Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cinematic Realism Considered - Part 3

Cinematic Realism Considered - Part 3

Cinematic Realism Considered - Parts 1 and 2 focused on the digital revolution that's been ongoing within the feature film Industry for over a decade. Digital Cinema has eliminated most of the constraints on moviemakers that analog film imposed on the Industry for almost 100 years.  This lack of constraints has created uncharted territory for the filmmaker, turning high frame rate (HFR) or temporal resolution and ultra high definition (UHD) or spatial resolution into creative tools that are only now undergoing study and experimentation.

The Hobbit has shown us that high frame rate can change the look and feel of a film from a low resolution cinematic story to high resolution cinematic realism that is intended to be an accurate representation of reality.  There's little doubt that over time, both UHD and HFR will undergo a considerable amount of refinement as moviemakers gain a better understanding of these new creative tools and how best to use them.  For instance, we've seen that HFR works best on wide shots but when a shot is character oriented in tight compositions, HFR can look somewhat uncomfortable.  In fact, legendary filmmaker and visual effects pioneer, Douglas Trumbull has stated that HFR is probably not appropriate for period or dialog driven films.  With HFR and UHD much of the movie making magic such as props, makeup and even acting undergoes audience scrutiny that if improperly composed and lensed can take moviegoers out of their sense of suspended disbelief.

What Role Does 3D Play in This Equation?

Is 3D somehow different than temporal or spatial resolution as a creative tool or is it a key ingredient for pushing the movie going experience over the top, from the realm of cinematic story telling to cinematic realism?

I believe that 3D is consistent with both experiences. In a 3D movie our brain actively creates a unique visual data set resulting from the horizontal displacement or disparity of the images projected onto our left and right retinae regardless of the temporal or spatial resolution. Our conscious perception of that unique data set is called stereopsis.

Of course, data from 2D images projected onto our retinas via HFR and/or UHD is also processed by our visual system but in a different manner.  In a 2D movie experience, temporal and/or spatial information hitting our left and right retinae are precisely identical in every way and void of any horizontal disparity. Consequently the brain will not transform HFR and UHD qualitatively into a new and different data set and therefore our perception of that visual data is not significantly different from the source.

It is well established in neuroscience that disparity resulting from the separation of our two eyes has a profound effect on the brain that is uniquely different than what is experienced with one eye.  In my blog, Engaged In 2D and Immersed in 3D, I point out that the lack of disparity in a 2D movie actually forces the audience to perceive that all the action is being presented on the movie screen and only on the movie screen, mitigating any significant semblance of immersion whether the movie is presented at 24fps or 48fps.  On the other hand, the horizontal displacement of images hitting our retinae due to the separation of our left and right eyes creates a sense of depth and volume that brings the action from the screen to the audience in a very personal manner that can infringe on each audience member's personal space... i.e. their comfort zone.  In fact, because our individual self-perceptions and personal spaces are so variable, no two people in the audience of a 3D movie will have the same subjective reaction to the same stereo visuals.  Unlike UHD and HFR, a 3D movie tears down the second, third and fourth wall of the cinematic experience, enveloping the entire theater in a unique manner for each audience member. And while the effectiveness of 3D to enhance a story is independent of HFR and UHD the opposite is not true. It's generally agreed that HFR and UHD are largely dependent on 3D to achieve the most convincing sense of cinematic realism and immersion.

Cinematic Realism and the Uncanny Valley:

Those filmmakers attempting to create an accurate sense of cinematic realism face a daunting task because any errors in the simulation of reality on the screen, no matter how slight and seemingly irrelevant will likely be noticed by the audience.  That's because the human brain has been hard wired through evolution to anticipate a world that visually follows a set of rules.

When those rules are broken a phenomenon called the  'uncanny valley' is often the result. The uncanny valley was first coined by the robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970 to describe how we perceive humanoid constructs like puppets, cartoon characters, robots, clowns, etc that are clearly not intended to approach reality in appearance relative to how we perceive puppets, robots and cartoon characters that are intended to accurately simulate reality.

The closer that these artificial constructs come to appear as accurate replications of reality/realism the more our sense of empathy increases. However, as these human approximations reach a point closest to realism, visual nuances of imperfection can cause us to become uncomfortable with the image. Indeed, we often find even minutely flawed human simulations as grotesque.

I believe, the uncanny valley applies to many forms of cinematic realism and it may explain why the Hobbit at 48 fps had mixed reviews.  Most of the time our brains can automatically fill in missing data and/or accept errors in low-resolution data. However if realism is clearly the end goal of a filmmaker then every detail of that simulated reality must be void of visual errors or the opposite effect will be achieved. It's because HD or 2K projected at 24 frames per second (even in the presence of 3D) is a lower resolution experience than HFR and UHD that audiences tends to be much more forgiving when it comes to inaccuracies, intentional cheats, etc in filming.

One thing is for certain, the lack of technical constrains from digital cinema will greatly complicate the art of moviemaking in the future. Some cinematographers and directors will likely embrace the creative options this new era in filmmaking presents while others will avoid or reject them in favor of what they consider traditional approaches to storytelling.

Regardless of how the Industry approaches these advancements in filmmaking one thing is for certain... It's going to get very interesting.