Star Wars: The Phantom Menace conversion to 3D
Ok, all of us either know first hand or from word of mouth just how bad a movie the first episode of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga is, with it’s abhorrent acting, atrocious dialogue, and annoying chracters (if only Anakin had turned on that podracer engine while Jar Jar’s hand was stuck in the turbine!), it takes the cake as one of the biggest let downs in the history of hype and cinema. But that is not what i’m writing about in this article, and it IS an article rather than a review, because it’s not the movie that i’m talking about, rather i’m using the movie as an example. The real issue I want to discuss is the retro-conversion of this movie and others from a 2D movie into 3D.
Many of you reading this will have already read my explenation of how 3D works, if not you can find that feature here. In it, I describe the way that the technology works and how the illusion allows your eyes to perceive a flat 2D image as being a three dimensional image. With movies that have been shot with a proper stereoscopic Fusion camera such as the ones created and refined by James Cameron for his groundbreaking 3D movie Avatar. The same cameras have been used for some movies since then, one of the best examples of the technology being used properly is the fourth movie in the Resident Evil series, Afterlife. While the same technology was used for Disney’s long delayed sequel Tron Legacy, it was sadly not used to it’s full effect, but it was still visually better than those created using 3D retro-conversion.
3D retro-conversion is a post production process which converts the single 2D image into two separate left and right images that make up the 3D image. It isn’t exactly a new thing, as we’ve had several movies released in 3D using the process since Avatar made the studio executives see dollar signs and realised how much it could potentially revitalise cinema ticket sales. The list of movies to undergo this include Clash Of The Titans, Priest, Green Lantern, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2), The Smurfs, and the list goes on. A full comparative list of 3D movies and how they were made 3D can be found on wikipedia.
Now we’ve been promised an amazing visual feat by George Lucas with all six of the Star Wars movies intended for 3D retro-conversion, and even James Cameron is intending to do the same with Titanic. This is where the problem lies. Since 3D technology became more widespread through cinemas and the studios began producing movies with the intention of converting them, there have been changes made to the way that a movie is shot. One of the main things we’re talking about here is Framing.
The framing of a shot is all about placement of objects in view of the camera. You have your foreground and your background, and when planning for a movie to be in 3D this will be very different from a movie shot in 2D with no consideration given to converting it later. Another issue is with the editing of the movie, in particular quick cuts like those you would find in an action sequence. You know how when you’re watching a 3D movie you get more tired than watching a 2D one? It’s because your eyes are working harder, so it takes more for the eyes to work and process the image to make the illusion work.
With editing, you have to plan the edit so that from shot to shot, the eyes are not over-stressed, and if you go back and look at any action sequence, you will see that there are many cuts from one angle to another during any sequence, and for each one the eyes have to adjust. This is where some people have issues with 3D and can suffer slight headaches, usually from the editing. So when filming a movie intended for 3D, both framing and the editing have to be taken into consideration.
Why is this a particular problem with Star Wars and Titanic? Well, obviously, they weren’t filmed with 3D in mind, so there are going to be sequences which will suffer from these issues. Having now seen The Phantom Menace in 3D, one thing that struck me during it is just how lazily the retro-conversion had been done.
The (majority of the) space sequences in the movie are the ones that have gained the most from the conversion, with ships now appearing foreground and the stars appearing far off and distant. But many other sequences, which should have been mind-blowing are very poor or in some cases don’t appear to have had any conversion attempted on at all. Sequences where ships arrive and glide through the landscapes of gigantic cities, or where character walk on balconies overlooking said cities, are completely devoid of depth, the one thing that 3D is meant to add.
It seems as if no attempt has been made to do the 3D sequences as multiple layers. In one of these sequences, the characters and their balcony were foreground, and the city backdrop (which went to the horizon) was the background. Had the movie been shot with a proper 3D camera, this would have had several different layers, with the characters the first – closest layer, the balcony the second layer, and the the city would have been broken up into several layers, making foreground buildings and far away, background buildings, and then the horizon and the sky appear far off in the distance. Instead, it looks like two people standing on a balcony, in front of matte painting. Lazy.
In my previous 3D feature, there is an example image showing the separate left and right images of one sequence in avatar. The shot set aboard a vast ship in which there are people up close to the camera and people far off in the distance. This is again a perfect example of how the effect works, go back and look at the image, and compare the positions of the people, the further back the people are, the further apart their positions are in the two images, that is how you show several different layers of depth.
I only hope that people like George Lucas who are intent on going down this road learn how to do it properly, and not the half-assed job they’ve done. As far as I’m concerned, the conversion of The Phantom Menace didn’t add any depth to a movie already devoid of any. Jog on, Mr Lucas, you have gotten your last penny out of me from the Star Wars movies, go back and work on parts 7, 8, and 9, then we’ll talk.