Pre-Facebook 360-Degree Video: Disney’s CircleVision, Or How I Fell In Love With China

It’s happened on numerous occasions lately, I wake up, and the first thing I do in my groggy, half-aware state is reach for my phone. Facebook is usually one of my first stops, and starting in 2015 (http://www.popsci.com/facebook-and-oculus-are-bringing-360deg-video-to-your), a new feature made confused, early-morning me even more confused. I was looking at a video of some event, live-streamed. Much to my shock, as I moved my phone in my hands, the video appeared to move. I realized that I could hold the phone in any direction, at any angle, and see what was going on at the event – I had full, 360 degree views of this stream. When I realized what I was seeing, I wondered – how is this possible on an iPhone? On Facebook? And it’s streamed live? It reminded me of my first exposure to 360 video, one of a different kind. This being the CircleVision technology at the World Showcase Pavilion at EPCOT, in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

World Showcase is a series of experiences where park-goers get to experience different countries’ landmarks, food, customs and cultures in various pavilions. Some countries represented include Canada, Japan, Mexico, Norway, and China. Canada and China’s pavilions both boast CircleVision experiences, a large format movie presentation technology used for the attractions O, Canada! and Reflections of China, which both run all day in their respective pavilions at World Showcase.

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Both take place in large, rounded rooms, with nine screens mounted high on the wall in a circle. In between each screen is a projector aimed at a screen across the room, and because there are screens all the way around the room, the CircleVision films are viewed while standing up. There are railings along the theaters for viewers to lean against, and in some cases, hold on to (it’s easy to get dizzy when spinning around to try and catch what’s happening on the screens all around you). CircleVision is Disney’s version of circular viewing, first appearing at the 1900 Paris Exposition, that technology being Cinéorama. After this, there was Krugovaya Kinopanorama in Russia, using 11 cameras (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circle-Vision_360°#Earlier_systems).

The difference between the CircleVision experience and the 360 videos of today in VR and on Facebook is how the viewer interacts with the viewing environment. With CircleVision, the video content is in a fixed position, projected all around the wall. With VR and Facebook, the viewer controls the placement of the screen and the viewing angle of the content. The CircleVision viewer still has control of what he or she sees, but that decision consists of which fixed screen to look at, and the viewer can’t move the screens, or what’s on them. In both cases, the viewer has agency and thus, viewing these two varieties of 360 degree video is more of a participatory act than a spectatorial experience.

I vividly remember my first CircleVision experience – it floored me, and was my first non-traditional film-viewing format. I first saw it with Reflections of China at a young age, and before then already had a massive interest in China. After that first time, I was riveted, and thus began a true love of, and fascination with China. Being surrounded by the Great Wall, the Yangtze, and taking in the massive height of the Three Gorges Dam in the CircleVision format, all images larger than life and fully immersive in their presentation further ignited a passion to travel to China, a dream I’ve held close to my heart ever since, and a dream that came true in May of 2016, when a class brought me to four cities in China over the course of two weeks. I was able to stand on the Great Wall and take in the views I’d previously seen in CircleVision, when I hoped I’d one day get to see the real thing. The visceral impact that CircleVision had on me is proof of the magnitude of experience that 360 degree video, paired with large format projection, can provide. While 360 video on a smartphone is cool, there is certainly merit to presentation in the theatrical environment, and while proliferation of such technologies for the home is on the horizon, we cannot forget about what theater viewing environments offer, something that home viewing never can.

‘Steve Jobs,’ ‘Love & Mercy’ and ‘Jackie’ – Juxtaposing Differing Visual Capture Formats to Transcend the Conventions of the Biopic

Examining the use of technology in film is a hobby and fascination of mine, and has been for years. In research, or even casual observation of the intersection of film and technology, much to-do is made about how technologies are applied to film. Before there can be discussion of technologies applied to a film, whether in post-production or otherwise, there is a decision made by the filmmakers that affects both the production workflow and the look and feel of a film enormously – this decision is how the film will be captured, or, instead of which technology will be applied to a film, which technology will be used to capture a film. With digital being the norm in today’s feature film landscape, shooting on film sets a given project apart from the rest of the pack, and results in a work that looks distinctly different from the majority of the films in the marketplace, as evidenced by the infographic below, from film researcher Stephen Follows (https://stephenfollows.com/film-vs-digital/). screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-5-55-01-pm

As of 2015, just 20% of the top 100 US-grossing films were shot on film, compared to near 90% being shot digitally. The key distinction here is that these are top grossing, Hollywood studio pictures – with directors the likes of J.J. Abrams, Christopher Nolan, and Steven Spielberg – they can demand film capture, and no one can deny them, but these are the biggest films, imagine a more dire outlook for indies that need to save pennies wherever they can. The cheaper workflow offered by digital leads to a much bigger disparity in the digital to film ratio of low to micro budget indies.

Moving beyond the decision to shoot on film, there is the matter of deciding which film stock to shoot on. 35mm film or 16mm film are the two options filmmakers tend to weigh when embarking on a project, and what I aim to do below is to explore what is gained in the selection of a shooting format, in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (2015), Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy (2014), and Pablo Larraín’s Jackie (2016). Beyond the simple choice to shoot on film, these films use more than one capture format within each – this allows them to create juxtapositions using the visual textures of the mediums at hand. Each film is, in essence, a biopic. Boyle’s film is the story of the titular Apple genius, Pohlad’s film is the story of The Beach Boys’ lead, Brian Wilson, and Larraín’s film focuses on former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. The juxtapositions created within the films by the usage of different capture formats allow for the films to transcend the narrative potential of a biopic, crisscrossing or skipping through periods within the films’ subjects’ lives, through a visual means. Shooting on film in the first place is a distinguishing aesthetic mark on a film, but it is these films’ combination of capture formats that imbues them with the ability to convey not just unconventional narratives, in a sense of literary design, but also in the sense of visual experience.

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Fassbender as Jobs in three acts – source: https://www.wired.com/2015/10/steve-jobs-danny-boyle-interview/

Each film’s shooting formats have a transportive quality, one that moves the viewer through time, during each of the films. Beginning with Steve Jobs, Boyle and DP Alwin H. Küchler made the decision to mirror the structure of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for the film with their capture format decisions. The film is shot in three different formats, one for each distinct act of the screenplay, each act joining Jobs and those around him as they prepare for a product launch. The first, and earliest portion of the film, was shot on 16mm film – depicting 1984 before an event for the Macintosh. Act 2 was shot on 35mm film, depicting the 1988 NeXT Computer launch, and then act 3, leading up to the launch of the iMac, is shot digitally, on the Arri Alexa. This creates three distinct visual looks, and as the film progresses, the visuals get clearer and cleaner. Where aspect ratio is concerned, the film conforms the footage from each of its sections to scope, resulting in cropping of the 16mm material. The 16mm material is soft, gritty and grainy, while the 35 material has a much stronger, robust and uniform look. The Alexa material is, unsurprisingly, crystal clear. Examining this in tandem with the content of the film itself, Jobs is played by the same actor, Michael Fassbender, throughout. He ages before our eyes, via makeup and hair, this helps delineate which time period we are in visually, and is aided by the use of the three different capture formats. Underscoring the use of each format for each period is the notion that each format is actually period appropriate, linking the look of each section to technology that would be used to capture events of the time in reality.

With Pohlad’s film, Love & Mercy chronology is not conformed to in any way. Further separating it from Boyle’s film, two actors play the film’s subject, Brian Wilson – these two being Paul Dano, as the younger Wilson, and John Cusack, as the older Wilson. The film is shot with 16mm and 35mm film, 16 for the earlier portions and 35 for the latter portions. While the actors playing Brian Wilson make it easy to determine which time period the film is depicting, as it bounces around throughout, this is further aided by the vast difference in texture of both formats. Where Boyle’s film allows the viewer to adjust to a texture throughout an entire act of his film, Pohlad’s film abruptly moves between the two time periods, thus leading to jarring shifts in visual texture. Pohlad’s film also integrates period footage with originally shot footage, meant to mimic the period footage, thus making it appear as though Paul Dano and co. are actually the 60s boyband, in pseudo-documentary footage. The film’s opening credit sequence is a good example of this. See this clip from the film, starting in the film’s later period with Elizabeth Banks, then moving back in time with Paul Dano, then moving into Wilson’s mind as he puts together a song, and note the different visual textures within.

The actual footage from the period needs no manipulation, and the 16mm footage shot for the film is processed to make it look as though it fits within the period – separating these moments from the rest of the films 16mm material. There are also black & white, pillar-boxed moments, meant to simulate home movie footage. Combined with the film’s 35mm footage, there are five varieties of textures in the film, derived from two kinds of film stock, thus allowing for two time periods, flashbacks within the periods, the illusion of different sources, and hallucinatory sequences to each maintain a distinct visual flavor within one cohesive work. With the exception of the black and white material, the film’s aspect ratio is conformed to 1.78:1, or conventional 16×9. This aids the film in its ability to bridge gaps between times and sources of footage, as it abets the cohesiveness of the film’s visuals, via a consistent aspect ratio – when this is contradicted by the black & white material, it is for the purpose of distinguishing the home movie footage, shot for the film with Dano and the rest of the actors playing the band members. Like with Steve Jobs, Love & Mercy’s different textures and capture formats allow it to skip through time, but unlike Steve Jobs, in a non-chronological fashion. Thus, the use of the various textures and capture formats allow both films to transcend conventional approaches taken by the biopic – while the script may call for unique combinations or treatments of time periods in the narrative, these aesthetic choices amp up the films’ abilities to live up to and convey the narratives of these scripts.

Pablo Larraín’s film, Jackie, takes a different approach to non-chronological narrative. The film jumps around time the most of the three films covered herein, but the window of time it works within is smaller than Steve Jobs or Love & Mercy. Unlike the other films, Jackie does not switch shooting formats for its shifts in time, partly because its jumps through time encompass smaller time intervals. Like in Steve Jobs, the titular character of Jackie is played by the same person throughout, Natalie Portman. With this film, the shift in format is when the film depicts the shooting of A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, originally aired on February 14, 1962. The film was shot on 16mm, and retains that format’s aspect ratio of 1.66:1, allowing it to stand out sharply from other films shot in nearly every other format, those which retain the various permutations of scope or CinemaScope, bearing aspect ratios like 2.35:1 or 2.40:1. The texture and grain offered by 16mm, like in Steve Jobs and Love & Mercy allows it to feel as though it was actually captured within the period it depicts. It is useful that it looks like film shot in 60s, then, as some actual source footage from the period is integrated into the film, sometimes only in brief snippets. The film’s director, Larraín, narrates the clip below, explaining how actual shots from the tour were integrated into the film’s version of the tour.

NY Times – Anatomy of a Scene – ‘Jackie’

With the tour, we encounter the film’s main instance of shifts in visual capture format. The tour bits shot for the film were shot in a pillar-boxed frame, in black & white, on video. Per the film’s cinematographer, Stephen Fontaine, “in order to match the specific look of the [tour] footage we used an old tri-tube camera Pablo [Larraín] brought in from Chile” (James – http://nofilmschool.com/2016/12/cinematographer-stephane-fontaine-lenses-emotional-journey-jackie). The shift from color to black & white, 1.66:1 to 1.33:1, and film to video all clearly indicate what is tour footage and what is not. As Portman plays Jackie giving the tour, the cuts from what the tour camera is capturing to what the film’s main camera is capturing are certainly jarring and combine two distinct visuals, but the underlying effect achieved does what the visual choices made by Steve Jobs and Love & Mercy do – they amplify the core of the film’s narrative through a visual means, in this case, the tricky balance (or lack thereof) between private and public life, performance, persona and “reality” during JFK’s presidency, and time before, during, and after his assassination, all from the perspective of Jackie. During the White House tour, what is shown in color and not being filmed for the tour includes Jackie’s assistant and confidant, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), coaching Jackie as she at times struggles with maintaining her composed, on-camera demeanor. This places the viewer in the period, allowing us to experience both what television audiences saw then, and what they wouldn’t have seen. The juxtaposition offered by the two visual capture methods then underscores what is happening in the film’s screenplay. The function of this juxtaposition, while different in how it is implemented, is similar in its net effect, albeit more focused on public and private life, compared to traveling between time periods.

It says a lot about a filmmaker when he or she chooses to shot on film, as it is so against the grain in terms of the look of the majority of films made today, likewise, it alters the workflow. Away goes the instant playbacks at video village, and being able to beam dailies to iPads via apps like Pix – with film, dailies have to be processed and screened. Film processing in general takes more time, and with the need to purchase, carry, load and reload film mags, there is just more effort when it comes to shooting on film. While choosing to capture on film does say a lot about a filmmaker, it says even more when the choice is made to use more than one format for a film, and thus the creative teams behind Steve Jobs, Love & Mercy and Jackie all have a clear commitment to telling the stories of their films not just by what is put on screen, but by how the films are put onscreen, in how they are captured and presented. Using more than one format, any combination of 16mm and 35mm film, video, and digital capture allow each of the films to juxtapose time periods and aspects of life, thus allowing the films in question to transcend the conventional biopic, whether electing to present a portrait of one’s life chronologically, or non-chronologically. As Steve Jobs’ director Danny Boyle says, the objective in depicting Jobs in that film was to present “a portrait…rather than a photograph” (Zorthian – http://time.com/4012107/steve-jobs-movie-aaron-sorkin-interview/). Each film presents a portrait of their subjects, and in choosing the various visual textures within each work, numerous portraits of the films’ subjects are able to come through.

A Tiny Camera From Blackmagic That Packs A Wallop

The introduction of digital capture to what was once a celluloid world has had numerous, far-reaching effects on what can be creatively and technically achieved by filmmakers. Digital video, upon first use, allowed significantly cheaper, more mobile productions to be undertaken, and along with them came a distinct look, often used to achieve a certain visual aesthetic. Anthony Dod Mantle was one of the earliest DPs to embrace this, on films with directors Thomas Vinterberg (Festen) and Danny Boyle (28 Days Later…). The real lynchpin of digital capture came when George Lucas made Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in 1999.

His DP, David Tattersall, shot on 35mm, but Lucas was dissatisfied with the results. The film was comprised of innumerable digital VFX shots, which had to be integrated into traditionally shot bits of film. This led to the development of High Definition, digital cameras, on which an entire film could be shot. The resultant work was Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. The digital effects would be married to digitally captured performances and sets, and the result was much more visually seamless, and efficient for the production. The trickle down effect of this is the mass proliferation of digital capture, eliminating the need to carry, load, and buy film mags, and with this, digital cameras have gotten smaller, cheaper, and are enabling more filmmakers to make things on their own terms over time.

With that, we come to one of the more recently emerged players in the digital capture market, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, from video technology manufacturer Blackmagic. I only recently first heard about their system, when reading about its use by DP Slawomir Idziak, on the film which saw Natalie Portman make her feature directing and writing debut, while starring – A Tale of Love and Darkness. Idziak has a large body of work, consisting of films shot in his native Poland, and then there are the films I know him for, like David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Andrew Niccol’s remarkable debut, Gattaca (Have you seen it? If the answer is anything but yes, see it now!). Idziak is not opposed to adapting to new technologies for capturing imagery, and “believes that utilizing modern storytelling techniques in contemporary filmmaking today is essential, particularly if a DP wants to get the best possible scene coverage, in the fewest possible shots.” – (http://www.moviescopemag.com/insiderspov/shooting-natalie-portmans-directorial-debut-on-the-pocket-cinema-camera/).

Idziak discusses how, even on a film with Portman’s star-power behind it, time and money was limited. Having a nimbler camera like the BMPCC on hand allowed for Idziak to get more coverage of scenes without needing to set up another take with the ARRI Alexas used as A cam. “The compact dimensions of the Blackmagic camera allowed us to set up a shot, and position cameras within said shot that were out of sight, giving us access to unique perspectives and angles. There are also several dynamic scenes in the film where the size and weight allowed us to use the camera in a way, which would have otherwise been difficult with traditional cameras” (http://www.moviescopemag.com/insiderspov/shooting-natalie-portmans-directorial-debut-on-the-pocket-cinema-camera/).

With a camera as compact as the BMPCC, quality will no doubt be of concern. The film also features lots of color manipulation, for dreary dream scenes and other moments. Idziak and his department were pleasantly surprised to find that, when comparing Alexa-shot footage to BMPCC footage, “no one in the room could distinguish what had been shot with the Blackmagic camera, and what hadn’t” (http://www.moviescopemag.com/insiderspov/shooting-natalie-portmans-directorial-debut-on-the-pocket-cinema-camera/).

The compact nature of the BMPCC has led to its use, increasingly so, in major Hollywood productions. It isn’t the first time such technology has been used on feature films, remember those GoPro shots in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug? Who could forget them, because the quality was abysmal. This was in stark contrast to the rest of the film’s vibrant, striking imagery. The key to the BMPCC working well on larger productions is that it doesn’t cause a drop-off in image quality, allowing productions like Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur remake, Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne, and the short-lived CBS TV remake of Rush Hour to make use of it, in conjunction with the high-end capture systems they are already running.

Ultron DP Ben Davis commended the BMPCC, saying that both the quality of its captured image, and small size, allowed it to be used in ways that would endanger normal cameras, without compromising the film’s lush visuals (I view Ultron as one of the visually strongest Marvel films). “There are two large battle sequences in particular during the film, the first is at the beginning and the second features in the third act, and we very much wanted these to be shot as a war correspondent would cover news in a conflict zone. What we needed was a lightweight camera that we could then distribute around the set during the filming of battle sequences that would give us more than twelve frames of good quality HD material that we could match with our main camera package” (http://nofilmschool.com/2015/05/avengers-age-ultron-was-shot-partly-blackmagic-pocket-cinema-cameras). The camera can, in essence, be crashed along with cars, and jostled about while handheld, enabling DPs to get exciting, dynamic, and unconventional shots during action-sequence havoc. This is no doubt what the BMPCC allowed for on the Barry Ackroyd-shot Jason Bourne, as well.

The BMPCC has been used to shoot shorts, even a feature – the Sundance film from 2015, Diego Ongaro’s Bob and the Trees. The BMPCC “allow[ed] them to plunge through snowdrifts and woodlots to capture the actors in the precarious process of cutting timber” (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/bob-trees-sundance-review-764732). With further use in more and more films, and to shoot entire films, the BMPCC will no doubt continue to expand the possibilities of directors and cinematographers to achieve unique shots and sequences. With the quality of the captured image stacking up to ARRI and other systems, it’s safe to say the BMPCC will be a player in the digital capture game for a long time to come.