So I just saw Avatar and as you'll no doubt agree, I found it visually supreme.
Many, many people have already commented on this remarkable and revolutionary spectacle... So I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade with what I have to say. In fact I agree with most of David Denby's breathless homage:
All of that gushing, deserved praise aside, one might notice that for all the Emperor's fine haberdashery, there were a few spots of nakedness...
After it was done, I turned to a friend and said “Even if you hated you would have to be impressed.” And he said, “That’s kind of where I am.”
And I can understand why. It has all the trademark hokey things you would expect from a James Cameron film: the dialogue is not exceptional (it’s very on the nose in many places).
The disparity between the dialogue and visual imagery is indeed striking. And I can understand why the mind that might be great at creating such stunning visuals might not be the best for crafting evocative, subtle dialogue. In some ways, they have almost opposite requirements.
In dialogue it’s rarely a good thing for a line to be on the nose- the only time I think it works is when a character really would say something on the nose- but even that should be done sparingly. On the other hand, visually it’s not unusual for a very striking, beautiful, powerful image to also be very transparent in it’s meaning- but of course it still has to be organic to the story and not contrived. (Contrivance, rather than literalness of meaning, would seem to be the greater danger from a visual point of view).
An example of where the literalness worked visually but was a bit annoying in the dialogue was the constant reference made to the “web of life”. It felt didactic and forced. On the other hand, when the central character found himself accepted by the Na’vi people, the moment was conveyed with the perfect visual metaphor. A small group approached him and put their hands on him. Then others followed suit and laid their hands on those touching him, and yet evermore followed. Flowing out from this one center were several hundred Na’vis connected hand to shoulder to hand, forming their very own “web of life”. This worked beautifully I thought.
The point I wouldn't want to lose here is that some of these 3D images were astonishing in ways that I've never seen before in film. One of the opening images begins with the Jake Sully roused from a cryogenic state, released from his frozen catacomb into a sub zero gravity ward. His attendant floats towards us, and the distance we see several other attendants drifting in space. It is both magical and mundane. I loved it, and other moments like it.
Unfortunately, the screen in the Arclight Dome was not as bright as I felt it should’ve been. It all looked a little too dark with the glasses on. And the 3D glass did strain my eyes. I long for the day when 3D means not wearing glasses , but rather the stereoscopic images are projected on multiple screens for a diorama like effect. That would be pretty cool I think- much more pleasurable and less strain on the eyes.
IS THIS THE FUTURE OF CGI?
One thing that felt like a shortcoming of Avatar was the "animated" look of the Na'vi people and much of their envionment. I think this disparity between the impressive 3D elements versus the sometimes cartoonish ones has to do with an absence of physical references for the CGI artists. If you ever work with a CGI studio they’ll always tell you it’s better to work with an actual physical reference. Once I directed a PSA with a girl flying a kite. Since we weren't able to get the kite into the air, it was necessary to make a fake CGI one.
The CGI studio that made the kite that she was flying asked me for the actual kite so they could scan it in and create a 3D model from it. And this from what I understand is always the preferred route. I remember hearing Bryan Singer talking about this when he made Superman Returns. They actually shot Brandon Routh in the air with wires, and then removed them in post. They did this rather than shooting him against a green screen. And if you watch Superman, the flying is really convincing.
Same with Where the Wild things Are.
Spike Jonze was very insistent about not only shooting on location, but also having the Wild Things be actual puppet outfits (which the Jim Henson team did a wonderful job creating). This way when the CGI artists manipulated the puppet costume’s face, they actually had something to work with- almost a tactile clay- rather than having to construct it from digital scratch. And in doing so, there’s a certain photorealism that they have that Avatar does not. As one of my favorite artists, David McKean tweeted, there's almost an anti-CGI quality to the Wild Things- a real weight that the Na'vi do not possess.
While the Na’vi digital avatars are true to the actors' performances, their actual physical being still looks cartoonish and obviously animated. It’s a long way from Roger Rabbit, but it still closer to the Phantom Menace than I think is ideal.
They kind of look like a lot of angry Gumbys don't they?
However, it might be a while before we can get that total photorealism without the aid of a photographed physical reference. Perhaps when a vast catalogue of 3D models made from real physical objects comes into being- perhaps that’s when we’ll finally cross that digital threshold…