Do Not Barco Engage Yet, Mister Sulu!

BarcoEscape001If you were running a profitable entertainment medium that was being challenged by an upstart new medium, what would you do? A reasonable course of action would seem to be to tell better, more interesting stories.

Hollywood did not get where it is today by being reasonable.

When film was being challenged by television in the 1950s (seriously challenged: some people thought it would be the end of cinema), how did Hollywood respond? By emphasizing what the medium could do that television couldn’t: it switched entirely to colour production and widened the size of the screen (experimenting with such formats as Cinerama and Cinemascope).

The idea was to give audiences an experience in the theatre that they couldn’t get at home. (This process also led to the destruction of the Hays Code, since swearing, nudity, graphic violence and other “adult” content which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s couldn’t be shown on television then.)

Different times, different challenges, same impulse.

This time, the Internet is the threat to the continued existence of film. Well, Hollywood film, in any case (the films of most other nations, being both government subsidized and not as reliant on special effects spectacle, have different challenges in our modern age). What is the solution to this problem? Barco Escape (BE – which I am sure they don’t call it, but I will for the sake of brevity), apparently.

When you walk into the theatre equipped with BE (as of this writing, there are only three in Canada), you’ll notice that flanking the main screen in front of you are screens on either side of it. As a short message before the film explains (and you know it’s a bad sign when somebody from the production company has to introduce the new format before a showing), the extra screens were there to extend the image beyond the main screen.

Okay. I went to see Star Trek: Beyond in a theatre equipped with Barco Escape. I must admit, I was underwhelmed by the experience.

The filmmakers took an existing theatre and retrofitted it with the new projection technology. I knew this would be a problem before the film even started. Although my companions and I arrived 25 minutes before the scheduled start time, the theatre was already packed (such is the attraction of novelty), and we had to sit up front. This meant that, rather than having all three screens in front of us, two of the screens were on either side of us. This meant that when they were in use, we had to turn our heads to see what was on them (I imagine those higher up would have been able to take it all in with a flick of the eye or a small head movement.)

One problem with this was that the film only had 20 minutes of extended footage interpolated into its two hour running time. Some of the additions were so short that by the time you had turned your head to see them, they were gone.

I also found the use of the extra screens to be unambitious: they were used exclusively to extend the image on the main screen. One the one hand, this makes sense: since the vast majority of theatres screening Star Trek: Beyond will have a single screen, all of the action needs to be focussed there. Nonetheless, there were historical precedents that the filmmakers could have called upon to enliven their use of the extra projection space.

One was Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Released in 1927, the film was sometimes projected onto three screens. Although they did not employ multiple screens, the films of Brian de Palma sometimes used multiple images within a single screen (see, for example, the climactic scene in Carrie). Both filmmakers used different images that enhanced each other and added information to the narrative that wouldn’t have been conveyed in a single image.

An example of how this may have been accomplished in Star Trek: Beyond: during the destruction of the Enterprise, have the side screens show how different people in the ship were reacting to it, merging the macro with the micro. Or, a different example: showing different crewmembers slogging through the alien planet simultaneously on the three screens would have emphasized how isolated they were after they were split up. (These are just off the top of my head ideas: feel free to imagine your own.)

When we think about things the producers of the film could have done, we can start to see the potential for Barco Escape to add a new dimension of creativity to cinematic releases. Although I was not impressed with how it was used in Star Trek: Beyond, I would be interested in seeing a whole movie in the format, particularly one shot specifically for the format. Done properly, it could still make a believer out of me.


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