Think 3D films and the mental images conjured up will be from blockbusters such as Avatar and Beowulf. Hollywood was quick to latch on to the latest technical revolution when it became clear that audiences were willing to pay a premium to watch films through dark glasses.
Because of both the cost and the suitability of the technology for spectacular effect, most people assumed that 3D films would only be coming out of the Los Angeles studios. But the latest round of releases is not only proving them wrong but showing that the true home of 3D may be art-house cinema and in documentaries.
These films include Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog, TT3D: Closer to the Edge, which is about the annual motorcycle race on the Isle of Man, Pina, a dance film by Wim Wenders, and Carmen 3D, a filmed version of a stage production of Bizet’s opera.
What is fascinating about the art-house bout of 3D films is that these directors seem to be using 3D, not because of its perceived power to add numbers to the box-office, but because they believe that they are using it to enrich the viewing experience for the audience in ways that go beyond the mere wow factor.
For Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog travelled to the Chauvet Caves in southern France to film the world’s oldest known cave paintings. In what might at first seem a counter-intuitive decision – making a 3D film of a 2D subject – the director took great pains to shoot in 3D, even commissioning a company to make him a special 3D camera that he could carry through the narrow openings in sections and reassemble inside the cave.
That activity forms part of the film’s opening, and the German director said he went to those lengths because it was the only way to capture the cave paintings in their full glory. “I’ve never done a 3D film and my next films are not in 3D,” he says. “But it was imperative. When you think about cave painting you think about a flat wall, but the painters 32,000 years ago understood the drama of niches and bulges and there is an incredible dynamic in the cave. The artists would use the bulging protrusions to place the neck of the bison and the effect is that the animal seems to come out and look at you. Since it’s likely that we will be the only filmmakers ever allowed to film in the caves, it was imperative to show the cave to the audience in the way that the artist wanted to show it.”
Wenders talks about how he was in Cannes when he realised that he’d hit upon a way to make his dream project about the great German choreographer Pina Bausch. Wenders and Bausch had been discussing a possible film about her work for years, but Wenders never felt that he had the tools to do it, not until he was sitting in a cinema in Cannes watching U23D. Even before the film had finished he called Bausch to say that he had finally found the way.
“With 3D, our project would be possible,” he recalls. “Only in this way, by incorporating the dimension of space, I could dare to bring Pina’s Tanztheatre in an adequate form to the screen.”
However, when Wenders started experimenting with the technology he was still not fully satisfied, complaining that the way that the technology captured movement, especially in the background, meant that he still had to wait. He watched Avatar countless times and says: “What’s interesting is that James Cameron was having the same problems we have. When it’s animated the 3D is fantastic, but when you look closely there are some problems with movement in the background.”
Eventually a solution was found, but not until after the death of Bausch in 2009. Wenders says of the challenge: “Many other directors are still hesitating to work in 3D, because there are no successful models. We wanted to be pioneers in the expansion of the cinematic language to 3D.”
Carmen 3D is a co-production between Real 3D and London’s Royal Opera House. Carmen is a story that has been put on cinema screens several times, most notably in 1954 when Otto Preminger made Carmen Jones, itself an early pioneer in another technical revolution, the wide-screen CinemaScope technique, with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in leading roles. Indeed, just when it could be asked whether the classic Bizet opera needs another screen adaptation, 3D has come along and proved the answer to be yes.
The film has been directed for the screen by Julian Napier, who has made several short 3D films as well as the three 3D race sequences for the American touring show of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express.
As with Pina, what Carmen does excellently is utilise the space dimension of the 3D experience to give a sense of how the performers are moving while showcasing their work to fullest effect.
Sport is another area where 3D is starting to get explored. Television channels have started to get in on the act with football and several cinemas around the globe showed last year’s World Cup final between Spain and Holland in 3D.
The TT motorcycle races on the Isle of Man are among the world’s best-known – and most dangerous. TT3D: Closer to the Edge is narrated by Jared Leto and follows the doings of the racer Guy Martin, who is becoming something of a celebrity in the UK with his TV show The Boat that Guy Built.
Again, the filmmakers have tried to incorporate 3D in a way that is more than a gimmick. Gone are the protruding objects coming at you out of the screen, and instead the filmmakers have tried to use the technology to convey a sense of speed. Because it’s a documentary and the action occurs against real backdrops, the 3D has the effect of involving the viewer more with the speed than when watching the film in 2D.
The ability to control the environment completely means animation is an area where 3D has always been strong. Filmmakers can make the best use of the technology and where this was once the preserve of Pixar and DreamWorks, the field has opened up. This year at the Berlin Film Festival, the French animator Michel Ocelot presented his new work Tales of the Night. His 3D uses silhouettes and layers rather than attempting the full-on illusion of depth in the others. He explains: “It’s stereoscopic 3D, meaning flat 3D, like a paper theatre. I want my tales to remain fairy tales and not become heavy, realistic 3D, aping live action. Besides, it’s a way of keeping things less expensive.”
And there’s the rub. Now that 3D has become less expensive to make, it’s the directors used to working with smaller budgets who are being the most innovative and using it in ways where the form matches the subject.
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