DEEP & MEANINGFUL
Filmmakers are turning to 3-D as a device for telling stories, not just fantasy, writes Don Steinberg
Baltasar Kormakur, director of the mountain-climbing drama Everest, says it took a location-scouting trip halfway up, to a snowy base camp in Nepal, for him to appreciate that it would make sense to have the movie’s audience put on 3-D glasses. “I had a moment standing there where the volume of the mountain was just so immense, and I was thinking: How can I possibly get this on film? How can I give people at least some of this feeling?”
Until recently, simulating three dimensions on screen was a trick aimed at younger audiences in fantasy, sci-fi and animated movies. Think Avatar and Jurassic World. Such blockbusters were financial success, but also gave 3-D a reputation, for many filmgoers and filmmakers, as a gimmick best suited for simulating fantastical worlds that don’t exist.
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in 2011, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi in 2012 and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in 2013 showed 3-D could draw adults into emotional films, though those movies still depicted imagined environments.
Kormakur thought 3-D could help tell a true story about the real world: the ill-fated 1996 Everest climbing expedition. The optical effect could help convey the gargantuan scale of the highest mountain on Earth and in turn heighten the emotional impact for audiences by highlighting the risks the climbers confronted.
Combined with the large-screen IMAX format, the 3-D depth could serve the movie’s narrative right along with other filmmaking elements: its ambitious camerawork, sound, visual effects, and strong performances from a cast including Australia’s Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin.
“I fought pretty hard to do it,” says Kormakur, an Icelandic director whose Englishlanguage work includes action films Contraband and 2 Guns. “This was before Gravity came out, and we didn’t have many adult movies playing in IMAX 3-D. It was all about superhero movies.”
Kormakur pitched the idea to producers as a subtler version of the 3-D that moviegoers associated with comic-book blockbusters: “I said it’s more like 2½ -D. I’m not throwing things at people’s faces. It’s more to create volume inside the screen. I wasn’t looking for moments of surprising people, like ‘ Bah!’ It’s more like ‘ Oh ... my ... god. This is high’.”
Next month comes The Walk, another true story using 3-D and IMAX. The comedic drama features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, who in 1974 walked a tightrope between New York’s World Trade Centre towers. It’s another “don’t look down” film where height and scale are at the core of the drama.
Director Robert Zemeckis laboured for more than a decade to have the The Walk made. “From the absolute get-go, 3-D and largescreen were integral to his vision of the movie,” says Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures.
The 2008 documentary Man on Wire won an Oscar telling the same story, but it didn’t put audiences precariously up on that wire, “walking in the sky between the then two tallest towers in the world’’.
Studios and cinema operators appreciate 3-D and large-screen formats because they sell for a few dollars extra per ticket, adding volume to box-office grosses. And adult-oriented movies for large-screen auditoriums helps exhibitors in another way. The films can be released during the US autumn, avoiding conflict with franchise blockbusters and helping IMAX to keep its big rooms busy during what has historically been a slow period between summer and the holidays. “Those periods used to be kind of no-man’s land,” says Greg Foster, chief executive of IMAX Entertainment. IMAX, now up to about 1000 screens worldwide, generally has one screen per movie complex.
The emerging dramatic films for largeformat screens have grown partly out of the groundbreaking IMAX documentaries once relegated to science-museum rotundas, meant to offer views of nature’s grandeur that audiences could not see before.
One of the top IMAX documentaries of all time, in fact, is David Breashears’s 1998 Everest. (The link between filmmakers and Everest stretches to film’s early days; one of the first organised Everest expeditions, in 1924, was financed by John Baptist Lucius Noel, a British filmmaker who made a silent documentary about it, The Epic of Everest.)
But filmmakers are discovering more subtle potential in 3-D, as a device for telling stories and building emotion. Also due for release in coming months are Ron Howard’s seafaring drama In the Heart of the Sea and Ridley Scott’s The Martian, both in 3-D and IMAX. Ang Lee is in post-production of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a 3-D film about soldiers having to return to Iraq after being celebrated as heroes at home.
Wim Wenders has embraced 3-D for his latest project, Everything Will Be Fine, an intimate film about a traumatic car accident, starring James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Rachel McAdams.
Wenders, who adopted 3-D to film dance performances for his 2011 documentary about choreographer Pina Bausch, believes that 3-D can get audiences closer to people, not just emphasise distance. He calls the technology an evolution in the language of film — he compares it with the advent of sound — and says it has been miscast in fantasy roles.
“It’s for capturing reality,” he says. “What I’m trying to achieve is that you’re closer to people. You’re more immersed in their lives. Overcoming a trauma is a process that happens inside people. My feeling is that 3-D can really look into people’s soul.”
I’M NOT THROWING THINGS AT PEOPLE’S FACES BALTASAR KORMAKUR
Jason Clark in Everest, above; director Baltasar Kormakur, left; a scene from Gravity, below