How did U2 that?

Even if U2 bring you out in hives, you’d have to ad­mit their 3D con­cert film is a stun­ning spec­ta­cle. Don­ald Clarke meets its maker, Dublin artist Catherine Owens

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

RE­MEM­BER that hor­ri­ble com­mer­cial for those nasty lit­tle Amer­i­can cig­a­rettes? You’ve come a long way, baby! That was their catch­phrase. Darn it, but Catherine Owens has come a very long way in­deed. Thirty years ago, she spent her days doss­ing around Dan­de­lion Mar­ket, Dublin’s late, lamented post-punk hot­house, try­ing to knock her rock band in shape. The Boy Scoutz, a rare all-fe­male punk out­fit, never quite made it, but she still re­mem­bers those days with af­fec­tion.

“The whole punk thing and Dan­de­lion was tai­lor-made for me and the peo­ple I grew up with,” she says. “You could do all that great stuff with­out the par­ents, rum­mage round Ox­fam and so on, but still get the last bus home from out­side Trin­ity.” Here we are in Fe­bru­ary 2008 and Owens, a suc­cess­ful artist in sev­eral me­dia, is pro­mot­ing the world’s first-ever live-ac­tion dig­i­tal 3D fea­ture. The film, which she codi­rected with Mark Pelling­ton, fea­tures four of her old bud­dies from the Dan­de­lion Mar­ket. Who would have thought it? Even if U2 bring you out in hives, you would have to ad­mit that U2 3D is a stun­ning achieve­ment. For­get the se­ries of dull, lay­ered planes that char­ac­terise the first wave of 3D in the 1950s. Owens’s film, which doc­u­ments sev­eral dates on the band’s re­cent South Amer­i­can tour, of­fers a huge, volup­tuously rounded Adam and an Edge with real edges. When Larry pulls back a drum­stick, you half ex­pect to lose an eye. Even Bono comes across like a gi­ant (though, para­dox­i­cally, you wouldn’t say he looks any taller).

Mean­while, the var­i­ous graph­ics and videos that sur­round the band, many de­signed by Owens her­self, ad­vance down­stage and wrap them­selves round the spec­ta­tor.

Was her aim to repli­cate the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing at the con­cert or to cre­ate an en­tirely new au­dio-vis­ual en­tity? “I guess I was try­ing to round off a con­ver­sa­tion I had been hav­ing for years with U2,” she says. “I want to bring art into a main­stream ex­pe­ri­ence. I haven’t had the chance to say things this way be­fore. There are all th­ese rules and reg­u­la­tions that go along with the art world and, here, we just jet­ti­soned them.”

This is in­ter­est­ing. Much of the press build-up to U2 3D has im­plied that the film is sim­ply a so­phis­ti­cated at­tempt to bring a sta­dium con­cert into high-street cine­mas. If you can’t make it to the Buenos Aires Enor­mod­ome then pot­ter down to your lo­cal mul­ti­plex and catch U2 3D.

“That was not in our head. That con­cert ex­pe­ri­ence is al­ready there. Any­thing we did with this film would re­cre­ate it in some way. I have al­ways been fas­ci­nated by video art and the im­mer­sive­world of in­stal­la­tion art. That was more in my mind.”

As you will gather, Catherine Owens, a chatty Dubliner in her 40s, is more of an art per­son than a rock per­son. Fol­low­ing the demise of the Boy Scoutz, she spent a few years at art school in Belfast. In be­tween slap­ping paint on can­vasses and throw­ing ce­ram­ics into kilns, she con­tin­ued to hang out with the boys who had just be­come U2.

The band are rightly renowned for their loy­alty to friends and col­lab­o­ra­tors from the early days and, when they were look­ing for some­body to dec­o­rate their re­hearsal room in the mid-1980s, they gave Catherine a bell. She set to work on a se­ries of wall hang­ings that looked down on the group while they were hon­ing songs for The Un­for­get­table Fire. She was in the team and has re­mained a val­ued part­ner ever since.

Owens helped put to­gether the elab­o­rate graph­ics for the Zoo TV tour. She also con­trib­uted to the Pop­Mart and Ver­tigo ex­trav­a­gan­zas. I won­der how things have changed since she first be­gan trav­el­ling with U2. I as­sume, in the be­gin­ning, it was all in­tra­venous Jack Daniel’s and uri­nat­ing from the ho­tel bal­cony. Now, surely, it’s all baby bug­gies, early nights and lazy af­ter­noons spent lis­ten­ing to Gar­ri­son Keil­lor.

“Well, it was never that wild and it has never be­come that stable,” she laughs. “Even as kids, we had a so­phis­ti­cated agenda. Ev­ery­one knew they wanted to work in ar­eas where no com­pro­mise was the or­der of the day. That’s their great strength. That driv­ing force is the same with all of us. It’s taken us this long to trust that all of our tal­ents can de­velop sep­a­rately, but still work com­fort­ably to­gether.”

Owens goes on to ex­plain how, while edit­ing U2 3D, she and the band worked in very close col­lab­o­ra­tion. One can only imag­ine what that was like. “Why’s he get­ting all the close-ups?” “Use that take – that favours my pretty side.” “Make me taller!” And so on.

“No. Its not like that, at all. Its all per­for­mance-re­lated. They all know what the other one is go­ing to like and not like. They are all able to look at one an­other as they are and not as their pub­lic iden­tity. So they will say they don’t like what that guy is do­ing in the film. It’s all about be­liev­abil­ity: the au­di­ence have to be­lieve in the band.”

I would guess that Bono was the most talk­a­tive mem­ber of the band. His con­tri­bu­tions were, surely, the most force­ful.

“Well, Bono is a very good con­cep­tu­al­ist. He and I con­ceive things in ab­stract

space. Larry is much more of a re­al­ist. Larry is what I call the metronome of the film. This film re­ally shows Larry at work. The film is all at his beat. And Adam is just this great big soul.”

Owens ap­pears to approach her work on U2 3D as she would approach a paint­ing or a sculp­ture. She throws out bold ideas and refers to grand the­atri­cal ges­tures. You could, while lis­ten­ing to her en­thu­si­as­tic chat­ter, eas­ily for­get what an im­pres­sive tech­ni­cal en­ter­prise the shoot was. This is a film con­ceived not just by artists, but also by en­gi­neers, re­search sci­en­tists and highly qual­i­fied cin­e­matog­ra­phers. Owens ad­mits that she has just enough tech­ni­cal know-how to get by, but has not quite achieved bof­fin sta­tus yet.

Lay­ing out sugar bowls and tea cups on the ta­ble in front of us, she at­tempts to de­scribe the me­chan­ics of shoot­ing. The lines that ex­tend from her two in­dex fin­gers cross in an acute an­gle at the teapot.

“There’s a thing called the con­ver­gence space,” she says. “You shoot the cam­eras to­wards a math­e­mat­i­cal con­ver­gence space. So the teapot is there and be­hind that is ev­ery­thing else. Then the teapot is at the z-axis and the cam­eras are equated to move around but leave the teapot in the mid­dle of the space.”

In the edit­ing suite, Owens and the gang can then de­cide which el­e­ments to bring for­ward and which to re­cede (or make taller).

Em­bark­ing on U2 3D con­sti­tuted some­thing of a fi­nan­cial gam­ble for the band and their en­tourage. It is true that Be­owulf, the re­cent shouty an­i­mated epic, sold a great many tick­ets in its 3D form, but, cru­cially, Warner Brothers were care­ful to also re­lease that film in a flat ver­sion.

U2 3D is only be­ing is­sued in its bumpy, mi­cro­phone-up-your-hooter in­car­na­tion. Only a few cine­mas have the equip­ment to screen dig­i­tal 3D, so this de­ci­sion se­verely lim­its the pic­ture’s po­ten­tial tak­ings.

“They just de­cided: look, if we are do­ing 3D, we are do­ing 3D. This is never go­ing to come out on 2D. We are not in the busi­ness of do­ing the safety route. But you can make money in 3D. In our case it’s live ac­tion, so you don’t have all th­ese mo­tion­cap­ture spe­cial ef­fects. We only had a pro­duc­tion crew of 24 peo­ple. So we were talk­ing about $15 mil­lion [¤10.2M]or so.”

That would barely pay for the hair in Be­owulf’s ear. Yet, for a few cop­pers, Catherine man­aged to make Bono the size of the Isle of Man. Imag­ine what she could do with Tom Cruise.

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