Out of the World
Kathleen Maher
October 18, 2013

Out of the World

Will “Gravity” inspire a new era of 3D filmmaking?

However it will all play out in the end, Gravity will have a profound effect on the course of 3D history. Although 3D movies are playing well in the rest of the world, American audiences seemed to have grown weary of what has been seen as a new toy, but they're gaga over Gravity, and with good reason.

For the most part, box-office information has included a breakout of people who buy tickets for 3D. IMAX also keeps score. Over the summer, there were a couple of 3D "dogs," including Turbo, while The Wolverine and Pacific Rim had weak openings, leading journalists to solemnly promise an end of the 3D movies…again. The thing is, 3D movies aren't doing that badly. Rather, they are settling into some predictable patterns. Pacific Rim turned out to be a hit, and that being the case, a sequel is on the way. It wasn't hurt at all by having a cute Asian heroine in Rinko Kikuchi and a theme straight from the Godzilla mythology, complete with major cities, including Tokyo, getting stomped upon. We humans all love to see recognizable places being destroyed. I have no idea why.

So, back to the patterns. Children's films don't do as well in 3D as adult or, at least semi-adult (or whatever you want to call people who like Transformer) films. Parents of young children may not have as much spending money as their childless counterparts. Parents may figure the kids aren't really going to know the difference, and the parents definitely know that tickets for a family of four - with popcorn, drinks, Jujubes, and maybe even dinner - is going to cost quite a bit. Enough so that the extra pop for a 3D experience might not seem worth it.

Live-action movies do better than animated features - is again probably related to the kid thing. Audiences are making choices. Oddly enough, not very many North Americans pulled their zombie butts off their chairs to see World War Z in 3D, but even it was shoved into positive territory as a result of International audiences that will apparently see anything that stars Brad Pitt and, then again, cities being destroyed.

World War Z by Paramount Pictures

World War Z is the highest-grossing zombie movie ever. It has done about average for a 3D movie. (Source: Paramount Pictures)

In general, American audiences had settled into a pattern of about 35 to 40 percent of people in North America taking the 3D option for movies. The average can jump to 50 to 70 percent for movies that get good, you-must-see-this-in-3D buzz, and it drops to 20 percent or below for kid films. In the rest of the world, the ratios are much higher, but 3D got a bit of a later start, and my thinking was that as international audiences got more jaded about 3D, we would see that pattern hold for movies worldwide; and, given the slate of 3D movies coming up, there are enough dogs to even out the promising films, but Gravity will have an effect.


The Gravity Effect

Certainly it helps that Gravity is a good, stylistic movie. It opens with a long scene that includes a shot that lasts over 10 minutes and resets notions of film pacing. After all, now we're in space; things don't move like they do on the Wall Street, Main Street, or even Sesame Street. This scene is looking like it will be one of the most written-about opening scenes since Orson Welles' opening for Touch of Evil, and that scene was only 3 minutes and 20 seconds long (God, I love Wikipedia). But like the scene in Gravity, which follows three characters on their space walk and tracks them as disaster strikes, and draws the audience in close, closer, closest, it has the same goal. It grabs the audience and says, 'Fasten those seat belts, this is going to be a different kind of ride.'"

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has used long shots to great effect in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life and Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, but in Gravity, Lubezki is able to use long shots to explore and exploit 3D. During long shots, the eye has time to hungrily wander over the scenes, taking in all the incredible detail. There's a lot of stuff in this space. But even though the film has so many long shots, the pacing is far from slow. It's a thrill ride.

Gravity's status as a huge hit is already guaranteed, and a whopping 80 percent of audiences have gotten the memo and they're seeing the movie in 3D (91 percent of the pre-sale tickets were for 3D theaters).

See the Gravity trailer.

Perhaps the best thing about Gravity's use of 3D is the fact that it sucks us in so thoroughly that it's easy to forget about the 3D glasses. We're all just there. The movie also takes considerable advantage of Dolby's Atmos sound technology to enhance the 3D effect. Atmos treats sound elements as "objects" and enables pinpoint sound direction. Sound objects can be placed within the space of the movie theater, if that theater is equipped with Dolby Atmos processors.

What Gravity's filmmakers, including Cuarón, Lubezki, VFX Supervisor Tim Webber (Framestore), and others, have done is expand the language of film for 3D. Sandra Bullock is on screen throughout the film. She performed much of her role suspended in a cage with an armature-mounted digital camera for company. Webber built a lightbox that created the images around Bullock and enabled cameras to put the audience within the scene.

The film took an enormous amount of time to be completed after shooting because the film is pretty much all-CG, and during shooting every move had to be perfect. The filmmakers created a device they called the Light Box, a cube of 4,096 programmable LEDs that could be programmed to deliver variations of brightness, color, and speed to simulate the light from the Earth and the sun as Bullock spins around. Bullock was insulated in the box just as a person would be in a space suit with communications coming in over radio. All that's hard enough, but because the movie is so CG heavy, every move Bullock makes had to be carefully synchronized to be sure it would match the CG.

In a promotional video for the movie shown at Dolby's screening room to highlight the Atmos sound, Cuarón said they had to wait for the technology to be invented to make this film.

There is quite a bit of relatively new technology that enhances the power of this film. It's not only the Light Box and the use of 3D sound, but also high-quality digital cameras capable of capturing deep blacks and pure light. The way the audience is immersed in the scene. And the way the pieces are all put together. In interviews, Lubezki has said the decision to go to 3D for Gravity was not something that was forced on the movie by executives looking for higher ticket prices, but a decision made by the filmmakers because the story demanded it.

Although the movie a fun thriller, it also explores themes of loneliness, despair, companionship, and humanity in the context of emptiness and absence. The movie's ability to immerse the audience and involve them in the characters' predicaments adds an emotional element not usually associated with 3D. Even in great 3D movies, it's much more about the visual landscape, and the emotional aspects are often lost.

Inventor Lenny Lipton, that famous and indefatigable champion of 3D movies, once argued that the time would come when all movies would be 3D, even love stories. I didn't think that was possible. I still don't think all movies will be 3D, but I do think Gravity is the first example of a film in which 3D is used to enhance the emotional aspects as well as add wonder and adventure.

And, a final note on Gravity's influence on filmmaking: The film was primarily a conversion from 2D to 3D. Increasingly the technique is being used because it can be more manageable to shoot live action in 2D and then convert. In the case of Gravity, it was not necessarily easier or cheaper because the filmmakers' ambitions where pretty high, but because 70 percent of the film is CG, the conversion is utterly convincing. And, not to put to fine a point on it, the filmmakers were conscious of making a 3D film, and such things as long shots, careful camera tracking, and mindfulness of the 3D plane were an integral part of the process from the start, as reported by Tim Webber at Film Store and Richard Baker, senior stereo supervisor at Prime Focus. Baker told the Wrap, "I firmly believe that the way to get the best 3D is to move away from just doing conversion on the end of project [and] toward more collaboration on the 3D throughout the filming."

The Future

Now, let's not all get carried away. There is every probability that there will continue to be fairly uninteresting 3D movies released, and audiences will continue to make choices based the quality of the films and their use of 3D. But I think it is less likely that 3D films will go away because audiences give up on the form because the movies just aren't worth the trouble and expense. There's a library building up of movies such as Avatar, Life of Pi, and Gravity that do more than justify 3D, they expand it. In addition, as Gravity demonstrates, new techniques are evolving to give more power and freedom of expression to filmmakers. There won't necessarily be more 3D movies, but what counts is that there will be more great 3D movies.

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR's "TechWatch." She can be reached at Kathleen@jonpeddie.com .