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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Musing Pictures: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

In the weeks and months leading up to the release of Michael Bay's latest metal-mashing blockbuster, much attention was given to the film's use of 3D. It was seen by many as a test of the new technology's ability to draw people to the box office. for the first few days of the film's release, it was shown exclusively in 3D, as if establishing a new format standard for the American Blockbuster.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the buildup was equally dramatic. Michael Bay and James Cameron appeared together at various events, cheering the format's aesthetic potential. Cameron, of course, gave 3D a serious commercial boost with his unbelievably successful "Avatar". He also worked closely with Bay on "Dark of the Moon", coaching him in the use of 3D technology.

It's the aesthetic side of 3D that interests me here, mostly because it doesn't really exist yet. 3D has been used as a fun gimmick for half a century, offering people a new way to look at what are otherwise perfectly two-dimensional movie images. Unfortunately, the aesthetic potential of 3D has barely been explored.

All the major technological innovations that brought change to movies have followed a rough pattern: 1: Experimentation, 2: Partial Incorporation, 3: Full Incorporation, 4: Aesthetic synthesis

An easy example to illustrate the pattern: Sound

Since the earliest days of motion pictures, filmmakers experimented with sound. There were all sorts of challenges to overcome, particularly the challenge of synchronization of sound to picture. Here's an example of what is believed to be the first (or, at least, oldest surviving) experiment by William Dickson.

By the mid-'20s, a profoundly successful Hollywood was ready to give sound a try. "The Jazz Singer" is basically a silent film with interludes of singing and a few scattered bits of dialog. The partial incorporation of sound proved wildly successful. Within three years, just about every movie theater in the United States was wired for sound, and most movies were "Talkies".

This initial incorporation of sound was hardly elegant. The first "All Talking" picture, a Warner Brothers film called "Lights of New York", is said to be a clumsy, lurching, artless film. Actors who hadn't had to speak a word were now expected to deliver lines. Noisy cameras that had been free to move about a scene were confined (at least, initially), to soundproof booths, so as not to disturb the sensitive microphones. Directors who had been used to shouting orders at their actors had to keep silent when the cameras rolled. The artistry that had been attained by silent films had to be put aside for the new gimmick, sound, to take hold.

It took a bit of time for the aesthetic synthesis of sound in motion pictures. Luckily, since radio had been around for a while, some techniques for using sound in narrative had already been developed. Filmmakers (including Charlie Chaplin!) began to utilize sound for more than just expressing the actors' voices. Sound effects (Fritz Lang's "M" is a great example of early, effective use of sound effects in narrative), musical underscores (such as the first true "soundtrack", the score to "King Kong"), and various recording techniques entered the picture in the 1930s. The key here was that filmmakers took responsibility for sound. It wasn't just a tool for capturing and conveying auditory performance, but a tool to create mood, to emphasize a setting, to inspire emotion, etc. Sound could be a part of the expressive fabric that makes film an art.

This is when sound terminology really took hold, and when connections between effect and meaning began to develop.

It's that last step that I'm looking for in 3D. so far, I've only seen hints of it. James Cameron's "Avatar" had one moment that stood out to me. The two lead characters, Jake and Neytiri, share a moment under a bio-luminescent tree. Little luminous pods float down from the tree and fill the air around them. Aside from being a beautiful scene, the three-dimensional effect contributes powerfully to a sense of being-in-the-space. It's not that we're looking at an object with a palpable sense of seeing something in the foreground or background. Somehow, the foreground and background become a dimensional texture through which we see the scene, and which envelops us as part of the scene.

In 2D terms, an establishing shot helps us situate the narrative, and a point-of-view shot helps us situate ourselves within the narrative. In 3D terms, the scene in "Avatar" situates the narrative around us. As far as I know, there is no term for this yet, no word or phrase to describe what's happening, but there will be one, as filmmakers, critics and academics try to understand the emerging aesthetic.

That's what I was looking for when I saw "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" in 3D. Are there any shots, sequences or scenes that illustrate some meaningful effect that 3D can achieve, but that 2D can not? To be honest, I can't pick any out. There were certainly some fun moments when I noticed the 3D, such as when the camera moves across foreground objects, following objects or characters in the middle-distance, but those moments were actually kind of distracting. Rather than making me feel like I was in the scene, they emphasized the effect, and my separation from it.

There's an irony here that is hard to overcome: The types of shots that most effectively demonstrate the "effect" of 3D are also the types of shots that are most detrimental to the power of 3D.

If we look at a character in a scene, and there is an object between us and that character, we become emotionally more distant from that character. Where there is nothing between us and the character, we ally ourselves emotionally with that character much more easily. Imagine any scene involving a job-seeker and an interviewer. The interviewer, who we aren't meant to like or relate to, sits across a desk. Often, the interviewer is shot in such a way that objects on the desk occupy the space between us. The job-seeker, on the other hand, is often shot with very few objects in the foreground. We are invited to participate in the job-seeker's anxiety.

Unfortunately, with 3D, the most "obvious" shot, or the shot that "makes the most of" the effect, is that in which the foreground moves before our subject. Often, it's the camera moving across a foreground object, keeping focus on its subject despite the interruption. The visual effect is superb: it really, truly does look like there is depth to the scene! But the emotional effect is terrible: rather than enveloping us in the space, the shot pushes us out, makes us outside observers in to the space.

If 3D, ultimately, is meant to bring us a step closer to "being in the movie", the kinds of shots that "celebrate" 3D need to be carefully modulated so as not to push us out in the process.