Sherlock Holmes 3D

I am, as far as I know, the only person to have ever made a Sherlock Holmes film in 3D.

This is no mean feat, as the great detective has appeared in over 211 films since 1900, being portrayed by more than 75 actors and is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records the most portrayed movie character ever.

My 3D film of Sherlock Holmes is a 4D attraction film aimed at visitor attractions such as theme parks and museums.  With several high profile Sherlock Holmes projects in the media at the moment I thought it might be interesting to look at what informed our film and compare it to other screen versions of the character.

I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since I was in my early teens when I heard the BBC’s radio versions of Conan Doyle’s original stories starring Clive Merrison and Michael Williams. I subsequently read all the original stories and have been fascinated ever since by the character; and his relationship with his friend and chronicler Doctor John H. Watson.  I even know the “H” stands for Hamish.

Currently in the multiplexes you can see Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows, the second film to star Robert Downey Jr. in the title role.  The first installment in 2009 was a surprise hit; and I myself was very pleasantly surprised with it.  I went in expecting it to be a bastardised Hollywood rehash exploiting the character for brand power only and using it as a springing board to deliver a standard-issue action/adventure flick.  However after about 10 minutes I realized that this really is Sherlock Holmes – the setting is right, there are references to trivia from the stories and most important of all – the relationship between Holmes and Watson is lovingly rendered.  In this version they’re portrayed as a kind of bickering married couple, constantly at each other’s throats but bound together by their mutual dependency on the other’s qualities. Having seen the second installment last night I can report it tops its predecessor on almost all levels.

Last year we also saw Sherlock, a BBC series cunningly updating the character to the present day. Quite why no one had done this before defeats me, because it was quite simply a brilliant idea: transposing the familiar scenario to the modern world; and once again Steven Moffatt (of Dr. Who infamy) made sure this really was Sherlock Holmes. All the details were spot on and the casting (Martin Freeman especially) is perfect.  Personally I found the construction of the mysteries a little too outlandish to really work well – it seemed to devalue Holmes’ powers of deduction that he could apply them successfully to cases that seem quite illogical and the resolution of which didn’t make a lot of sense; to me at least.

In our 3D Sherlock Holmes however we decided that it wasn’t really worth trying to reinvent the character within a ten minute film; not least of all since these other recent projects had done that so well. Instead we decided to deliver the clichéd, standard-issue Holmes we remember from the Basil Rathbone movies of the 1940s with his pipe, deerstalker and magnifying glass: but to try and revel in these clichés and make them fun and entertaining.  I saw the props as being part of Holmes identity; tokens he would need to activate his powers of deduction and solve the mystery.  At the core of the story however we put the relationship with Doctor Watson; on whom Holmes relies for the common sense and human touch he cannot perceive despite his incredible skills of reasoning.  Holmes needs Watson and Watson needs Holmes and around this central truth all versions of Sherlock Holmes revolve, and it is this that has kept audiences fascinated by the character for over 100 years and will ensure he is popular even 100 years from now.

You can watch the trailer for Sherlock Holmes 4D here: www.sherlockholmes4D.com

Now, don’t get me started on who owns the rights to Sherlock Holmes however. That’s a mystery even the great detective himself couldn’t get to the bottom of.

How Long is Enough?

I watched Unstoppable recently, a fantastic action thriller from Tony Scott.  It ain’t Shakespeare, but sometimes all you want to watch is two guys trying to stop a bloody great runaway train.  It is also mercifully short at 98 minutes; which is a good thing as I think the simplicity of the premise and characters would have worn a bit thin if it had gone on much longer.  This is something I’ve considered before about films – why are so many of them so damn long?

Surely making a movie that’s shorter is cheaper than making than one that’s longer. You need to make less footage and so can spend less time shooting, pay the actors less, do less editing etc etc.  Witness that films that are made on really low budgets are always really short; usually about as short as they can get away without people complain.  A friend of mine made a horror movie titled F last year which clocks in atabout 75 minutes.  But think about this: you charge the same to watch a short movie as a long one.

Take the example of Kill Bill. Originally Quentin Tarantino wanted this to be one massive four hour revenge-a-thon, but then some bright spark (I think it was one of the Weinstiens)  came up with the idea of splitting the film the film into two “parts” releasing them one after the other.  Think about it: now you could show two screenings of Kill Bill Part 1 in an evening and hence make twice as much money AND you then had Kill Bill Part 2 to release later – you make FOUR TIMES as much money.

So the question has to be asked: why make a long movie at all? Surely the Hollywood studios should wise up to this and make movies as short as they possibly can, thus cutting their costs down as much as possible and squeezing as many screenings into an evening.  Clearly, they don’t do this and we can only assume they have their reasons; but more to the point they frequently make movies that are REALLY long – Titanic anyone?

The best theory I came up with was that there’s kind of less risk in developing a long(er) movie than a short one. If you make a 90 minute movie you’ve got to be careful with what you include and discard; whereas if you aim for 2 hours plus you can afford to have crowd pleasing scenes that don’t necessarily move the plot forward.  You just get more movie and therefore more chance of pleasing people.  I asked a producer friend of mine and his response however was that this was simply director’s perogative: if Christopher Nolan wants to make The Dark Knight Returns 3½ hours long he bloody well will and there’s nothing Warner Brothers can really do to stop him.

Something else that really weirds me out is the placement of actors names on posters. Refer to the Unstoppable poster above: Denzel Washington’s name is on the left, Chris Pine’s name is on the right – yet the picture of Chris Pine is on the left and Denzel Washington’s face is on the right.  Why not swap the name round so it makes sense?  Or swap the faces if you can’t swap the names.  It’s madness!

Rango

I’ve just been to see Rango, the animated feature film directed by Gore Verbinski and produced at ILM.

I really enjoyed this movie, although it seems to have enjoyed a relatively minor release; at least here in the UK.  However, several things about it seemed a little strange [and please note this includes some very minor spoilers]…

Firstly, and I’ll mention this first because this is a 3D blog after all, it wasn’t in 3D.  This seems a little odd for an animated feature film these days, least of all when it’s cost $135m to make!  I can’t find any reference to this online or any good reason why this should have been so.

I also found the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the movie strangely unengaging.  The way it was marketed gave me the impression this was a kind of off-the-wall movie, with Depp playing a Hunter S. Thompson-esque character – the Hawaiian shirt, the kooky eyes etc.  However as soon as Rango arrives in the town of Dirt the movie seems to suddenly decide it’s really a Western and from thereon in it worked much better. But check out the poster – it doesn’t really scream Western to you, does it?

The main thing however was the quality and nature of the animation and the incredible visual style brought to it by ILM.  There were many images in this film that seemed totally plausible and believable, as if it had been filmed for real in the desert somewhere.

However, that created some weird problems with scale.  The opening establishes that Rango is a real lizard in a real world populated with cars, roads and presumably people; and therefore he’s about 8 or 10 inches tall.  However once he reaches Dirt the scale seems a little odd – the textures and detail of the town look like it’s normal-size; not at all like it’s a miniature town full of lizards and rats etc.  This wouldn’t be so noticeable if the visual style of the film wasn’t SO incredibly real – water that innundates the town at the end looks so insanely plausibly real but then overwhelmingly not the right scale for the characters.

This that’s what felt strange to me.  It wouldn’t have mattered if this was an animals-take-the-roles-of-humans movie like Disney’s Robin Hood or An American Tail; but this was a world where people could pop up any moment; which then became quite important toward the end of the movie.

This subject of realism in CG animation and why it is a good thing, but also a bad thing will form the subject of a later post.

Good Will Hunting

I recently watched The Other Guys starring Will Ferrell and Mark Whalberg.

Now, let me say straight off that I don’t GET Will Ferrell movies.  As far as I am aware the apex of his art is the 2004 movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy.  I watched this some months back on the basis that apparently it’s a classic of comedy.  It’s ok.  Kind of funny, not great.  However, for some reason I fail entirely to fathom people think this movie is hilarious and endlessly spout dialogue from it amid waves of mirth.

The Other Guys was worse: entirely unfunny and soporifically dull.  What I really wanted to write about here was the way plot is handled in the movie.  In The Other Guys plot is almost entirely given a back seat to the comedy, with the result it’s entirely directionless – we simply don’t care whether Ferrell and Whalberg solve the mystery they’re supposed to be investigating and after about 40 minutes I’d have happily turned it off.

Compare and contrast with Hot Fuzz from the starring/ co-writing/directing powerhouse that is Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Not only is this movie bowel-looseningly hilarious it also has a dynamic between its two stars and a plot that actually engages you and keeps you involved all the way through.  Although it is also a parody of pretty much every cop movie ever made I actually care about these people and what happens to them.

If you are fan of Will Ferrell bear this in mind: no matter how many times you repeat lines from Anchorman I won’t think they are any funnier.

Sounds Familiar?

I’ve just re-watched the fantastic French thriller Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne) for the third or fourth time.

The film is interesting for two reasons.  Firstly it’s utterly fantastic, despite being based on a novel by American author Harlan Coben.  Coben’s books are OK, it’s just they’re the kind of McNovel you buy in an airport to read on a plane and never think of again.  They have very complex thriller plots with loads of twists and turns, but they’re insanely formulaic.  There’s always a white collar central character (usually a doctor/lawyer/entreprener etc) and the plot always involves some threat or issue surrounding a person close to him (wife/child/father/best friend).  Despite this Ne le dis à Personne succeeds in being an absolutely first rate movie: director Guillaume Canet finds an emotional depth to the story entirely absent in Coben’s writing.  We see everything from the central character’s point of view and we really feel what it must be like if you think your wife, whom you love more than life itself, is killed and then eight years later you receive an email from her!

The second interesting thing about Ne le dis à Personne is its soundtrack, which is by a French artist who goes by the name of -M-.  In a book I’ve just read Nicholas Meyer notes that a soundtrack has the potential to “give the movie a voice”; and -M-‘s fantastic score gives this movie a unique sense of pent up disquiet (I also cannot now listen to Jeff Buckley singing Lilac Wine without collapsing in tears). However, I liked this movie so much that it took to listening to the soundtrack on Spotify (search for “Ne le dis à Personne”) and I must have listened to it a hundred times over.  As I sat down to watch the movie I was worried that my familiarity with the music would somehow drain it of its vibrancy and it would feel predictable and stale.

Fortunately that didn’t happen.  It was <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.

Fighting the Urge

The wife and I went to see The Fighter last week.  It’s one of those movies that is arguably very formulaic – it’s very specifically a boxing movie and conforms to most of what you’d argue are the stereotypes of that genre; particularly the ending.  However it succeeds in being entirely engaging for 2 hours, and I think in this instance that’s largely due to the knockout performances of Mark Whalberg and Christian Bale.  Whilst Bale is going to get all the attention for his exuberant turn as hyperactive crackhead Dicky Eklund, it’s Whalberg’s note perfect, measured performance as his troubled brother Micky Ward that holds the movie together.

Sadly my enjoyment of this movie was slightly reduced by the fact that for most of the running time I was desperate for a wee.  I had drunk a milkshake just before and although I was absolutely bursting I couldn’t bare to tear myself away from the screen and actually go and relieve myself.  So it’s kind of good news that the movie was so compelling I preffered to endure it with an overflowing bladder; but bad news that I was too busy crossing my legs to fully immerse myself in it.