(This is Part 2 of my review of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo You can read Part 1, which is mostly concerned with the film’s 3D, here.)

Clocks. Trains. Paris. Books. Magic. Méliès. Movies. Scorsese.

You could’ve pitched this movie to me in just those words and I’d’ve plonked my money down on the table. A tale about a kid who lives in the steampunk recesses of a Paris railway station and steals clockwork bits in order to repair a damaged automaton that can write? Count me in! A paean to the magic of cinema, the magic of magic, the power of imagination and the genius and vision of the eccentric and wonderful Georges Méliès? I am SO there. A story about fixing broken things and discovering their purpose which is really a metaphor for human loss? I love it!

So how did this film manage to piss me off quite so much?

Well, as I said in the last post, the 3D didn’t help matters any. And it wasn’t just the technical side of the 3D, nor the 3D filmic technique, which I think I’ve covered quite thoroughly. This film suffers from core conceptual problems that start with the pretentious use of the 3D and infect pretty much every aspect of the enterprise.

Just to set the scene (I’m sorry, there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, and you care, stop reading now):

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy who, when we join the story, lives inside the less-travelled parts of the old Montparnasse station. In a flashback near the beginning of the film, his father (Jude Law) appears briefly to introduce Hugo (and us) to an intricate clockwork mannequin, who, he reveals, is an automaton that he has ‘rescued’ from the museum where he works. It is broken, but when Hugo asks ‘Can we fix it?’ his father says ‘Of course we can fix it!’ For Hugo and his dad (and Hugo’s uncle Claude, a sodden inebriate rendered in outstanding cliché by Ray Winstone) are clockmakers, and fixing things is their game.

Hugo’s father promptly vanishes from the story in a fire, his expositional purpose satisfied, and Hugo is marched off from his home to his new digs in the dark, steam-filled recesses of the train station where his Uncle Claude keeps the clocks running. Well, it’s better than being sent off to the orphanage, or so the film tells us. Unfortunately for Hugo, it turns out that rounding up orphans in the train station is the main preoccupation of the film’s antagonist (and comic relief), the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). As the film gets into its stride, we gather that Hugo has been methodically stealing mechanical parts from an old man (Ben Kingsley) who sells toys from a stall on the station concourse. This, we eventually learn, is none other than the visionary filmmaker Georges Méliès, his life and career all but forgotten, eking out an existence barely ten paces off the frozen Paris streets. It turns out that the mysterious broken automaton (that Hugo is now attempting to repair on his own) is one of Méliès creations, and so the boy and the cinema magician are inexorably drawn together.

Even synopsizing it here for you makes it sound like a proposition that can hardly fail to be entertaining, and yet, for me, fail it did.

The ongoing friction between the Station Inspector and Hugo is sketched out in the film’s opening sequence, in which Hugo steals a croissant from a trolley (excuse me if I’ve got this wrong somewhat – as I mentioned last post, I was struggling to get my glasses clean and my eyes working through this early part of the film, so the details may be somewhat variant from what actually happened) and a frantic chase ensues. Or something. Anyway, there’s a very choppy action sequence in which we get our eyeballs pummelled and which involves slapstick funny walks from the the mobility-challenged Inspector. It is also the first of the movie’s clumsy cap-doffs to various other cinematic milestones, this one to the works of Jacques Tati. Soon afterward, Hugo meets the beret-bedecked Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who will eventually play, via the disclosure of a special heart-shaped key, an important part in the restoration of the mysterious automaton.

Isabelle, her eyes popping almost as much as the audience trying to grapple with the 3D, is desperate to have ‘an adventure’, and seems like she’s been snatched directly from the pages of The Famous Five.

Which brings me onto my first major gripe with the film – why does everyone speak plummy stilted Enid Blyton-style English in this movie? ‘Oh mother, please may I have buttered scones for tea – I’ll be jolly hungry if I have to go off to Pirate Island on an empty tummy!’ It’s set in France for Pete’s sake! Now, just because a film’s mise-en-scène is early 20th century Paris, I don’t expect an American studio to make it in the actual French language, but please, an effort, people? An accent? Anyone? I swear: we have a cavalcade of English actors in this film, from Richard Griffiths through Ben Kingsley and Jude Law to Christopher Lee, as well as the two marbles-in-the-mouth English kids,1 and there’s not an ‘Aw-haw-haw, ma leetle cornichon’ within coo-ee. It’s as if any accent that isn’t American is good enough for Americans to believe a story is set in ANY foreign country at all. I may be wrong, but my recollection is that the only person who attempted a French accent (and pulled off a decent one, at that) was Michael Stuhlbarg (playing René Tabard) and he’s one of the few frikkin’ Americans in the cast!

An American film with English people playing French people in a quintessentially French piece of history, with no sign of Frenchness except the set dressing (and some accordion on the soundtrack)? What the heck is going on here?

This blurring of Frenchness into Englishness seeps into everything. Isabelle loves to read, we discover, and frequents a bookshop presided over by the stern Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee). Who’s her favourite author? Dickens! What? Where are Victor Hugo and Gaston Leroux? Oh – who are they? Hugo has fond memories of his father reading to him as a child – Dumas’ ‘Three Musketeers’, right? Nope – it’s ‘Robin Hood’. This is not Paris, this is some kind of set-dressed Harry Potter version of Paris with croissants and berets and cafés but absolutely no hint of French artistic culture! And Georges Méliès played by Kingsley with an impeccable English demeanour? Huh? It crosses my mind that Marty Scorsese is afraid, maybe, that Americans might start to figure out that a country that doesn’t speak English was historically responsible for the invention of the magic of the cinema!2

Because I was almost constantly aware of this affectation,3 I couldn’t really tell whether the performances in Hugo were underwhelming, or whether I just thought they were, due to the persistant dissonance with the soul of the story.

The two kids in the main roles are perfectly OK, but they are certainly not deserving of the accolades I’ve seen in some reviews.

Hugo is played with jolting melodramatic pathos, and the genetic blessing of bottomless, pale blue eyes

gushes Lisa Schwarzbaum from Entertainment Weekly, making ‘jolting melodramatic pathos’ sound like it’s a good thing. Isn’t he just channeling Mark Lester in Oliver? Could it possibly be that the critics have just been sucked in by a cute kid?

Butterfield and Moretz have a wonderful transparency

says David Edelstein from NPR. Transparency? Huh? What the fuck does that even mean?

When we see a clip of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid at one point in the film, I thought ‘Uh-oh. Best not linger on that too long Marty, or we might start to make comparisons…’ Anyway, whatever, like I said, the kids were fine, in a Five Go Mad in Dorset kinda way. As were all the adults: fine. There are no stellar performances in this film. Kingsley plods through as a grumpy Méliès, Jude Law reels out an acceptable ‘gee-whiz-golly-gosh’ dad, and Sacha Baron Cohen does the kind of usual schtick he does outside his own material.4

If something is more bothersome than the accents, it’s the non-sequiturs, oddities and contrivances of the lumbering plot. Why is Méliès so darn tetchy? When he burns Hugo’s father’s sketchbook partway through the film, and gives the charred remains back to Hugo, he just looks like an intractable and nasty old bastard. It’s a deed that is cruel and petty and I’m not sure what it was trying to tell us about his nature, unless it was that he is a mean-spirited character prone to vindictive acts. It serves no real plot point, since Hugo manages to repair the automaton without the book anyway. I understand why Méliès took the book, and I can even understand why he might have destroyed it, but not why the filmmakers felt compelled to have him give the burnt remnants back to the obviously distraught young boy. There is a sadistic quality in the whole idea that, in my opinion, is not motivated and never redeemed. It’s almost as if the sole reason the sequence exists in the film is to deliver a spectacular shot with some nice flakes of floating 3D ash. Surely not.

The principle motivation for Hugo wanting to restore the complicated clockwork automaton is that he seems convinced that, when it starts writing (the task for which it seems to have been created), it will deliver a message from his father. Why Hugo believes this is puzzling, because his father quite clearly tells him in the expositional flashback that he doesn’t know where the mannequin came from, who made it or what it will do when it is repaired and activated. The father is not in anyway implied to have been instrumental in its purpose. I guess we are supposed to chalk the boy’s odd conviction up to the confusion of his emotional young mind, but it seems to me to be something that really should have been ironed out in the writing.

Anyway, there are numerous discontinuities of this kind in the film, but I won’t belabour the point. The most egregious problem with Hugo is not in the details anyway, nor, really in the length of the film, which is the thing that has attracted most of the flak in negative reviews (a long film is not necessarily a bad film, although you do need to be on your game if you want your audience to stick with you for 2+ hours).

The worst thing for me about the movie was that it takes a bunch of fundamentally great ideas and trashes them. From the orphan-finds-his-true-place-through-adversity undertones of Oliver Twist, through slapstick cameo interludes that invoke the spirit of Jacques Tati, to the old-man-instills-love-of-cinema-magic-in-young-boy patina of Cinema Paradiso, Hugo cribs from the best, but manages to make all its borrowed ideas into lesser ones. For a film about magic, it felt to me leaden and dull. The few moments of true wonder – the mechanical man revealing his cryptic message; the emotional discovery by the children of Tabard’s Méliès museum; the recreation of Méliès’ film studio and sets – are crushed by mawkish melodrama and by the overbearing, heavy-handed contrivance of Scorsese’s desperation to make a statement with 3D. A film using a poorly-executed technical novelty about a genius of technical innovation? C’mon. Pretentious, much?

A modern audience can’t help but see Méliès’ footage as quaint and amusing, but we must remember that at the time, these were astonishing and innovative special photographic effects, and the fantastical creatures and landscapes of A Trip to the Moon were probably as impressive technically as we view the alien world of Pandora in Avatar today. In my view, Scorsese absolutely fails to get this idea across. Méliès was a complete master of special effects, having taught himself every aspect of the nascent film craft from the mechanics of the camera, through developing his own film, to designing the sets and the costumes (which, incidentally, were not realised in the bright colours that Scorsese shows us. Méliès discovered pretty quickly that colours behaved unpredictably when photographed in black & white, and so had all his sets and costumes manufactured in shades of grey). To even come within bowshot of using a special effect technique to illuminate this story, Scorsese would have had to have pulled something really special out of his hat, and I’m afraid that the best he could do was to produce a rubber chicken.5

At the end of the movie when we see documentary footage from World War 1 rendered into 3D, I was ready to throw stuff at the screen. When Scorsese had the temerity to do the same thing to the original Méliès footage in the following sequence I knew he’d lost all respect for the great man, for cinema and for his audience. Making an ‘improvement’ over the the films of George Méliès by making them 3D is a cheap concession to special effects. It’s a childish ‘We’re SO clever – just look at what we can do now!’ that adds exactly nothing to the idea except the sheen of Hollywood condescension.

Setting the Méliès story inside another more emotionally simplistic story felt to me intrinsically flawed, too. It might have worked, I suppose, but the young Hugo’s melodramatic tale, laced with workhouse pathos as it is, somehow points up the wrong things about Méliès work, reinforcing a modern perception of his filmic exploits as hammy and staged. The same problem is evident in Merhige’s 2000 Shadow of the Vampire. The makers of that film likewise interpret proto-cinema (in their case, Murnau’s astonishing Nosferatu) through modern sensibilities and attempt to couch the whole affair in a kind of pantomime. To do such a thing is to profoundly misunderstand the genius of these early moving pictures.

For me, the greatest disappointments in cinema often follow this model; the promise of something great is dashed by the filmmakers losing track of the purity and integrity of the original idea. I am left wondering if John Logan’s script could have worked in someone else’s hands; if, had 3D not been an issue, it could have been executed differently and survived its other flaws; if, indeed, that any director could convey the visions of Georges Méliès to a modern audience in a way that was true to his real brilliance? Possibly not. But one thing is for sure: for me, at least, Martin Scorses’s Hugo doesn’t even come close.

And that is a great pity.

  1. Well, OK, Chloë Moretz is American, but they slapped an English public school accent on her so thick that she’ll probably spend the rest of her career scrubbing it off. []
  2. Oh, I dunno. I’m just firing off shots in the dark. It just perplexes me that they couldn’t have at least given everyone a soft French accent. These people are actors. It’s not like they couldn’t do it. []
  3. Seriously – every time Isabelle says something like ‘It’s an adventure!’ I just wanted to smack her. It was like watching some terrible 1940s English kid’s movie. []
  4. For me he mostly wasn’t funny. Another tip for Mr Scorsese: if you’re going to have a slapstick character in your movie, best not to refer to clips of the great physical comedians of the cinema, like Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd, in the same film. It only serves as a reminder of how great they were and how much of a shadow a lesser performer can be. []
  5. I do wonder whether, for many people who liked this film, the real reason is that they simply had never heard of Méliès before, and the revelation of his great cinema genius is like a magic trick in itself. I remember discovering him several decades ago and almost jumping for joy that such an inspired filmic lunatic had existed there, right at the Dawn of Cinema. I felt he was so much like myself at the time: he was bored in school as a kid, was constantly tinkering with gadgets, was fascinated by science fiction and fantasy (and real science too), loved photography and stage magic and had an unquenchable desire to illuminate the minds of audiences with bizarre and fantastical tales. He stands as one of the great visionaries of the cinema and is rightly deserving of wide recognition. []

As you have no doubt already intuited, this is going to be one of my very rare movie reviews. And I’ll say it now – it’s a long one. I make no apology, because in this case, I’m really going against both critical opinion and audience acceptance (and probably the Oscar for Best Film) so you can be sure I will say controversial and entertaining things.

Yesterday I went to see Martin Scorsese’s fêted kid’s film Hugo. I made a special effort to see this film, and in 3D, because, you see I had been told two things about it (which turned out to be completely untrue): the first was that it’s ‘not really a kid’s film’, and the second that the 3D ‘is really great’.

Consequently, I will split this review into two parts, although there will inevitably be some overlapping. First, the 3D.

As many of you know, I have come to hate 3D in the movies. I didn’t always – I’ve long been a fan of the old anaglyph black & whites like ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ and ‘It Came from Outer Space’, and I have a fond spot for André de Toth’s seminal House of Wax and Hitchcock’s wonderful Dial M for Murder. These films, and others like them through the fifties and sixties, made admirable and necessary explorations into what seems like a logical direction for cinema to go. Unfortunately, there are many, many complications with making 3D work in the moving image domain, and those films never really conquered them. As a result, 3D was, decades ago, relegated onto a back shelf of cinema history, and despite several optimistic attempts to air it out through the 70s and 80s, it has never managed to get traction on the big screen. The difficulty in making 3D acceptable to an audience has always been blamed on the inadequacies of the technology – which is a fair criticism to a point – but as Hugo demonstrates very clearly, that’s only part of the problem.

Part of the problem it is though, and my experience with Hugo was no exception. This presentation was made using an active shutter system (XpanD, specifically) which basically entails a pair of 3D glasses that rapidly blank out alternating left/right images coming from the screen in such a way as to direct the appropriate image to the appropriate eye and so achieve stereoscopy. It is probably a superior system to the polarized X/Y axis technology (which I find supremely annoying) but only just. The first irritation became apparent as soon as the movie began – the damn glasses were greasy and dirty. So not only was I getting a dim murky image due to the attenuated luminance that 3D inflicts anyway, it was further degraded by great smears of refracted light in my peripheral vision. And try as I might, I couldn’t clean the glasses with anything I had to hand. So what – now everytime I go to the movies I have to remember to take a bottle of lens cleaner and a box of Kleenex with me?1 This was almost distracting enough to make me want to leave thirty seconds into the film. When I pay $17 to see a movie,2 I want to see the movie, not hazy tenebrous images filtered through the remnants of some kid’s hot-popcorn-butter-smudged fingerprints. Still, I had been told the 3D was ‘great’ in this film, so I persevered. I had, however, been distracted enough to miss the film’s set up. Good one 3D! Within a few minutes the major drawback of the active shutter system technology became apparent. The refresh rate of the LCD blanking technology is well below the frame rate of projected movie film,3 and this creates an unpleasant strobing effect whenever there is a quick camera movement, or a bright, rapidly moving object in the frame.4 And guess what – this film has lots of falling snow. Little particles of bright 3D snow that zip and dart and STROBE across your field of vision. Horrifically distracting. And it hurts us, it hurts our eyeses, precious. Come ON, guys. Moving pictures have spent a century contriving to look fluid and seamless and now you expect us to put up with this kind of crap? To make matters worse, the opening sequences of Hugo are crammed with fast tracking sequences, fast action and rapid cutting. Scorsese flings the camera around like it’s a ball on a paddle bat. Technically speaking, for the moment 3D does not tolerate this kind of thing very well.5 It’s puzzling that Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker of extraordinary accomplishment, has not picked up on this fact.

And it’s here that I knew with absolute certainty that the 3D in this film was going to be anything but ‘great’. Oh, there’s a LOT of 3D, no question about it. Every shot is crammed with 3D-isms. There’s smoke and snow and dust and ashes and sparkles and cogs and dogs and shafts and fog and just about everything you could ask for to add visual depth to the image. It’s just a pity that it doesn’t add any other kind of depth. I can almost hear Marty screaming ‘There’s not enough 3D in that shot! More CG smoke – I don’t want them thinking I’m some kind of modern-day de Toth!’6 The people who had been raving that the 3D of Hugo was ‘great’ just meant ‘there’s a lot of it’ – not unlike the people who tell me they think the sound in a movie was ‘great’ when what they actually mean is that it was ‘loud’.

Now, one of the the knock-on effects of having extravagant lashings of 3D in every shot is that your eyes want to look at stuff. In the real world this is what happens. Something moves in your field of view, you look at it. People talk, you look at them. A boat on a lake in the distance is pretty, you look at it. What never occurs in the real world, however, is that these things all take place within seconds of one another in a rapid replacement effect. There are two major catastrophic blunders that you can make with 3D, therefore, and Hugo makes them again and again and again and again.

The first is that you can’t just cut from one shot to another shot without any regard for where people’s eyes might be. In flat 2D filmmaking, we’ve spent decades honing our skills in such a way as to guide the eyes and ears of the audience in a carefully choreographed ballet of vision and sound. The art of montage – the ‘editing’ of the film – is an integral part of good filmmaking, and it’s one of the things that you study intensely as a young filmmaker. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor, is an acknowledged doyen of the craft and it’s a mystery to me how the pair of them managed to hack their way through this film so badly. It’s almost as if Thelma said to Scorsese: ‘Marty, I don’t give a flying fuck about this 3D fad. I’m just cutting the film like I usually do.’7 The first ten minutes of the film had my eyes popping back and forward, left and right, in and out, up and down until I felt like Marty Feldman at a tennis match. No wonder people complain about 3D giving them headaches.

The puzzle here is that, again, it’s almost like the people who made this film have never bothered to watch, or learn from, the 3D films that have come before.8 3D demands a particular kind of language just as 2D does, and you simply can’t barge into it with the same techniques that have served you in the past. For a start, it necessitates an understanding of what your eyes actually do when they look at things in the real world. The only time, for instance, that you need to snap your focus from a person talking in the middle distance to a big thing close to your face is when something extremely unexpected or confronting happens. In real life, this mostly causes you to jump backwards and knock your beer over. Now, when making a film, if it’s not your intention to smack the audience in the face like this, DON’T DO IT. And certainly don’t do it repeatedly, because the other problem here is that it makes your eyes do things they never, ever do in normal circumstances. Geez, for the first time in my life I feel like I could easily teach Martin Scorsese a thing or two about filmmaking. That should just NOT be happening.

The other appalling 3D fumble that is committed in this film, often in lock-step with the oafish cutting mentioned above, has to do with focus. This is a mistake that has been committed in every single one of the recent crop of 3D live action films9 and it makes me mad every time I see it. It’s the act of having things in the frame out of focus. Now, in 2D, we’re used to seeing this technique. It’s not a function of natural vision, but is a trick of photography, and it is used to direct the eye to something, or to throw it into relief. It works in 2D only because watching things on a 2D plane is not realistic, and so we have learned non-realistic tricks to help us make sense of the 2D image. The problem is it simply does not work in 3D. This is because – I hope you’re paying attention here Marty – we do not see things out of focus in real life!10

Human vision is an amazing thing. It’s mostly amazing because only a small part of it is to do with optics. The rest has to do with a complicated system of visual processing in the brain. As far as the brain is concerned, things are only ever out of focus when there’s a problem. This is because our brain modifies our visual apparatus constantly, racking focus, pulling aperture, adjusting stereoscopic convergence, tilting and panning, and then gathering the information from this process to provide what appears to be one seamless binocular vision of our circumstances. Critically, it does this by ignoring a lot of stuff. One of the the biggest visual distractions it has learnt to ignore is anything that is out of focus. In your normal day-to-day life, you are very seldom aware of things that are out of focus.

Go on – try it now. Look around the room and try and see something in your field of view that is out of focus. You can’t do it! Whether it’s on your desk, over near the piano or out the window, your brain is constantly working overtime to make sure everything is properly focussed for you to look at. Things that it doesn’t focus on, it just doesn’t pay attention to.11 If people move in and out of your view, you can’t help but focus on them. If some fireworks go off outside, you focus on them. In fact, your world is in focus ALL THE TIME, if your brain can make it like that. And when it can’t (such as when someone thrusts a newspaper in your face and you have to step back to resolve it) you find it annoying and inconvenient. So filmmakers: WHY ARE YOU DOING IT IN 3D MOVIES?12

Let me give you an example of how horrible it is in Hugo13 In one scene, the eponymous Hugo and his friend Isabelle are standing in a clock tower looking out over Paris at the illuminated Eiffel Tower. The camera is behind them and tracks back. The focus is on the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel tower is right in the centre of the frame. Hugo and Isabelle, in close foreground, are out of focus. This is irritating, but acceptable for a bit, since they are dimly lit and you are, after all, being directed to look at the bright Eiffel Tower. Then Mr Scorsese does something that is entirely acceptable – artistic and clever, even – in 2D filmmaking, but is brain-achingly stupid in 3D. He racks focus from the Eiffel Tower to our protagonists. In 2D, this would have the effect of drifting with our attention from the pretty-but-irrelevant centrepiece of the shot, back to the storyline. Movies do it all the time. So much so, that it is, indeed, a real skill to know at exactly which moment to force the focus pull in order to be in sync with the audience’s point of awareness. But CRITICALLY, this is a trick of 2D photography. In real stereoscopic human vision, we just don’t interpret the world like that, and so if someone does it in a 3D film, our brains are forced to do a very strange thing: we need to recompute the environment to try and make sense of it. In my brain, at that moment, it went something like this:

‘Oh, that’s a pretty shot of the Eiffel Tower. Weird out-of-focus people in the foreground, but whatever. Look at that beautiful model of Paris with all the lights on the Tower. I wonder if it really looked like that in the 1930s, electric light must… WHAT THE FUCK – EVERYTHING’S GONE OUT OF FOCUS. Oh. I see. I’m supposed to be looking at the actors now.’

To put it succinctly, if we were involved in this kind of scene in reality, we might look at the Tower, look at Paris, look at the kids, look back at the Tower – whatever. CRUCIALLY, nothing would ever be out of focus, especially the brightly lit BIG thing right in the middle of frame.

‘But wait just a goddamn minute!’ I hear you say. ‘It’s a movie, and movies are not reality. Movies do stylized tricky things all the time, and that’s OK! What about close-ups and Dutch tilts and zooms and stuff? They’re nothing like ‘reality’!’

Close-ups and Dutch tilts and zooms and jump cuts and a whole arsenal of cinematic hocus pocus has arisen, just like the focus rack, in the domain of the artificiality of 2D photographic image. They are techniques that ask us to make mental adjustments to the way we view a flat, already artificial, world. We simply cannot expect them to translate into a 3 dimensional space. They might, but if they don’t, we shouldn’t just go ahead and use them anyway, which is what’s happening here.

The mental disorientation with the focus shift that I’ve outlined above all happened very rapidly and quite subliminally it is true, but the significant point is that a contrivance of technique popped me straight out of the movie. As filmmakers, we spend every working moment trying to make sure that we don’t pop people out of the willing suspension of disbelief. To do so is the greatest single moviemaking crime you can commit. If we are to continue with this 3D thing we really need to find new ways to direct the attention of the audience, methods that don’t go against everything that evolution has wrought in us from the day that some mud-dwelling crustacean discovered that two eyes are better than one for avoiding being eaten.14

There are a dozen other types of similar terrible blunders of technique in Hugo: an extreme closeup of an eye looking through keyhole, where the keyhole is out of focus and the eye is sharp and crisp. (NO! Your eye would never see it like that! It feels WRONG because it IS wrong!); a horrible step-zoom where the focal plane changes every time a cut is made, forcing you to re-converge your eyes in a cascade of unpleasant jumps; ugly dissolves with convergence mis-alignments;15 rapid camera moves where you lose your point of convergence, scrabble around to find it, and give up because the shot just cut anyway; objects that are in focus in one shot and then out of focus in the subsequent shot, forcing your brain to try and make sense of why that is.

I won’t go on about it anymore – I think you get the drift. Everybody seems to be aware that 3D in the movies has to conquer many technical problems before it is a valuable (or even bearable) addition to the cinema experience, but as Scorsese’s Hugo demonstrates vividly, filmmakers themselves are probably its biggest liability. I simply don’t care to have the spectacle of stereoscopy if it hurts my brain, and I believe that this is what a great many audience members feel too, even if they can’t put their fingers on exactly why they don’t like it. I’ll raise it as a point of interest, even if I don’t know if it has any bearing on things, but I find it curious that the people who are pushing hardest for 3D, and making most of the 3D films, are largely old-guard filmmakers like Cameron and Scorsese and Spielberg and, soon, Ridley Scott.16 I’m not entirely sure why this should be – maybe because these guys are the only ones who can afford the technology and the budgets that warrant the extra cost of a 3D release – but what we need to see before 3D has even an ice-cube’s chance in hell of getting a foothold, is the arrival of some smart young filmmakers who can distance themselves from the ‘rules’ of conventional flat filmmaking and create a new language for stereoscopy that allows it to enhance the storytelling and emotion of a movie, rather than being the ‘next big special effect’. Until that day arrives, no amount of virtuosity in the mechanical/technical side of 3D is going to matter one whit, is my estimation.

Part 2 of this post will be coming up in a bit. If you think I hated the 3D, wait till you find out what I thought of the film itself…

  1. Later, as I left the cinema, I saw the staff frantically re-smearing all the XpanD glasses in preparation for the next show. I should have paid more attention to how they were doing this, but my eyes were still trying to adjust to seeing normally. My fleeting impression was that they were just wiping the damn things with a rag that was no doubt saturated with popcorn butter from all the glasses of the last five sessions. As with many aspects of modern cinema, the ‘advances’ in technology are mostly just creating more work for already underpaid people. []
  2. Violet Towne actually shouted me to this screening, so it was really her money. Sorry honey. []
  3. Unless the film is projected at a higher frame rate. Some systems are embracing a new standard speed of 48 or 60 frames per second to go some way to alleviating the refresh rate flicker problem. We shall see if that makes it any more bearable. []
  4. Moving 3D film images tend to have a problem with strobing on horizontal moving objects anyway, for very technical reasons to do with the way our brains detect rapidly moving hard edges. []
  5. And the corollary is that, for the moment, you should avoid doing it. []
  6. André de Toth, the director of House of Wax was famously blind in one eye, so he could not actually see the 3D effect in the film. He evidently relied on the rest of his crew to make sure it was viable. []
  7. Like Tim Burton apparently did with Alice in Wonderland. []
  8. I can’t believe, for instance, that Scorsese has taken nothing from Hitchcock’s masterful use of 3D in Dial M for Murder. Hitchcock only did this one film in 3D, and audiences of the time never saw it that way because – does this sound familiar? – they had tired of the 3D fad and the film was released flat to maximise its profitability. Nevertheless, he embraced the potential of the idea and absorbed it almost effortlessly into his filmic arsenal. As a result it was, and remains, one of the best uses of 3D to date, and I pine for one of the current batch of 3D advocates to come up with something half as well realised. []
  9. But not with animated films. I wonder if you can work out why? []
  10. Unless of course we are myopic and don’t have our spectacles on. But I don’t need to tell you that no-one actually seeks out this state. []
  11. If you’re not following me here, you’ve misunderstood – as have most modern filmmakers attempting 3D – a fundamental mechanism of human vision. We do not see the world like a camera sees it. We have spent a century ‘learning’ how to see flat 2D images as portrayals of reality, but this is essentially not the way we see things in reality. Even if you have vision in only one eye, and are unable to resolve stereoscopy, you still don’t see the world like a camera does. It’s all to do with the fact that a camera is a purely optical system, and human vision is a computer-enhanced information gathering system. []
  12. To try and illustrate the problem with a 2D analogy: imagine you are watching a film in a very wide anamorphic ratio – you know, Cinemascope or something. Now imagine that there are two characters talking. One thing you never do – unless you’re doing it specifically to call attention to something – is to put the two characters on the far left and right of the screen and cut between them as they talk. Why? Because the audience would be forced to snap their heads back and forth as the actors appeared first on the very left of the screen, and then on the right. It would quickly become very tiring and intrusive. We’ve evolved all kinds of film-making language to make sure that audiences aren’t popped out of the movie with irritations such as this. []
  13. This is just one example of many instances of it in this film – far more than I have seen in recent 3D offerings. James Cameron did it numerous times in Avatar, but only in the live action sequences. It never happens in the computer modelled scenes. I’ll leave you to reflect on why that is… []
  14. Lest you think I am talking out of my ass with all this stuff, consider that in my job as a professional sound designer, I have already been there. Sound people have been adjusting to spatial changes in film sound since we went from mono to stereo back in the 1940s. And now, with ‘surround sound’ we have in fact been dealing with a 3D environment for four decades. We’ve learnt a thing or two about what you can and cannot do. One thing I can tell you with absolute certainty is that many things that were totally acceptable in mono soundtracks just do not work in a full 3 dimensional spatial environment. We’ve had to learn new ways of making things work. And we’ve had to learn those new ways without making audiences hate the film because the sound hurt their ears. []
  15. Human eyes have a real problem with the kinds of artificial convergence thrust upon them in 3D photography. Again, this is a technical issue of human vision, and so is complicated to explain, but basically, when we look at objects we expect our eyes to refocus and re-converge stereoscopically at the same time. In the cinema, the focal plane is always constant (the screen) and the convergence is the only thing that changes. This is highly unnatural. We can do it, of course – otherwise photographic stereoscopy wouldn’t work – but it makes our eyes attempt to behave in a way that they would never naturally need to. It’s bad enough that movies force us to try to do it, but it’s MUCH worse when they make us do it rapidly and repeatedly. If you are the kind of person who feels nauseous when watching 3D, this is almost certainly why. []
  16. I admit to having a great deal of trepidation about Prometheus after sitting through Hugo. I was looking forward to seeing what both these directors did with 3D, since each was equally voluble about how much he loved it, and, in Scott’s case about how he would ‘never do another film in 2D again’. Now I just think I’m going to see the same old blunders committed over and over. I’m even inclined to see the movie first in 2D, just in case it’s actually a good movie and the 3D wrecks it for me. []

It really doesn’t take long does it? A news story of any magnitude comes along and, within mere hours, some idiot journalist decides it would be a great idea to attempt to relate it to their particular paycheck. Take this migraine-inducing offering that appeared in the Hollywood Reporter yesterday:

Eerie Links Between ‘Harry Potter,’ Osama Bin Laden; Why Movie May Benefit

You know, when I read something like that, I just want to smack the perpetrator with a dead halibut. WHAT. THE. FUCK. Smack. Smack smack smack smack.

OK. Eerie links it is, then. We’ve dealt with them before, so we are not intimidated. Let’s see how Mr Gregg Kilday, our hamfisted excuse for a newshound, manages the contortionist feat of tying Harry Potter to the execution of Osama bin Laden.

While the first volume in J.K. Rowling’s seven-book series was originally published in England in 1997, the first movie, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” was released in November 2001, just months after 9/11.

Er… so what are you saying here, Sherlock? That J.K. Rowling was clairvoyant and foresaw 9/11 in a book written more than four years before the film came out? Because I’ll tell you something about the movie industry: the last four months of a movie the size of Harry Potter, and you don’t have your picture in pretty good shape, you’re in fucking trouble. And I’m going out on a limb here and saying that Warner Brothers probably had their release date figured out a teensy bit before then, you clown. You write for the Hollywood Reporter – you must know that huge films like this have established release dates years in advance. What can the confluence of the 9/11 attacks and the release of ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ possibly have to do with one another? It is nothing more than a coincidence.1 Actually, it’s not even a coincidence. A coincidence implies some kind of connection and there isn’t one.

Voldemort is introduced as something of a formless boogie-man — not unlike the mysterious Osama — but then, over the course of the series, takes on more and more of a physical presence until in the last volume he and Harry go head-to-head in a final, cataclysmic battle.

Oh God. Give me the halibut again. Right, so just like Voldemort takes on a greater physical appearance as time goes by, Osama.. let’s see now… disappears from the view of the world and turns into an insubstantial wisp of rumour and guesswork. Yeah, that’s a really well thought out analogy. And that final cataclysmic battle with Harry is… what… bin Laden being shot in the head by Obama? Or by a Navy SEAL? Oh wait – maybe the SEAL is Harry? Was there a Hermione SEAL and a Ron Weasley SEAL? Did they have owls? Are you a FUCKING MORON?

Of course, what Gregg Kilday is really saying is that there’s some kind of supernatural element to all this – that the first film was released just after 9/11 and then that the last film is released just after bin Laden is killed and that means something. Never mind that the books don’t follow any kind of temporal logic in that respect, nor that it makes absolutely no sense in as many ways as you’d like to find; Obama represents Harry? Why doesn’t George Bush represent Harry? He was in charge when the planes flew into the WTC. Oh, maybe there are two Harrys? It’s dual personality thing! Smack smack smack smack.

For a generation of kids who grew up reading Rowling’s books and watching Hollywood’s big-screen adaptations in the shadows of 9/11, there have been inevitable echoes of the real world in Harry’s sometimes reluctant quest to defeat Voldemort.

You don’t have kids, do you Mr Kilday? This is what happens when kids go to watch Harry Potter: they see wizards and whomping willows and wands and werewolves. They see butterbeer and Every Flavour Beans and pumpkin juice. They see people flying and turning invisible and riding on broomsticks. They do not think about, care about, or even spare the most fleeting thought for, Osama bin Laden, George Bush, Pakistan, Barack Obama, international politics, Navy SEALs, the CIA, Wikileaks, conspiracy theories, or the Hollywood Reporter. This is what is referred to by people in the business as the magic of the cinema. It is only failed academics looking for attention, and sad geeks with nothing better to do, who draw stupid connections between escapist fantasy and the real world. Kids are not that dumb.

And as for Harry’s ‘sometimes reluctant quest to defeat Voldemort’, well there you go with the vacant analogies again. As far as I can tell there has never been any ‘reluctance’ on the part of the US in attempting to defeat Osama bin Laden. It seems to me (and most of the rest of the world) that the US has been pursuing him with relentless and almost psychopathological determination.

Back in 2004, a poster on made some of it explicit, comparing the Death Eaters to Al Queda and noting of that “just as Voldemort was shaped by his mother’s death and his father’s abandonment, Osama was shaped by his personal struggle between Western pleasures and Islamic discipline.”

That ‘someone’ was you, wasn’t it Mr Kilday? C’mon, you can tell us. We won’t laugh at you for hanging around in Harry Potter chatrooms. Just in case you can’t see the utter crapness of the comparison from that muggle contributor (who – if it wasn’t you – is undoubtedly a failed academic looking for attention or a sad geek with nothing better to do), let me reword it for you:

“just as Voldemort was shaped by his mother’s death and his father’s abandonment, Adolf Hitler was shaped by his mother’s death and his father’s abandonment.”2

See, THAT is an analogy. It’s where you effortlessly draw comparisons between two things that have some meaningful commonness. It’s not where you take one thing, and then hammer another thing to within an inch of its life in an attempt to make it seem like it relates to the first thing in some vague manner. But I guess there’s no real point in drawing an analogy between Hitler and Voldemort because no-one is currently releasing a film about Hitler, and anyway, he died nearly 80 years ago on April 30, 1945 (just hold that date in your mind for a bit).3

And just as Harry is known in the books as “the anointed one,” a number of President Obama’s critics like Rush Limbaugh have frequently dismissed the president by disparagingly referring to him as “the anointed one” as well4

Oh, right. Wow! That is eerie! And crikey, there was an ‘anointed one’ in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, right? And Jesus – wasn’t He called ‘the anointed one’ too! So, what you’re saying is that Obama, right, is like Jesus and Harry Potter and the kid from Buffy. But hey – wasn’t the anointed one in Buffy evil? So Obama is, like, conflicted like Harry, the saviour of humankind like Jesus and an evil little bloodsucking monster who can only be killed by sunlight, all rolled up in one!

Sorry – I didn’t quite catch that. Did you just say I was pulling arbitrary connections out of my ass? C’mon! Who’d do that?

Meanwhile, in the wake of Bin Laden’s death in a mansion near Islamabad, a meme has already popped up on the web, noting the weird coincidence that Osama and Voldemort both died on the same day, May 1. But true Potter fans have been quick to point out that’s not quite true: When Harry and Voldemort actually finally come face-to-face in the Battle of Hogwarts, in the books’ chronology the date is really May 2, 1998

Wowzer! Now THAT’s eeeeeerrrriiiieeeeeeeeee! So, Osama was killed ON THE SAME DAY as Voldemort! Well, OK, not the same day – a day apart and thirteen years later. Yessirree, can’t get much closer than that! You know what would be REALLY creepy though? If Adolf Hitler was killed on May 1 or a day on either side!5

But Bin Laden’s death is now likely to give the movie an extra emotional resonance for the Potter generation, and that could translate into an even bigger box office bonanza.

Oh yes, I can imagine that the execs at Warner’s were just wetting themselves when they heard bin Laden was dead. The thought of the cleverness of their allegory playing out must have been uppermost in their minds. In fact, I’m going to propose something really radical: Warner Brothers themselves arranged the killing of Osama bin Laden! Think about it – it’s the end of their lucrative Harry Potter franchise, they needed to do something to wring out those extra dollars! What could be more obvious?! I bet they even sent in their very best team for the job…

What a truly terrifying last moment it must have been for Osama, with Daffy holding him down, Bugs taking aim with his SIG 9mm and Porky gloating…

‘Th-th-th-th-th-that’s all folks..’

  1. Unless Mr Kilday is suggesting that J.K. Rowling and al Qaeda are in kahoots. Well, I guess that’s at least as plausible as anything else he’s written in this article. []
  2. Hitler’s father actually died too, when the boy was young, but that’s abandonment, near enough, right? He was also violent and authoritarian. []
  3. And, just in case anyone is tempted, no, I’m not intending to draw comparisons between World War 2 and Harry Potter. I was just making a random example for a point of illustration. You could probably do the same with any despot you cared to name. []
  4. It was actually conservative radio commentator Sean Hannity who first used this term in reference to Obama, anyway. []
  5. And, I might point out, J.K. Rowling would have actually known that. []

What I’ve been working on for the last six or seven months. You should go see it. It’s fun.

Y’know, as much as I’m critical of the woo-mongers mixing it up with what they perceive to be ‘science’, I’m afraid that sometimes it’s the scientists themselves that need a good fresh mackerel to the side of the head.

Take this article Chaos Makes a Scream Sound Real, from ScienceNews.

To be fair, it’s not just the scientists. There’s a combination of factors that contribute to the diffuse, nutty quality of this piece, and it’s one that you find frequently in science journalism: a scientific concept that doesn’t immediately appear to be anything remotely worth reporting to a general audience, and a journalist’s desire (or job requirement) to try and spice it up into something that does.

I’ll try and paraphrase the whole idea for you, since I can’t be entirely sure what this is exactly about from reading either the Science News article or the abstract of the paper at Biology Letters, where it was published under the title Do film soundtracks contain nonlinear analogues to influence emotion?1

Some scientists studying vertebrate communication observed that:

A variety of vertebrates produce nonlinear vocalizations when they are under duress. By their very nature, vocalizations containing nonlinearities may sound harsh and are somewhat unpredictable; observations that are consistent with them being particularly evocative to those hearing them.

What they’re basically saying is that jarring, loud or sudden sounds have a noticeable impression on an animal hearing them.


They go on to hypothesize that maybe this is the case for humans too, and that filmmakers use that trick in films.


To this end, they analyzed a bunch of films and found that there are more jarring and sudden sounds in horror films, although some appear in action films and a few appear in drama.2


Then they sum up their hypothesis with:

Together, our results suggest that film-makers manipulate sounds to create nonlinear analogues in order to manipulate our emotional responses.

(Translate that to: ‘Film-makers use different kinds of changing sounds for emotional effect’)

Er… Yup.

Now, I don’t suppose that this was likely to be an experiment that cost oodles of money, but whatever they spent on it was WAY too much, because they could simply have emailed me and I would have told them all that for free.

The Science News reporter makes a futile attempt to spin this up into something more than what I just told you, by stirring in some references to Chaos Theory (wtf?) and getting a quote about ‘crying babies’ from a cognitive biologist who was not even involved in the study (‘Screams are basically chaos!‘). She then tags the piece with an entirely irrelevant factoid about how Hitchcock’s The Birds contains sounds that were electronically generated3 and signs off with the following knowledgeable-sounding quip:

…capturing a realistic, blood-curdling cry is so difficult that filmmakers have used the very same one, now found on many websites, in more than 200 movies. Known as the Wilhelm scream it is named for the character who first unleashed it in the 1953 western The Charge at Feather River.

Well, someone has been pwned here and I’m not sure who. Either the reporter hasn’t done her homework, or she thinks that no-one will notice this risible flub. The Wilhelm scream is used in a lot of movies, not because of its terrifying blood-curdling quality, but because it’s so utterly lame that it has become a game among sound editors to see if they can sneak it in skillfully enough to let the director keep it in the final sound mix.

What’s more, it’s even extremely well known for that reason as even a very cursory search will reveal. Here’s a (VERY old) YouTube compilation of appearances of the Wilhelm scream.

You’ll have noticed that many of the above clips are from the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg stable, and that’s because sound design guru Ben Burtt is responsible for ‘resurrecting’ the Wilhelm scream in Star Wars and the fun challenge of trying to get it into mixes arose among sound editors who worked with Burtt (and with some of whom I’ve worked myself, so I know of what I speak).

I’m all for the concept of popularizing science, but this kind of writing doesn’t really help anyone. It’s painting a hazy and inaccurate picture for a lay audience, can easily be demonstrated to be factually sloppy and, worst of all in my book, because of the two preceding transgressions, casts a sickly glow over the effectiveness of all other science reporting. Science can’t, and shouldn’t be, reported in the same way as entertainment. Science is interesting for what it is, and if you’re a science reporter and can’t find an appropriately absorbing way of working with the actual facts at hand for a story, you should leave it alone and go on to something else.4

  1. And I’m not about to fork out for the full article – people still aren’t getting this stuff. Listen to me Biology Letters editors: religious fundamentalists of all persuasions make their stuff available to all and sundry for nothing. THEY ARE YOUR COMPETITION! Get with the 21st Century already! []
  2. Without even doing an experiment I can tell you that there would be close to none in comedies and romances. []
  3. I’m not even sure I understand what the point of including it is – that electronic sounds are more jarring/chaotic/annoying than natural sounds? Again, wtf? It’s not true, and it’s immaterial in this context anyway! []
  4. Another disappointing consequence of this phenomenon is that the bad story gets picked up, often completely uncritically, by other popular science outlets. In this case I note that it appears in Wired Science who should totally know better. []

You may remember that a little ways back I told you about a film called Shriek of the Mutilated, which, aside from having one of the best movie titles ever, is a work of cinema so terrible that it’s a must see. My friend Sean points out that io9 has a short clip up at the moment which allows you to get a taste of the full awfulness of this creation.

As well as some truly frightful yeti action, the snippet features some awesome ‘girl-in-lingerie-terror’ acting. Truly, girls, you need to watch this. Among other things you will learn that if you are trapped in a bathroom by an insane over-sized teddybear-with-fangs, you should flap ineffectually at the window with your hands and pull your hair across your face a lot.

Apparently SOTM is now available on DVD. This is something that the world has needed for many decades.


*You have to see the film.


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