High-Fidelity Stereoscope

U2 3DYou could describe me as a somewhat reluctant fan of the Irish rock band U2. I was a big fan as a kid, but these days I only sporadically enjoy their music, and as they get older the band members’ penchant for dressing like dads just escaped from a Hot Topic store makes me cringe more and more. Still, I buy every new album they put out. I don’t really listen to them all that much, but I buy them. It’s something I do mostly out of habit and some vague idea that I may as well own all of their albums; I bought my first U2 record (cassette tape, actually) when I was fifteen or sixteen, I think. Oof. That’s twenty years of forking money over to these clowns.

Last night I threw another sixteen dollars on that pile when I went to see “U2 3D” at the IMAX theater at Lincoln Plaza. As an entertainment product, this movie is exactly as advertised: the Irish rockers filmed in concert, projected in three dimensions hugely against IMAX’s signature concave screen.

It’s not an unentertaining film, I’ll admit, though there was certainly more than enough of Bono’s hammy gestural histrionics to make me glad it only ran about ninety minutes long. I guess it helped that I knew all of the songs, too, but the real attraction — the only reason I was tempted enough to travel all the way uptown on a Monday for it — was the buzz I’d heard about this movie being a visual breakthrough.

Even Better Than the 2D Thing

And it very much is a visual breakthrough. “U2 3D” is a truly impressive use of three-dimensional technology, brought to life by the co-directors Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington, with the help of stereoscopic specialists 3ality Digital. There are shots I’d never seen before in any kind of movie, especially those of the enormous crowd in the Argentinean stadium where the show was shot. You’ve never seen a concert movie until you’ve seen a three-dimensional camera render an endless sea of fans, their ecstatic bodies undulating in waves around U2’s ridiculously vain stage set. (As an aside, there is an unintentionally ironic quality at work when the band’s lead singer, Bono, is projected fifty tall and pushed right into the audience’s faces; he’s never looked quite so short before.)

As a kind of sensation candy then, it delivers. More than that even, this movie is very much a suggestion of what blockbuster cinema might look like in the not-too-distant future: overwhelmingly immersive and tactically complex in the way home theaters can never be. There’s a tremendous amount of visual innovation throughout the movie — not all of it successful, but enough of it is sufficiently novel as to raise the stakes for concert movies going forward.

How to Dismantle an IMAX Movie

It got me thinking, though, about the nature of how we innovate. One of the things I kept thinking while I was watching “U2 3D” was what a shame it was that only a band as big as U2 could get their hands on this technology. More to the point, it’s unfortunate that very few directors can tap the kind of capital necessary to experiment on the giant canvas of three-dimensional IMAX.

In many ways, a concert experience as ridiculously scaled as what U2 can create is an ideal use of this medium, and the filmmakers, for the most part, don’t squander their opportunity. But at the same time, wouldn’t it be interesting to see how 3D IMAX might interpret less hyperbolic subject matter? Or, more to the point, what could a director like Spike Jonze do with the same tools? Or someone even further afield from popcorn fare, like a Pedro Almodóvar? Hell, I’d like to see Woody Allen play in this space.

Priced by the Foot

As Web designers we’re lucky, I suppose, that for the medium we work in, the tools that enable technological innovation are largely affordable. Say what you will about the price tag hanging off an Adobe Creative Suite 3 box, but relative to what it takes to shoot a film or create some special effects, it’s well within reach. Many of the tools we value most are in fact free. The medium requires very little for a young artist to get up and running; experimentation is largely a product of personal ambition and not of capital resources.

That’s good, right? On the other hand, it would also seem to confine us to a modest corner of artistry. Some amazing and far-reaching experiences are possible within digital design, to be sure. But vanishingly few of them will ever have the scale of 3D IMAX; it may take a lot of money and reputation to get to paint on that canvas, but once you’re painting on it, boy. You’re fifty feet tall.

  1. Super stoked about this movie (and hopefully new theater experience)! I am an admitted U2 fanboy, though.

    Do you really think the technology will always be limited to huge rock bands, though? I would think Spike Jonze and Woody Allen could be using this stuff in the not-so-distant future, no?

    Or maybe you mean as first/early adopters… maybe the barriers to entry in this bleeding edge playing field are just way too high to incorporate groundbreaking vision or art AND commercial appeal. Hmmm.

  2. Don’t get me started! CS3 is a rip off big time. And double the price here in Europe. Adobe monopoly – Boo hiss!

    As for U2, though I’m Irish i’ve always hated their muzak, ‘cept for the actung baby/zooropa stuff – that was genuinely innovative. Their last few albums have been dreary as hell.

  3. Meh. U2’s later stuff has been largely uninspired, and I’m less inclined to listen or purchase any of their music at all since their manager came out against the Safe Harbor provision of the DMCA: Link

    In essence, U2 (or whomever is managing the band’s assets) wants every piece of traffic on the internet monitored so they (and, by extension, the very profitable music-selling establishment) can make even more money. At the expense of free transfer of information across the net, of course.

    Universal monitoring of internet traffic is, for lack of a better word, doubleplusungood.

  4. 3D IMAX and other creative technologies of its scale will eventually find their way into the hands of artists on a budget, just as traditional filmmaking did. Even “low budget” independent films were prohibitively expensive to make as little as ten years ago, but the digital revolution changed that significantly (and quickly). The seemingly exponential pace of technological innovation suggests that our friends and neighbors will be making their own 3D IMAX movies soon enough—but not before something better comes along. 🙂

  5. On the subject, not of visual breakthroughs but rather “rock movies,” I recently purchased a DVD of Jonathan Demme’s classic Talking Heads movie, “Stop Making Sense.” I saw it perhaps 20 times in the 1980s when a theatre in Harvard Square was running it every Sunday night for several years running, and never got tired of it even though I wasn’t particularly a fan of Talking Heads’ music. It’s just that it was a great piece of film, and the slow buildup from just David Byrne onstage (with guitar and boombox…not that the boombox was actually playing anything in reality but it was a good prop) to the full touring band when they got to Burning Down the House rivals the excitement that you might get from, oh, I dunno, watching Steve Jobs at the 2007 Macworld Expo when he introduced the iPhone. 😉

    Anyway, it’s a brilliant movie, and the DVD version has the added fun of running commentary from David Byrne, Jonathan Demme, and others. Byrne’s self-conscious weirdness grates after awhile, but overall it’s a documentary of a bunch of talented people having the time of their lives onstage; you get the sense that their joy is real rather than manufactured for the show, and no matter how many times I’ve seen it I still find it uplifting. And I’m still not a fan of their music.

  6. in a strange and (maybe uninteresting) parallel, earlier today before reading this blog and without knowing about this film (i live in london) i downloaded their ‘War’ album, which i havent listened to for like 10-12 years. what a great album, and one I had totally forgotten. it was like being 17 again.

  7. I truly appreciate this post, Khoi. With recent innovations in 3D projection being embraced by Disney/Pixar (I saw Meet the Robinsons in 3D and it was spectacular, even on the relatively smaller non-IMAX screen), I don’t see traditional filmmakers being that far removed from the capital required for such projects, especially from independent producers. Sure, it’s much easier to do with a virtual camera, but stereoscopic camera work can’t be too far off when directors like Robert Rodriguez have already embraced the handheld, HD, prosumer camcorder for feature films and getting great results. Getting the major studios to fund such projects, however, will be the big hurdle. Hopefully this film will show them that there is profit to be made on their higher initial investment. I, for one, would love to see a trip to the theater once again become an experience you can’t get at home.

  8. Hello Khoi. I really enjoy reading your blog. Your posts and links incessantly remind me that flawless nerdiness can actually be a reflection of our innocence. At least that is what I like to tell myself. Anyway, I guess we all need sites like this to stay sane. U2 is actually a favorite group of mine, maybe because of the fact that they represent my naive childhood. Interestingly enough, I was recently surprised by a hippie Czech priest playing ‘One’ at a friends’ baptism. He pulled it off quite well. Even through his thick accent I kept thinking to myself: This guy is cooler than I am…

  9. I think that in the area of film/motion there is still a very distinct separation between amateur and professional and the budget disparity that goes along with that. It’s harder to see someone spending the money invest in an equivalent experience-shifting website because it seems like so much on the web is done to be “good enough” or often done by somebody who just picked up Dreamweaver on the side.

    I’m not complaining at all, but I find the parallel you draw very interesting.

    Most companies don’t see films or ads made in iMovie by amateurs as commercially viable ways to connect with their customers, but that’s precisely what they’re doing with their web experience and they don’t even realize it.

  10. Tell us honestly, for all the millions of dollars that went into the cameras and paying u2 and building the fancy imax theater, was it really more awesome than 5 minutes of this.

    (Agreed, “Stop Making Sense” is the best concert film ever.)

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.