Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Musing Pictures: Avatar

Though the film itself lacks a certain degree of depth and complexity, James Cameron's "Avatar" is the strongest argument in a while for a shift in focus when it comes to Hollywood cinema.

I was fortunate to catch "Avatar" on an IMAX screen in 3D. (full disclosure: I own roughly 15 shares of IMAX stock). The film has been made available to audiences in several other formats, including two "regular" 3D formats, and a "flat" version for traditional movie screens. It follows several recent blockbusters (including the latest in the "Harry Potter" franchise) which were also released in 3D and IMAX 3D formats. This 3D trend is not entirely new, nor is it entirely original.

In the '50s, 3D first emerged as a way to compete with the emergence of television and other factors that cut in to ticket sales. At the time, the technology was very rough - projectors were known to malfunction, and enough viewers complained of headaches that the process was temporarily abandoned.

the '70s brought new technology to the realm of 3D films, as well as new challenges to Hollywood in the form of the VCR. Again, Hollywood included 3D in its arsenal to win back audiences, and although new technologies virtually eliminated the headaches and the projection glitches, 3D did not catch on. There were many theories as to why this might have happened. Some suggested the glasses were uncomfortable. Others thought that perhaps theaters didn't want to have to deal with the extra process of handing out and then collecting those glasses from every customer. Whatever it was, it killed 3D everywhere outside of theme parks and state fairs.

Now, Hollywood is faced with some of its biggest challenges: People are watching plenty of movies, but they're watching them at home, on television or on DVD, which places several additional barriers between the studio and its profits. To lure people back to the theaters, Hollywood has produced a decade's worth of giant films, high-budget special-effects spectaculars that audiences could only expect to appreciate on giant screens. That seems to have worked, somewhat. For the first time since World War II, US ticket sales have increased. But Hollywood is paranoid, perhaps rightly so. As the films have gotten bigger, to require bigger screens, so, too, have televisions grown. Home-viewing technology is hot on Hollywood's tail.

And so, again, we have a cycle of 3D movies. Will it stick? Will the cinematic landscape take to this change, or will it fall back on the simplicity of two-dimensional production once the fad dies down?

Perhaps the biggest potential contributor to a more resilient wave of 3D movies is the technology behind "Avatar" -- whereas 3D films were once shot with complicated two-camera rigs, new 3D films are shot on cameras such as the "Pace Fusion 3D", shoulder-mountable digital cameras that can match the flexibility and maneuverability of a prosumer digital video camera, but can shoot it all through the two lenses required for 3D production.

That, in itself, does not make "Avatar" unique -- other films have utilized these cameras. I suspect that their versatility will come in to play much more actively on the sorts of films that follow "Avatar's" giant footsteps. By being such a highly anticipated film, "Avatar" could convince theater owners to add 3D infrastructure to their theaters, thus expanding the potential reach for smaller, more modest 3D productions.

Now that the technology for relatively low-budget 3D production is becoming available, the final element required for 3D to take hold is more of an embrace of 3D on the part of theatrical distributors and exhibitors. If they're willing to show 3D content, more of that content will be created, and we'll be wearing glasses to many more films. A strong theatrical run for "Avatar" (and especially a strong run for its 3D screenings) would be all it takes. If the numbers add up, theaters will be happy to show more 3D fare. If "Avatar" can prove that 3D is a profitable way to shoot things, it'll enter the mainstream in ways that could not have happened otherwise.

So, what does it take for "Avatar" to demonstrate the profitability of 3D? Well, every time you hear someone recommend that it be seen in 3D, you're hearing a part of that process at work. The film's narrative is very thin, full of cliches and uninspired plot points. But the world woven by the film's creators is exceptionally rich, vividly painted, and entirely absorbing. Seeing the film in 3D is a powerful immersive experience. The appreciation of this experience is reinforced by the plot's own meta-commentary. In the film, humans on a remote planet connect themselves to genetically constructed alien bodies -- they are able to control these alien bodies, to walk around and speak through them. They can experience this alien planet from within the body of an alien -- as if they're right there, among the trees. When the lead character says about the experience, "this is great", he is priming us, giving us the words that will paint our experience. Our experience of seeing this planet as if we're right there, among the trees.


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