Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The past, present and future of 3-D?

3-D has been in the news a lot recently. The Polaroid spectacles are annoying; the technology is restrictive; people are tired of having things thrown off the screen at them; story should be more important than technological gimmicks; 2-D versions are just as good as 3-D; this is just a knee-jerk novelty from an increasingly desperate Hollywood film industry. The arguments are repetitively familiar, with commentators like Mark Kermode and David Mitchell lining up to kick 3-D while it’s down.

Except it’s not down. It might not even be reeling. In fact, with major 3-D media conferences in Los Angeles, Asia and London; Sky's 3-D TV channel, the release of the Nintendo 3DS, the promotion of fashionable 3-D glasses, and a new wave of 3-D films coming to cinemas, 3-D might actually be growing in availability, if not perceived popularity. So is there a disconnect here between published opinion and popular acceptance? Could it be that people actually like 3-D, and want more of it rather than less?

If we start with film, the financial box office success of Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, and Toy Story 3-D has positioned digital stereoscopic technology as the apparent saviour of cinema. Yet recent statistics suggest that 3-D may not be as popular with audiences as box office takings state, implying that the 3-D bubble is artificially afloat because of the increased ticket prices and the cost of Polaroid spectacles, with actual audience numbers for each subsequent 3-D film since Avatar slowly inching downwards. With films like Clash or Alice being ‘converted up’ from 2-D rather than being designed and filmed for 3-D, it may be that the ‘game changing’ Avatar has actually changed very little. While it is too simple to make direct comparisons with the last commercial expansion of 3-D (a convention of pieces such as this), the 1953 example of House of Wax remains tempting. The major financial success of the period (dwarfing Bwana Devil), it encouraged film companies to rapidly convert existing productions into full or partial 3-D projects, with no real awareness or understanding of, for want of a better term, the 3-D aesthetic. As we are in the eye of this particular stereoscopic hurricane, it is too early to tell if Avatar is this generation’s House of Wax or The Jazz Singer (another problematic example, as synchronised sound took five to seven years to become dominant).

The conglomerate nature of the modern media industries, however, suggests that history is unlikely to repeat itself. In the 1950s, 3-D was designed to compete with other screen technologies: in 2010, computing, the Internet, home video and television are lined up to support corporate Hollywood. The Nintendo 3DS offers 3D without glasses; Internet sites are experimenting with anaglyph and sequential field videos; 3-D Blu-Ray releases are growing; while Sky’s 3-D television service promises to introduce 6 hours of unique 3-D content a week for British audiences. Initial uptake for the latter may be slow, but Sky has the ability to play the long game (the recent figures for HD uptake across Britain are evidence of that) - and the world premiere 3-D broadcast of Avatar for Christmas will help build that domestic audience.

So, rather than stick our heads in the sand, repeat the same tired 3-D arguments, and hope 3-D fails, should we instead hope for the success of 3-D? The technology contains the potential for something new and different, something aesthetically innovative: a true development in vision, rather than its current use in adding artificial depth to standard film narratives. The true test of 3-D is whether it can add something new, beyond the layers of imagery we are currently seeing (or not seeing, depending on your preference). The hope should be that 3-D is used to experiment: the 1950s produced a series of short British films that offer more original use of stereoscopic photography than most current 3-D films put together: yet they are rarely seen outside of the National Film & Television Archive. In rediscovering films like this, we can see new routes for 3-D composition and presentation, new possibilities that extend beyond Hollywood’s past, present or future applications.

Because, ultimately, the lesson learnt from the 1950s is that if 3-D fails, viewers rarely lose out. All 3-D films, television shows and computer games are transferable to 2-D viewing. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to see what 3-D can do, than sit back and wait for it to fall into this particular historical trap?

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Disagreeing with Roger Ebert about 3-D

(apologies for the gap in service - I've been finishing off my book, Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction - due at all good bookshops in late 2011)

I've been planning on blogging about 3-D for a while now, but could never find the best route into the debate. I recently re-read Roger Ebert's piece from Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/2010/04/30/why-i-hate-3-d-and-you-should-too.html) and thought that might be a useful jumping off point.

Unlike Ebert, I don't hate 3-D films. In fact, I first viewed Monsters vs. Aliens, Streetdance 3-D and Coraline in 3-D, and think it added something to the experience of the film: it was used sparingly as a gimmick (though the 3-D CGI cucumber in the food fight scene in Streetdance 3-D may have been a step too far) and gave, for want of a better word, depth to emotional as well as spectacular scenes (the use of spatial layering between characters in both Streetdance and Monsters vs. Aliens was effective in suggesting isolation and/or estrangement, and recalled earlier 1950s 3-D work in It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon).

I don't want all my films in 3-D, and I've yet to be convinced that I need television in 3-D (my brief experience of a Sony 3-D TV did not sell me on it as a home technology - and Sky's claim to be adding 6 hours of unique 3-D content every week from September seems to be mainly limited to 3-D football and Hollywood movies) but I think it is too early to reject the technology entirely.

But then, if you read Ebert's article, he doesn't hate 3-D films either, but hates the idea of it as a 'way of life for Hollywood, where it seems to be skewing major studio output away from the kinds of films we think of as Oscar-worthy. Scorsese and Herzog make films for grown-ups. Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market.'

And here, of course, is the meat of the argument - 3-D is simply the latest technological whipping boy for a standard critical (and cultural) distinction between good movies and bad movies. To Ebert, directors make adult 'proper' filmic fare, while studios produce juvenilia that will rot your brain. This is a well-rehearsed argument that most critics fall victim to at various points, often when faced with something that they cannot reconcile with their particular worldview. Personally, I don't object to a world where there are fewer films that aim for 'Oscar-worthy' and have the loftier goal of visual and aural entertainment. I think the world would be a better place if there were more Monsters vs. Aliens and fewer Oscar-bait bio-pics...

Ebert's rant (and he's not alone) returns us to previous debates about Hollywood's cultural dominance of the 'mass' audience, and the impact of other 'new' technologies. Ebert rails against the fact that classic films didn't need 3-D, because they engaged our imagination. Yet Avatar engaged people's imaginations and produced debates around environmentalism, the Iraq war, gender issues, or the colonial mindset (Ebert does see Avatar as an exception here, but I think it inaccurate to say that all other 3-D films are mindless and cannot stimulate discussion).

But picking at the details is less important than realising that what Ebert is railing against is the 'younger Hollywood' that has lost 'the instinctive feeling for story and quality that generations of executives possessed.' This smacks of Ebert rejecting the shock of the new for the safety of the old and reliable, but with the proviso that if an established 'artist/auteur' (Scorcese, Herzog) joins in with this 3-D thing, then they might be able to wrestle something worthwhile from this base cultural form. Proper films have something to say, and don't need technical trickery to say it.

Everyone else is doomed to have spears jabbed in their faces, or have to duck to avoid CGI cucumbers.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Saying goodbye (dammit) to 24...for now, at least

It wasn’t the best of seasons (takes a lot to beat seasons 1 and 4). It wasn’t the worst of seasons (that dubious honour goes to season 6). But there was a real energy about the last few episodes that dragged it back from the edge. Watching the final two episodes was a strange experience, however, for its revelations about what the series did best, and for more than a few last frustrating reminders of when it failed gloriously.

The second last hour (2pm-3pm) was another strong entry, with Jack continuing on his one-man campaign to kill anyone involved in the conspiracy / death of Renee Walker. In many ways, this episode brought the entire eight seasons full circle, with Jack once again in the position of having a (former) U.S. president in his sniper scopes. Harking back to season 1, when Jack was blackmailed into almost assassinating (future) president Palmer, there was a brief moment where I thought he was actually going to shoot Logan...and then, obviously, the show backed away from that ledge and (in the final episode) went down a more familiar, get the electronic MacGuffin to wherever it needs to be to.

The strangest thing about the last episode (3pm-4pm) was that most of it wasn’t actually about Jack Bauer. He largely sat the episode out, either laid up in an ambulance or in the back of a kidnapper’s van, leaving a bunch of fictional politicians to tie up the final narrative loose ends. It was the series’ last chance to put another U.S. President through the ringer, as President Taylor finally remembered that (up until episode 14 or 15) she did have morals and principles. 24 has, traditionally, introduced character-shifting decisions that had little or no relevance to where the character started off, but this last minute (Jack-influenced) conversion at the UN was up there with Wayne Palmer’s presidential meltdown in season 6. Everyone in the 24-verse KNOWS that Charles Logan is a lying piece of slime, it’s not like it’s a big secret: so Alison Taylor’s decision to trust him was just the latest in a long line of 24 decisions that were necessary for dramatic purposes (and, I’ll be honest, I loved seeing Logan back and as bad as ever, so I’m willing to let them have this one) if not logical character ones.

But why was the final episode so Jack-lite? Fans knew that he wasn’t going to take out Logan and Subarov but, let’s be honest here, we also wanted the Wild Bunch psycho-revenge Jack suicidal slow-motion blaze-of-glory ending, didn’t we? (or was that just me?) Tagging on another ‘Chloe to the electronic rescue’ twist (that also failed once again to justify Cole Ortiz (Freddie Prinze Jr.)’s presence in a CTU windbreaker) felt like one final 24 cliche too many.

All that being said, however, the final moments of the last episode pulled victory from the jaws of defeat (although the less said about the last-minute rescue of Jack from more of 24’s patented dumb special forces guys the better). President Taylor did her best President Palmer (who had a similar phonecall with Bauer after helping Jack escape the authorities at the end of season 4), and then it was all down to the ultimate odd couple of Jack and Chloe. Having these two isolated, socially awkward individuals separated by distance but, as ever, connected by electronic means, reminded me that this was often the heart of 24’s drama. Jack, protecting his family one last time (until the movie). Chloe, unable to articulate herself properly and falling back on spiky retorts. I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed when Jack said he never thought it would be Chloe who’d be with him all this time. Chloe, unable to finally blurt out her feelings, falling back on technology, saying he needed to go before the authorities got there. Jack, silent, staring up at the camera, saying goodbye (although let’s not count the number of times he’s actually said goodbye in the last eight years). Chloe, shutting down the feed from the drone, so that Jack’s face pixellated, then disappeared into static.

With a proposed movie, the show was never going to have a slow-motion, Jack’s last stand, gun battle. Luckily, that pitch-perfect exchange between Jack and Chloe pulled 24 back to the quieter moments, and maybe that was the perfect way to pull the curtain over Jack Bauer’s television adventures, with him on the run, and Chloe, heartbroken and alone in a deserted CTU.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Inner Sight / Outer Space: Some ideas on the opening of Serenity

The following was originally written for the first issue of an online journal that asked various academics for 1000 word pieces that analysed the opening sequence of a film. Unfortunately, the journal was never published, and I was left with the two pieces I had written. I had hoped to reuse this piece, on the opening ten minutes of Joss Whedon's Serenity, in the book I'm currently writing (Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction) but I've had to cut it for reasons of length. Rather than consign it to the recycle bin again, I thought I'd present it here instead:


The opening sequence of Serenity features four linked scenes where, I would argue, visual revelations that are intended to mislead the viewer also illuminate core themes: the uncertainty of vision, and the illusion of seeing (or, rather, the illusion of what is shown). The four scenes are a prologue about a future space Diaspora, our introduction to a young girl called River, an adult River being rescued from a medical laboratory by her brother, Simon, and the mysterious ‘Operative’ viewing footage of their escape. While this description suggests the narrative progression (and relevance) of the scenes, reducing this sequence to its expository function overlooks their deeper function: raising uncertainty over what we are watching, and questioning how much faith or trust we can place in the images presented to us.

The first sign of the film’s larger themes comes when a standard science fiction image (a planet, hanging in space) blinks twice, before being dissected by a white line. The image pulls back to reveal we are no longer ‘in’ outer space, but viewing a computer program that displays a circular star chart, planets radiating out from a central sun. We ‘pull back’ further and the computer is an oval screen set into a classroom wall – the visual motif of circles within circles and oval / eye-shaped apertures recurs throughout – where a female teacher talks to a class of young children. Here, the term ‘pulling back’ does not define a specific camera movement, but a moment of spatial (and temporal) dislocation – from an outer space vista to a computer screen, from the screen to the classroom. In this circular room (with its ovular entrances) we meet River, who challenges the teacher’s view of the galactic Alliance. As the teacher leans forward, apparently to strike River, the film cuts to an older River, in a medical lab. The visual match between the teacher’s thrusting finger and the large needle sticking out of River’s forehead links the scenes, but the edit offers another ‘pull back’, from the inner (subjective) space of River’s mind to this (seemingly objective) view of the laboratory. As if to confirm, or underline this, a lab technician comments: ‘She’s dreaming…off the chart. Scary monsters.’

The sequence of cuts that pull the viewer back, into new scenes, allows us to question the validity of what we are seeing. The film deceives its audience with each new scene, forcing us to question the visual narrative being constructed. How reliable is the information we are being given? Was everything we watched a dream, or memory? The classroom was shot in natural colours, while the laboratory is tinted blue with deep shadows – is this more nightmarish location the reality? A doctor suggests River cannot perceive between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’: ‘The neural stripping does tend to fragment their own reality matrix.’ The viewer’s reality matrix is also fragmented, as we remain unsure whether the visions / images we’ve been offered by the film are objective or subjective, whether we can place our trust in them or not. River is being monitored by banks of instruments – are they the source of the previous images? Were we truly seeing River’s internal thoughts?

This confusion only deepens during Simon’s rescue attempt. Over an image of them, about to escape, an unseen male voice commands the film to ‘Stop… backtrack… stop’. The images obey the orders – first reversing, then freezing River’s face, its blue tint fading into sepia tones. A male face (the Operative) appears ‘through’ this image of River, rippling and briefly combining with it before solidifying. Once again, the film ‘pulls back’, switching to a new spatial location and undermining the reliability of the previous image (and, by association, all the preceding imagery). In this new sparse blue-grey room, the figures of Simon and River hang in the air, now a holographic representation of the event rather than the event itself: the use of sepia reduces the image to the status of old photographs, another call to memory, present tense becoming past.

Again the film challenges our understanding of the image – our ‘reality matrix’ is revealed to be technological, a CCTV recording that can be rewound and frozen at will. By placing directorial control of the image at the hands of the Operative, the series of ‘pull backs’ is finally narrativised as it becomes clear we have been returning to this place, this present tense. With his ability to rewind time, and to displace River (by physically inhabiting the space on screen that she occupied) the Operative is presented as omnipotent, a godlike figure. His control over imagery, so potent here, is contrasted in the film with Mr. Universe, a supporting character who collects and intercepts all visual information in the galaxy. Unlike the Operative, however, Mr. Universe remains neutral – he believes in the power of ‘the signal’, while the Operative believes in the power of secrets – access versus restriction, freedom versus control.

This final scene between the Operative and the doctor is expository, but it continues to play with notions of access and vision. The scene literally revolves around the frozen image of River and Simon, while an echo of the oval / eye theme can be found in the set design for the room. Almost circular in shape, it has a large circle in the ceiling that houses the holographic projector: if the room is an all-seeing eye, this is its pupil. The previous references to eyes, or vision, combine in this scene – like the star chart’s concentric circles, the characters all revolve around River; the doctor’s confusion that he can ‘see no listing of rank or name’ demonstrates his blindness to the Operative’s power over vision; looking into Simon’s (holographic) eyes reveals his love for River; and vision is revealed as the film’s MacGuffin – what did the psychic River ‘see’ in the minds of the powerful government officials who came to inspect her? These themes of vision and visual uncertainty develop through Serenity’s running time, but they are established here in this first sequence.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Afterthought: trailers and transmedia

A couple of days after I published my last blog post on The Wombles (and its potential as an early example of British transmedia storytelling), one of my students asked me about the narrative content of recent franchise teaser trailers (specifically Star Trek (2009) and Transformers (2007), arguing that they should be seen as transmedia storytelling extensions. The trailers, for those who haven't seen them, feature the construction of the Starship Enterprise, and the destruction of the 2003 Beagle probe to Mars by a Transformer. The argument here would be that these 'prologue' teasers extend the film narrative by introducing essential story elements ahead of the main feature.

I mention this here, partly because it might expand the discussion of transmedia storytelling, but also because in my recent book (Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology) I, quite deliberately, stopped short of claiming any transmedia element for trailer narratives. The reasons for that were mainly: 1. This would have taken place in my chapter on the Internet and I remain unconvinced that transmedia is a purely computer-based innovation; and 2. I think there is an issue around the 'trans' element of transmedia in such cases.

So, given its been two years since I completed the book, have I changed my mind on the nature of trailers and transmedia?

My earlier concern around transmedia as something unique to (or created by) a computer-based system remains strong. My first reaction to my student was whether there was anything 'new' about using trailers as story extensions: Hitchcock's Rope (1948) trailer features a scene that takes place before the murder (that motivates the rest of the film); another Hitchcock trailer The Trouble With Harry (1955) offers a mock-travelogue of the New England setting for the film; a more recent example might be The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005) trailer, which featured the Guide (voiced by Stephen Fry) explaining what a movie trailer was, but also operating as a gateway into the humour of Douglas Adams' 'universe.' While the examples of Star Trek and Transformers fit within this tradition, are they doing anything different from 50/60 years ago? Are they anything other than prologues to an existing narrative rather than an extension of that narrative across different media?

And this links to my second concern, which relates to Henry Jenkins' note that 'each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story' and that the serial nature of transmedia narratives involves dispersing story information across 'multiple media systems' (http://henryjenkins.org/2009/12/revenge_of_the_origami_unicorn.html)

These prologues do seem to fit within that definition. But it raises the larger question of whether a trailer is a medium in its own right.

Because if we regard the trailer in the same light as the film it is advertising, then surely they belong in the same medium? My work on the trailer considered film, television, video, and Internet trailers (i.e. trailers that were produced for one specific medium) and, despite some medium-specific aesthetic and structural differences, they were all recognisably 'trailers.' Given the film trailer created that template, would we want to claim that film and Internet trailers belong to different media - when, in fact, the main media difference might simply be one of dissemination method?

Personally, I love trailers, think they are endlessly fascinating texts to watch and study, and am happy to claim that the trailer is a unique audio-visual format - there was nothing like it in existence before the 1910s, and despite links to elements of poster and fan magazines, its style and structure (its poetics, if you like) are distinct and unique.

But do I think the trailer is a new and unique medium? No, which means I remain unconvinced that they operate within the transmedia storytelling tradition identified by Jenkins. If the film trailer and the feature film (whether seen in a cinema, on DVD or via a computer) belong to the same medium, then can they be regarded as transmedia?

However, as my student has gone away, intent on proving their case, we will no doubt return to the debate over the next few months...

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Was The Wombles a transmedia narrative?

To celebrate / note the publication of my article 'Underground, Overground: Remembering The Wombles' (in Sue Harper/Laurel Forster's great new book British Culture in the 1970s: The Lost Decade), I was reminded of a particular theoretical link I didn't have time to pursue in this piece -one that has become more relevant given recent teaching and research I've been working on.

Henry Jenkins' work on 'transmedia storytelling' and its influence on current Hollywood narratives was a central (and popular) topic in my recent module 'Film, Television and New Media': in the lecture, I used Superman as a challenge to Jenkins' new media focus, exploring how the narrative development of that universe took place across various 1940s media (most notably comic books, radio shows, animated shorts and serials). I used an American example mainly due to Jenkins' largely U.S. focus, but my work on The Wombles did seem to point to an early British experiment (though possibly not an intentional one) in this kind of cross-media narrative techniques.

For those unfamiliar with the theory, Jenkins recently posted an updated definition. Transmedia storytelling is 'a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.' (http://henryjenkins.org/2009/12/the_revenge_of_the_origami_uni.html) This is (arguably) distinct from branding or merchandising, which often has little narrative impact (for example, a Wombles bedspread or lampshade has no direct narrative relationship with the main 'universe'); and also from adaptation, which makes minimal changes to the original text.

Applying this theory to The Wombles, an earlier (non-internet) example, may not in itself be unique, but given the Hollywood-centric focus of debates around transmedia, it does offer a useful examination of whether British television producers of the 1960s and 70s were able to think about, and exploit, multiple media narratives.

To establish whether The Wombles was a transmedia experience, we should start with the basics. The Wombles' animated television series was based on a series of books by Elizabeth Beresford that featured the litter-collecting, waste-recycling Wombles of Wimbledon Common in adventures both domestic and international. The character line-up remained constant across all formats: six male Wombles (the elders Great Uncle Bulgaria and Tobermory; the four youngsters Orinoco, Wellington, Tomsk and Bungo), one female Womble (Madame Cholet, a French emigre) and occasional guest Wombles (such as Cairngorm MacWomble the Terrible, a Scottish visitor). All the Wombles live in underground burrows, and their 'job' is to collect all the litter that humans leave behind, recycling and reusing it in a variety of ingenious ways.

The TV series (which ran on the BBC 1973-74, with stop motion animation by FilmFair, voices by Bernard Cribbins, and music by Mike Batt) was, however, more than just an adaptation. Most of the stories were set in the same 'universe' as the books, but were new adventures designed for the short four minute animated format. So, immediately, we could argue that the animated shows were a transmedia extension of an existing universe.

Jenkins claims that 'integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels': The Wombles, in both book and television series, stress similar narrative elements, and the re-release of the book series with new covers featuring the FilmFair/BBC Womble designs could, arguably, create the 'unique and coordinated entertainment experience.' The television series also gave the Wombles individual personalities, voices and character designs: again, expanding the universe created by Beresford.

The notion of a systematic delivery across multiple channels grew from this promising starting point: first, BBC Enterprises (a relatively new arm of the corporation), FilmFair and Wombles Inc. (Beresford's company) reached an agreement over merchandising rights that saw multiple Wombles product in stores from 1973 on. While most of these products would count as branding rather than transmedia extensions, there was one major element that caused a transformation in the Wombles universe: music.

Composer Mike Batt (creator of the TV show theme tune) received permission to write more songs about the Wombles. Over the course of three years, he produced over thirty Wombles songs that expanded the Wombles universe in new and unseen directions. Expanding out from the Beresford and BBC verions, Batt painted a wider Womble universe and added depth to existing characters. There were French, Chinese and American Wombles. Wombles in Space. Wombles throughout history. Wombles in every genre of music possible. Batt gave Orinoco and Wellington dreams and ambitions (to be cowboys, super-Wombles), and wrote in a backstory for Great Uncle Bulgaria that included meeting Mozart. By crossing into this new media of pop songs, the Wombles became a band capable of achieveing top ten hits and featuring on Top of the Pops. The Wombles' universe was no more complex and varied, while the Wombles themselves were minor cross-media celebrities, appearing in government sponsored campaigns to 'Keep Britain Tidy', on the Eurovision Song Contest, and finally (in 1977) a feature film Wombling Free (which borrowed from, and expanded, on all previous iterations).

While there may not (yet) be an online ARG, or Wombles slash fiction (oh god, I hope that doesn't given anyone ideas), The Wombles influence is not strictly limited to these media, or to the 1970s. The Queen Mother had a Womble marching band during the parade for her 100th birthday, while more recently the Wombles were used to demand more British children's programming on television. Books, television, pop music, films, personal appearances (I haven't even begun to mention the 6-foot tall Womble costumes that popped up at fairs and fetes across the country in the mid-70s) and political campaigning? While there may be issues around a central cohesive force controlling this univerise, I think there is more than enough here to claim The Wombles as an early British experiment in cross-, or trans-, media narratives.

Thursday, 22 April 2010


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