) was the final speaker.  The AOA recently released a fascinating report on 3D in education and in that context Dr. Duenas gave a passionate and wide-ranging presentation on the role of 3D in vision health and the far-reaching repercussions of not having adequate screening at an early age.  It’s a bold assertion—that traditional eye examinations, in focusing on only one aspect of vision health, overlook the critical capability of stereoscopic vision.  The resulting misdiagnoses and lack of treatment impact student engagement, learning, and broader issues such as crime and recidivism.

The AOA is going beyond debunking fears about 3D and championing it. This is a fascinating area that I’m sure will be getting a lot more attention.

The session wrapped up with a clip of silent film legend Harold Lloyd, an early enthusiast of 3D, converted to 3D.  It looked pretty darned good.