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Coraline, Reald and the Reemergence of 3-D: Technological Obsession and a Reassurance of Identity


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Coraline, RealD and the Reemergence of 3-D: Technological Obsession and a Reassurance of Identity

Throughout history the cinema has attempted to employ new and captivating technologies to curb the success of varying competing mediums. At this present moment in new media history we find ourselves amongst a reemergence of 3-D technology in commercial cinema. It is possible that since we are seeing a rise in popularity of on-demand services and streaming forms of media entertainment available to consumers, that Hollywood is once again employing unique technical gimmicks to increase theater attendance. Yet, with such 3-D breakthroughs as Henry Selick’s Coraline (2009), it seems that certain artists in Hollywood have instead begun to embrace 3-D beyond just a technical gimmick and harness its true cinematic potential. If one thing is for sure, the 3-D technology used today compared that of the 1950s is vastly different in terms of its technological development; thanks innovative 3-D projection company RealD. It is the goal of this essay to examine how RealD’s 3-D projection technology helps create a particular meaning within Coraline that standard 2-D technology does not. By carefully crafting its use of 3-D, Coraline uses one technology to critique the use of another technology; namely to reflect on societies immersion in our technically dependent and obsessive lives due out a desire to reassure ones own existence and identity within the world. Coraline the film is adapted from the Neil Gaiman novel, Coraline, published in 2002 (Clark). According to New York Times film critic, John Clark, Henry Selick was first introduced to Gaiman’s novel in 2000, two years before it was published (Clark). In an interview conducted by Alex Bilington, Selick says that he found an instant connection with both the novel and Gaiman: “I’d found a true collaborator, a lost brother in Neil . . . By the time I was halfway through the book, I could see a movie” (Bilington). Selick went on to write the screenplay, and after some initial adaptation struggles, Selick wrote a comfortably adapted screenplay that features some rather significant changes from the novel (Bilington). Selick even recognizes the significance of his changes, as he says in the interview, “I made some fairly big changes” (Bilington). Most notably Selick changed the setting of the novel from Europe to the United States and introduced a new character named Wybie (Bilington). According to Selick the creation of Wybie was “[meant] to give Coraline someone to kind of go up against, directly” (Bilington). These were two very large adaptation from the novel, yet they were essential to the story’s success as a film as well as its thematic message. The introduction of Wybie and United States setting are both integral components of the Coraline’s larger analytical meaning, but we will get to that later. Before we drive into our analysis of Coraline as a film, it is crucial to understand some of the history and controversy surrounding 3-D technologies. 3-D technology first appeared in mainstream commercial cinema during the 1950s as Hollywood experimented with new technical gimmicks in order to improve movie attendance after the increasing popularity of television (Benson-Allot Feb. 2009). In Lauren Rabinovitz’s book Memory Bites, she recalls the introduction of 3-D in Hollywood cinema: “Experiments in 3-D, their cyborgian implication in bespectacled audiences, and their shock effects of objects “coming at you” fore-grounded bodily orientation of the screen and identification” (101). Rabinovitz is alluding to the most important factor that the utilization of 3-D creates in its audience. The use of 3-D in the cinema often tries to redefine what is considered cinematic and compel the viewer to question their “bodily orientation”. As Rabinovitz points out 3-D films were initially concerned with “coming [out] at you”, it was meant to provide a somewhat shocking spectacle but generally just disoriented the viewer. 3-D naturally creates an unsettling reactive effect for the viewer. Simply put, audience members are not sure where their position in the audience precisely lies in relation to what’s on screen. Rabinovitz discusses that this trend began with simulation rides, that attempted to move towards providing a more “embodied subjectivity” for the viewer. (121). Rabinovitz writes, “Tourist cinema makes vision coherent by asserting its certitude in relationship to one’s bodily experience of multiple sensations” (121). Although Rabinovitz is mainly discussing the effects of tourist cinema and simulation rides the same principal effects can be described about 3-D. In Coraline the 3-D has a similar effect; it provokes a conscious acknowledgement of the 3-D to create an increased embodied experience in response to the multiple sensations, but it is not meant to entirely disorient the viewer. Rather, Coraline, and respectively Selick, are more concerned with providing a depth and technical magnificence to the film screen. There is a dramatic technical differential between the “real” and dream-like “other” world. The dramatic use of 3-D in the other world is meant to compel the audience into a conscious state of recognition about technologies effects, specifically technologies immersive effects on American audiences. Yet, it is important to remember that the 3-D used in the 1950s is much less technically sophisticated as 3-D projection that is being used in Coraline. This is thanks to innovative 3-D companies such as RealD. RealD digital projection is a state-of-the-art technology designed to project 3-D images at 144 frames per second, which is six times the speed of a normal film that projects at 24 frames per second (Benson-Allot Feb. 2009). RealD achieves its 3-D imaging by using only “one projector alternately flashing left and right-handed polarized images” (Benson-Allot Feb. 2009). It is very interesting to point out that according to their website even RealD suggests that 3-D is a media designed to communicate new ideas through its medium: “Humans naturally see in three dimensions, and bringing that third dimension of depth to images unlocks the door to new, exciting and imaginative ways of communicating images and ideas” (RealD). This promotional statement from the RealD’s “About Us – What is RealD?” section on their website is very interesting in the imagery that it evokes in Coraline. Since, Coraline is literally about a little girl who “unlocks the door to [a] new, exciting and imaginative” world. This correlation and similarity between RealD’s “About Us” statement and the discourse of Coraline is rather intriguing. It would appear that Coraline, Selick, and RealD are all supporting the same notion that 3-D projection has cinematic abilities beyond that capable in the 2-D text. Precisely, Coraline relies on the effects of RealD’s 3-D projection to communicate its thematic message about the effects of technologies in today’s society. Yet, before we truly grasps Coraline’s thematic meaning, lets explore this intriguing connection between RealD and Coraline even further. In fact, it turns out that director of Coraline, Henry Selick, and RealD American inventor, Larry Lipton, were colleagues before the introduction and commercial adoption of RealD. Thus it would seem sensible, since Selick had advance knowledge of RealD technology, that he could write a film script with this 3-D technology in mind. As it turns out, Selick had been interested in 3-D technologies long before the invention RealD (Rich). In an interview with Katey Rich, Selick explains that he has been fascinated and thinking about 3-D for about 20 years (Rich). He goes on to say “[that] 3D was developing in the long gestation period for the movie, and it just worked out the by the time I was ready to shoot it, there were enough screens to convince the producer that this is a good thing to do” (Rich). The RealD 3D projection technology happened to be the perfect fit both technically and timing wise for the production of Coraline. In the interview with Alex Belington, Selick explains how he was first introduced to Lipton when he worked View-Master (Bilington). Selick says that he learned about Lipton’s innovation projector invention before it was produced and tracked its progress during the pre-production of Coraline. “I was exposed to it and intrigued, and then I would check in with Lenny [Lipton] every few years to see where was he at, what stage was he at” (Bilington). Thus, it now seems obvious that Selick envisioned Coraline to be a 3-D film, from the onset of conception, specifically using Lipton’s RealD projection technology. Yet, one question remains to be answered, why was it so important or necessary that Coraline be shown in 3-D to achieve what it was trying to say about technology? According to multiple interviews with Henry Selick Coraline was conceptualized as a 3-D film that would specifically push beyond the bounds of a cheap ploy or technical gimmick. Selick wanted to avoid any utilization of 3-D as what Rabinovitz called the “coming [out] at you” gimmick (101). In the same interview with Bilington, Selick said to quote “the number one thing was to write a script for the 3-D through the film; that sort of kept it under control. And it was more about drawing the audience into the screen, rather than coming out and bringing it” (Bilington). This comparison between “drawing the audience in” rather than “coming out” is essential to Coraline’s use of 3-D compared with other 3D films. Selick (as is the position for this essay) believes that 3-D is much more effective at drawing the audience into the screen through illusions of depth of field rather than jumping out at the audience. It is during the transition from the real world to the other world that this emphasis on depth of field really stands out. Each time the door to the other world is unlocked and opened that audience is shown this dramatic deep “rabbit hole” imagery, which dramatically reinforces the differences between these two worlds. Coraline has to psychically crawl through a vibrant purple tube, which appears to reach deep within the screen, in order to get to the other world. Selick states that “ultimately, in the story of Coraline, I was looking for what can I use to enhance this idea of this other world being better, richer, a place of freedom” (Bilington). Briefly we should recognize Coraline’s critical reception and use of 3-D beyond the traditional realms of gimmicking, and instead how it allowed for this other world to literally stand out. Many film critics and scholars alike have acknowledge the unconventional and innovative use that Coraline makes of 3-D. A. O. Scott film critic for The New York Times called the film "exquisitely realized" with a "slower pace and a more contemplative tone than the novel. It is certainly exciting, but rather than race through ever noisier set pieces toward a hectic climax. Coraline lingers in an atmosphere that is creepy, wonderfully strange and full of feeling” (Scott). Many critics recognized the differences between the 3-D used in Coraline to the gimmicks of “coming out at you” 3-D used in many other films. Yet, what almost all critics have failed to recognize was precisely how the 3-D in Coraline changes the film’s textual and thematic meaning. Yet, another film critic from The New York Times, John Clark, does reference the important distinction between the two worlds. “Coraline's bedroom, the kitchen, the apartments upstairs and down: all these locations were compressed through the use of forced perspective and sets pitched forward toward the camera. For the alternative reality, the colors were deepened, the sets built out and the 3-D cranked up” (Clark). Indeed, Clark is correct, Selick specifically flatten the colors and "crushed" the sets in the real world in order to further the distinction between the two worlds. This changing of effects and intensity of 3-D was a technical development made possible by RealD projectors. The fact RealD projects uses a single digitally projected image allows for the intensity of the to be adjusted (RealD). This was not possible in the 1950s when two simultaneous images and projectors would project contrasting red and blue images on top of one another. Clearly, RealD provided fundamental capabilities for the juxtaposition between the two worlds but Coraline thematic meaning goes much deeper beyond that. Lets take a step back and come to one of our original comparisons between the changes from novel to the screenplay. Changing the setting of the novel from Europe to the United States is fairly simplistic for the purposes of our reading. Coraline’s thematic concerns are a reflection upon American societies, placing in film in Europe would thus complicate the argument to an international setting. The induction of the film character Wybie is a bit more complex and essential to our particular reading of the film. Remember, that Selick stated he created Wybie as a character that Coraline could play off of (Bilington). Yet, it seems that Wybie’s character has a much more important factor in the film. Throughout the film Wybie is consistently called “Wyborn”, multiple times by his grandmother, and once explicitly by Coraline in the beginning of the film. Anyone familiar with critical film studies understands that character names are quite important to a films lager thematic meaning. Yes, the character does not have any parents but this seems to only add to the curious pun of the character’s name and why Selick introduced him. The mispronunciation of Wybie’s name is significant of the film’s deepest thematic concern. “Wyborn” questions the character of the character of Wybie’s own existence and importance both in the film and between the two contrasting worlds. Wybie is the only character is the other world that is specifically not enhanced in one or another. The rest of the cast of characters from Father, Mr. Bobinsky, Ms. Spink and Ms. Forcible are all much more entertaining to Coraline in the other world. Yet, Wybie is dull, dark, and boring in the other world, his character has much more life and entertainment value for Coraline in the real world. In the final sequence of the film, it is rather significant that it is Wybie who destroys the Other Mother and access to the other world. Coraline is using Wybie character to suggest that the three-dimensional dependent other world will never be as good as reality. Coraline is thus using the pun of the characters name to ask, why be reborn in the technologically dependent other world? As the other world breaks down, as Coraline draws closer to defeating the Other Mother the flat emptiness of the other world is revealed, exposing it as nothing more then a cheap technological visual stimuli, with no real substance. We maybe able to more clearly understand what Wybie as a character suggests if we identify the new media philosophy of Martin Heidegger. In Martin Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, he proposes, “the essence of technology is nothing technological” (4). Heidegger is primarily concerned with trying to discover the “essence of technology” and how it affects our ability to see “Being or Truth” (4). His overall point is that new technologies, such as RealD 3-D projection, can reveal historically conditioned and thus contingent truths about our society. In Coraline, the technological 3-D beauty of the other world immerses the audience. In doing so, the audience fails to realize how the technology is absorbing our focus beyond what is truly important, in this case the discourse of the story. Through the distinctive use of 3-D in the other world compared to the real world, Coraline as a filmic text, is using one technology, 3-D, to suggest that we are increasingly using other technologies to reassurance our importance and existence in the virtual or other world. Coraline is clearly critiquing the dominating importance that as a culture we place on virtual identities, from social networking sites. Just as Coraline’s parents are absent-minded and preoccupied with their work to notice Coraline; the film goes as far as to suggest that our society is becoming progressively more absent-minded and obsessively preoccupied by technologies (i.e. cell phones) and virtual identities (i.e. social networking sites) to notice what is truly important in reality, like our children. In Heidegger’s words, the utilizations of 3-D technology in Coraline helps to “bring-forth” new truths about our societies use of another technology; particularly American societies inessential dependence our technologies to create a reassurance of their identity. Coraline is simple and understated on its surface, aspiring as from a children’s novel, yet as we have concluded is much more detailed and sophisticated in its purpose. The technologically dependent and obsessive personalities we have become in our culture are eloquently juxtaposed through the contrasting visual worlds in Coraline. The films begs us not only to question our connection to these technologies but also to question the importance of virtual worlds and social networking identities compared to our true identities in reality. Perhaps a final quote by Henry Selick best summarizes this artist’s creative masterpiece. "I spent a lot of time thinking about it and getting a sense of how to use it," Selick said. "I saw that everyone that was doing 3-D was overusing the in-your-face things. They were playing very fast and loose with the technique, mainly just cranking it up as a gimmick, which is what killed it in the '50s. So I wanted it to be part of our story, another world that seems richer, where you can breathe." Clearly, Selick is a true auteur that managed to take a difficult technology, that many artists in Hollywood were having trouble utilizing its capabilities, and create a technical masterpiece. If one thing is certain, we can acknowledge that 3-D and RealD can now been place in conversation with other respected film criticism.

Works Cited
Benson-Allot, Caetlin. "Trying to Get Out of Kansas: Film's Formal Fantasies." FILM 136C: History of New Media. Communications 150, Santa Cruz. 12 Feb. 2009.
Billington, Alex. "Interview: Coraline Writer and Director Henry Selick «." 5 Feb. 2009. 15 Feb. 2009 <>.
Clark, John. "Adding Dimension to the Storytelling: [Arts and Leisure Desk]. " New York Times [New York, N.Y.] 1 Feb. 2009, Late Edition (East Coast): AR.16. New York Times. ProQuest. 15 Feb. 2009 <>
Coraline. Dir. Henry Selick. Perf. Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher. Film. Laika Entertainment, 2009.
Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977.
Rabinovitz, Lauren. Memory Bites History, Technology and Digital Culture. Ed. Abraham Geil. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2004.
Rich, Katey. "Exclusive Interview: Coraline Director Henry Selick." Cinema Blend. 3 Feb. 2009. 15 Feb. 2009 <>.
Scott, A. O. "Cornered in a Parallel World: [Review]. " New York Times [New York, N.Y.] 6 Feb. 2009, Late Edition (East Coast): C.1. New York Times. ProQuest. 15 Feb. 2009 <>
"What is RealD?" RealD - The Global Leader in 3D. 13 Mar. 2009 <>.

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