Monday, January 18, 2010

Avatar: Driving Tech

Last night we watched James Cameron's latest blockbuster, Avatar, take the Best Director and Best Dramatic Film categories at the Golden Globes over what were very strong fields. I saw the film recently (on a 3D IMAX screen) and was struck by the effective use of 3D tech, perhaps for the first time. I'd seen only a handful of 3D films before (Coraline, Up), but this was the first time where I felt that the tech wasn't used just to drive sales for a kids movie, but as an overall enhancement of the film.

First, the usual bit of attitude. The story has been told a dozen times before in the last 20 years, perhaps the best example being Dances With Wolves, and I won't go into it other than to say that while there's nothing new here, the storytelling will still tug at your heart shamelessly. Cameron is not a man who does things in a subtle fashion.

The other thing that surprised me was that Cameron seems to have finally gotten away from the chase film. Aliens, Terminator 2, even Titanic - all were about someone who only wanted to be left alone but were constantly pursued by the bad guy/robot/alien killing machines. Of course, in Titanic the bad guy was Billy Zane with a gun, and they were trapped on a sinking ship, but Cameron stuck to what he knew. Avatar flirts with the genre, but in the end it's a clash of cultures film rather than a chase film, and thank goodness for that.

Like everyone else, I saw the movie on an IMAX screen at 0'dark:30, and I have to say that if you want a truly immersive experience, this is the way you should see it. Yes, it will be expensive - $35 for two people including the onerous but essential Fandango service charge. Welcome to the future of cinema, those IMAX projectors aren't cheap.

Even though we got to the theater 30 minutes before it started, the place was already more or less packed, and we ended up sitting near the back and to the side, although that wasn't a bad thing at all and considerably better than sitting in the very front (which filled up immediately after we got there). I recommend that you go a good 45 minutes to an hour ahead of time (depending upon the location and it's popularity in your area) to get a good seat. For us, the screen dominated but did not consume our field of vision, and I really can't say if it's better to have some anchor on reality in your peripheral vision or to have the screen be all you can really see.

I mentioned that this film made good use of the 3D tech. By this I mean that there were no real "gimmicks" thrown in to show off the tech like so many of these movies do. The preview for Shrek 4, for example, consisted of one character being hurled "into" the audience after another, while Avatar showed considerably more restraint. To be fair, the big battle scene at the end (and of course there is one, just be glad it didn't pit Ewoks against Stormtroopers) does have some spectacular footage that does exploit 3D, but you want *some* eye candy, and in this case it was applied somewhat sparingly.

At the same time, this isn't a movie like Up where the 3D was more of a "me-too" effect that didn't add a lot to the storytelling. Instead, the 3D in Avatar feels very natural and organic, providing both light *and* heat. Because the movie involves quite a bit of CGI animation throughout but combined with considerable "real" sets and actors, the 3D felt as if it were blurring the lines between the two and easing us into the elements of the alien world.

Love or hate Cameron (and after Titanic I swore I'd never watch one of his new movies again), he does some journeyman work here. While the story is a bit on the recycled side, and the writing is serviceable, it is the use of the camera that makes this a must-see film. If nothing else, Cameron uses angles and shots that are exactly what they should be for a given scene, and the use of the 3D effect in some places is quite exhilarating. For example, near the end of the film there is a shot that zooms in over a large gathering of aliens during a ritual that swoops down and takes in their outstretched fingers as it approaches the focal point. There are quite a few scenes that feature dust or embers floating in the air in the foreground where I could swear that something was about to land in my lap, and had the bottom edge of the screen not been in my lower field of vision I would have almost certainly felt it as well.

By the end of the film, I knew that we had all just bought new HD televisions only to be getting rid of them in three or four years for 3D TVs. And they are out there, just check the ads in your local newspaper. ESPN is already planning 3D broadcasts of live sporting events within the next few months. If you thought HD was going to clog your AV bandwidth, get ready for 3D. This will require ever more sophisticated compression techniques and/or fatter pipes (and thus different connection tech) to get what must be a simply incredible amount of data onto a screen from another location. And we won't even talk about Blu-Ray and whether or not 50 Gbs are enough to deliver this sort of experience, or whether that $100 player you scored over the holidays can be upgraded to play a 3D title.

Of course, I'm not talking about your grandpappy's red/green paper glasses 3D here. This is polarized 3D that requires expensive goggles for use in the home (the theater uses a passive system, but that requires expensive projectors, hence the increased cost of seeing 3D films), currently above the $150 mark per set of goggles.

However, the tech that this will *really* drive is that of fully immersive video, where you are *in* the picture in both a virtual and physical sense. Call it a holodeck, call it a holographic tank, that is where this tech will eventually take us. And that is what Avatar's legacy really is - it shows us what is possible and makes us want more and better.

The down side is that we are going to be subjected to an astonishing range of really bad 3D film trying to cash in on Avatar's success. Because Gigli wouldn't have been so bad had it been 3D, right? At least that is how the studios will see it. And the studios have to find a way to get people out of their living rooms and into theater seats, and 3D (and IMAX) are the current ways to do that. Avatar showed that you *can* make a movie that has broad appeal and is well made *and* uses 3D effectively and tastefully. It is a proof of concept that will be cited over and over in script/movie pitches for the next five years.

The other down side is that this won't be a movie that will satisfy in the home theater setting, at least for the vast majority of us. Remember Jurassic Park, and how cool it was in the theater and what a dud it was when you got it home to your 27" CRT? Yeah, it'll be like that. So if you want to see this movie in it's natural environment, suck it up, pay the exorbitant fee to go see it (more than most Blu-Ray discs for a party of two!) and marvel at what you'll be able to do in your own home in 10 years. Because that's what this movie has done - make us buy yet another television.

1 comment:

Greg W said...

The 3D presentation was fantastic but I think you overemphasize it's importance. Without the amazing 3d environments and character animation it would have been wasted. I think they crossed the uncanny valley!