Thursday, February 11, 2010

Not THAT Revolutionary

Our most humble of hosts on this here corner of the Intarwebs commented in Dawn's Avatar rant that Avatar could be the Jazz Singer of our time.


Similar themes have been voiced during the run of this inconceivably popular movie. It's going to change movie-making as we know it! It's a technological leap forward!

At best, Avatar is evolutionary. It introduces new methods of motion capture, 3D technology, and possible the most important tool for the filmmaker - live view. Cameron and the crew were able to view a rough cut of every scene as soon as it was shot. Effects, graphics, etc, applied moments after he yelled "cut!"

But will it change movies? Will they all be 3D, mo-capped, computer-generated worlds? No. Sure, for the next season or two, every big-budget blockbuster will be re-done in 3D, but it's too late to film most of them with Cameron's tech, and that is a key component to why the 3D worked. By the time the movies that DO license his new-fangled gadgetry are made and released, the world will have remembered that just because a movie is in 3D, doesn't mean it's worth watching.

Plus, not every movie will have a $200 million+ budget to do this with. Cameron pulled it off because he had Titanic behind him. He was allowed a risk. Now, with another $2 billion in the bank, he can pretty much do whatever he wants. That doesn't mean Jon Favreau gets to do The Avengers in 3D mo-cap.

Look at a few other "revolutionary" movies from recent history - The Matrix and Toy Story. The Matrix gave us that 3D panning effect. It was TOTALLY AWESOME when we first saw Trinity leap up and kick some ass. It was played out completely within 2 years. Why? Because every movie in the world used it. Something explodes? Freeze and pan around it! Jump to light speed? Freeze and pan! It was gimmicky and is now rarely seen.

Toy Story showed everyone that a CG movie could be good. Pixar has a pretty solid track record since then. Even their movies I'm not fond of (Cars, Wall-E) are still full of heart and technical wizardry. How long did it take for the rest of Hollywood to catch up in quality? Well, if you forget about the first Shrek, it finally happened last year. That's 14 years before the playing field was Pixar vs a bunch of really terrible CG animated movies, made simply because studio heads thought it was the CG that made the Pixar movies popular, not the quality stories and directing.

The Jazz Singer rapidly turned what was largely a silent medium (there had been synchronized sound films before it) into a multi-media experience almost overnight. Within a couple years, silent film was dead and everything had dialogue. Hollywood never looked back. For the technology of Avatar to have the same effect, it would mean the death of traditional filmmaking. That's just not going to happen. The risks are too big to make on every movie. The bankable directors are too smart to use the technology uselessly (even Michael Bay still prefers real explosions and stunts over CG). Sure, it will creep in to some enjoyable flicks, but what's far more likely is a bunch of useless 3D-as-an-afterthought, and terrible, TERRIBLE CG mo-cap films that try to cash in on the gimmick.

I remember Cameron saying how he wanted Avatar to be a good 2D film that 3D added depth to. He succeeded in spirit - the movie doesn't NEED the 3D to be viewable, but it's not good. Sadly, most of those rushing to the tech will make movies that fail completely on a 2D level, just the audience can have buckets of blood thrown on them while they duck flying axes.

And between those? A bunch of movies that will ignore these tricks completely. And they'll greatly outnumber the others. Eventually the live-view of effects and fantastic motion capture will find its way into regular movies. The former of those will be invisible to the viewer, but should result in better direction. The latter will be more subtle than now, like so many other formerly amazing effects.

Revolutionary? No. Just another gimmick that will get played out, with the better points eventually being taken for granted. In the meantime though, James Cameron is going to make more on licensing his new technology than he'll ever make from Box Office. The guy is an expert on that chapter of George Lucas' playbook.


Julius_Goat said...

Your points are well taken, and I don't think I disagree, but I will clarify a couple things:

1) I said "might."

2) I am referring not to the "coolness" of any effect, but to the immersive quality, which engaged the senses in a way that I've frankly never experienced before. Occasionally, it felt like a new way of watching movies in a way that The Matrix, for all its cool special effects, never did. Toy Story was computer generated, but it never felt like a new way of watching movies. This feels like it might (might, boy, ah say might) be.

3) If the economics that are currently in effect for immersion viewing (I'll use that rather than 3D) remain in effect going forward, than this will likely never be more than an occasional roller coaster that rolls into town. But I'd love to see an immersive noir in the hands of a modern master, or the horrorshow that an immersive David Lynch would inflict upon me. Not that I think Lynch himself specifically would film this way . . . but some auteur might. I am just saying, if immersive can reach the hands of a visionary who puts story first, we could be on the verge of something.

I thought Avatar was extraordinary, and if it hadn't had that immersive quality, I'd have found it completely boring. And I suspect that (and this was my point) if immersive ever does become a new way of making movies, that Avatar will be seen as a kind of silly, somewhat embarrassing film to hold the honor of this groundbreaking moment. Kind of like The Jazz Singer.

You know, perhaps.

Astin said...

I'd hardly call the experience immersive. It was very well-done 3D, but the only scene in the whole thing where I felt any sense of immersion was as Sully was walking through the ash. The rest? Felt like a well-done 3D movie. The Borg ride at the Vegas Hilton felt more immersive.

Regardless, that feeling isn't what will be replicated, because the studios won't get it. And the cost, even if the licensing and technology drops in price, will remain high. 3D distribution is still limited and at a premium. It would take a tent-pole type of film to get that attention. Which means it'll be a while before we see anything other than big action pieces.

I'll give you that it could be incredibly well-used by the right person, but it would take a lot to convince the money to back it.

Granted, maybe a Christopher Nolan could pull off something noir-ish and get it in theatres. Batman money should be enough to give him some rope. Now that could turn the tide. Something with more substance, and not necessarily all noise and action.

Dawn Summers said...

The only time I felt immersed was the beginning scenes and then he rolled off the big army space ship and I was like "what?" I didn't even get dizzy during all the flying around scenes and I get motion sick playing rush poker.

Julius_Goat said...

OK, then it sounds like the only difference was the extent to which we felt "immersed." It was strongest for me at the exact points that you have pointed out (the opening in the transport ship, the ash rain), and it was, perhaps ironically, weakest during the action sequences, but it was there. From my perspective, it struck me as something other that 3D as it has previously been understood, and certainly something different from special effects. The character work on the dragon or on the avatars or even on CG generated Sigourney Weaver, those are special effects, and, while impressive, they aren't what I'm talking about. The sensation that I as spectator experienced while watching, is. If you didn't experience that to the extent that I did, well, there you go. I think we've pinned down the source and nature of our divergence.

@Astin I'll repeat again that, yes, I agree, if the tech remains as prohibitively expensive as it currently is, then no, this won't be more than the occasional fun ride and will remain in the realm of big empty summer blockbuster forevermore. I still remain fascinated by what a Terry Gilliam (for example) would accomplish.

Astin said...

Well, if someone does a movie with Cameron's tech that takes place entirely in the rain, or floating in a space-barracks, then we'll have a winner!

But it isn't anything I hadn't seen before in some other form. Coraline had some very good use of 3D, and at times felt far more immersive. As mentioned, the Star Trek Borg ride at the Vegas Hilton used its 3D to great effect - flying nanite distributors and phaser fire. Even after Avatar, I think the T2 experience at Universal Florida is still the best 3D I've ever seen.

Point being - comparable technology has been around for years, and hasn't made a serious impact yet. I'm not holding my breath on this one.

Julius_Goat said...

I'm not surprised you feel this way. After all, you hate science.