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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 and 3D

 

 

In depth

 

 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 and 3D – David Yates

 

The best use of the 3D process I have seen in a film so far.  If 3D is to be more than just the short-lived gimmick it was when it was first used commercially in movies in the 50s it needs modern Directors to develop ways of using it that enhance the film’s aesthetic purpose rather than dominating or even determining it.  This is for me perfectly illustrated by Avatar which is credited with creating the current surge of interest in 3D – more it must be said for financial and marketing reasons than aesthetic.  The stunning visual effects in Avatar are greatly enhanced by the 3D representation of them: they are the central focus of the experience watching the film offers us because for me at least, as I argued in my review of Avatar, they serve a trite, sentimental and certainly undistinguished storyline. Avatar is a perfect feast for the eyes but offers little for the ears and nothing for the mind.

There is nothing at all wrong with a process being in the forefront of a movie’s appeal: after all CGI has been and still is, the ‘star’ of many, mostly action-based movies.  However the attraction to the cinemagoer of these different effects tends to wane by the law of diminishing aesthetic returns.  Most of us have now seen examples of movies-as-product with clichéd, stereotypical narratives simply providing an excuse for the exploitation of the CGI effects etc.  I was never a fan of the Lord of the Rings books so didn’t much rate the films, but being as objective as one can in these situations, I felt the last in the LOR trilogy became unbalanced by over-use of CGI effects – to the detriment of the underlying narrative.  This was equally true I think of the 2nd and 3rd films in the Matrix series where the follow-ups to the mind-blowing quality of the first, relied too heavily on CGI to prop up a waning narrative force.  This is also perhaps one, though just one, of the many reasons why the 2nd Star Wars series was so inferior to the first.

One of the many problems of the 3D process is that it is so intrusive: not only are you aware throughout of wearing darkened glasses but the visual effect itself is usually explicitly self-conscious – the ‘wow!’ effect. In most uses I have seen, it also significantly alters lighting tone but most importantly it tends to have a diminishing effect that is most distracting with people/characters: what I call the ‘puppetkin’ effect.  Often, and this was particularly true of Wim Wenders’ massively over-praised Nina, it is more like watching a play from the balcony of a theatre, or even a marionette show.  Worst of all until HPATDH2, 3D screws with the use of the close-up in odd kinds of ways.  As I have argued elsewhere that in my view the close-up is a defining element in the unique power of intimacy that draws us into movies so completely, this is no small loss.

Given this self-conscious, ‘unreal’ effect of 3D it is not surprising that it has been most used and feels most at home in ‘unreal’ situations – animated films, sci-fi, and comic book spin-offs. Given the much higher costs of 3D filming one can well understand why the bean-counters of Hollywood would say to a Director wanting to use 3D for a more naturalistic setting, with no action sequences, why use 3D? What does it, can it add? Well up to HPATDH2 I would have answered ‘nothing’. But Mr Yates has made me wonder.

The question is: is 3D to become the new standard form of all movies like sound and colour before it; or is it a passing fad like ‘Sensurround’ ( which I rather liked) or the ludicrous ‘Smellies’ (which I never, thankfully experienced).

As ever with movies the deciding criteria will be financial not aesthetic: at the moment many people go to new movies because they’re in 3D but it will be interesting to see how long-lived that consumer response lasts.  Since the phenomenal $760m box-office take of Avatar, the numbers show an inexorable decline: until Harry Potter DH2, predicted as perhaps the first $billion box-office 3D movie.  But we can’t draw many conclusions from this about 3D for the final denouement movie in an 8 movie series based upon a publishing phenomenon was always going to coin it – even if it is the 1st in 3D.

I suspect the premium cinema ticket price will be the first to go.  The other issue is technical: if they can find a way to dispense with the glasses as I believe they have with some TV-based systems, then another barrier to general acceptance will be removed.

It is apposite that the current Harry Potter should be a Warner Brothers blockbuster exploiting so well the much more sophisticated modern 3D process as they pretty much did the same in 1953 with Vincent Price in The House Of Wax. Commercial black and white 3D films were gaining an audience from the year before but The House of Wax was the first in colour and certainly the first in stereophonic sound. At that time 3D became a passing fad once the additional costs of productions, hassle of glasses etc kicked in.

In the sci-fi/comic book genre that 3D has settled into, I would say its most successful application in films I have seen was in Joseph Kosinki’s TRON: Legacy.  Part of the reason for this is that Kosinski uses the more intrusive forms of the 3D effect judiciously to further a not half-bad sci-fi narrative.  The lighting tone of TRON is also so powerful that it hides any diminishing darkening effect of the 3D glasses.

Yates’s first advantage therefore is that the final chapter in the Potter saga, the setting of Harry’s final showdown with Voldemort, is full of dark and sinister settings and visuals in which the ‘glasses effect’ works to his advantage.  Also, Yates is even more careful in his use of the ‘wow’ 3D effect of things flying towards us etc.  This gimmicky effect loses any power very quickly unless, as Yates does, it is woven into the narrative cadences of the film.  He builds narrative, visual and most especially oral, suspense and tension and then uses the 3D WOW to enhance the dramatic moment.

If this were all then Yates would simply have demonstrated that he understands how to use special qualities of the 3D effects to enhance his dramatic purpose.  But he does something else that I have not yet seen in another 3D film, certainly not systematically applied.  The distinctive 3D visual impression is bringing the focus of interest in a scene into the illusory foreground of the viewer’s experience.  They play with this in 3D ads like the dog playing with the ball where the ball ends up appearing to hover half-way between you and the screen.  The effect is still there though to a lesser extent with characters seeming to ‘come out of the screen’ to occupy some apparent visual space between the screen and the watcher. We may eventually come to read this as the norm as our brains adapt to it, but for the moment it creates a very self-conscious experience that undermines that ‘lost in the film’ effect where we are gripped by an absorbing storyline to the extent that our surroundings disappear like the ticking clock in a room.  This power of the movie to absorb us, draw us in, is enhanced by the tradition of darkness in the cinema, unlike the theatre where one’s experience is distinctly different.  Even the presence of the legally required Health and Safety lighting disappears from our conscious awareness.  This is the cinema’s parallel to the experience in reading a good book where one becomes oblivious to the words and the reading process and we simply ‘inhabit’ the story.

There is to me, something utterly distinctive about Yates’ use of 3D in HPATDH2, and I have no idea whether it was intentional or fortuitous, or even if it has a technical component. Instead of bringing the focus image ‘out’ of the screen and ‘towards’ us to create a 3 dimensional distinction between the focus image and its background of sets and other characters, Yates seems to keep the focus image ‘on’ the screen; the result of which is that the 3 dimensional effect is experienced as greatly enhanced depth behind the focus image. We know our brains ‘read’ the two dimensional images of normal movies as having ‘depth’ and film-makers like Kubrik have experimented with deep-focus lenses to increase the depth of in-focus images, this also having an enhancing effect on our brain’s ‘reading’ of depth.  I don’t think the way Yates uses 3D actually quite gives him this deep focus effect: but his use of the technique does give an overall sense of enhanced depth ‘within the screen’ that is unobtrusive just like the clock tick and the awareness of the screen frame.

This may be a mere figment of my imagination as I have no idea whether it squares with the technology but it seems to me that while enjoying those distinctively, and judiciously used, special ‘wow’ 3D moments, Yates has managed to use the 3 dimensional effect in such a way that it enhances our visual experience, and its subtlety of use enables our brains to stop consciously noticing it, to simply unconsciously ‘read’ the 3D enhanced depth in much the same way as we have always unconsciously learned to ‘read’ depth into traditional 2D movies.

The other benefit of this methodology is that the unique quality and power of the close-up is retained and for example some of the mid-shots of small groups of people talking etc acquire an extra apparent depth that enhances the dramatic playing of the scene.

The end result is that one is not only rarely consciously aware of watching a 3D film with HPATDH2 (apart from the glasses) but that one’s experience of the film is enhanced over what it would be in 2D but with nothing lost.

If this is not a load of fanciful nonsense – that would be quite an achievement. And it might signal a new ongoing norm than a mere passing fad.

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