Saw James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) yesterday afternoon in 3D at the Shepherd’s Bush VUE Cinemas in London. Went with my Dad who has seen more movies than I am ever likely to see, including the 3D masterpiece, “Bwana Devil” (1952).
One of my first thoughts was: Now I know what the Act III of “Return Of The Jedi” (1983) should have looked like.
“Avatar” isn’t Jim Cameron’s best movie. That honour still goes to “Aliens” (1986), as beautifully plotted an action movie as there has ever been. A respectable horror movie too, but it is primarily an action movie. Still, I really found “Avatar” exquisitely beautiful in its design and execution.
Already I’m getting flack from Film World Colleagues, who thought the movie ham-fisted. Where I saw delightful design choices, they saw lipstick on a pig.
The fact that there is nothing new in its premise – that “Avatar” is “Dances With Wolves” (1990) / “Little Big Man” (1970) / “Lawrence Of Arabia” ?? (1962) / “Fill In The Blank” In Space – seems a weak criticism of the movie, though it’s been trotted out a lot over the past couple weeks.
Native American actor & Vietnam vet, (far left) leads a Pawnee raiding party in Dances With Wolves. He played Eytukan in Avatar
Cameron has deliberately kept the story simple, obvious even, to provide a solid framework on which he can hang all his beautiful decoration. To get clever with both design and story at the same time could invite Unmanageability – the bane of Cameron’s existence. Cameron has always kept his plots and characters very simple, virtually mechanical in their efficiency. When he has tried to reach for more complex and subtle (relatively) themes and plotting, the movies have suffered. And, recalling the tales told about the production of Cameron’s two “wettest” movies, “The Abyss” and “Titanic”, his crews have suffered too. For Cameron, “Keep it simple” is a mantra that leads to success.
The story structure in “Avatar” is really quite adroit – solid and simple. As any good writer will tell you, “solid and simple” is actually hard to pull off, because false notes – and there are some in “Avatar” – stick out like signalling antennae on an alien lifeform.
The movie has a skeleton of very simple, rock-solid sequences – like its cousin “Dances With Wolves”. “Dances”, one of the longest movies to ever win a Best Picture Academy Award, flies by for most people because it is constructed of straightforward, firmly constructed sequences. Knowing where the story is going – having “seen it before” – carries the audience along. We are always anticipating the next beat. We know what is supposed to happen next, more or less, but we don’t know exactly how it will be presented. And that is the way expert storytellers do it – just ask Hitchcock.
Oh, and Cameron stole the entire “Avatar” idea from me. I wrote, in high school, a story of a race of simple blue-skinned aliens who lived on a jungle world. A human male is drawn into defending them from a highly technological man-machine who wants to take the blue-skinned guys’ precious, sacred mineral.
Naturally, I plan to sue.
Of course, I ripped off – and still do – all the other sci-fi writers I knew and loved. “Avatar” is a conservatively plotted, “classic sci-fi” story, in the vein of one of the Heinlein or Asimov books. It absorbs all the flavours and styles that those great 20th century sci-fi authors – and their hundreds of imitators – spun and then sings it back in Cameron’s voice. Just as I did in my own voice via my high school “Avatar” precursor.
We are in an age of illustration in movies – and we have Peter Jackson to thank/blame for it. The goal in so many big studio movie adaptations is not to bring new insight to a story or a franchise, but to illustrate an existing property faithfully. Peter Jackson’s stunning success rested on giving audiences exactly the “Lord Of The Rings” that they had imagined – plus a bit more. A lot of people – well, myself anyway – watched the “Lord Of The Rings” movies thinking, “Wow. If I had a bit more imagination, then that is exactly how I would have imagined it.” In other movies, the source material has been so sacred that barely a word or beat is changed in the film adaptation – “300” and “Sin City”. I think “Avatar” follows in this tradition, illustrating a sci-fi story already existing in the back of our collective imaginations. Dragon riders, floating mountains, glowing forests with trees the size of skyscrapers – we all know bits and pieces of these from books and wall calendars and dreams. It’s as if Cameron has supplied the movie to a story we had known about all along.
There’s much more to say about “Avatar”. For one, its political stance is fascinating to me. It’s a major studio movie by a major studio director that takes an aggressively anti-neocon POV. Very unusual.
But I’d like to hear your comments, then we can get into some discussion.
(printed in April 2009 TVBEurope as Solving 3D Headaches: Matt Brennesholtz Helps Negotiate A Challenging 3D Future)
“I love watching 3D, it’s just that after 10 minutes I have a pounding headache.”
At tradeshows, exhibitions, screenings, even meet-ups of 3D devotees, one hears it over and over. At the Digital Television Group’s Summit 2009 in March, an overview of Sky’s plans for 3DTV was introduced with “Here’s Chris Johns to tell us about eye strain.”
There has been a mad rush to produce 3D content even though their may not be the viewership for it. Critics vocally wonder if the producers of 3D content are living in a fool’s paradise, preparing for The Next Big Thing that may never come. The Beijing Olympics was touted as the “3D Olympics”. 3D trials were to play in limited markets, primarily in Asia. The fact that few people have heard that Beijing was the “3D Olympics” may suggest how successful the experiment was.
Creating dynamic, believable and commercially viable 3D images is a challenge that has been around longer than most people suppose. 3D is usually associated with the 1950’s and the spate of anaglyph-based 3D feature films – although the anaglyph technique had been used to create 3D images since the 1850’s. The first stereoscopic motion picture patent was taken out in the 1890’s and the first 3D camera rig was patented in 1900.
TVBEurope talked with 3D expert Matt Brennesholtz, a senior analyst at Insight Media who has worked in partnership with the 3D@Home Consortium. The 3D@Home Consortium was formed in 2008 to speed the commercialization of 3D into homes worldwide. It also attempts to facilitate the development of standards, roadmaps and education for the 3D industry. In 2007 Brennesholtz co-authored a 400-page report “3D Technology and Markets: A Study of All Aspects of Electronic 3D Systems, Applications and Markets”. This all encompassing document forecast the viability of 3D display technology in a vast array of markets into the next decade. Its scope included not just stereoscopic 3D displays, but a variety of autostereoscopic displays, and rotating image plane, vibrating membrane, and micropolarizer technologies.
Brennesholtz is an expert in display technologies, having been a lead projection system architect at Philips LCoS Microdisplay Systems. He has a masters of Engineering in Optics and Plasma Physics from Cornell University and has been granted 23 patents. Still, we asked question most on everyone’s mind – why do we get a headache when we watch 3D?
“One of the fundamental problems with 3D displays,” he explains, “is the problem of convergence and accommodation.” Convergence is the ability of the eyes to stay trained on a point in space and allows you to focus on the text on a mobile phone three inches from your nose. Accommodation is the ability of the eye itself to focus in distance like a mini-camera.
Stereoscopic images rely on the brain’s default setting of always making a single image out of the pair of images received by the eyes – as opposed to how chameleons do it. The perceived “space” between the two side-by-side images in a 3D show is compensated for by convergence with the eyes going from being parallel towards being crossed and back – just as they would in watching a live event.
The element that is challenging for the brain – and for some viewers – is the image in a 3D display is always exactly the same distance away, on the surface of the screen. The convergence of the eyes sends the message that objects are moving forward and backward in space, but the real image each eye is capturing stays put. The brain is trying to tackle two different ways of seeing at once, like a computer running two memory intensive applications at the same time. The fact that the eyes are making very few focus changes, doesn’t mean that the brain is not revving like an engine every time it thinks something is moving toward it or away from it. Perhaps, like the trick of being able to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time, the brain may get the hang of it with repeated viewing.
“There can be other human factor problems associated with bad 3D displays,” Brennesholtz notes, “with certain types of encoding, for example, but this is a fundamental problem that really is inescapable in the 3D display world.”
The most serious aggravation of the accommodation-convergence discrepancy is when the content creator puts images in the virtual space in front of the screen – the monster reaches out to camera, the enemy fires a hundred arrows at us, and the like. These are the effects that producers may push because they have greater visceral impact, but they are also the things that most bother the eyes. Brennesholtz says the solution is to place most 3D effects at the level of the screen or behind it.
Another significant issue, one to induce headaches in content creators rather than viewers, is that the content has to be created for the screen size and viewing distance of the intended audience. Analogous to needing different sound mixes for DVD, theatrical, and mobile device content, each 3D version of a programme must be mastered with its final destination in mind. Sound mixers have managed complex sets of presets for each intended format, it seems likely that 3D mastering will have to learn to do the same.
Although some roadblocks to the perfect 3D experience are exactly the same as they were in the 1950’s, Brennesholtz points out that the sophistication of today’s technology may overcome the others. “Some of the other problems that have been associated with 3D, like dimness or differences in brightness and color between the two images, can be overcome with proper display, screen and video signal design.”
Brennesholtz underlines the consumers demand for a quality experience that is the principle factor in adoption of 3D. “The end user, whether he’s watching broadcast television or cable or blue ray or is sitting in the cinema, is not going to give up anything to get 3D. He’s not going to give up resolution. He’s not going to give up frame rate. He’s not going to accept flicker. He’s not going to accept headaches. Basically, he wants his 2D experience – which right now when you look at HDTV is really good – but with 3D.”
Questions about 3D are in no short supply. Approximately 10% of the population are unable to properly see 3D, and what kind of a strategy must be developed when such a large segment of the audience must automatically be discounted? Most people are unaware that many TV’s are already “3D ready”, but where is the extra bandwidth going to come from if 3D TV is going to become a reality? And finally, if eyeball convergence and focus are such core issues in 3D viewing, what happens to the 3D experience after the third beer?
Last year, Axis Films co-sponsored a set of HD camera tests, in which a battery of digital cameras, from the Viper FilmStream to prosumer HD camcorders were meticulously run through their paces and tested against each other and workhorse film cameras. The last weekend in January, Axis hosted another illuminating symposium, this time on the 3D production and exhibition technology.
Axis was joined by The 3D Firm, Can Communicate, Inition and Quantel. Over 200 guests attended the two-day event, which offered a demo and ongoing workshop on the latest in 3D capture, post-production, and exhibition technologies, with particular emphasis on broadcast application.
It is difficult to open any publication about the media industry without reading or hearing someone extolling, or damning, the economic and aesthetic attributes of 3D exhibition. The showcase at Shepperton gave industry technicians and producers an opportunity to look beyond the hype and get some real facts.
First of all, if you want to sound like you know your stuff – and who does not in our industry? – avoid saying “3D”. Say instead, “stereoscopic”. The terms are interchangeable, but “stereoscopic” video is the accurate description of the medium. As with stereophonic audio, the effect relies on only two sources of information – left eye and right eye. The stereoscopic effect encourages the brain into believing it is observing objects existing in a 3D space, in the same way that a two-speaker audio system encourages the brain to believe it is hearing sounds from a multitude of sources – when it fact there are only two. The “3D” name is better suited to marketing and advertising, “stereoscopic” for the real production process.
Stereoscopic post-production has been revolutionized in the digital age. Quantel’s Pablo was on show at the Axis demo, dazzling attendees with its deftness in handling 3D editing and post. The Quantel system, used extensively in many phases of post-production, requires very little reconfiguring to manipulate stereoscopic data. Given the saturation of visual effects and compositing content throughout the industry, most post-production workstations are ready to handle stereoscopic moving images. In fact, most of 3D production and post-production is fairly unremarkable. To say it is the same as conventional production, but with one more camera, would not be too far afield.
A downside to 3D film production in past decades has been the simple mechanical challenge of getting film elements to register cleanly. Not only did negative in the camera have to register properly in order to produce the elements for a clean 3D image, but then diverse film projectors in diverse theatres had to project the two film elements in sync with precise calibration of the overlap of the two images. Digital technology now allows perfect synchronization and overlap of stereoscopic elements, which can be exhibited perpetually with the zero degradation in quality. This advance in production, and the greater standardization of exhibition parameters necessitated by digital technologies, have further opened up the opportunities for stereoscopic broadcast.
Many projection facilities have projection equipment that can accommodate 3D content, though the number of stereoscopic theatrical releases is relatively few. If 3D is to become a widely distributed feature of broadcast, wide-screen 3D releases will not provide any great percentage of the content. Sp where would a regular supply of 3D content come from?
There is a surprisingly large amount of 3D content hidden in plain sight. Shown at the Axis demonstration were 3D colour newsreels of young Elizabeth I – an example of the unique treasures hidden away in archives, some of which have remained virtually unviewed for decades. As Turner leveraged its MGM archive into one of the great cable movie channels, TCM, there are vast 3D libraries ready to be digitized for broadcast. Digital post technologies allow easy, on-the-fly cleanup of these film originals. The Quantel at the Axis presentation showed off the ease with which negative dust and scratches were erased from the digital elements of the Queen Elizabeth footage.
Today’s effects-rich media, in which even the most humble productions feature some 3D graphics or compositing work – in title sequences, at least – is another untapped gold-mine of stereoscopic content. The great open secret of 3D programming is that every frame that comes out of a 3D graphics program is ready for immediate adaptation to stereoscopic motion pictures. It already exists as a 3D image within the computer and with the term “rendering time” becoming an anachronism, outputting the POV of a second virtual camera can be done, almost literally, at no extra cost.
Also, the conversion of 2D productions to 3D is a rapidly developing specialty. At its most basic, the process uses simple, familiar compositing technologies. From the 2D footage, a background plate, and other elements of characters or foreground are created. Multiple layers of these can be manipulated along the z-axis like cardboard cut-outs in a diorama. On the other end of the spectrum are more sophisticated technologies which calculate entire, detailed 3D spaces out of existing 2D footage, which are beyond the scope of this article – for the time being.
As with most broadcast technologies which showcase visual spectacle – HD programming springs to mind – new 3D content tends to be confined to sporting events, stage performances, and nature programs. The 3D family melodrama has yet to be made. These spectacle types of entertainments are designed to directly engage a viewer on a visceral level, and the stereoscopic experience – like the HD, 5.1 surround experience – has the potential to augment that. Another, more subtle element is that these types of content emphasize the documentation of a real event – generally one in which the audience maintains a static point of view. 3D presentations can often mimic the experience of watching something from a single point of view, the illusion sometimes being interrupted when the camera begins to move. If stereoscopic production and post are not handled skillfully, a moving camera can irritate the viewer rather than enhance the 3D effect.
The elephant in the room regarding the new revolution in 3D push is: “Is it really a new revolution? Or is it the same old thing one more time?” The truth is, at least one journalist – though fascinated and inspired by the technology – left the Axis 3D presentation with stinging eyes and a headache.
Stereoscopic photography was developed in the 1840’s, on the heels of the photographic technique itself, and its basic principle has remained virtually unchanged. Much press has stated that we are poised on the edge of a paradigm shift in which 3D presentation will be ubiquitous or, some would even argue, the norm. But stereoscopic theatrical exhibition was vigorously promoted in the 1950’s and despite continuing improvements in the technology, did not take hold as many hoped it would. Is this the old saw of repeatedly performing the same actions, but expecting them to produce different results?
Despite IMAX and other big screen 3D venues, the new outlet for 3D content might well be HD broadcast. 3D LCD monitors, including the Planar StereoMirror professional display were exhibited at the Axis demo, but for consumers to trade in their HD monitors – which themselves required months of nervous window shopping and saving – for 3D monitors will require a saturation level of 3D content which, at this juncture, would seem decades away. Time-tested technologies using conventional monitors, which can be viewed with special glasses will be the standard 3D exhibition for the foreseeable future. The 3D Holy Grail of “no special glasses” – beyond a few specialty venues – will not be adopted by home viewers.
The Beijing Olympics may well be the trial by fire for 3D broadcast. The games will feature a channel dedicated to stereoscopic coverage of events. East Asia has remained at the forefront of 3D broadcast content, and it will be vital for European producers to study the behaviour of East Asian audiences and the strategies of their broadcasters. The Beijing “3D Olympics” will also be a laboratory for a dedicated 3D production workflow and 3D troubleshooting and problem solving in multiple settings.
One shocking fact presented at the Axis Films workshop might be enough to rock the foundation of every 3D business plan in the works. Roughly 8% of the population cannot see stereoscopic video. This is due to a range of factors, including partial blindness or amblyopia (“lazy eye”), focus difficulties. Whether or not a broadcast revolution can be built on a technology which immediately excludes 8% of its audience remains to be seen.
Neal Romanek is a screenwriter and journalist living in London. He attended USC’s Cinema-TV Production program and writes for a diverse collection of entertainment media publications in Europe and the USA. His official website is: http://www.nealromanek.com