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
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.