Monday, 31 December 2012

Hollywood Costume at the V&A

The Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A proved to be a great post-Christmas treat (runs until 27 January 2013), giving you the opportunity to rub shoulders where the rich and famous have already rubbed shoulders. Even for the casual movie fan there’s a real thrill in seeing Darth Vader’s original clunky costume or Audrey Hepburn’s LBD from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Arranged in three very different halls, the exhibition’s focus is not just on the costume itself (which is of course the centrepiece) but the work involved in producing it. And so we follow every step of the creative process from the initial script to discussions with the director and fittings with the star. At the end of the day, it IS ‘just’ a dress, but when you see what craft went into its journey to the screen you realise that this is no mean feat. Of note is Tippi Hedren’s plain green suit from Hitchcock’ The Birds. The suit is itself a well-designed piece of couture by Edith Head, but it’s only when you read (or watch one of the many video films running alongside the exhibits) about what it needed to represent, and how many different iterations were required, that you get the full appreciation.

Understandably, some of the costumes have fared better than others, with the most modern required to stand the scrutiny of high definition. Marilyn Monroe’s billowing dress (arguably the Mona Lisa of Hollywood costumes) is wisely stood behind a plexiglass screen, though others are available for you to lean in close – though clearly no touching or photography.

Personal highlights were inevitably Han Solo’s simple attire from Star Wars, Indiana Jones’ hat and bullwhip, Christopher Reeve’s ropey Superman suit and the modern gadgetry of Batman’s latest incarnation.

It’s no great surprise that the exhibition has been sold out on the most popular days – there’s plenty to see and it’s well-priced for London entertainment. The £25 catalogue is a bit steep (£35 for hardback) though is packed with plenty of glossy stills and designs. If you get the chance to see it before the end of January it’s well worth the trip. Even during our recent trip to Hollywood we didn’t see so many iconic exhibits in one place.
I passed on the Ballgowns exhibition which is also showing at the V&A – not really my thing. But what’s a bit worrying is the restrictions on viewing. Not only can you not touch or take photographs, you’re also forbidden from sketching. Bizarre. I’m sure that I could Google a good high quality image of any one of the exhibits. Is sketching such a risk? I wonder if you get a fully body search for pencils and then a memory wipe afterwards just in case you were tempted to rush out and furiously sketch what you’ve seen on the back of a napkin? Perhaps they could use the Memory Worm that was used to great effect in the Doctor Who Christmas Special. What do you mean you don’t remember it?

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

HFR and the Hobbit – What works best for you?

And so, it’s finally here – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And I wonder if J R R Tolkien would have expected that his slender tome would have endured such an unexpected journey from page to screen with such media attention. Quite apart from the last-minutes changes to the structure resulting in a three-picture epic rather than the previously planned duo, we now have to work out which format to go for. Many people have come up to me in recent days asking what the difference is between regular 3D and 3D HFR. And while I was able to explain the mechanics of what HFR was (essentially you get 48 different frames per second instead of 24) I couldn’t say which was best. Having seen the move in both formats, here’s my verdict.

Before I go into detail, let’s just park the whole 3D thing. I’m not a 3D fan – for every Avatar there’s a dozen Clash of the Titans cynically converted post-production so that the studios can justify adding a couple more quid to the ticket price. You get the occasional auteur like Ridley Scott who with Prometheus used the format to add depth, but for many directors there’s too much temptation to throw boobs or other objects at us (Piranha 3DD stand up!) So, yes, I don’t see 3D as the future of cinema, I’m looking forward to movies going flat again and I really do think it’s just a fad.  The 3D in The Hobbit is better than most – you get a real sense of 3D rather than the pop-up book layering used in some productions – Gandalf’s nose is particularly impressive. The New Zealand vistas are of course sumptuous, but did this movie NEED to be in 3D? Not really. But enough about that – what about the HFR?

To make a meaningful comparison between HFR and regular frame rate I decided to go to view the movie in IMAX and then HFR. As anticipated, IMAX was crisp, beautifully loud and delivered the goods. HFR, by comparison made the film look cheap. Comparisons with BBC studio-based costume dramas are spot-on. Imagine one of those BBC Narnia adaptations shot on video or outside broadcast units. It has its own look because that was the limitation of the technology.  To deliberately (what I see as) retrograde the picture does not endear this technology to me. It looks too clear but not in a filmic way. This isn’t a case that hi-def is spoiling the show – it’s more than that. HBO’s Game of thrones is shot in hi-def and yet it looks filmic, The Hobbit HFR looks like it was shot on video, but with amazing CGI effects. This is amplified in the scenes shot in Bilbo’s house, which make it feel even more like a cheap Channel 4 home improvement show (Hobbits under the hammer?). Exterior close-ups fare little better, with some of the movement just not scanning correctly. But it’s not all Mount Doom and gloom, as the sweeping vistas look great, the CGI of Erebor is very impressive, and even the Rivendell scenes are less of a distraction.

Ultimately it’s down to personal taste – I’ve spoken to others whose experience ranged from not noticing the difference to having a wretched night out. My tip is to go for IMAX if you can, or regular 3D digital. HFR is a well-intentioned curiosity and I welcome innovation. Sadly, I cannot de-programme what I consider a film should look like. The tech isn’t going to have to refine itself before I regard this as my format of choice.