Category: Commentary

Avatar – post script 2

I know, not a very clever post title. Oh well, just a quick link. Seems like Avatar isn’t as big a hit as everyone thinks. The article shows the top 20 films by ticket sales (ignoring price). Interesting list… over 200 million ticket sales for the top film, that’s a lot of people.

Avatar – part 4

Cinematography and Stereoscopy

Unfortunately I don’t have a photographic memory, nor do I have access to the movie in order to show you specific examples of what I am about to say, but what I do have are some impressions that I came away with right after watching the movie. As impressions, they may not be easily substantiated, but they were impressions nonetheless. So please bear with me…. I also combine my impressions under the umbrella of ‘cinematography and stereoscopy’ because they seem to me to be connected.

Entrapment

The first thing that I noticed is what I call ‘entrapment’. For the majority of the movie I actually felt that I was forced to watch specific areas of the screen. This was a disturbing feeling. So what happened?

In the art world we discover that graphic design and art are about, among other things, capturing and maintaining the interest of the viewer. As an artist you manipulate the viewer into a hierarchy of elements that you want the viewer to see. Often you create a sort of road map that the eye can follow to some focal point, a destination. This applies directly to a still image or painting, but it also works, albeit more dynamically, in moving pictures – i.e. cinema. It’s all about composition, leading the viewer’s eye around the picture. A lot of times I found that while watching Avatar I wasn’t allowed to look around at elements and be drawn into a focal point.

With Avatar I often found myself looking only at one place in the shots. And I felt myself forced to look at that one place, like I had no choice but to look there. A good composition leads you around and lets you look at other things in the shot/image, but it doesn’t hijack the eye and hold it for ransom!

I think the cause of this is a combination of two things: stereoscopy and close-up shots. It seems to me that the three dimensional effect of stereoscopy works best when there is a close-up shot (as compared to a long shot). This seems to create more of a parallax effect and therefore enhance the three-dee effect. On top of the use of the close-up to enhance the depth effect, Cameron uses a lot of depth of field where he put the object of interest in clear focus and everything else out of focus (sometimes really, really out of focus). The end result is that you really have no choice but to look at that thing that is in focus that is right in your face (IMax uses a really big screen so it is literally in your face).

The negative effect that this has is that you don’t have other interesting things to look at in a shot like that. In fact the eye just gets zapped to the center of interest and it just sticks there. No eye movement around the image, no real detail to soak up, just captured and held there – almost by force. Very unnerving.

Close-Ups

The second negative effect that all of this had was that I felt like my people bubble was constantly being violated while watching the film. Yes, stereoscopy certainly makes it a more immersive experience, but because of the use of a lot of close-up and medium-close-up shots, along with the extreme depth of field, you were almost always up close and personal with the characters in the movie.

Now consider what cinematographers use these different shots for… long shots are often used for establishing shots. They help place us in the world of the film and help to keep our bearings. Medium shots are often used for the majority of the film – they are the general story telling shots. That is because they are neither too far away (so that we can’t see what the focus is) and neither are they too close (those shots are saved for more intimate moments). You don’t want a film to be filled with a lot of close-up shots. Those shots should be reserved for bringing us into a more intimate relationship with the characters. If you over-use these, then you get what I felt in Avatar – characters climbing into your people bubble all the time.

So did Cameron actually use more close-up shots than normal? Perhaps, perhaps not… I’m not sure. But it is possible that due to the nature of stereoscopy the whole spectrum of shots is shifted and we feel that shots that used to be medium shots become more like close-up shots. The result is that a lot of shots shift toward the more personal and intimate (when they weren’t originally meant to be that way). So all of a sudden the whole film gets a lot more intimate (not just more immersive). I don’t think that was intentional.

Gimmick

So did the stereoscopic aspect of the film have any merits? I can’t think of any place in the movie that it really helped to tell the story (and if you think about it, that is what every element in a movie ought to be doing). In fact as you can see from my comments, I think the stereoscopy got in the way. It actually pulled me out of the movie.

There were a couple of shots where I said to myself, “This is cool!”. One shot was where I thought that the ashes from the burning tree were actually floating in front of my face (or when the bugs felt like they were buzzing in my face). But that, to me, is just a gimmick. They sort of exist for their own sake and not help to push the story along, but, from a marketing perspective, obviously gimmicks sell a lot of tickets.

Stereoscopy and Motion

This movie was full of action sequences. Action sequences are great fun, but the problem in this movie was the fact that you have fast action sequences that were further sped up by stereoscopy. I found that anytime there was any frenetic action, the frenzied aspect was multiplied by the stereoscopy. Is this bad? Well, for me it was, it basically blurred everything so that it was unrecognizable. It pulled me out of the story on numerous occasions. “Who just flew by? What the heck was that? What did they just do?”

Color

My overall impression of the color direction of the movie was that it was made of blue mud. What? Let me explain. Often film makers will create a color design for their film. This shows the progression of color sequences that represent the moods of the shots in the film. You make sure that you have some color variation between sequences. It keeps things visually interesting and helps to communicate the mood of shots. Cool colors and warm colors each have a different effect on us. Without actually sitting down and creating a ‘color storyboard’ I can’t tell you how it was designed, but what I can tell you is what impression it left me with. Overall I felt the colors used were cool colors. I really can’t recall any one sequence where the colors felt warm.

Overall, it didn’t feel like there was any color contrast between scenes. That’s probably not good. It may still be there, but be really subtle. Anyway, contrast is a good thing to have – it mixes things up a bit, it helps to actually accentuate the things being contrasted. So if you contrast warm with cool, the warm feels warmer and the cool feels cooler. Avatar didn’t feel like it had any such color contrast. Yes, if you looked at an individual frame of the film it had contrast in it, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about general color contrast between sequences or scenes.

Conclusion

Overall, I would say that Avatar was an okay movie. For me it didn’t measure up to the hype. The 3d world and creatures were cool. The story was weak and the cinematography, color direction and stereoscopy pulled me out of the movie more than it did to enhance that poor story.

It is possible that this new stereoscopic method of film making will catch on, but if so, a lot more work has to be done to create a new form of cinematography. It seems like the old methods of making a film either don’t apply or they apply differently when we are immersed in the film to such an extent.

The problem for me, is that when I go see a movie it is a way of escaping reality. I don’t want to escape from my current reality and fall into another reality. I just want to escape reality. I can be an observer of another reality and view it from above and watch the story unfold and empathize with some of the characters. Just like reading a book, I can choose to relate to a character, but I don’t become an additional character in the book or film.

When watching Avatar, I often found myself, because of the immersiveness that is caused by the stereoscopy, becoming an unwilling participant in the movie. That’s not escaping reality. That’s becoming part of another reality. In essence Avatar stopped being a movie for me, and started becoming more like a game. But it was a game where I had no control. When I go see a movie I don’t want to feel like I’m in a game or a pseudo-game. If movies become like the holodeck on Star Trek, where everything feels real, where you react physically to objects and people, then that is when I will stop seeing movies. For that, to me, is no longer a movie, but a virutal reality game. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with games, just that I don’t want movies to become games and neither do I want games to become movies. I would like to maintain the distinction between them. Avatar blurs the line.

Personally I am not interested in going to see another stereoscopic movie. Sorry James Cameron, in my humble estimation, you didn’t make an epic movie like the original Star Wars, but you did make a boat load of money.

Avatar – part 3

Story

Pixar (and many others) say that story is king. If you don’t have a good story, well…no matter how many special effects you throw at it, you still have a weak story. So how does Avatar fare in the story department?

As I said in the tail end of part 2, this is where things start going downhill for me. If James Cameron wanted to ‘out do’ Star Wars (apparently he was a bit miffed when Star Wars came out – he wanted to be the one who created it) and if he wanted to do the next big thing in entertainment, then one would think that attention to the story would be a big concern. Well, apparently not. Sure, there really isn’t anything new under the sun, but to basically rework the Pocahontas story into an alien landscape seems a bit weak to me. I mean, come on, $500 million spent and all we can do is come up with a rework of someone else’s plot and story? It sounds like this may not be the first time.

I won’t go into the details of the story, or do a story analysis, but I was hoping for something, well, different. Maybe something that wasn’t obviously a story I’ve heard before. I like stories that make me think or put a few twists into an old story. In fact I just finished watching ‘Moon‘, and I thought it was more fun than Avatar (at least in the story department)! I had my hunches as to the basic premise of the story of ‘Moon’ in the first 30 minutes, but it was a fun ride to see how it would all work out. It made you think, “What would you do if you encountered another ‘you’?”

Moreover, a lot of the plot elements seemed to be artificially contrived. For example (and this is one of many), you have these natives with bows and arrows who (sorry for the story spoiler) beat a highly technologically advanced army that are armed to the teeth with rockets and bullets. So how exactly do they accomplish this fact? Hmm…let’s just make the Na’vi have their last stand where our rockets don’t lock on to them. C’mon, you really expect us to believe that you don’t have any other armaments that could do the job? Well, there were a lot of Na’vi and we were outnumbered! Wouldn’t a few hand grenades solve that problem?

Lastly, sure it was a ’serious’ movie, but I don’t think I laughed once through this entire movie. I know, it wasn’t meant to be a comedy, but nothing else? The only chuckle that this movie pulled out of me was when I watched the trailer where Jake Sully was told to empty his mind…and that it wasn’t a hard thing for him to do. Well, seeing that scene the second time around takes a bit of the edge off of the humor.

Oh well, apparently James Cameron’s strength isn’t story telling.

Avatar – part 2

3D World

James Cameron’s latest film cost in the vicinity of about $500 million dollars. This total seems to include all sorts of costs – from creating the digital assets, to hiring actors, to marketing the film. But any way you cut it, he spent a lot on research and development creating the virtual world and the technology to display it stereoscopically (more on this another day).

Essentially most of the world you see (Pandora) is virtual. That is, it doesn’t exist anywhere except in the computer as digital files. According to Cameron, the film is composed of about 60% CG (computer graphics) and 40% live action. That’s a lot of CG elements that have to end up looking realistic. The more real something has to appear (and the closer it appears on the screen) the more work you have to put into the models and textures. The team at Weta (and others) had to create a lot of digital assets, create a ton of special effects and do a lot of compositing to make Pandora believable.

Designs

I love the designs of both the plants and animals of Pandora. The jungle is an amazing complexity of plant life. I especially like the flying creatures the Na’vi ride. I like how the designers took it to another level by anatomically giving them two sets of wings and breathing holes in the chest area. Nicely done. The horse creatures have the same kind of breathing holes and that fact ties the two creatures to the same biosphere. Overall the plants and animals of Pandora are a delight to the eyes.

I feel the design of the Na’vi was okay. Not the greatest, but not too bad. They weren’t too weird in order that we could still relate to them, but I think that was intentional. I believe they were designed in such a way as to make sure that they didn’t end up in the uncanny valley. Human-like in appearance, but not too human in order for them to still be alien.

Making sure that they were ‘humanoid’ also enabled the designers to copy features from the humans to their ‘avatars’. You can tell when you are looking at Sigourney Weaver’s avatar – it just looks like her. If they had been too non-human then that wouldn’t have been such an easy thing to do. Although I have seen human characteristics transfered to non-humanoid creatures done successfully, consider Draco from Dragon Heart, somehow they made that dragon look like Sean Connery – his voice actor – and still look like a cool dragon.

Animation

All the animals in the movie were well animated. I don’t recall too many times where I got pulled out of the movie by the analytical side of my brain where it screamed about the creatures’ movement being wrong. Unlike the people of Pandora which were brought to life by performance capture technology, the animals had to be animated by hand, and well animated they are!

As for the motion of the Na’vi I must say that the performance capture of both the body and the face worked quite well – they were generally realistic. And most of the time I bought the sales pitch and suspended my disbelief.

When using performance capture, the process involves capturing the motion using motion capture cameras/suits. That data is then massaged by an animator who takes some of the noise out and tweaks the motion to suit the shot. James Cameron and crew came up with newer technology for the facial motion capture. I believe that even with that new technology the facial motion capture wouldn’t have worked as well if the Na’vi had actually been human in appearance. If they had been real humans I think we would have noticed that they were still missing some of the facial nuances and it would still have fallen into the uncanny valley.

As for the general use of motion capture, I think this is a perfect example of when to use motion capture (this and some realistic game animations). When animating a film with caricatured or toony characters you don’t want realistic motion, you want caricatured or toony motion. The same goes for realistic motion. When you have a creature or person that has to fit into a real world you should try to motion capture it. If you can’t motion capture it, like when you have a non-existent, six-legged horse creature, then obviously you get an animator that is good at creating realistic motion to animate it. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t really be using motion performance technology when trying to animate toony characters as in Monster House, Polar Express or Scrooge. But that’s an aside and a pet peeve.

Anyway, congratulations to all the people in all the studios that worked on this film. It’s an incredible amount of work and they pulled it off. The world, the forest, the animals and the alien Na’vi look believable, at least they do to me.

For more details on the technical aspects of making the film check out this link at CGSociety and this link here.

In the next parts I’ll start talking about the stereoscopic aspects of the film, the cinematography, and the story. This is where the movie goes down hill for me…

Avatar – part 1

Over the next few days I’m going to throw out some musings that I have regarding the latest movie by James Cameron.

My wife, our four daughters (all over the age of 18) and I, went to see it last weekend. You have to understand that this, in and of itself, is a minor miracle. Even though my wife and I work in the entertainment industry, we don’t often go to the theater.

Our main gripes with the theater experience are the cost and atmosphere. It cost us just over $175 Canadian dollars to go and see Avatar. That, for us, is a fairly expensive endeavor. Considering that for some people in the world that is rent for a month. Also, almost every time we go, someone in the herd has to be doing something to pull us out of the show – texting, talking, laughing at inopportune moments, well, you name it. So instead of the theater we’ve invested our ‘entertainment’ dollars into a regular home theater and a small collection of blue ray and DVD movies (Blockbuster gets frequent visits as well). This, for us, leads to a much better experience.

So why did we decide to actually go to the theater after a 3 year hiatus? The short of it is: the hype of the new technology. We’ve never seen a stereoscopic feature and everybody seems to be going crazy over this particular film and the associated technology. Since we can’t currently watch this movie in stereoscopic grandeur on our home entertainment unit – and this film Avatar, is said to be the film to see using the new technology – we decided to go to the IMax 3D version of the film.

3D

First, I think there is some confusion, at the public level, about the term 3D. It’s thrown about and it’s meaning seems to change like a chameleon.

One way the term ‘3D’ is used is when it refers to 3D models. That is, movies which rely on 3d technology which creates the world and/or characters using mathematical models that have depth which are then rendered out into frames (for example animated films like Toy Story, Wall-E or Tales of Despereaux). This version of the term 3D is used opposite the term 2D (which refers to hand drawn animation – like in Princess and The Frog, Snow White and so on). In 3D we create the worlds using polygons, we can rotate the objects, we can apply textures to them, light them and then ‘render’ them – capturing the image into a frame. All these captured frames then make up the movie. This is what we do at Lost Pencil. We help people create 3d characters, animate them, build their worlds and so on. This is useful not only for feature films, but also for television, commercials, games, still images and so on.

The other way the term 3D is used is to refer to the depth effect when wearing special glasses (be they the old fashioned ones with red and blue (or green) lenses, or the new polarized lenses). The way that the movie is projected in combination with the glasses create a sensation of depth in front of the viewer. Things feel like they are behind or in front of other things. This is called stereoscopy or 3-D (hence the confusion). Note that sometimes the two are differentiated by: 3D (3d modeling) and 3-D (stereoscopy).

What is Avatar, 3D or 3-D? Well, actually it is both. It uses 3D modeling, texturing, rendering, lighting and animation to create a believable world. The world of Pandora. It then uses stereoscopic 3-D to give it additional depth when viewed with the cool polarized glasses. Avatar is a mix of live action (actors and real props) and a 3D animated world all projected and viewed using stereoscopic technology that gives it added depth.

In future posts when I talk about 3D I will always refer to the modeling/rendering version. For the other 3-D I will use the term Stereoscopy.

Happy Belated Christmas and New Year!

So, like, what happened to the last 4 months? Wow, what a whirl wind. Anyway, just like everyone else in the blogosphere I’m going to try and make sure I update my blog much more often. A new years resolution perhaps? Well… err… maybe. I guess we’ll see how long it lasts. But at least the intent is there!

Anyway, I’ve upgraded Wordpress to the latest and shiniest model and that will allow me to add some bells and whistles. For starters, I think I’m going to be combining the website with the blog – that way I don’t feel so schizophrenic. Also, it will make it much easier to update the website with new content. Lastly, with the new software you will also note that if you access the blog from your mobile device you will get a much better experience. I implemented WPtouch and it seems to work quite nicely. All the best to you in the New Year!

Still here!

In case you were passing by and noticed that things haven’t been updated recently… I am still here! Busy as usual. I have something up my sleeve, but I’m not letting the cat out of the bag yet. If you are a cycling fan, be sure to keep up with the Giro d’Italia this month and the Tour de France in July!

Xibalba

Well, if the first month and a half of this year is any indication… it’s going to be a wild ride! Lots of work and lots of plans for personal projects. In that regard I finally finished my Steampunk challenge entry for CGSociety. You can check out the link to see the final video. There are sooo many things I would change/fix/add… I really pushed myself in the last month and I wish I had put that kind of energy into it the entire time, but alas live and learn. I don’t know how well I did in the contest, but it was a great learning experience.

EDIT: I didn’t win anything, but I had a great time creating it and pushing myself! I’ll post some details of the trailer as time goes on… assuming of course, you guessed it, that I don’t forget!

New Year?

Wow, this blog is still here! And Christmas and the New Year just zipped by… and you are back reading. Sorry I haven’t been posting as much lately. I’ve been neck deep in work and a personal project. The Steampunk challenge entry is taking up pretty much all of my spare time. I really wish I had more time to do the project justice, but then… it’s like a real project – it has a dreaded deadline! I suppose if it were not for deadlines, we would noodle a project to death and never get it done. Onward!

Softimage…

So it’s been an eventful few months! In the software realm I made the decision to not upgrade my Foundation XSI copy to Essentials. And boy am I glad. My main reason was… do I want to spend more time learning ‘another’ tool, or learn something cool – like matte painting or improve my drawing skills? That was a no brainer.

Of course, as many of you know, days after the deadline to upgrade, Autodesk pulls a fast one and buys XSI. My reaction: ‘eek!’ The debate on CGTalk raged on. Lots of people don’t like it. I, for one, don’t like it either – I hope I’m wrong. Anyway, the track record is that Autodesk buys something to improve their ’stake’ in the digital realm and doesn’t do much to innovate. That’s the main reason I’m still using good old Maya 7 (another reason is the cost of maintenance, I find I don’t get much bang for the buck). Now I’m seriously thinking about Blender. It’s looking really good. Maybe with the upcoming interface change it will look really, really good. Good enough for personal projects – but then again, that’s another new software package to learn! Argh. Might be worth it though…

Don’t get me wrong. As a freelancer I’ll upgrade my software to match my client’s needs, but do you know what? Most of my clients haven’t upgraded to anything remotely labled 2009 (Maya, Max, or otherwise). Even my last project in XSI was using version 6.5. Doesn’t look to me like there is a rush to upgrade.