Gizmag is hardly a movie review site, but when a film comes along that advances the art form in such a revolutionary way as James Cameron's Avatar, it becomes entirely relevant to fans of emerging technology. I saw it last night in IMAX 3D - and despite ten years' worth of building expectations and a frenzied hype campaign in recent months, I was still unprepared for the enormity of the technical and artistic achievement this film represents. If you haven't seen it yet, read on, we've kept spoilers to a minimum.
Nowadays, it seems like everyone's got a huge hi-def TV and a cinema surround sound system in their living room. DVDs and Blu-Rays are cheap and plentiful, and cheap internet connections make it quick and easy for people to steal pirated movies over the Web if they don't want to wait too long after the release date. Faced with these sorts of options, movie theaters are constantly searching for the next "event movie" - something so massive and spectacular that you simply can't imagine stuffing it into your lounge room idiot box.
Last night I had the chance to watch the grand-daddy of all event movies on the biggest screen in town. Director James Cameron, who was one of the pioneers in the age of hyper-realistic CGI with Terminator 2 and The Abyss - and who was also responsible for Titanic, the biggest-grossing movie of all time - has spent the last ten years working on his latest film, Avatar. And boy, is it a cracker.
Filmed using a raft of new 3D technologies and a 70-30 mix of CGI with live action, Avatar is the story of Jake Scully, a paraplegic marine posted to a base on a faraway planet full of dragons, floating mountains, bizarre creatures and sexy, blue, 9-foot-tall aliens. By linking up with an 'Avatar,' his consciousness is transported into the body of one of these Na'vi aliens and he's able to experience the magical planet through and interact with the natives.
Pushing the boundaries of film technology
In order to bring planet Pandora to life, Cameron had to overcome a series of technical and logistic challenges - for starters, he had to evangelize the very concept of 3D to a cinema world that had dismissed 3D as a cheesy relic of the 1950s. He had to develop a portable and mobile camera system that could film stereoscopically without interfering too much in the filmmaking process. Then, he had to work out how to bring the gigantic scope of his vision to life using cutting-edge CGI.
But most importantly, he had to work out how to integrate his human actors' performances with the CGI elements in a way the felt real and avoided the clunky CG character flaws of, say, a Jar Jar Binks - and do it all in 3D.
The solution was pure technical genius. Cameron and his team designed a "virtual camera" system that processed the motion capture actors and backgrounds in real time, so that Cameron could watch and direct the CGI action more or less the way the audience would see it, even as a scene was being filmed.
Facial motion capture technology was also developed to record every nuance of the live actors' performances, with additional cameras fitted to the mo-cap actors' skull caps in order to perfectly grab the eye, mouth and facial wrinkle motions that carry so much weight when it comes to building realistic CG characters. With facial capture recorded separately to the rest of the motion capture, it was also possible to re-do bits of dialogue or facial acting after the main scene had been filmed.
The results are absolutely staggering. The strength of Cameron's vision for this film, his intense attention to the tiny details and the brilliance of his artistic team make Pandora a hugely believable world. The visuals are far and away the most staggering thing I've ever witnessed, and the use of 3D adds immeasurably, transporting you into each scene in a way that simply redefines immersion.
The big stuff - the phenomenal sky battles, the floating mountains, the gundam suits, dragons and massive Pandoran beasts, blew my mind. The tiny details, like the spinning insects, the floating ash and flying dirt, were almost as stunning. But the indoor shots in the human world were some of the most immersive, placing you right there in the command room with its awesome holographic displays.
The characters and some of the dialogue have a fairly strong whiff of cheese and ham about them, the plot gets a little obvious and the environmental/harmony with nature message could be seen as preachy, but the overall experience of this movie had me gasping in pure awe. When I had to take my glasses off and leave the cinema, I felt every bit as shattered to leave Pandora as Scully feels when he gets unplugged from his Na'vi avatar.
The gigantic IMAX screen can be just too big for some 2D movies - for Avatar, it's absolutely perfect - in fact, it almost felt a little small. Could you have the same experience watching it on your lounge room plasma? No, sir.
Congratulations, Mr. Cameron. You said you'd deliver a movie that would revolutionize the cinema, and you have. If this is the future of motion pictures, I can't wait.
Trailer: James Cameron's Avatar vision:
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