Monday, January 10, 2011

Blu-Ray 3D Review: IMAX Space Station 3D

*For those of you not familiar with Blu-Ray 3D, this is the new Blu-Ray spec for 3D content that can be watched on 3DTV's, or in 2D on regular Blu-Ray players. Our Blu-Ray 3D reviews will cover the film, the use of 3D, and the quality of the Blu-Ray itself*

IMAX Space Station 3D is a medium-length documentary from 2002, directed by Toni Myers, with narration by Tom Cruise. Having a life-long fascination with space-stuff, I was very excited to watch this in all its glory.

The film follows the format of many IMAX documentaries; it lacks a strong dramatic tension, but brings you an unequaled look into the subject in a style and tone that can be enjoyed by young and old alike. The film shows some of the day-to-day of life in the International Space Station and the astronauts who work there. It starts with the astronauts training on Earth, follows them up to the station, where they assemble station parts and learn how to work and live with an international team in a confined space up above the Earth.

The stereoscopic imagery is awe-inspiring; you have a front-row seat into an experience you will never ever get to see in real life (unless you have a couple million bucks to spare, or happen to be an astronaut), with a camera specially designed for use by NASA. This was the first IMAX 3D film shot in space. Floating through the International Space Station in 3D was an experience unrivaled by any flat documentary. The cinematography was amazing, gorgeously shot on 65mm, in part by the astronauts themselves.

The sensation of immersion into the subject through the use of 3D greatly enhanced this documentary. The film makes great use of negative parallax (out-of-screen effects). Many recent Hollywood film use this effect minimally, as it's often seen as gimmicky in narrative films, but it works quite well for documentary subjects. Had this technique been used in Space Station 3D, it would look as though your TV was a window with the station inside it, instead of us being inside the space station. The IMAX camera the film was shot with has fixed lenses approximately the distance of the human eye apart, so while the depth is not nuanced in scenes or used with a dramatic arc to it, it accurately reproduces the geometry of scenes orthostereoscopically, exactly the way they would be seen it person. People and objects floating in the station look far more impressive in 3D, as they actually float out of the screen.

Still from Space Station 3D. Anaglyph by Eric Dubois
But the film could've used remastering for this release. Floating windows, which are unnecessary in a real IMAX theater where the edges are outside of the field of vision, are sorely needed on this. There are a few lens flares that appear in one eye and not the other. There's a bit of crosstalk sporadically through the film (due in part to high contrast imagery of ships against black space, and my first generation 3DTV). And the first 3 1/2 minutes of the disc are not in 3D. This would seem to be an error in the encoding, because in the middle of the same CG sequence that opens the film switches from 2D to 3D without any dramatic rhyme or reason to the abrupt transition. Multiple reviewers have mentioned this on

The menus are also confusing; it first prompts you to "Play 2D" or "Play 3D", which takes you the main menu in whichever dimension you selected, and then when pressing Play it prompts you again if you want 2D or 3D. The 3D menu is a nice feature, but it makes for confusing navigation. Combined with the missing 3D effect from the opening shots, I was very confused why pressing "3D" twice initially took me to a flat film.

Prior to this I hadn't seen how subtitles work on Blu-Ray 3D before. The subtitles on Space Station 3D are positioned in 3D space, so they appear to be floating in front of the images. I once had the unfortunate experience of watching a Japanese 3D film at a festival, with lots of out-of-screen effects, and subtitles flat on the screen. This was incredibly hard to watch, as the subtitles appeared to be behind the actors in 3D space, but were overlayed in front (a violation of the occlusion depth cue, where objects in front of other objects will partially block them from view). Space Station 3D wisely avoided this problem by placing the subtitles out in front of everything in the scene.

The Blu-Ray gets extra points for having audio available in English, French, German, Korean, and Portuguese, as well as subtitles in 14 different languages. The packaging only mentions English/French audio and English/French/Spanish subtitles. The Blu-Ray loses points for not including zero of the special features included on the earlier 2D DVD release. If they could fit five languages on here, why not the commentary track? The packaging also was stripped of any reference to the filmmakers or the astronauts in the film, only mentioning the narrator, Tom Cruise, by name.

I found his narration very disengaging at times. Being aware of him as a controversial figure distracted from the majesty of the images. That and I don't care much for the sound of his voice. While I'm glad when documentaries get high-profile celebrities to narrate them as it can help bring in more media attention, Tom Cruise would not be the first person I'd choose. Of course, in 2002 he was not such a polarizing figure, so I don't blame the filmmakers for this. Aside from this I found the pacing to be very engaging, perhaps a bit slow for some viewers, but it gives the eyes time to soak in all their is to see. 

Cinematographer James Neilhouse and director Toni Myers at the Hubble 3D premiere. Photo by Ryan Suits.

Toni Myers has been working on space documentaries for some time; 1997 film Mission to Mir and her most recent film, Hubble 3D, are both excellent. Hubble 3D relied heavily on converted cockpit video and CG animation of subjects photographed by Hubble but both of those were expertly executed, essential to tell the story of the film, and Leonardo DiCaprio made for a wonderful narrator. I can only imagine the difficulties of shooting 3D on film, in space, when your cinematographer is stuck on Earth, let alone trying to make a captivating documentary out of the footage you manage to capture in between the astronauts' rigorous schedules.

For any fan of space exploration, this is a must-have. It's no For All Mankind, but it's a light-hearted and easily-accessible look into the space program. The issues with the 3D are largely due to the distributor not properly encoding or modifying the film to work in a format with different technical limitations than an IMAX theater (and perhaps rushing to get the disc out in time for early 3DTV adopters), most of which the average viewer won't even notice. I hope later IMAX documentaries will get a much better treatment on Blu-Ray 3D. Regardless, Blu-Ray 3D is the best format to watch a film with such stunning stereoscopic cinematography, unless you get to see it on an actual IMAX screen.

For more information on the process behind Space Station 3D, I recommend Ray Zone's 3-D Filmmakers: Conversations with Creators of Stereoscopic Motion Pictures, which features interviews with Toni Myers, cinematographer James Neilhouse, astronaut Brian Duffy, as well as Martin Mueller, who built the two cameras used for the film. You can also find more info on the film at the IMAX Space Station 3D Official Website.

Film Rating: 4/5
3D Rating: 4/5
Blu-Ray Rating: 2/5

For those interested in Toni Myer's latest film Hubble 3D, which is not available on Blu-Ray yet, here is an excerpt of the Q&A from the film's world premiere at the 2010 SXSW. I shot this impromptu with a Fuji W1 I was carrying with me, so it's a little shaky and grainy, but it's full of interesting tidbits about how one goes about making a 3D documentary in space.

(to view in 3D, press play, then select a 3D format from the bottom right-hand menu)

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