Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatars of a new (as of yet unrealized) age...

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:

"James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years. Amid the hoopla over the new power of 3-D as a narrative form, and the excitement about the complicated mix of digital animation and live action that made the movie possible, no one should ignore how lovely “Avatar” looks, how luscious yet freewheeling, bounteous yet strange. As Cameron surges through the picture plane, brushing past tree branches, coursing alongside foaming-mouthed creatures, we may be overcome by an uncanny sense of emerging, becoming, transcending—a sustained mood of elation produced by vaulting into space..."

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.


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.

Still from the PSA I made for Full Circle Learning, CGI by Eight VFX

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…

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


On Monday of this week, we had the first ever table reading for HAPPY FUNERAL, the feature-length screenplay I am co-writing with Daniel Spurgeon.

We have been working on it for about nine months together, and I had been developing the concept for about a year before then... So it's been in process for a long time.

For me, it was thrilling to see the characters come to life. We had thirteen actors performing the parts of twenty speaking parts. While it would've been nice to have all the speaking parts filled, the area was so full with performers, it probably was for the best. Everyone did a great job.

Sam Golzari, a long time acquaintance of mine read the part of the lead, while the heavy of the film, was played by Assaf Cohen.

The cool thing for me was to see the main character and the main antagonist actually played by actors of the ethnicity to which they belong.

The fact that Sam's heritage is actually Iranian and Assaf's is genuinely Israeli helped bring a lot of subtlety and nuance to the part, and both made real culturally specific elements that had been written into the script, but which actors of another ethnicities would probably be unaware.

I really should have taken some pictures, but alas things were a bit hectic.

The reading took place at a Kombucha making facility in Pasadena that is right next to Daniel's apartment. I wasn't sure about it at first- I thought it might be a little too cold an environment.

But in fact, when it filled out with an audience, it worked incredibly well.

The audience itself was a mix- professionals Daniel knows from his work as a hospice doctor and other filmmakers and artists.

I explained to the audience the genesis of the story, about how when I heard that often people approaching their death experience a great change. They begin to feel a peace they never before, they appreciate the small things of life, they are less troubled by the day to day struggles. It is, I said, not the result of changing religions, reading a book, finding a guru or having a life changing experience (other than learning they are dying).

What has happened is that they start to live in the highest pitch of awareness of what they already knew. I then explained that I thought about this, and thought, how great would it be to experience this now, while still relatively young. And then I thought about my family, particularly my Persian and Iraqi heritage, and the rich pathos and stories I wanted to mine from it.

And this thought was the the genesis of what would become HAPPY FUNERAL.

Watching and listening to the reading unfold, besides the power of watching it come to life (in thumbnail sketch-drawn-on-a-napkin form) it was also really interesting to watch listen to the responses of the audience. Their laughter and tears at very specific moments seemed to vindicate our main choices and story thrust.

At the same time, seeing where there was a drop in energy and also looking at the points where we were perhaps excessive in our exposition or a little too on the nose was also very instructive.

I look forward to advancing to the next stage and next week I plan to meet with a casting director.

We are making progress...