What is the point of 3-D movies?
Does 3-D really make movies better? Or is it just a gimmick for studios to make EVEN more money? Well, yes. 3D does generate more revenue AND does give the viewer a more immersive experience. Yet is 3-D still nothing more than a cool and expensive gimmick?
Earlier this year I saw “Pacific Rim” in 3-D and was pretty impressed with the way the elements of the film looked in comparison to one another. The rain, the ocean, the robots, the monsters, all appeared realistic and visually compelling. The film used depth of field to sell the idea that what was on-screen was real as opposed to computer generated. And even though this added depth and enhanced the film, the use of 3-D in “Pacific Rim” was still just a gimmick, a piece of eye-candy adding visual style and little substance to the film.
It wasn’t until a few scant months later that this “gimmick” would be used to transcend a film from dazzling spectacle into something far greater and deeper. It would become as much a part of the story as the script and the actors. And it would arrive with the premier of one of the year’s most anticipated films.
“Gravity” is a simple story, take two astronauts and strand them in space, cut off from rescue. A tale of survival enhanced by plot and acting. Unlike “Pacific Rim”, “Gravity” didn’t need to sell the “fantastic”. There were no giant monsters or robots in this film. “Gravity” relied on a realistic backdrop with real characters and real dangers. The film would rely heavily on special effects, not to bring the unimaginable to life, but to bring reality to the screen. The viewer wouldn’t be a casual spectator, but a passenger, a colleague right along side astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, sharing every danger… every thrill.
The movie starts with a 17 minute single shot in which we, the viewer, drift closer and closer to the central scene of the action. As the Earth and the orbiting shuttle come into focus, we see the astronauts out on a space walk, working on the payload. For several minutes we float around the “set'”, drifting from one astronaut to the other, observing them, becoming them . The camera is not stationary, we are floating, drifting in space. The only sound is radio chatter, muffled vibrations of the astronaut’s tools and then an explosion. All this within a continuous 17 minute shot.
As the disaster unfolds, the camera is violently swept to and fro caught in the ensuing chaos. We, the audience are forced to become another victim of the disaster. We get glimpses of the astronauts as they struggle to hang on, desperate not to be swept away into space. It’s as though we too are wearing space helmets, frantically trying to get our bearings, dodging the debris as we spin out of control heading for deep space.
We, along with our characters are catapulted through space not knowing when the tempest of destruction will cease. At times we even drift into Sandra Bullock’s spacesuit, becoming one with her character, seeing what she sees and experiencing her rising panic. Through her visor we see the heads-up display and hear her oxygen alarm blare in our ears. We hear her every breath and her desperate cries for help. We are her.
The opening scene in “Gravity” stands out as one of the most powerful sequences in cinema. The movement of the camera, the angles, the special effects and soundtrack make this an unforgettable experience even in the traditional 2D movie environment. Yet, the filmmakers went beyond this. They wanted an extreme realism, a total immersion by the audience into the world of “Gravity”. They relied on 3D not just to add the spectacular, but to create a reality. They created this film not only with 3D in mind, but with 3D as a necessity.
The live-action footage of “Gravity” was not shot using a 3-D camera, but was post converted. A technique not usually as refined as shooting with a 3D camera. Yet director Alfonso Cuaron understood what the final result needed to look like. He instinctively knew where the camera needed to be placed and how each shot needed to be composed to seamlessly blend these 2D shots into a 3D visual experience. Everything from lighting, colors and angles were all carefully controlled and mapped out using green screen footage mixed with 3D computer generated effects. A process not new to 3D films, but one where the time, planning and vision were seldom matched.
As with most films, Cuaron takes advantage of the 3D weightless environment with shots of floating debris, loose items from the space station and even Bullock’s tear drops. All of which seem to magically fly straight toward the camera. The 3D gimmick once again rearing its ugly head. Yet it’s the backdrop of space, the Earth, the various space stations and spacecraft and the astronauts that really benefit from the 3D and the meticulous way it was all shot and edited. It is here, the whole canvas of “Gravity” that 3D brings to stunning life.
Yet 3D was not enough. Cuaron understood that in order for his audience to totally immerse and buy into “Gravity’s” realism he needed more than the gimmick of 3D. So he did what many film makers fail to do. He relied on already established film conventions. He used the sound (or lack of sound as in some instances) as well as the camera to sell the 3-D. The sound was designed to originate and travel from different angles wrapping around the viewer, emphasizing the feeling of floating. The music, used at times as a substitute for natural sound, also seemed to float around the audience creating a disturbing yet compelling feeling of being in space. Cuaron created his 3D world not by relying on the technology of 3D, but by combining all the tools of cinema past, present and future.
“Gravity” marks the first time 3-D struck the perfect balance between art and entertainment as well as storytelling. “Gravity” is the idea of 3D and not the actual technology of 3D. The technology is a tool just like lighting or sound is a tool. Cuaron created a 3D film, then he added 3D to it. By no means is Cuaron the first to successfully use cinema and all of its wondrous tools. Peter Jackson with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Alfred Hitchcock with films such as “The Birds”, “Psycho” and “Vertigo” are just a couple of directors whose talents and vision have captivated audiences revolutionizing the cinema going experience, forcing them to become invisible spectators or even one of the characters.
Cuaron does an outstanding job immersing viewers into this movie which really amps up the drama, danger and character struggles throughout the film. He perfectly balances elements of visual, sound, characters, music, 3-D, and cameras to create an experience of being in space. Once you believe you are there, the story and characters do their part to deliver an unforgettable movie that has given us a new way to look at film with today’s technology.
Here’s a video detailing the sound design in “Gravity”.
For more on how 3D technology actually works check out these articles: