Why Kung Fu Panda 2 isn’t Fully Awesome

The Red Star posse went to see Kung Fu Panda 2 recently.  We all really enjoyed it; and some of us declared it pretty awesome; but for me it was disappointing. Why? Because the story was rubbish.

Let’s deal with something up front: Kung Fu Panda 2 is a fantastically produced animated film.  Visually, every single aspect of it is superb; from the art direction to the design of the characters and sets, the animated performances, lighting, visual effects, staging, camerawork and editing.  I don’t doubt hundreds of fantastically talented artists sweated for years to refine and polish every aspect of this movie, burning through a production budget of a reported $150 million.  At the end of the movie there was a credit for about 20 people as “story artists” but for the love of heaven I don’t know what they all did, as the story could have been sketched on the back of a napkin in about 20 minutes.

Why didn’t the story work for me? Because the central character Po’s journey seemed forced, with no real change occurring to him.  The film set up a bunch of issues he needed to resolve: his relationship with his adoptive father and to “find inner peace” but these seem to really affect him that much (the latter is used just as a phrase, he doesn’t really have a problem) and are totally unconnected to the plot that presently emerges: that baddie Lord Shen is kicking off and trying to take over China. Po eventually defeats Shen, but you don’t really get that he’s changed at all.  Jim Hull has a much better analysis over on his site at Story Fanatic.

The question emerges: do we care? Most of Red Star came out of the movie and declared it amazing and, as I’ve elaborated above in terms of its production it’s truly dazzling.  It’s already made a ton of money and will doubtless spawn a couple more sequels.  But compare it with 2010’s How To Train Your Dragon, which delivers the same level of action and comedy but really engages with the emotional arc of its central character. The upshot: at the end of King Fu Panda 2 I felt like I’d been strapped to some kind of intensely pretty and exciting roller coaster for 90 minutes; at the end of How To Train Your Dragon I had the exact same feeling but I also felt I’d had an emotional experience that really moved me.

If someone had just spent a bit of time working out the script of King Fu Panda 2 it could have been fantastic, and the ending which was kind of neat could have been amazing; maybe then it would have truly been Fully Awesome.


Tangled in the Floating Window

I’ve been to see Disney’s Tangled twice now.  It’s a fantastic animated movie – funny, thrilling and heartwarming.  For me, its supreme achievement is to take the traditional Disney movie formula of fairytales, princesses, true love and following your dreams; and present it all with a freshness and vigour that makes it suddenly seem relevant and captivating to modern audiences without parodying itself or backtracking for one moment on the fact that it really, really is a Disney movie.

Tangled is also very well presented in 3D and it’s one of the first 3D films I’ve seen to make great use of the Floating Window to expand the possibilities of its shot design and prevent Edge Violations.  So it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the technique and how it’s been used in Tangled.

If you’re making a film in 3D you can choose to present the scene behind the screen or in front of it.  If things are behind the screen they are said to have positive parallax and the screen will seem like a window through which you can view objects far off in the distance.  If things have negative parallax they appear in front of the screen and hence you can make objects come into the movie theatre and make the audience try and reach out and grab stuff.  However, if objects with negative parallax move toward the edge of the picture they can get cropped off by the edge of the screen.  This creates what we scientists call an Edge Violation – the 3D thing on the screen suddenly looks wrong because it’s behind the edge of the screen, even though it looks like it’s in front of it.  This is uncomfortable for the audience to view and could collapse the suspension of disbelief and pop them out of the movie.

The Floating Window is a very simple technique to remedy the problem.  The idea is to insert a very narrow black bar down one side or other of the 3D picture in just one of the stereoscopic eyes.  The effect is that suddenly the vertical edges of the frame seem to be closer than they actually are – as if the screen itself moved closer than it really is.  You kind of have to see this to believe it works, so next time you see a 3D movie try taking your glasses off and checking out the edges of the frame at left and right. Here’s a pretty neat video that explains the technique quite well if you’ve got a pair of red/blue anaglyph glasses to hand.

A classic over-the-shoulder shot

Tangled make a lot of use of Floating Windows in all sorts of interesting ways. The main use is just to make compositions comfortable to view which would otherwise be difficult or impossible to reconcile with 3D.  For instance in a classic over-the-shoulder shot like this you really want the subject (Rapunzel, on the right) to be composed on the screen with the character on the left in the foreground with negative parallax in 3D.  However that creates a horrible edge violation with the left of the screen, as the foreground character appears like a kind of disembodied cut out blob with a face and shoulder.  The conservative thing to do is to just compose the entire shot with Rapunzel deeper into screen so the foreground character is either on or barely in front of the screen, but some stereographers I know have even said “Don’t do over the shoulder shots at all!”.  This is pretty dumb, because we really want to do over-the-shoulder shots – we want to put the audience in the circle of action and feel like we’re part of the emotional space.  In the example above imagine if we couldn’t see the character on the left at all – the image would lose all its emotional context since we can’t see who Rapunzel is actually looking at.  The solution to the problem in Tangled is to put a Floating Window on the left of the screen so the screen edge seems to be every so slightly in front of the foreground character and we just aren’t bothered by the edge violation.  Voila!

But Tangled does some other pretty neat stuff with Floating Windows.  Firstly, they’re animated so they will change from shot to shot and even move slightly during a shot.  It’s slightly surprising to realize that the edges of the screen can jump around like this and no one in the theatre notices!

But Tangled was also using Floating Windows to ease compositions that weren’t actually creating edge violations at all.  In a shot like this they might use a floating window on the left of screen so the foreground character doesn’t feel like he’s leaping off the screen and protruding into the theatre, even though he’s not breaking the edge of frame.  They would also happily use different Floating Window depths on the different edges of the screen.  So again in this example there might be a Floating Window on the left, but not one on the right.  Again the bizarre thing about this is that it just works and no one in the theatre seems to care that the sides of the picture are bouncing all over the place; although maybe Roger Ebert is having a fit somewhere.

The other really, really cool thing Tangled did though is to use diagonal Floating Windows.  Now, I’m not 100% sure about this because although I saw the movie twice I didn’t get a good enough look at this to be totally positive because it’s kind blink-and-you-miss-it; but it looked like in some cases the Floating Window was at an angle, so the bottom of the window seemed to be closer than the top.  So in a shot like this the Floating Window solves the Edge Violation at the bottom, but leaves the top unaffected.  I’ve certainly never seen this before on any other movie, and again it’s surprising that the effect apparently isn’t noticeable to the film-going public.

So as we’ve seen the Floating Window is a pretty awesome technique to help you compose shots in 3D and expand the possibilities for storytelling without melting the audience’s brains.  It’s worth noting two things however: first this only really works in a movie theatre, not on TV or anything.  A TV screen usually has a plastic bevel around its edge, so its impossible to fool the audience into believing that the edge of the screen is anywhere other than where it really is in depth.  However, this isn’t such a problem since the small screen is a bit more forgiving that a massive cinema screen.  A movie theatre will also need to be well set up so the edges of the screen are totally black and there’s no intrusive objects around the screen edge like exit signs to give you a depth cue that defeats the effect.

Secondly, there’s a significant problem with projectionists cutting the floating windows off when they screen the movie.  Even though the movie is projected digitally, projectionists frequently apply the wrong settings and slightly crop the image at left and right, which of course cuts off the floating window completely.  When I saw Monsters vs. Aliens a few years back there was no floating window at all, despite the fact I know for certain DreamWorks applied this effect to the film.

The Legend has a new Dimension

Robin Hood 4D is the new 4D film we’re working on at Red Star.  It’s been really exciting so far to be working with such an iconic and well known character, and I think we’ve put an amazing new spin on him whilst harking back affectionately to the character’s film origins (we all know Errol Flynn is the only real Robin Hood).

The film is actually all told from the point of view of Maid Marion and it tells the story of how she meets and falls in love with Robin Hood.  I really want to expand the film into a trilogy where part 2 is told all from the point of view of the Sheriff and tells the story of his obsessive quest to track Marion down and revenge himself against Robin Hood.  Part 3 would then be told from Robin Hood’s point of view as he tries to rescue Marion and bring justice to the Nottingham.

Go and check out the trailer at www.robinhood4D.com

Inevitable 3D Post

It’s somewhat timely that I’ve started to blog today, as more than ever the issues surrounding 3D film-making are being debated far and wide.  Significantly film reviewer Roger Ebert (kind of the American Barry Norman) has come out recently with this piece in Newsweek Why I Hate 3D Movies and You Should Too and this letter written to him by Water Murch and printed under the title Why 3D Doesn’t Work and Never Will.  Case Closed.

Roger Ebert.

These articles raise many points some of which are technical, some of which are creative, some of which are accurate and some of which are not.  Far be it from me to debate the art of film-making with these illustrious veterans, and I’m not going to chew over all of these points as some have done.  Instead I just thought I would present things as I see them.  I am a 35 year old geek who runs an animation studio and makes 3D (and 4D!) films for theme parks, so make of this what you will.

In terms of the film experience, I am totally on the same page as Ebert – films engage our imagination and emotions in a way (for me, at least) like no other media.  When I watch a great film I am totally engrossed in the story and for me that’s what it all comes down to – story. If I think of all the best film experiences I’ve had, the presentation makes little difference if I connect with the central character and I lose myself to the extent that I am vicariously living their journey.

But film is a visual medium.  The adoption of 3D has many parallels with the rise of colour film in the 1930s.  Until then most films were in black-and-white and people just kind of accepted that, but from the 1930’s onward the technology to record and present films in colour began to appear, until by the 1960’s it was pretty much a given that a film would be in colour. With hindsight this seems very logical – the real world is in colour, so shouldn’t films also be in colour to better represent the real world.  Besides, colour is so much more colourful and, well, fun than boring old black-and-white.  Of course some films are still made in black-and-white, usually when the director wants to indicate that events are set in the past: I believe Spielberg said of Schindler’s List that shooting it in colour made it look like it was set in the present day.

Every time I hear someone say “3D films don’t work because…” or “3D films are rubbish because…” I mentally substitute the world “colour” for “3D”.  Early colour films were garish and filled with primary colours; and proudly declared their colour credentials on the poster.  Many in the film community decried colour films, claiming they were cheap popcorn fodder, not as artistic or creative as black-and-white films and even that colour was totally unnecessary and would die out.  But as we know, in time directors came to use colour as a far more subtle tool to influence the audience’s emotions.  Check out this Colour Script created by Lou Romano for Disney/Pixar’s UP.

Colour Script still from Up.

So if we can accept that colour is a valuable artistic component of the film experience then why not 3D?  The 3D film-maker may draw up a “depth script” like Romano’s to guide how much depth is used in each scene. He may for instance use little depth to represent a character’s meaningless, drab existence and then expend the depth when that character meets the love of their life, so we the audience better feel their broadened horizons.  He may present some scenes so they seem far away from the viewer, as if glimpsing something distant, but then present action scenes right in your face so you feel the action as intrusive and terrifying.

So here’s the thing: when you create a film you’re using film language to tell your story.  That’s the combination of images and sounds that are going to produce the effect you want in the viewer.  3D means there’s a whole new depth to that language that’s going to provide endless new opportunities for artistic expression and storytelling.  The 3D film language isn’t that much different from the regular film language, most of the old tricks still stand but some of them need tweaking so they don’t look weird; but there’s loads of new stuff to try.  We’ve seen what James Cameron cooked up when he tried 3D, imagine what a film-maker like Martin Scorsese will do (he’s currently shooting a children’s feature called Hugo Cabret in 3D).  There’s so many amazing things people are going to do with 3D and I for one really want to explore this exciting new medium rather than just writing it off as a gimmick or anti-film or whatever.

Besides – 3D films are really, really cool!  I mean, seriously, I absolutely loved 2009’s Star Trek and if the sequel comes out in 3D I may physically explode.  In the meantime if you want to see really good 3D go and see animated movies: Disney’s Tangled is amazing in 3D; How to Train your Dragon is breathtaking and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs made me laugh so hard the glasses fell off.