Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Rulebook Casefile: Writing for 3D and CGI in Pacific Rim

All-Too-Common Flaw #6! 

It’s tempting to say that writers aren’t to blame for the crappy quality of movies these days, it’s the directors and producers that ruin them with CGI and 3D, right?

But more and more, writers are writing for CGI, and pre-ruining their own movies. I’m not talking about the presence of giant monsters and robots, I’m talking about the weightlessness of both. The screenwriter has to ask himself: how are these gargantuan robots supposed to get from the base to where the monsters are? Insanely, in this movie, each one is flown there dangling from helicopters!

Needless to say, as soon as we see helicopters lift a thousand ton robot, we lose all ability to believe in the robot’s existence, and we just start watching the effects. It’s as if the writer is just saying, “Screw it, these things are just CGI, they don’t weigh anything, I don’t have to figure out how they get around.”

(And don’t get me started on the scene where a character in a heavy suit of armor does the breast stroke in the ocean!)

For that matter, it’s tempting to blame all the rest of this movie’s other problems on an even newer phenomenon: “Writing for 3D”. After all, the whole idea of 3D is that you’re throwing stuff at the viewer, because you want us to say, “Wow that piece of wreckage almost hit me here in my seat!”…but of course the problem is that we don’t want to be in our seats, we want to be in the movie.
We care about a character when we identify with that character. We identify when we leap into a character’s shoes…but you’re creating an optical illusion that we’re thousands of feet away from the character with wreckage is flying by in between, which makes the characters impossible to care about.

Now that the 3D has come to seem like a permanent stain on the screen, it’s seems that the writers of these types of movies have come to see identification as an impossible dream, and no longer worth pursuing.


j.s. said...

Oh, come on, now. It wasn't that hard to relate to characters in PINA (a documentary) or GRAVITY (a fiction feature), both of which remain, for me, fully immersive experiences and the two best 3D films I've yet seen.

And while I do agree with your helicopter hoist example of the film undermining the weight of the robots, a decision like that could have been birthed in storyboard session with a concept artist. It's not necessarily a writing choice. And one of the few good things I can say about PACIFIC RIM is that the VFX did look pretty amazing. And often because -- in spite of the weight and physics ignoring moments you've listed -- the big robots do mostly have a sense of dimension and weight that's unusual for contemporary Hollywood blockbusters. Hence the Oscar nod.

Matt Bird said...

I watched Gravity in 2D, and enjoyed it immensely, but I doubt I could have enjoyed it in 3D. I just find 3D to be off-putting, in that it's literally putting me further off from the action. I can't enjoy a movie if I'm aware of where I am in the theater.

I hadn't heard of Wenders' Pina, but now I want to see it ...in 2D.

J.A. said...

Seeing PINA in 2D is missing an incredible experience, and in some ways missing the entire film. In my opinion, it's best 3D film ever made. Like Herzog's CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (another film crucial to see in 3D, and I've seen it both ways), the effect is central not only to the subject matter, but to the kind of identification you're talking about, and used that way very purposefully.

In both films, the entire project is to place the viewer into the same space as the subject, and that spacial relationship between these two is key. We never lose ourselves, we experience the film as ourselves, in shared space. I get what you're saying about identification, I actually agree for most films. I just think the really smart filmmakers are aware of that, and are using 3D in a totally different and new way, a mix of theater and film. They know that having a train crash through the screen isn't where the art is, it's in the depth, it's in the experience, it's in stillness.

I do think GRAVITY was the best (maybe the only good) fiction film I've seen in 3D. But it again was central to the theme.. space, emptiness, distance... I think it really improved my experience of the film that I saw it at a great 3D IMAX theater. This film didn't distance me the way you're talking about, although most 3D films do just that. Maybe it was the extremity of the setting, the other-worldliness. I'm not sure, but this is one of the only 3D fiction films that I didn't regret spending the extra money to see that way.

j.s. said...

I suppose Matt's anti-3D stance strikes me as kind of oddly Luddite, being that the movies are relatively so young a medium and that at each stage of the evolution of motion picture technology there have been critics asserting that, say, for example, sound, widescreen, television, 3D (the first time), CGI, HD video and the death of shooting on film -- all of these advances were just gimmicks and all of them invariably will lead to the decline of the medium and the desecration of its original and sacred storytelling purpose.

I like what J.A. has to say about 3D creating a shared space. There's some almost David Bordwell level feeling for the form/content relationships. But I'd certainly like to hear more about the film vs. theatre analogy, the idea of 3D as somehow inherently more distancing or more immersive (than, for example, the Lumiere Bros. train film that had the audience running away from it). I know you're more open to the possibilities of the technology but at times it sounds like you really think there's some kind baked-in Brechtian alienation effect in the visuals?

j.s. said...

Forget how color ruined the movies too. If only PACIFIC RIM has the integrity to be in b&w, as the gods of cinema naturally intended.

Matt Bird said...

I do indeed feel that there's a baked-in Brechtian alienation effect.

Since you asked, as far as previous technological advances, I would say that each had its pros and cons.

* In the short term, the coming of sound in the '20s was a disaster, in that it locked down the camera at a time when it was just becoming liberated and limited each country to its own national cinema, but very quickly its value overwhelmed its drawbacks, and the coming of sound-proof mobile cameras and subtitles eventually did away with the downsides entirely.

* the arrival of full color in the 30s was almost entirely positive once cinematographers learned to reincorporate true black into the palate along with the other colors.

* The coming of 1.78:1 widescreen was also mostly positive, but the coming of wider aspect ratios was the first example of a technological innovation that truly did more harm than good. With very few exceptions, it isolated the characters too much in the screen, denying viewers any chance for an intimate "over the shoulder" feel, which is necessary for bonding. Dozens of movies from '55-'65 were virtually ruined by this process, until aspect rations started to shrink back down.

* The coming of model effects in the '70s and '80s was denounced by many at the time, but I see it as just another tool that can used for good or ill. For that matter the same is true of the arrival of CGI, which is not *inherently* inferior to model work, but ends up being *massively* inferior in practice, because CGI workers, unlike model workers, don't have to worry about weight and light and physics, and so most of them don't bother (or feel they can't afford to).

* But, as far as I'm concerned, the first truly terrible innovation was surround-sound, which was the first (except for the brief '50s 3D craze and some '70s novelties) to target the viewers in their seats, denying them the chance to step into the screen. I feel that surround sound is an unmitigated disaster and one of the main culprits in America's faltering love affair with the movies. I don't feel that any movie has ever been improved by surround sound, or ever could be, and I feel that every movie is harmed by it.

* And so I naturally feel the same about modern 3D.

That said, I like JA's case that PINA and CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS work in 3D because they intentionally place the viewer into the same space as the subject. That seems like a reasonable exception.

Could I ever imagine a fiction movie that might work in 3D? Perhaps if, as you say, it's specifically going for a Brechtian distancing effect. I would say that one of the only movies to benefit form 2.2:1 aspect ratio was 2001, for precisely that reason: it was supposed to feel cold and alienating, and deny the viewer a chance to bond with the ostensible hero.

If a movie wanted to use 3D to create the same effect, that might work, I suppose, but you would still have to deal with the fact that most 3D movies are too dim and out of focus.

j.s. said...

But it's all in how each innovation is used, isn't it? If you take your objections to their extreme you'd have to also acknowledge that most movies -- on the cusp of technological advances or not -- use the medium with poor to middling results.

And once audiences and filmmakers get used to any given advance it loses most of its problematic qualities. In the same way that the Lumiere Brothers train film no longer drives people screaming from their seats.

I'm especially curious about your hatred of surround sound, an advance that's been embraced across the board by mainstream and art filmmakers alike. It's a cliche to say that it's half the picture. But if you've seen, for example, one of David Lynch's films without the 5.1 mix, then you haven't really seen it.

How many channels would be okay with you? Stereo only? Is the center channel dialogue speaker okay? What about the .1 subwoofer for low end sounds?

What about lenses? Should films only be shot with a 50mm lens then, because that's closest to the human eye?

And what about the 24fps shutter? We're psychologically acclimated to watching movies that way and research has correlated it to the physiological production of beta states. Yet isn't real human vision is closer to 48fps or even higher?

I get that your problems with these technologies are all about maximizing audience identification with a film's characters. I guess I'm just skeptical about your analysis of the ways in which they are working or not. And especially whether it's the technology that's the problem or the specific way it's being used or misused in any given film.

Matt Bird said...

No, even stereo is unacceptable in my kingdom. I will accept only a center channel and a subwoofer (since that's omnidirectional).

I accept all lens widths and shutter speeds... Mimicking the human eye is neither possible nor preferable. If that was the goal, then the only film I would approve of would be "The Lady in the Lake".

The magic of viewer-identification happens in the 30 to 60 degree turn that somehow creates more identification than an actual POV shot (for reasons that only David Bordwell understands)

What would you say that David Lynch's films gain from a 5.1 mix? I've been attacking surround sound for years and I've never actually heard a defense of it before.

There's also another phenomenon you're talking about: the temporary sense of offended entitlement viewers get when an "unspoken rule" of cinema is broken, such as the Lumieres' train, or the first appearance of the close-up (the audience yelled "Where are their feet??"), or the Godardian jump cut, or Kevin Spacey looking at the camera, but that's something different...and it should be the subject of another "What's the Matter with Hollywood" when we're done with Pacific Rim.

j.s. said...

If you've never experienced a David Lynch mix in the theater in 5.1, especially one of his truly great films like MULHOLLAND DRIVE, then you're missing out on a whole dimension of mood and feeling that's crucial to the impact of the whole. There's a visceral effect to an authentically artistic surround mix that is like the difference between hearing a great piece of music on acceptable headphones or an adequate radio versus a serious tube speaker system or a virtuoso live performance.

There are other filmmakers who I'd mention in the same breath. Just a few off the top of my head: Van Sant, Malick, Sokurov, even Altman, whose 5.1 mix for NASHVILLE sounds even more like what he was originally intending, and more like what was so revolutionary about his contributions to sound design. And there still others who use the possibilities to augment their more mainstream storytelling in ways I'd say certainly don't alienate the audience. You'd really rather hear TERMINATOR 2 or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN in 1.1 mono?

Isn't the world kind of in Dolby Atmos anyway?

Now I'm starting to feel like you're pulling my leg a little...

J.A. said...

Just to expand and respond to j.s.:

The problem with most 3D films is that the filmmakers fail to see the strengths and limitations of the technology and what it is doing psychologically to the viewer. The biggest disappointment for me was Scorsese, who used it almost as if he was trying to highlight it's weaknesses, and definitely with no sensitivity for the difference inherent in the viewing experience I'm talking about. When the camera flies through space, or down an elevator shaft, or things self-consciously fly out of the screen, it's terrible. It's like a shitty roller coaster, and immediately foregrounds the visual action in a way that makes us aware of the medium, and in some ways because of that leaves nothing at stake.

But it seems to me that Wenders is the only one, notwithstanding how great CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS was, to really understand that in some ways 3D needs to be looked at not as a new gimmick or tweak on traditional cinema, but as an entirely different art form. It's the difference between looking at a painting and standing in place looking at a statue, and to me the difference is extreme.

Shared space. It's crucial. Notwithstanding the live nature of theater, that's one of the major distinctions between theater and film, and especially dance theater and film. There is something completely different between sitting in a movie theater cutting between one idea and the next, being lead by the filmmaker and subsumed into the screen, and sitting in a room with the physical reality of another human being with no distinction between you and them besides a proscenium. Wenders makes a film about dance that puts us in spatial relation to the dancers, a film which constantly refers back to the proscenium, then takes us outside of it and into public space, staging dance in a way that has never been done before, with some kind of unique connection between the environment, the dancer and the viewer that could never be achieved by traditional dance, nor traditional cinema. The camera rarely moves, and if it does, it does so very slowly and purposefully. There are few if any close ups. He gives us time to experience what we are seeing in real time without cutting. He makes us feel our own presence in relation to the space and the human subject, and plays off that presence. I think he's the only one who truly understands what the 3D experience is, and has used it to its full potential. He's vowed never to make another 2D film, and his next project is again formally connected to the subject matter: architecture.

I did like GRAVITY in 3D, and clearly it was pretty smartly conceived as a 3D film from the beginning. But for me the very best shot of the film was the first one, a blank shot of space, with a tiny space ship finally appearing and slowly growing larger, coming towards us. That moment was 1000x more effective because it was in 3D. When you get into dialog scenes it becomes more difficult.

So in some ways I don't think I'm disagreeing with what Matt says, I just think the technology has the potential to be used with genius, and that we should stop trying to force it into the mold of traditional cinema. And that's not to say that it can't be used in fiction. Just that it needs to be conceived completely differently in every way. Is there a form of fiction that could leave the viewer in a more observational space, without full identification? Or would that end up like some choose your own adventure book, where you are always you, and never have a true literary experience?