Pi Eyed

The problem with writing an aesthetic history of the present is that the present has a nasty habit of always changing (even more than the past). Last year I published an essay on 3D in a special issue of Film History devoted to digital cinema. There, I focused on Coraline (2009) as a case study of how some filmmakers were exploring the potentials of 3D depth for storytelling. I think that Coraline is a watershed experiment in carefully regulating stereoscopic space to support character psychology and viewer emotion. I suggested that it introduced a way of thinking about 3D that has been developed in films like Hugo (2011). Despite ever-present predictions that 3D will soon vanish, our multiplex and art-house screens have been steadily plunging and thrusting over the past year. My thoughts about 3D are evolving, and this blog seems as good a place as any to sketch out a few more ideas.


The idea of a single “3D aesthetic” seems less and less viable to me. Instead, as the field broadens different filmmakers are carving out distinctive options within the medium. Coraline’s precise experimentation is in a class of “art-house” or “prestige 3D” with films like Hugo (2011), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), and Pina (2011). Tent-pole movies like The Amazing Spiderman (2012) and Avengers (2012) (a post-conversion) exemplify “blockbuster” 3D. Meanwhile lower-budget horror remains the stalwart genre of “exploitation 3D.” Such generalizations raise questions, of course. Do animated family films deserve their own category? What of prestige brands like Pixar and Disney? There are plenty of borderline cases in live-action too. Prometheus (2012) and Oz (2013) straddle the prestige/box-office divide, while Judge Dredd (2012) and Transformers Dark of the Moon (2011) are franchise entries with a heavy dose of interesting experimentation. The potentials of 3D are still being charted and conventions are still forming, which makes it an exasperating and exhilarating topic.


The technology is at that awkward age when its novelty is waning but it hasn’t made the leap to maturity as a norm. Whether it will ever make that leap is an open question, but Life of Pi’s Oscar for best cinematography (the third 3D film to earn the award) grants it some artistic legitimacy.  Like the other 3D Oscar winners Avatar (2009) and Hugo, Pi binds stereoscopic effects to the central character’s journey of self-discovery. As a matter of course, all three films pour on 3D spectacle (Hugo’s train crash, Avatar’s battles and banshees, Pi’s shipwreck). The promise of spectacle loosens purse strings for both producers and spectators. But the Hollywood test of a new technology is whether it can help deliver an emotional experience to popular viewers. To some degree, this means that technique has to get out of the way of tried and true storytelling conventions. James Cameron helped promote Pi (which employed his company’s hardware) by proclaiming: “It does what good 3-D is supposed to do, which is, it allows you to forget you’re watching a 3-D movie.” In other words, the process must reach beyond gimmickry; it must earn the right to go unnoticed.


Ubiquity is the most reliable road to invisibility. Rouben Mamoulian’s early sound film Applause labors mightily to bend the soundtrack to expressive aims, but it remains an awkward affair because in 1929 the technology was inflexible and novelty was king. Just over a decade later, Mark Robson’s low-budget masterpiece Ghost Ship (1943) builds an equally experimental sonic world, but does so upon a foundation that moviegoers had learned to accept. You can “forget you’re watching” a sound film. 3D may never have such advantage. Judging from the past, I’d say that 3-D looks a lot more like color than sound. The transition to sound was astonishingly fast. Major studios adopted their technology in May of 1928 and by September 1929 they were exclusively producing sound films. Full color lingered as a special attraction from the 1930s until the mid 1960s, when NBC began broadcasting its prime-time lineup in color. The only thing that could finally topple black-and-white from the cinematic throne was the conversion of a competitor (and ancillary market). 3-D may well travel that path. It seems to be settling into a sustainable niche of two or three screens at the multiplex. A total conversion is unlikely unless our other screens (TV, Computers, Phones, iPods, DSs) suddenly make the transition, essentially forcing theatrical’s hand.


A film like Pi can never lure contemporary viewers to forget the premium admission price or the glasses they are wearing. It can, however, create a context in which the novelty recedes while story values come forward. Blockbuster fair like The Amazing Spiderman does this by simply alternating more or less “flat” expositional conversation scenes with action sequences of dimensional hyperbole. Pi is more thoroughly integrative. Leaving aside the unexceptional frame story, in which the adult Pi relates his story to a visiting author (and nearly kills all poetic ambiguity in the film), Ang Lee tends not to flatten his image for the sake of unobtrusiveness. Instead, the film nudges stereoscopic depth forward to refresh our awareness of it between spectacles. The film also binds dimensional effects to Pi’s character arc, which gives 3D an emotional resonance. My discussion here is necessarily limited because I’ve only been able to see the film in 3D once, though it was at the Los Angeles ArcLight in former Cinerama Dome, one of America’s best venues. The film’s innovations stand out plainly in a single screening.


From the opening credits, designed by Garrison Yu’s yU+co firm, Pi primes viewers to notice depth. In a series of images of Pi’s family zoo, the film’s titles appear and float at various distances behind the screen surface (positive parallax). Photographic (or at least photo-real) elements sandwich the credits at fore and rear, and even obscure them, as when Avy Kaufman’s credit slides behind a tree, or a lemur extends its nose over Adil Hussain’s name.





The sequence is an exercise in layering planes beyond the frame. Shallow focus renders the bars of a cage as abstract vertical stripes with the associate producers’ credits floating just in front of it. Space is literally shallow. Then an apparent rack focus reveals the leopard’s habitat behind the bars with the co-producer’s name inset above some foliage but still well in front of the big cat. A single shot behaves like a spatial accordion, stretching away from the screen surface. Ang Lee’s director’s credit floats on water, between a pond plant and the pool’s edge.


In each shot, the text defines a finely graded cinematic depth laid out in paper-thin surfaces. The effect is reminiscent of Disney’s multiplane animation in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which represented deep space by photographing cells stacked in front of the camera. As with Disney, Pi’s strategy is to alert the viewer to the illusion of depth by staggering image planes. The title sequence is clever and beautiful, but it is also functional. It primes us to notice depth effects right from the start, reorienting our expectation that 3D means a poke in the eye. It is a gentle and precise way of introducing the film’s world, and especially important because the spectacle-hound will have to wait through the first act before shipwreck promised in the trailers. In the mean time, the credits seem to say, attend to depth.


Pi pushes this concept of planar layering to the peak of abstraction in scene transitions and brief montage sequences, also designed by yU+co. In something like a 3D version of a dissolve, the planes of one image fade in over, or under, elements of another. The first instance is a quick transition from Pi’s memory of his childhood swimming pool to his kitchen. The image of the boy splashing into the water hovers momentarily in the middle of the kitchen, between the two characters. The space beyond the swimming-pool plane is rippled as though it is seen through the water’s surface. The past is sandwiched between elements of the present.



Later, during two elliptical montages at sea, Pi writes in his journal and reads from a survival manual over scenes of life on the raft. In my work on Technicolor, I noted that montage sequences tend to be open to formal experiments. The compression of time already makes narration overt so viewers can more readily accept stylization. Pi takes this motivation and runs with it. The first montage offers images from different times that dissolve and wipe over one another, each layered as a plane that lingers momentarily in the frame. A close-up of Pi sharpening his pencil with a hunting knife hangs in the foreground as a long shot of him fishing emerges in the background. Even more striking, a close-up of Pi writing in his diary moves to the background as a majestic shot of Richard Parker materializes in the fore.

The second montage is simpler. Pi holds the foreground left in a medium-close shot of him reading the manual, while the right two-thirds of the frame depict his methods of survival.  The montage begins with three layers: Pi, pages of the manual close behind him, and shots of life at sea further back and on the right. Eventually the book pages vanish, leaving two layers and two different time frames on screen. Depth helps clarify the sequence. In 2D it seems odd to see two images of the same character at different points in the story superimposed in sharp focus. The stereo separation between the planes in 3D somehow reinforces the temporal distance between events. In 2D, the images appear as flat collages, but 3D provides an elegant coordination of space and time.

The play of layers and planes can feel gimmicky, and it is used only in brief stretches. But it also sets up an emotional payoff at the film’s end. Where Pi’s voice-over narration during his voyage occasioned a complex mix of flat but staggered image elements, the story he tells the Japanese insurance adjusters in the hospital is handled differently. Here, cleanness and directness are the rule. Sitting in medium-close up in a flatly lit, barren white hospital room, Pi stares toward the camera. In place of the planar layering, Lee presents the audience with a frame that bows outward into the theater (negative parallax). Pi’s head emerges from the screen in a shot that exaggerates its roundness.

I suspect that Brian Gardner, Lee’s stereographer, either shifted the interocular distance (essentially the distance between the two camera “eyes”) during the monologue to accentuate dimensional volume, or manipulated a “dynamic floating window” to tilt the top of the frame backward, though I cannot confirm that without an additional 3D viewing.  Scorsese uses a similar effect in Hugo to signal interiority when the main character remembers his father’s death. In both cases, facial emergence accentuates expression and brings the audience closer to the sympathetic character. The gentle use of negative parallax to create a bulge around Pi’s face functions something like a carefully lit close-up might in a studio-era melodrama. It also signals a strong departure from the stacked planes in the earlier montages. Here we might actually “forget” we are watching 3D, in part because the film has guided us to notice layering in depth as a style, and because the scene is a moving climax. I think the viewer actually “feels” the difference in volume as an increase in emotional directness and connectedness with the character. If we don’t recognize the change, Lee’s return to the flat world of the frame story in which the older Pi concludes his interview with the author punctuates the shift. The moment of raw insight has passed and space is deflated, the screen snapped back.


Of course Pi also has its share of spectacular emergence. In her excellent blog on 3D aesthetics, Miriam Ruth Ross notes that underwater scenes in particular motivate protrusion: “There are numerous shots filmed from under the water where bubbles and small pieces of jetsam drift in negative parallax to the viewer and the space between the audience and the screen seems to become thick and heavy. In a couple of these shots, Pi’s floating body hangs into the auditorium space.” Flying and floating objects have long been privileged in 3D because they need not be anchored to a spot behind the frame. Think of Avatar’s helicopters, Hugo’s snow, or even the swimmers in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Likewise, Pi delivers its own version of the “Lion in Your Lap” spectacle promised long ago on posters for Bwana Devil. The first time Richard Parker bolted from beneath the tarpaulin the audience I was with reflexively jerked back from the screen. Later, Pi plunges his grappling hook toward the camera when he spars with the tiger.

Lee’s most notable use of negative parallax comes during the flying-fish sequence. Here, he shifts the film’s aspect ratio over a cut so that black bars appear at the top and bottom of the frame. The animators at Rhythm and Hues supplied fish that dive into and out of the black areas so that they appear to slip below the limits of the screen. The effect is a variation on the ‘dynamic floating window’ developed by Gardner known as “breaking the mask,” and introduced in G Force (2008). (Sara Ross tells me that the opening sequence of Oz does something similar, and Marc Longenecker reminded me of a overt instance in the end-credit sequence of Despicable Me).


Like most 3D features, though, Pi spends most of its “depth budget” behind the screen. This is not a neutral or “flat” option in which dimensionality recedes to move the story along between actions sequences. Instead, like Hugo and Coraline, Life of Pi helps develop 3D’s expressive vocabulary in its quiet moments.  For all the buzz over its CGI animals and elaborate set pieces, Pi’s most powerful 3D moments evince an integration that makes stereoscope a flexible, nuanced story medium. Not to heap too much praise on the film, but it strikes me as closer to Ghost Ship than Applause.

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