I went to see Avatar for the second time on Friday night. The first time I saw it left me so awed I had to go and experience it again.
There are many people saying good things about the film at the moment, but for me, the thing that has impressed me most is the way the film has pioneered a sensible use of 3D, and seems to have finally overcome what I see as the cack handed use 3D has been put to over the last 10 years. And massive hat tip to Cameron for pulling off such a massive achievement. Both visually and technically, this film is such a leap forward that it’s quite likely only a person who bullies girls into filming in cold water for 5 hours would have the lack of regard for what everyone around him was telling him to pull it off.
Anyone who knows me and has entertained a film geek dialogue about 3D with me over the last 18 months will have heard me getting hugely frustrated at the way directors have been using this oddly retro-future technology. The idea that I want to have things thrown at my head when I go to see a film fills me with a kind of questioning concern for exactly what kind of human understanding I share with these directors (not to mention the idea that having things thrown at my head is in any way “more immersive”, given it normally makes me check that I am in fact safe, sitting in a cinema, and not in fact experiencing a story first hand). This is before I get on to the way directors seem to think that giving me the full range of depth of field available to their grubby mits is going to please me. Personally I’ve been a huge admirer of the fairly basic directorial technique of guiding audience attention using focus ever since I first experienced a movie, because it feels so natural and so similar to the way I experience the world when using my own eyes. When given a 3D image in which every plane is in focus, so I can let my eye wander from foreground to background without any real concern that I might find any of it a little blurry, I find myself checking out details that are in no way pivotal to the story and missing important bits. I feel like I’m watching bad theatre where the set designers deserve as much credit as the writer or director, and end up getting a bit bored.
But this was before I saw Avatar. The most impressive thing about the film is the level of understanding it shows for how people experience stories, emotionally and visually. This is all the more impressive given everyone else, even directors I have admired for years, has been getting it so un-utterably wrong.
Cameron doing some 3D with some cheap camera he found
Cameron essentially uses the 3D tool he spent so long researching (and oftentimes developing technology for himself) so subtly. Once the film has been running for a couple of minutes you practically forget its in 3D. He shoots with limited depth of field in the same way filmmakers always have. He tones the effect down when he needs you to be noticing characters and performance more, and only opens it up to its full extent in scenes where he really can get away with it without knocking you out of the “world” he’s created.
It IS more immersive. Its hard to say how this additional perception of depth would affect a drama film for example (and Cameron himself seems keen to experiment and find out). And ultimately the effect is negligible in comparison to factors such as story, performance, shooting style etc. This really isn’t a way to rescue cinema, merely a way to make good cinema that bit more visceral to prompt viewers to bother making the trip outside their house to watch films.
To top my awe at his achievements off, I noticed his name in the credits as camera operator, and was searching yesterday for more info on this when I found an article outlining his approach to much of what I’ve mentioned above. Why other filmmakers have ignored his hugely rational and clear headed assessment of a technology that has kind of been pinned to his flagpole, I don’t really know, but I hope more will start taking notice now the film is out for all to see.