Gilbey on Film: 3-D is a con

The movie industry is trying to fleece ordinary cinema-goers.

Now is not the time to debate whether 3-D is a good or a bad thing. Frankly, that ship has sailed. It must go without saying that the format is cumbersome, imperfect (am I the only person who sees a slight shadow or discord on some of the 3-D images?) and an all-round impediment to the immersive properties of cinema.

Movies shot in 3-D tend to favour visual wizardry at the expense of other aspects of film-making – imagine how good Avatar would have been, for instance, if the characters and emotions had felt as real as the shrubbery. Those pictures that undergo the conversion process in post-production (Alice in Wonderland, The Last Airbender) invariably have all the optical depth of ashtrays.

But it's about to get much worse: 3-D is as transparent a way to squeeze more money out of audiences as forcing them to buy their popcorn in gold-plated buckets. That much we know. (And if you object to paying a surcharge for 3-D glasses on top of the extra cost for a 3-D film, it's no good bringing your own – the unlovable Vue cinema chain, at least, charges you for specs whether you need them or not.)

Now the industry has hit on a way to not only make us stump up an extra couple of pounds for a 3-D film, but to get us to pay all over again for films we've already seen. Directors including James Cameron, Peter Jackson and George Lucas are busily feeding their past blockbusters into the 3-D Movie Maker. I see it as a kind of mincing machine, like the one into which the teacher stuffs children in the video for Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2", only in this one you cram film stock into one end, and billions of dollars emerge from the other.

This is some kind of evil genius at work. You might compare the drive to get us to pay repeatedly for the same product to the rise of the CD or DVD industries, except that at least in those cases there was a noticeable change in quality, even if vinyl or VHS junkies would argue that this change represented nothing so much as a homogenisation.

The prospect of watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Titanic in 3-D causes not joy in my soul, but a severe pre-emptive ache on the bridge of my nose from the weight of all those unwieldy pairs of glasses.

It is only on hearing the recent news that Lucas is converting his Star Wars series to 3-D, for a one-episode-per-year rerelease campaign beginning in 2012, that you learn precisely how low your heart can sink.

"Lucasfilm Ltd has announced that the live-action Star Wars Saga will be converted to 3-D!" trumpeted a 20th Century Fox press release two weeks ago. You would think the news couldn't be any more depressing, and then you notice the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence. Is it meant to convey a jaunty, excitable sense of anticipation? Or an incredulous sentiment along the lines of: "Can-you-even-believe-what-they'll-do-to-fleece-you-suckers?" Take your pick.

"Getting good results on a stereo conversion is a matter of taking the time and getting it right," says John Knoll, visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic. "It takes a critical and artistic eye along with an incredible attention to detail to be successful. It is not something that you can rush if you want to expect good results.

"For Star Wars we will take our time, applying everything we know both aesthetically and technically to bring audiences a fantastic new Star Wars experience." Early reports, however, suggest that the series will still be shit.

Exempt from this, naturally, is the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back (yes, I know it's fifth in chronological terms), a wonderfully alive and searching picture which is all the more remarkable for being a fluke part of this moribund series. But even that won't be altered by 3-D. No film was ever improved by the process.

A good film is a good film; a bad one is beyond saving. Even those pictures that use the process judiciously, such as Up and Coraline, or the ones that mine its trashiest potential (the recent Piranha remake, which rose in my estimation once Cameron had denounced it for "cheapening" 3-D), would not have been affected one way or the other, had they been released in 2-D only.

That's why I would urge Harry Potter fans not to fret over last week's announcement that the upcoming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, due to open on 19 November, will not be in 3-D as expected. "Despite everyone's best efforts, we were unable to convert the film in its entirety and meet the highest standards of quality," Warner Bros said.

Deathly Hallows: Part II, which arrives next July, is still on course for a 3-D release, so it's not all good news. But we should at least be grateful that this particular mass raid, on family budgets already threatened with depletion by the child benefit catastrophe, has been averted.

Then again, cynics would say it's merely a deferral. Next year brings the last Harry Potter film, and it can't be long before Warner Bros announces that the entire saga will be "converted to 3-D!". Flogging a dead horse somehow looks even more unsightly with that extra dimension.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times