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James Gunn wants to take full advantage of the multiple aspect ratios available in today’s cinemas when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens May 5 in theaters. To do that, the filmmaker took an ambitious approach by creating multiple versions of the movie for a more custom experience for each type of theater configuration.
“It’s definitely the most complex delivery Marvel’s ever done,” Evan Jacobs, Disney’s vp of finishing and stereo, tells The Hollywood Reporter. The creative goal, says Jacobs, was to “give every exhibitor in the United States and in most international territories [the ability to] maximize their screen size for the audience. So wherever you go to see it, you’re gonna see the best version.”
The versions are catered to the format of each theater’s screens, but it goes beyond that.
“Then on top of that, because [Gunn’s] got this extra real estate, he’s essentially said, ‘I’m gonna pop in and out creatively [and you’ll] suddenly see something more immersive and bigger, that’s going to fill your screen,'” notes Jacbos.
For a version designed with variable aspect ratios, roughly 45 minutes of the movie is opened up to a flat 1.85 aspect ratio while the rest of the movie is letterboxed to 2.39. This version will be available in select “traditional” theaters and some Dolby Cinema auditoriums.
Gunn “designed it and he shot and framed for it [with this in mind]. That was his creative intention,” Jacobs explains, noting that sometimes these moments where the screen “opens up” were selected based on the visuals but there were no real rules. “Sometimes it’s the music, sometimes it’s what’s happening, sometimes it’s whatever.” Jacobs adds that the “really cool” 3D version also takes particular advantage of the variable framing options.
“Aspect ratio is something that James has really enjoyed being part of the storytelling process,” Jacobs relates, noting that Gunn created Imax versions with variable aspect ratios for the first two Guardians movies (additional Marvel productions had since experimented with Imax, he reports). This time, the director wanted this to be more widely available.
The team also created a version of Guardians 3 that only uses the 2.39 aspect ratio for certain “traditional theaters” and select Dolby Cinema auditoriums; and they mastered an Imax 1.90 version, designed specifically for the more square-aspect ratio of Imax auditoriums.
With this approach, Gunn is taking a page from James Cameron and Jon Landau’s playbook, who created an unprecedented 1,065 versions of Avatar: The Way of Water, including combinations of 3D, HDR, 4K, varying light levels, aspect ratios and high frame rates (as well as, of course, local languages), to offer a customized experience for each type of theater configuration.
It’s not uncommon for Marvel releases to have 500 versions, which is already considered a high number in theatrical distribution. According to Jacobs, Guardians 3 tops 600.
Asked about the schedule involved in the final weeks to complete these versions of the movie, Jacobs admits, “Marvel has almost become legendary in the postproduction community for pushing pretty hard on deadlines and kind of waiting till the last minute to make the movie as great as we could possibly make it. [But] the movie was pretty solid. It was the movie he was gonna make at the beginning. … We didn’t have to chase a lot of crazy, and the visual effects landed in a rational, sane way. We’ve all been just like pinching ourselves.”
“It would’ve been harder, frankly, to accommodate this kind of creative vision on a different delivery schedule,” he adds. “But we had the time and we were able to make it work.”
Jacobs says Disney distribution partners were “incredible” in getting this work completed, “and the fact that Avatar [The Way of Water] had sort of done something like this recently meant they were ready to go.”
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