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Good Movies, Bad Formats

If you want to make a movie, you’ve got to choose your formats. Will you shoot on top-of-the-line digital cinema cameras? How about shooting on film? Will you shoot in 3D, IMAX, or IMAX 3D? Maybe you’ll just shoot it with your smartphone. Maybe you’ll mix and match. Blair Witch director Adam Wingard did exactly that, combining several different formats to achieve the film’s signature look.

One of the characters in Blair Witch even uses the same camera (a Panasonic camcorder) that Wingard used to shoot his earlier film, A Horrible Way to Die. But if you’ve seen any footage from Blair Witch, you know that no matter how many different camera formats went into the movie, the result has to look appropriately rough, dark, and shaky. That’s just part of the found footage aesthetic. But despite recent critical pushback against found footage, early reviews for the film are mostly positive. That gets me thinking — what other good movies have used crummy formats?

The Blair Witch Project

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It had to look real. If directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez had any hopes of pulling off the magic trick of The Blair Witch Project, then it had to look real. There couldn’t be any gloss or unnatural convenience. And because the cameras were physical objects in the story, even casual viewers would call the look of the film into question.

Myrick and Sanchez decided on two formats for The Blair Witch Project: one crummy and one not-so-crummy. They shot all of the color b-roll footage on Hi-8 video, a home camcorder format. Unsurprisingly, it looks — how to put this nicely — like junk. That’s not really a problem, though. The look works exactly as it’s supposed to. The ill-fated crew shot their documentary footage on 16mm black and white Kodak stock, which isn’t an inherently ugly format. But boy, put a 16mm camera in the hands of an untrained actor and make ’em run full tilt through the woods in the middle of the night, and the result will look ugly enough to make your audience sick.

How the West Was Won

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Three cameras, three projectors, and a deeply curved screen. Welcome to the nightmare that is three-strip Cinerama. The format was such a huge pain in the ass that only a handful of major motion pictures ever used it. The only picture of any lasting notability is How the West Was Won, the 1962 western epic. Directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall, the film is a who’s who of American western masters.

But the troublesome three-strip format involved three 35mm cameras rigged together with a single synchronized shutter. The final composite image was so dizzyingly wide that close-ups weren’t all that close. It also meant sets had to be enormous. What’s more, the pronounced curve of the screen interfered with the staging of scenes. The actors’ eye lines just wouldn’t match up if you projected on a flat screen — even after you’d painstakingly positioned and focused all the projectors and synchronized every frame. But because of its notoriously finicky format, How the West Was Won is a monolith of cinema. After it left theaters, three-strip’s idiosyncrasies made the movie tough to watch, despite several meticulous restorations. The eventual solution: a “smilebox” Blu-ray that simulated the curved Cinerama experience.

28 Days Later…

28 Days Later is a defining film of the 21st century. After revolutionizing the zombie genre, the film still holds up better than its horde of imitators. Cillian Murphy gave a breakout performance that showed an immense range. Naomie Harris was no slouch either, playing a hardened survivor with a delicate touch. It may not be a prestige film, it’s one of the best works in director Danny Boyle or writer Alex Garland’s careers. And yet, even with all the acclaim, you still might be thinking: why does 28 Days Later look so weird?

The look is part of what makes the movie so indelible. Boyle decided to shoot the film on MiniDV, a low-resolution tape format intended for home and amateur use. As a result, the film is uniquely hyperreal or intimate. Boyle also chose the format for its ease — it shortened his setup times. The simpler camera rig allowed the crew to minimize the amount of time spent holding up traffic in London.

Tangerine

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I’d rather eat a carburetor than watch this movie again, but director Sean Baker’s Tangerine impressed all the right people. It’s a bona fide festival darling that captures funny and heartbreaking truths about its characters. Set on Christmas in Los Angeles, the story follows an eventful day in the lives of two trans women sex workers. And if you watched the film knowing nothing more than that, you’d probably never guess Baker shot the entire thing with iPhones.

The production used three iPhones (5S, if you must know) fitted with Moondog Anamorphic lenses. The iPhone format imposes a lot of restrictions: poor low-light performance, bad dynamic range, no control over depth-of-field, limited control of focus, yadda yadda. But despite those limitations, Tangerine looks leagues ahead of many amateur productions shot on prosumer or professional cameras. Granted, some of the movie’s interior scenes suffer. But given how amazing much of Tangerine looks, I’d say Sean Baker turned a crummy format into a strength.

The Hobbit Trilogy

Peter Jackson‘s Middle-Earth prequel trilogy is divisive among fans. Critics weren’t over the moon for the Hobbit trilogy, but the consensus seems to be that the movies are just fine. I don’t agree, but hey — it’s not all about me. But between fans, critics, and me, I think most of us can agree that these movies look weird.

Sure, many of the computer-generated effects don’t hold up, but that doesn’t have much to do with format. Jackson and his crew shot the movies on RED EPIC digital cameras, in native 3D. That means the camera rig held two cameras: one for the left eye, one for the right. But shooting The Hobbit in 3D presented many problems that the Lord of the Rings movies didn’t have. Many of the size-related effects in the earlier trilogy were accomplished with forced perspective. With the help of some clever trickery, Frodo and Gandalf could both be on the same set, in the same shot.

But forced perspective only works if you’re shooting in 2D. If you look at the illusion from a slightly different angle, it falls apart. So in the first Hobbit, Ian McKellen couldn’t sit at the same table with Bilbo and the dwarves at Bag End. Much of his performance had to be shot separately because his character is so much bigger than a dwarf or a hobbit. So they plunked him in front of a crude, downscaled green screen replica, alone. The difficulty of acting like this reduced him to tears one day. You can see it on the extended edition Blu-ray — the poor guy is miserable, all because they just had to shoot these movies in 3D.

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As if that wasn’t hard enough, Jackson also decided to shoot the film at 48 frames per second. Therefore, his cameras captured twice as many still images in one second of footage than a standard motion picture. That also meant the visual effects were more costly, because the effects companies had to render twice as many frames of every single effect. When the films came out, only a relative handful of cinemas were capable of projecting the movie in their native 48 FPS. But those who saw the films in their native format weren’t exactly impressed.

The Hobbit‘s 48 frames per second cinematography overwhelmingly reminds me of a public broadcast television program…” — Wesley Fenlon, Tested.com

“It’s like being on a film set in person: all of the magic is lost.” — Vincent Laforet, Gizmodo.com

“[The] extra visual detail gives the entire film a sickly sheen of fakeness: the props look embarrassingly proppy and the rubber noses look a great deal more rubbery than nosey.” — Robbie Collin, The Telegraph

The Hobbit films, though they have their charms, aren’t elevated by their format. How the West Was Won, though its three-strip format made production difficult, is a terrific marvel of widescreen cinema. None of the films on this list ever let their formats become invisible. Instead, the audience is forced to engage with how different the films look from your average movie. Sometimes that engagement works to a film’s benefit. Sometimes it’s terribly distracting. But for found footage movies like Blair Witch, choosing the right format is absolutely crucial to the suspension of disbelief.


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