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This groundbreaking U2 concert-on-film was not intended to be gimmicky – and while there certainly are few gimmicks, there are still some surprises in this immersive movie experience, writes Sue Williams.

At a live concert before 80,000 people in Buenos Aires, Bono spins around in the middle of a U2 set and stares and points straight at you. The gesture takes you – and hundreds of thousands of others across the world – by complete surprise.

Yet this is only a split second shock in an event that’s being billed as the technological equivalent of humankind’s giant leap from mono to stereo, from silent movies to talkies, and from black and white to colour.

For this is the world’s first digital 3D real-time feature film, a movie of a series of U2 concerts in South America, and is being hailed as the watershed in the development of 3D technology for use in mainstream cinema.

From its introduction in the late 1950s until now, 3D movies have largely remained the preserve of ‘theme park’ features, with balls being thrown at cameras to make audiences flinch, motorbikes jumping over hurdles and wild life charging past – or straight for the screen.

"We wanted to create the total atmosphere"

“But we made sure that we didn’t do anything gimmicky,” says Catherine Owens, director of the rather prosaically named U2 3D. “We wanted to create the total atmosphere instead that the audience is at a U2 concert, that they have box seats and they’re aware of the audience around them, as much as the musicians on stage.

“It’s an incredibly immersive technology, and makes you feel that you’re really there in a way that nothing has been able to do before. As a result, we’ve created something that’s amazing as a spectacle, but it’s also terribly intimate. You can see Bono close up, you can see what he’s doing, you can feel what he’s playing; it’s very much like being there – or better!”

The project to make the first digital 3D real-time production has been many years in the planning. With this technology originally developed with multiple cameras to film, experimentally, an NFL match, the creators approached Owens in 2004 to ask if U2 would be interested in helping pioneer the artform.

As a long-time collaborator with U2, Irish-born artist, sculptor and video-director Owens asked to watch a test run – and was thrilled by the results. She approached Bono who also wanted to see test rushes to make sure they wouldn’t be making just another concert film, and then agreed to work with the film-makers to see if they could produce something ground-breaking.

The final result is quite astonishing. While U2 have become well-known over the years for employing state-of-the-art technology in their live shows – like their revolutionary use of video screens on tour in 1992, LED Jumbotrons in 1997 and light-beaded video curtains above the stage on their 2005/6 Vertigo tour – they embraced this new innovation with relish.

“Bono was very closely involved at every stage,” says Owens, 47. “He’s a tough taskmaster, and has very high expectations of everything and everyone around him, but we have a very strong understanding of what needs to be done.

“I know what will work for them, and I know what they want. He’s always looking for new technology to test, and we had many long conversations all the time about the collaboration. It worked very well.”

The project proved, however, a massive undertaking. Filming was done before audiences of 80,000 a time, over eight concerts on the Vertigo tour of South America: in Mexico City, Brazil’s Sao Paulo, Chile’s Santiago and Argentina’s Buenos Aires. In addition, the band played ten songs, alone on the a stage as a ‘phantom’ concert with no spectators, just so the crew could take close-up shots of them each, without disrupting an actual show.

Furthermore, with only eight 3D digital camera in existence in the world, the production took all eight, and the editing process ended up having to be done back in 2D – for the right eye – and readjusted to 3D afterwards. There were no hard cuts possible with the technology, either, so all cuts had to take the form of gradual dissolves.

"a real blending of creativity and physics"

“It was a real blending of creativity and physics, the artistry of Catherine Owens and the genius of U2,” says co-executive producer Sandy Climan. “It ended up giving you a view of the audience and a record of a concert that’s almost sculptural. For the first time, you viscerally experience the music.”

While there certainly are few gimmicks, there are still some surprises. There’s the luminous overlaying of the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the conclusion of Miss Sarajevo and, during Bullet, there’s that Bono moment to the camera that startles viewers. You can also see the difficulties with a live performance, first-hand. When a guitar malfunctions, you can feel the rage of band member The Edge (Dave Evans), and overhear Bono’s joking call, ‘Hello! Is there anyone there?’

But most importantly, the likely worldwide success of this movie is set to prove the incentive for film-makers across the globe to start considering harnessing the technology themselves. “Our film could prove to be as revolutionary for digital 3D as The Jazz Singer was for talkies,” says Owens.

Already, George Lucas is experimenting with reconfiguring his Star Wars movies in the 3D format, and a number of mainstream action movie-makers have sent testers into the market.

In addition, while there are currently fewer than 1,000 cinemas in the world equipped with digital-projection systems from Real D, as well as the IMAX 3D format theatres, the numbers of 3D venues are expected to increase exponentially over the next five years, with some even claiming it could be the saviour of cinema.

“The number of screens is blowing out now,” says U2 3D co-executive producer John Modell. “It will help cinema no end. It’s something that people just won’t ever be able to see in their homes, so they’ll always have to get out of their houses to come to a cinema for it.

“It’s also a technology that can’t be pirated. And while it used to be just about amusing children, it’s now for grown-ups too. Imagine an emotionally powerful narrative movie in 3D, and how you’ll be caught up in the emotion. This is about to take off.”

On the music side, the 3D technology is likely to provide a boon for bands who dislike touring, and for music-lovers in the future who long to experience the power and glory of top bands who are no longer playing. The band members might all well be in rocking chairs but, in 3D, they’ll still be rock gods.

"a film that would stand up as reflection of a performance"

“We wanted to make a film that would stand up as reflection of a performance, and for a long time,” says Owens. “I never wanted to take anyone out of the experience.

“But I think this will inspire a lot of directors to think, ‘OK! Something in 3D for me’. Because before, they wouldn’t even have entertained it; they thought it was all about snakes coming at you, or fish swimming into your face. Not that that isn’t fantastic in its own way, it’s just that the language can go a lot further. I want someone to make an immersive love story, imagine how absorbing that could be. There is just no limit to how this technology can be used to enrich our experience.”

Published: April 10, 2008


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U2 3D
Film opens around Australia on April 10, 2008.

A 3-D presentation of U2's global Vertigo tour. Shot at eight different shows, this production employs the greatest number of 3-D cameras ever used for a single project.

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