Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ibn Battuta: Beyond Cinedome

The more time I spend messing around with movies, the more I fall in love with the tried and trusted format of a nice, simple 16:9 aspect ratio 2D film, on a screen that fills my field of vision without overwhelming it. Too often, I find that alternative formats don't tell the story as well. They're gimmicks, beloved of film-makers, and the films made with them exist primarily to show off the format, not to tell a story.

I've said my piece about 3D. Today, it's the turn of the ultra-big screen. On Monday, I went to the Dr Phillips CineDome in the Orlando Science Center, which claims to be "the world's largest Iwerks domed theater and Digistar II planetarium, with 28,000 watts of digital sound." The screen is 8 storeys high, and it's like sitting inside half an eggshell. Walking into it is a bizarre experience, as it makes you feel slightly nauseous. The roof is a long, long way above you, and the shape of the dome utterly screws with your sense of perspective. You climb what feels like several flights of stairs to your seat, sit back, and wonder where to look.

We'd come to see Ibn Battuta's Journey to Mecca, a documentary based on the travels of the famous 14th century Moroccan explorer. Ibn Battuta's always been a hero of mine, and I've always been fascinated by the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim should make once in a lifetime. This documentary, narrated by Ben Kingsley, retraces his journey, and combines it with footage shot inside the Great Mosque, something which I will never be allowed to see in person. Let me just quote the introduction to the movie:
Ibn Battuta, the famed 14th century Moroccan traveler, set out in 1325 from his native Tangier on an epic journey to Mecca, the historical and cultural center of Islam. By the time he returned 29 years later, he had traveled the world from West Africa, Spain and India to China and the Maldives, covering some 75,000 miles and three times further than Marco Polo. At the instigation of the Sultan of Morocco, Ibn Battuta dictated his reminiscences, which became one of the world’s most famous travel books, The Rihla.
Journey to Mecca is an IMAX® dramatic and documentary feature, filmed in Saudi Arabia and Morocco in both English and Arabic, with background Berber. The film tells the amazing story of Ibn Battuta, the greatest explorer of the Old World, following his first pilgrimage between 1325 and 1326 from Tangier to Mecca. His perilous journey resonates with adventure while presenting an unforgettable picture of Islamic civilization during the 14th century, culminating with Battuta’s first Hajj.
The story is book-ended by a close-up look at the contemporary Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca that draws three million Muslims from around the world every year who perform rituals that have taken place for over 1,400 years.
The Hajj, the longest running congregation of humans annually on planet earth, is definitely a unique experience for the medium. For non-Muslims it is the closest they will ever come to witnessing this extraordinary event, and for Muslims it takes on an even deeper significance.
In terms of the content, this was a fascinating, engrossing, and beautiful film. However, I would have preferred it as a straightforward documentary. I spent most of the movie wondering where to look: in front of me, to my left, to my right, straight up? I felt overwhelmed. If you want to show me the planets or deep sea, then sure, overwhelm me. And yes, the shots of the desert worked really well. But the shots of people didn't. I don't need to see a face forty feet high to pick up the emotion it's conveying. The result was that instead of feeling part of what was going on, I felt distanced and uninvolved. Unlike a TV screen, which you look at, or a cinema screen, which you look into (to quote veteran film editor Walter Murch), you look around a dome. You can't possibly take it all in, and you're aware that something's always happening out of your field of view. The skill of the film-maker is to direct your view to the most important thing on the screen. In a dome, you're in control where you look, and the chances are you're looking in the wrong place - or, which is just as bad - you feel you're looking in the wrong place.

Worse than that, the camera angles were unbearably strange. Every shot seemed to be a tracking helicopter shot, trying to show me huge vistas, panning over everything. The image was always in motion. To show a caravan plodding through the desert, we started on a shot of the ground, swung upwards onto a person, along a line of people, then up, up, until we could see just how many there were, then - BAM! - back onto another detail, pulling out, and swooshing the camera around. The effect was disorienting and incoherent, and, frankly, not nearly as effective as similar shots in Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible or Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. When you get close into a crowd, the effect of the dome is that you have the tops of people's heads above you and all about you, as if they're standing on the walls and the ceiling. If you're looking at the side of the image, the distortion when it starts to move is quite unnerving, and you start to wonder if someone's spiked your drink with something.

The whole point of a surround screen is that you can move your head - the cameraman doesn't need to be your eyes in the same way he would in a normal screen film. Moving the camera is like moving the world, and your audience can't settle when you're shifting the world around.

The overall impression I came away with was that they were so focused on trying to make use of the sheer scale of the IMAX format that they forgot they were trying to tell a story. IMAX works best when you want to awe people with the immensity of what you're showing them. Particularly in a dome, just show the audience something huge, hold the camera absolutely still for a while, and let them look around at their own speed, and take in the details of what they're most interested in while you talk to them about what they're seeing. They'll nudge each other and point out cool stuff. It's spectacle, not film as we know it.

There was a lot to like about Journey to Mecca, and I'm glad to have seen it. It was a real treat to see the shots of the Ka'bah, and the images of the desert were truly jaw-dropping. But on balance, it's a deeply flawed movie. The story sections, while interesting, simply didn't work on the giant dome screen, and the camerawork was way too busy for that size of screen. It leaves me wondering whether IMAX is suitable for anything other than nature documentaries. I suspect not.


Richard Grove said...

What a great post, Matt. My own experience of IMAX was similar to yours. Too bad they didn't spend more time on the documentary story of Ibn Battuta. He's such a fascinating figure. Perhaps the IMAX form doesn't work for standard documentary, but for subjects that benefit from heightened spectacle like Sharks or Volcanic eruptions. Telling a more complicated story may simply not work in IMAX form.

Really nice writing, Matt.

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