Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Tuesday, 5 November 2013


Finally, a 3D film to get excited about

There are two things you should know about Gravity, the new film from Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien) starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The first is that you should go and see it. To put it simply, it’s really good: a 90 minute cascade of adrenaline – a thriller made with tremendous care and attention to detail that is undoubtedly one of the best films you’re likely to see all year.

The second thing to know is that you should see it in 3D, and preferably in IMAX. I have written previously about my opposition to how stereoscopy has been used in recent years, but I genuinely think that Gravity is an absolute first: a film intended for mass release that has been meticulously designed for 3D by a director who really knows how to use it. Even Mark Kermode, the Commander-in-Chief of the anti-3D army, has been forced to admit that “Gravity is worth seeing in 3D”.

The trouble with many 3D films has run deeper than problems with the technology. It has been to do with the whole philosophy underlying the use of the extra dimension. Films have been ruinously retrofitted into 3D and others have been pointlessly made in 3D in the hope that the gimmick will somehow improve the end product. The truth is that 3D changes everything about the way a film is viewed by its audience, yet directors continued to construct shots as if they were directing for 2D. 3D does, theoretically, create a greater sense of depth and thereby makes an image more akin to how we perceive things in the real world. It is an illusion of the point-of-view: an impression is created that you are actually where the camera is. The third dimension requires a different style of filmmaking.

James Cameron, to be fair to him, did use depth in Avatar to great effect in its stiller moments, with beautiful sequences in the forest creating the impression of fluorescent creatures hanging in mid-air. However, to use the same film as an example, he still directed his action sequences as if he was making Terminator 2, with lots of fast cutting and faster shots. This actually served to break the illusion of depth, because when you see things hurtling towards you in three dimensions in real life, you cannot just cut away from them. Cutting must be used sparingly in 3D to ensure that the illusion of the point-of-view is maintained. No amount of technology can save you from the alienating effect of that illusion being broken.

Cuarón has realised this and it is his masterstroke. It’s clear from the film’s first movement, a beautiful set-up that bursts into frenetic life when our protagonists, NASA astronauts, are struck by space debris from a demolished satellite hurtling through space. There is barely a cut I can remember from that first sequence. Cuarón has painstakingly structured long panning shots that swoop and swivel through the weightlessness of space. The result is total immersion.

The film is delicately designed in every aspect, and Cuarón even has the good sense to not use all of the depths of field available to him. Just because you have the illusory foreground doesn’t mean that you should use it all the time. When something does come close to the audience, it is surely for impact, and this is therefore not something to overuse. Notably, he avoids the stock 3D cliché of having things hurtle directly at the camera, mercifully having anything that comes near us avoid the lens.

The film will still work in 2D – it is a very fine piece of work, exhilarating and exciting, but I would recommend seeing it as Cuarón intended it to be seen: on the biggest possible screen in 3D, because he is a master story-teller and a master filmmaker, and if other directors use the same level of effort in the making of their 3D stories then there is hope that stereoscopy can become a vibrant part of the medium of film.

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