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Avatar – third person 3D

December 24, 2009

It don’t happen very often – seeing a film in an actual cinema – but the stars aligned and we managed to see Avatar in 3D. Woo-hoo. Terrific spectacle, a lot has been said already about its technical merits and about how story plays second fiddle, and I’ve not much to add other than to say I enjoyed it and was more than happy to pony up for tickets and popcorn. You can see where the money went, and my bum didn’t get sore.

Though my eyes were a little fatigued, maybe.

This is the first time I’ve seen a modern generation 3D film with polarising lenses rather than the old red and green specs, and the technology has come on leaps and bounds – as it is wont to. None of the old colour bleeds, everything really crisp and convincing. Almost too convincing.

Traditional, ie 2D, cinema is not immersive visually – our brains are never really kidded into thinking what it sees is anything other than images played out on a flat screen. Depending on the particular shot, some of the image will be in focus and some of it blurred. Typically the actor will be in focus and the background blurred, for example, and this allows for the director to direct our attention to particular objects or areas on the screen by adjusting the focus. Commonly, the focus might be on one actor speaking in the foreground, and the focus shift to another actor in the background for a reaction shot without requiring a cut. Our eyes track these changes in the focus depth.

But the 3D technology used in Avatar is so convincing that our brains are tricked into thinking that we are almost a part of the world displayed before us. But this is not first person 3D, it is third person 3D. James Cameron and his team went to enormous length and expense to create a rich world for the story – but for every frame, whether shot with real cameras or CGI – they still have to specify the focus depth, to guide what we are – or should be – looking at.

The disorienting part of the experience is that we may not want to look exactly where the director intends us to look, while some character is talking we may be looking around at the exquisite detail in the background. But when we look away from the character to this other object, we expect it to come into focus as things do in real life. But it doesn’t respond. It’s as if someone else is driving our eyes, or we seeing the scene through someone else’s eyes, some Avatar’s, indeed.

I don’t know what the significance of this is creatively, it is just what struck me most about the experience of watching the film in “3D”. True 3D, or first person 3D as I’m describing it, where you are free to look around and the images respond as you would expect them to, as in real life, will presumably be the next stage in 3D technology, some way off in the not-too-distant future. They’ll have to come up with some fancy name for it, like, I dunno, a hologram or something.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 20, 2010 5:13 pm

    Excellent observation.

    In essence Cameron directed the film like a regular action film, lots of medium shots, cuts, and nothing really singled out for real use of the 3D, nothing coming right at the screen or used to convey real depth or height. In short if you saw this in 2D you’d be seeing the same film. If you saw Coraline in 2D you were really cheating yourself.

    I’ve been seeing the new 3D in theaters for a while now so I was used to the effect.

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