After all the hype about the stereoscopic 3D effects in James Cameron’s Avatar movie it was surprising how that wasn’t the thing that impressed me the most about the film when I saw it this week. It was the character animation and totally seamless blending of real actors with CGI that blew me away.
CGI characters have historically been shiny round things ever since Luxo Jr and Toy Story many moons ago. Then, when hair was possible, we had Monsters Inc to show off that effect. Polar Express attempted lifelike characters but produced almost expressionless mannequins. Final Fantasy looked great but it was still obvious you were watching CGI. And let’s not even talk about Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars Episode I. What James Cameron and Weta Digital have achieved in Avatar is a realism never seen before. Ok, the aliens are still blue (affectionately referred to by many as Thundersmurfs) but human skin tones are still notoriously difficult to render. It’s the motion capture which is the ground breaking element in this film. It’s even now referred to as ‘performance capture’ as it truly does capture the actors’ performances, right down to their eyes. It’s very strange watching Sigourney Weaver’s Avatar when you totally see her mannerisms and facial expressions in the animation. You really will forget, for much of the film, that you are watching CGI characters.
People have said that this means the end of actors, and that we can keep actors appearing on screen in new films after they die because we will have their facial structure and expressions saved on computer. I have to say I’m really not sure about that to be honest. What about their voices? That’s probably about 70 percent of the acting. And the reason the CGI characters work in Avatar is because of the performance capture from the real actors, not just because of any master animators.
Now we come to the 3D. This was perhaps the most hyped part of the film and it really is fantastic. But to be honest, as a big fan of stereoscopic 3D and someone who has seen many 3D movies, it didn’t seem groundbreaking. Don’t get me wrong, it was incredible in places. Truly amazing and enthralling. But in other places it just almost got in the way. I absolutely love stereoscopic 3D, but there’s a time and a place. Some bits of the film like the floating mountain wideshots or the walking on the cliffside were greatly enhanced by the 3D. Other bits, however, were just obvious tricks to try to show off the 3D effect. Man sticking gun into screen and camera rotating round gun. Man putting golf ball and camera panning down to be almost hit by ball. These shots were just too obvious and only succeeded in reminding you that it was a movie that was trying to show off 3D. 3D is truly awesome for documentaries, music events and sport but I’m just not yet convinced its totally suitable for action films. Even James Cameron, with all his directorial experience and 3D research couldn’t get away from some basic 3D principles…
- Every time you cut to another camera or scene, your brain needs to work out new depth perception. So when you keep cutting extremely quickly between camera angles it can be hard to keep up. It’s unnatural, and the whole point of 3D is to make the film more natural
- When there are lots of things happening on screen, like in a dogfight, this gets even worse. Often it’s good to tone down the 3D effect for these sequences. I think this had to be done a few times in the film
- If you’re protruding things out of the screen you need to be careful they don’t cross the border of the frame, otherwise the illusion is lost. Cameron for this reason has lots of sequences where the depth into the screen is highlighted (positive parallax), such as the view over the edge of the cliff, rather than objects protruding out of the screen (negative parallax). This works really effectively when done well
- It’s best not to have subtitles if you can help it. It reminds the viewer there is a plane between them and the action
- Focus-pulling really confuses the brain. This is one thing which let’s 3D down. If there is more than one thing happening on screen your brain assumes that it can focus your eyes on whichever one you look at as you do in real life. Obviously you can’t as it is up to the director and cameraman to control the focus and so once again you realise you’re watching a film and the 3D illusion is lost. Unfortunately James Cameron started the movie with precisely this faux pas in the first 20 seconds.
The 3D really does help to bring you into the film but I’m not convinced it makes the film a ‘game-changer’ in that regard. It doesn’t convince me that every film should be in 3D yet. There are too many things to have to be aware of which means that not every film will translate well to 3D and not every director will be willing to accommodate it. But it certainly does show that 3D is a stunning effect when used in the appropriate places. As mentioned earlier, however, this may be best for documentaries and sporting events.
One of the things that intrigued me most about this film was the remote avatar dynamic. It’s the thing after which the movie was named after all. It was also the only thing to really set the story apart from just being another remake of Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas. And yet for me it was the area that was least touched upon. The main character was paralyzed from the waist down but when his mind went into the body of the physical avatar he could leap around like an olympic athlete. He learns skills, makes friends, builds relationships in this other world. It’s not quite a virtual world as it does actually exist but his mind is merely projected remotely into the physical avatar. His ‘second life’ is completely dependant on the technoloy back in the base and if the plug is pulled on the technology link his physical avatar drops down lifeless. When his avatar and the rest of his new alien friends sleep he wakes in the real world and debriefs his superiors. But this was all just touched upon lightly as if it was a totally normal situation. So much more could have been made of the split personality and double life that this caused. How he became almost addicted to this other world, which gave him freedom in so many ways he couldn’t get in his real world. How it alienated him from his fellow humans.
This was one of the most interesting things for me from the film and I don’t feel it was fully addressed. In this day and age of people spending more and more of their lives in virtual worlds and social networks pretending to be someone they’re not I felt that this could have been a much bigger moral input to the plot. Maybe he’s saving some of that for the sequel. In stunning 4D Smell-o-vision I’m sure. This is a James Cameron film so you are just along for the ride. And what a ride it is.