Sunday, January 17, 2010

Thoughts on Avatar Part 1: The Use and Potential of 3D

After fifteen years in development James Cameron's Avatar was finally released this past holiday season. Billed as a film that would change cinema forever, it was essentially marketed as the best movie ever made. It promised a completely new experience with its incredible motion capture and 3D visual technologies, and I for one was totally caught up in all the excitement. I trusted James Cameron to deliver something spectacular, and after seeing Coraline I trusted that 3D was the way of the future.

Remember when people were still wondering if Avatar would make back its budget? Now the talk is whether or not to account for inflation and 3D ticket prices when comparing its total gross to that of Titanic. There is no question as to the success of this movie, it has already become one of the most profitable movies of 2009, and potentially of all time. On top of that it actually seems to have somehow lived up to all the ridiculous hype it was built up to, and people are going wild for it. There has quite simply never been a phenomenon like Avatar in my lifetime.

So, with all that in mind, where do I begin to describe my personal thoughts on this historic film?

In installments.

I have a lot to say about Avatar. It's not only a groundbreaking film, but also one that will have a tremendous impact on the general film-going population. Instead of writing so arduously long that I guarantee my own irrelevancy, I'm going to tackle this movie in a few smaller chunks. The first aspect of the film that I want to discuss is the 3D visual technology employed by the film, and it potential as a film making tool.

You have never seen anything quite like Avatar. There have been 3D movies before but they have mostly used the technology as a gimmick. It's difficult to put into words how much the sense of depth adds to the overall movie-going experience. Everything on screen is given life in an unprecedented way, making it truly seem like the planet Pandora is real in its own right. More than that, the experience of having these tangible entities represented before you makes it feel like you are actually there in the film. The effect is so convincing that I found my body reacted to the seemingly real visual stimuli in ways that my mind could not fully control. For example, at a few points during the film the foreground fills with particles like dust or flies, out of focus and floating at the very front of your field of vision. I physically felt the presence of these particles in my gut, and instinctively began to raise my hand to swat them away. I just barely managed to stop myself and avoid embarrassing myself to those around me. The level of physical immersion is unparalleled, and no matter your reservations on 3D or thoughts on the narrative, you will believe in the tangible existence of Pandora because you will feel it.

It should be noted that the incredible quality of the CGI work contributes significantly to this sense of believability and immersion. Coraline, in contrast, used 3D in an incredibly effective way that dramatically enhanced the film, but the tangibility of the world on screen did not make it seem real. I was conscious throughout that its visuals were an artistic representation because they obviously appeared that way, and I never found myself transported into the movie. It felt more like a dream come-to-life.

Not so with Avatar. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that it all seems photo realistic, it is without a doubt the closest any such effects have come to visually replicating our reality. There's no sense of unnaturalness, or of an overtly designed style, or of the uncanny valley that does become an issue at this level of quality, alien beings or no. The entire world seems natural and real and believable. By the end of the film it becomes difficult to discern where the special effects work begins as the real and CGI characters interact with one another seamlessly. Even if you find that the Navi and animals are somewhat distinguishable as non-real entities, when there are actual humans around them the integration is so complete that it plays tricks on your mind. I found myself wondering whether or not the human actors had been digitally created or touched up because they did not look any more real than the aliens, and yet I knew they were. The whole effect is that you truly believe in the world of Pandora, and the 3D lets you feel like you are there.

3D is being billed as a change to cinema equivalent to the push for widescreen in the 1950s. At that time the increased aspect ratio was meant to draw audiences back out to theatres after the advent of television by giving them something they simply could not see at home. 3D cinema certainly provides an analogous effect, at least for the moment, though the coming wave of advanced Blu-Ray technology and 3D capable HD televisions threatens to rob the theatres of this novelty. The only experience the cinema is certain to keep is that of IMAX 3D, and Fox is pushing that medium as the only way to truly see Avatar. After seeing both I would say that the regular 3D version is worth seeing but is definitely not as spectacular as the IMAX experience. And that's what this movie is at it's core, a spectacle like no other. On top of that the mere size of the screen and power of the sound add to the immersion because it quite literally becomes difficult to comprehend anything but the film.

Traditional 2D viewing, on the other hand, just doesn't capture what Avatar is. If you strip away its revolutionary visual experience then you are missing out on something incredible and the aspect of this movie that makes it an important part of cinematic history. I don't care that 3D made you throw up when you were a kid, it is different now and it is better. It might give you a headache at first but it is worth it, I promise you that.

However, apt as the comparison between 3D and widescreen may be, I think that on a certain level it misses the point and potential of this new visual technology. What I would prefer is to see 3D used as a film making tool on par with the introduction of colour or sound.

Bear with me for a moment and consider the opening shot in Avatar, when Jake Sully exits his cryo-chamber and we see down the length of his space transport. It is one of the most memorable moments in Avatar because it is our first introduction to the 3D aspect of the film, and it is quite simply breathtaking. The ship has an unbelievable depth that our eyes are tricked into believing, such that it actually feels like Jake is floating in a huge space ship right before our eyes. The movie screen becomes a window into a tangible reality, and it is as though we are right there in the space ship with Jake. It is one of the most effective uses of 3D visual technologies of all time.

Now imagine if that sequence weren't shot in 3D at all.

Imagine if all of the sequences where we see Jake as a human were in traditional 2D, but the majority of the film during which he is in the avatar body were displayed in 3D. Our experience of the new visual technologies would be so heightened and it would so greatly improve the film, both aesthetically and thematically. The revolutionary visual experience would be incorporated into the narrative itself, much like how colour was used in The Wizard of Oz. The story of Avatar already speaks to new perspectives and ways of viewing the world around us, and if this quality of the narrative had been emphasized by the brand new visual technology then Avatar would be a much more interesting and compelling film. 3D would in effect become a rhetorical device used to tell a story, and a necessary component of it.

As it stands the film is looking to become one of the most successful movies of all time, so I suppose the film makers didn't exactly miss out on much. But the opportunity to make Avatar so much more interesting and layered than it is was there, and it saddens me that it was not embraced. At least I got the breathtaking opening shot of Jake on the spaceship as part of the deal, though I can only imagine what it would have felt like to have that incredible first experience of 3D later on when he enters the avatar body. That would have been dazzling... More so than what we got anyway, which is still pretty amazing.

Anyway, that's my say on the 3D technology of Avatar. It is incredible and should not be missed. Next I want to discuss the concept of race as it is treated in the film. Stay tuned, I'll hopefully have that written and posted soon.

(UPDATE 1/27/10) I've now posted my next piece on Avatar, dealing with the racial issues of the film. You can find it by clicking here.


  1. Basically, Avatar is the same as Dancing with Wolves, only it's set 150 years in the future, rather than 150 years in the past. In any case, it's a good story, and it makes a significant statement about the sad state of human behavior.

    Regarding the 3D aspect, it's all nice and fine, but I focused more on the story, and the novelty of 3D only threatened to distract me from it. The glasses hurt the bridge of my nose after a while, causing me to disconnect from the movie for brief periods to massage away the pain.

    I definitely agree that people should go see this movie, but not because it's 3D or has great EFX, but because it's just a good story.



  2. This film has a few similarities to the medieval dream vision. I don't want to bore you with the a pretentious dialogue comparing the two, but I will note that part of this literary tradition is capitalizing on a reader's familiarity with the genre and story to refine and develop new rhetoric and technique. Avatar boasts a story so average and mundane not because of lazy writing but because it's the only story that would fit the film.

    Avatar was my first Imax 3D film experience, and I'm pretty sure it was for a good many of people. Shelling out $17 for a movie ticket isn't pedestrian, to say the least. But for many, it was a good price to pay for this new kind of fiml-going experience. Our familiarity with the story allowed us to be coaxed into this new film environment, gradually, so that we were both mesmerized and at ease by what we were seeing.

    The story, when boiled down, is absolute crap, and I can never agree with a film that makes tree-banging environmentally minded liberal douches appear heroic and magnanomous. We all know that they wouldn't fight back; they'd chain themselves to a tree, and then get run over.

    But since the story allowed me to peep some fine alien ass, than I suppose I can see no fault.

    Also, Max, please rant about the terrific sound design. I felt it was almost on par with the visuals.

    Now, if only we can go to the Imax and not have to sit through that extremely gay lazer show.

  3. Dan - I think comparing it to Dances With Wolves is reductive, though not unmerited. I would actually say it's more like The Last Samurai, though that probably speaks to my problems with the racial issues in the film. I'll comment explicitly on all this in my next piece.

    Hayden - You make some great points. I'd love to see it again with you and discuss the sound over a beer, I'll admit it wasn't one of my central concerns but it was definitely some of the finest sound work Cameron's ever exhibited. As for the story, again I'll suggest you wait for my next piece, but for now I'll say that I don't have a problem with story templates, I just think that the generally reductive treatment of the Other, from the dominant white cultural perspective of the film, is problematic in this circumstance. That is an important difference between Avatar and Dances With Wolves, Last Samurai, etc. There's also the more insidious colonialism espoused by the narrative under the guise of high-minded liberal environmentalism, but that's a whole other can of worms. I'll get to all that soon.

    Thanks for the comments, both of you, I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. More to come shortly.

  4. I would say it's more like Ferngully. And there is nothing wrong with that. How many times have films and stories repeated under different light? Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story to name one. It's just a classic story line and there is nothing wrong with that. My only criticism of Avatar is that the characters were 2D. The "evil corporate boss" was so flat that I thought he was a joke. I didn't take him or the army dude seriously at all. When they were being so obviously evil I may have laughed a bit. These were caricatures if anything.
    Besides that, the film was incredible and I want to go to Pandora...