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.

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