June 12, 2012

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It has been 30 years since Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner, and he hasn’t lensed an indelible image since. That is, until Prometheus, the Alien prequel which resurrects H.R. Giger’s oozingly organic set and creature design. Scott has never had a more brilliant collaborator, and filming the late Giger’s vision in elegantly executed 3D makes for an immersively entertaining spectacle, opening up the dank corridors of Alien into deepening chasms and high-vaulted chambers. It’s a 3D film with depth effects in every frame, one of the rare blockbusters to fully take advantage of the technology.

The story is starry-eyed pulp, as God-fearing scientist Elisabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) believes that the symbols from ancient cave paintings point to a distant planet that may hold the secret to the origins of human life. She and her douchey husband Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) are hired by the demonstrably evil Weyland Corporation to explore said planet, and discover that its inhabitants, instead of divulging the secrets of the universe, might want to implant wriggling monsters into their chests.

There’s a lot of convoluted mythmaking here, along with a tossed off religion vs. science debate, but in its most basic form it follows the template popularized by The Thing From Another World (1951), where a small group of adventurers are trapped in an isolated area and threatened by a malevolent force. In the hands of Howard Hawks, the setup is an excuse to explore the dynamics of a group at work, while It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) is a B-movie spin on the material more concerned with streamlined thrills. It is the latter that was one of the main influences on Alien, although initially unacknowledged. The ’58 Edward L. Cahn film is about an exploratory space ship in which a monstrous alien stowaway hitches a ride on the return trip to Earth. Screenwriter Jerome Bixby said, “I feel like the grandfather of Alien“, because of all of the similarities between the two films, and even consulted his lawyer about taking legal action against Dan O’Bannon’s script (Which is all very silly, considering how much he admittedly lifted from the Hawks film).

Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihths’ script for Prometheus, despite all its gestures towards the mystical, retains the structure of Thing and It! and Alien. It is almost a beat for beat remake of the latter, opening with a steadi-cam tour of an emptied out ship, its inhabitants still in stasis. Then there is the touch down onto the strange planet, the growing realization that something is “off” (including a foreboding storm in both), with chaos soon ensuing. The only departure Prometheus takes from Alien and It! is that the main action occurs on the alien planet, not the ship. This allows for grand landscape shots of a dramatic mountain valley (shot in Iceland), that opens up the film and creates a nice tension with the tight dark hallways that dominates the rest of the action inside what is thought to be a hollowed out hill. These interiors eventually open up themselves, revealing intricately designed, bone-edged chambers. These grand crevasses and dark hallways are perfect for 3D, and Scott and his collaborators take full advantage.

Director of Photography Dariusz Wolski was instrumental in getting Scott to shoot in 3D, convincing him that they could shoot at the same tempo as 2D with new “atom” rigs from 3ality Technica (see below) that are half the size of usual stereoscopic setups. This allowed them to attach them to tripods, dollies and steadicams, enabling the same freedom of motion as 2D cameras. Stephen Pizzo from 3ality describes the setup: “They had the four studio cams working continuously and they would bring in the steadicam rig as required. The crew moved the rigs around just as if they were regular cameras, and other than the addition of a convergence puller for that shoot, it looked very much like a standard crew compilation.” The results are often stunning, as the film adds the cavernous dropoffs of waterfalls and mountain valleys to add to the depth effects of the narrow passageways of Alien. Further enhancing the effect is the sparing use of green screen, with the majority of scenes shot in massive sets constructed by Scott’s long time production designer Arthur Max. This gives the 3D a tactility gone missing in most of the all-CG 3D blockbusters. According to Wolski in Variety, Scott reacted to the new technology by saying, “Guys, we’ve been shooting 3D all our lives. We always think three-dimensional, now we just have a tool to enhance it.”


October 19, 2010


Jackass 3D had a gigantic opening weekend, bringing in $50 million, almost twice as much as its predecessor. Two weeks previously I watched Joe Dante’s The Hole 3D at the New York Film Festival, which is still without a distributor. The bump in the Jackass money is not only attributable to the 3D premium pricing, it attracted more admissions than its first two entries as well, as Ben Fritz reported in the L.A. Times.  Regardless of the flak the technology receives from critics like Roger Ebert, it draws crowds, and thus will be a part of the cinematic landscape for some time to come. And while muddy-looking 3D conversions will surely mar theaters in the future, there are plenty of productions that are producing fascinating depth effects with the new technology.

Let’s start with Jackass 3D and The Hole. I enjoyed both films, although they approached the technology from vastly differing positions. Jackass, a non-narrative parade of scatalogical slapstick, is a return to early silent filmmaking and the “cinema of attractions” that Tom Gunning identified. Gunning:

Rather than early approximations of the later practices of the style of classical film narration, aspects of early cinema are best understood if a purpose other than storytelling is factored in. Cinema as an attraction is that other purpose. By its reference to the curiosity-arousing devices of the fairground, the term denoted early cinema’s fascination with novelty and its foregrounding of the act of display.

All of Jackass 3D is the act of display pushed to its perverse limit, vaudeville huckster versions of Marina Abramovic. Both work at exposing the limits of our bodies, Jackass through shots to the groin, Abramovic through exchanged slaps with her lover, among endless other examples. I tend to think her humor and the Jackass crew’s intelligence are both underrated. In another echo, Abromovich had a smashingly successful retrospective at MoMA this year, which is where Jackass 3D held its premiere. MoMA curator Josh Siegel says that Johnny Knoxville and company’s work is, “merely the climax — or the lowest depths, if you prefer — of a tradition that dates back to 1895, when the Lumière brothers drenched a poor sap with a garden hose and filmed it.” (from Dennis Lim’s primer in the NY Times). My favorite bits involved fun with a harrier jet’s exhaust and a delightfully revolting stunt involving a sweat cocktail.

3D is the shiniest new weapon in their toolbox, and so they gleefully push the technology to purely presentational ends. Gunning again, “The attraction directly addresses the spectator, acknowledging the viewer’s presence and seeking to quickly satisfy a curiosity.” 3D is another delivery system in satisfying this curiosity, of how a tooth could be pulled by a Lamborghini, or what a “poop cocktail supreme” could possibly entail. For most of the film, the technology is cheaply utilized. The crew used their normal prosumer cameras for their mixture of planned/improvised shenanigans. Then it was processed into 3D in post. For these sections, it is just a gimmick. However, in the beginning and closing minutes there are sequences filmed stereoscopically in super slow motion with Phantom HD Gold Cameras. As the men are knocked down by dildos and other implements, their skin ripples like plasticene waves, and the split-second fear before the blows are noticeable in these aging stunt-men’s eyes.

The Hole is another story, a family-oriented horror movie that was entirely filmed in stereoscopic 3D, using the Dolby process. Joe Dante is a student of the form, having watched almost every 3D film ever made during the previous boom in the 1950s and 60s (his lifetime of research can be watched at his fiendishly entertaining site Trailers From Hell). The film’s title implies physical depth, and Dante takes advantage of the narrative device at every turn. The top-lining photo gives an impression of his work here, with constant use of entrances and exits, with the kids grouped and choreographed so there is constant motion back and forth from background to foreground. The film is an eyeful. In the Q&A following the screening at the NYFF, Dante said he thought the Dolby process was too dark, preferring the RealD system which most big-budget releases use. But RealD needs a special silver screen to be projected on, and for a low-budget film in which theater space would at a minimum, the Dolby process was necessary, as it can be projected onto regular screens.

Dante also discussed 3D dos and dont’s including avoiding cuts on quick motion, because the level of eyestrain involved. The film flew along, a combination of classic Dantaen elements like a suffocating suburbia, coming-of-age subtexts, a Dick Miller sighting, and a rich intertextual conversation with film history. The major touchstone here seems to be German Expressionism, from the hat tip to Hands of Orlac in the cheekily named “Gloves of Orlac” factory, to the vertiginous, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inspired set design in the finale.

It’s unbelievable that the film, about kids who discover a portal into their own subconscious in their basement, has no distributor. It’s wildly entertaining and reliably scary (a harlequin puppet had my wife gripping my arm), and contains some of the most imaginative uses of 3D that I’ve seen all year.

The other great 3D film this year, is, believe it or not, Resident Evil: Afterlife. I am an admirer of Paul W.S. Anderson’s genre chops (I did an overview of his career for IFC News), and I think it’s his best film. There is a superb use of depth effects throughout. From the start it was shot in 3D, with Anderson saying that, “I wrote things into this script that I knew would work well in 3D, like lots of sets with depth-like tunnels, elevator shafts, and big wide landscapes.” That alone gives him more awareness  of how to shoot in depth than the botched 3D conversions on Piranha 3D (which I enjoyed regardless) and Clash of the Titans (read this interview with James Cameron for some interesting notes about that conversion). Along with the simple, effective use of locations, there is a sense of choreography that utilized 3D to its fullest extent. In the opening sequence, clones of Milla Jovovich are fighting their way through an underground lab, making their way to the villain. As he barks orders in the foreground, in the extreme background the brawling Jovoviches tear their way through a lower floor, creeping their way higher. Anderson dispenses with parallel editing, marking her progress by cutting back and forth, and presents it in one economical and incredibly tense 3D image. It’s a marvel of narrative economy and speaks to the ingenuity possible with the technology.

Although to be honest, the finest 3D film I saw this year was still Raoul Walsh’s Gun Fury, from 1953. Nothing has effected me more than the simple use of dust kicking up in the foreground as Rock Hudson plots his revenge behind it. Maybe such simple pleasures would come back to the current 3D wave if The Hole found some success, and encouraged more mid-budgeted, modest 3D productions to get made. Here’s hoping.