Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and the 5 Joys of 3D Done Right

Edit: Uh-oh, it took a friend to alert me to the fact that Thor was not conceived and filmed in 3D. I feel really stupid now. However, to turn this in my favor, it shows a) that good 3D-conversion can work and b) that good direction can be even better in 3D. I rest my case.

Kenneth Branagh’s film Thor is the most 3D-fun I’ve had in a live action film so far. There, I said it. Suck on that, Cameron. Part of that might have to do with the script which, I thought, cleverly juggled the absolute preposterousness of the setting with the right amount of pathos and humour whenever they were needed. Part of it might have to do with the performances by Natalie Portman, Chris Hemsworth, Stellan Skarsgård and the rest of the gang which exhibited that same tongue-not-quite-but-almost-in-cheek balance. And a large part was the really good 3D-mise-en-scène by Kenneth Branagh.

Looking back at the film, here is what I think Branagh kept in mind while shooting.

1. Keep Moving

There’s two ways to experience space on the screen. Either you leave a lot of time to sink your mind into it and explore it (this is the approach that Wim Wenders took in Pina) or you are constantly reminded of it, because stuff (including the camera) doesn’t just move left to right anymore, but front to back as well. All the time. Thor is very kinetic (except in close-up shots, see point 3) and the movement gives depth to both characters and environments.

2. Use the 3D-Space

Branagh really makes everything of the three axes he has at his disposal. His camera flies, swoops, cranes up and down all the time. This is a sort of standard procedure in CG-landscapes these days and of course Thor has its fair share of roaming establishing shots in pure computer space. But Branagh does the same in non-CG environments. For example, from a medium shot in which the character walks towards the camera, Branagh suddenly pulls out and up into a topshot. What a great way to feel that you are experiencing space without being poked in the face.

3. Behold the power of the closeup

Branagh breaks the relentless kineticism of his fight scenes with comparatively endless dialogues in closeup. And this is where the real magic happens. I don’t think Natalie Portman has ever seemed as enchanting as she was when I had her face 15 feet high in 3D right in front of me. My girlfriend, who was sitting next to me, pretty much admitted the same thing about Chris Hemsworth. The best film critics have written about the power of the closeup in the cinema. Well, it’s back – and this time, it’s personal.

4. If you don’t have diagonal lines, create them

3D thrives on diagonal lines in the image that visualize distance. If you’re not in Tron, you don’t get diagonals in every image. Branagh very cleverly sidesteps this dilemma by just putting the camera at an angle whenever he can. Even his close-ups are often ever so slightly tilted up or down compared to traditional camera positions. Shazam! Instant 3D-space.

5. Cut as fast as you want

Some of the fight scenes in Thor are fast as hell and I wasn’t confused at all. There is either some very clever stereo-continutity at work here that I didn’t grasp or it just doesn’t matter. I guess it’s the latter, and this is one of the points I will retract from my five Predictions of eight months ago: Filmmaker’s, don’t be nice to your audiences. Shock them and slap them in the face. In the long term, this has always led to the most interesting films.

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