AVATAR: THE 3D WAS ANNOYING
I just got home after seeing Avatar with my son. Was it the best film I’ve ever seen? No. Will I see it again? Very much yes.
I can’t stop thinking about this film – and that, for me, is a sign I’ve seen something meaningful. With minor exception, it is honest and deeply experienced emotion that separates Cameron’s science fiction/fantasy films from every other film within that quasi-genre. Avatar’s main character is a shattered man, a soldier who lost his legs in battle and really has nothing to live for. Something that cannot be described in words happens when we see him wake up in his avatar for the first time.
No animated characters – computer generated or otherwise – have ever expressed so much honest emotion or engendered so much audience identification as the creations Cameron has given us. As I said, I can’t stop thinking about the film, and I am anxious to see it again.
But, even so, the 3D was really, really annoying and was a gimmick the film could have done without. It has to do with how human binocular vision works to focus on things close and far away.
In the real world, everything is in focus. We shift our focus continually by moving our eyes back and forth – closer together for objects close to us, and farther apart to focus on objects farther away. Try it yourself. Hold up a pen a foot from your face. Look at it, and notice that, while the pen is in focus, everything else behind it is blurry. If you shift your focus to something farther away, the pen in front of you will become blurry.
To work successfully, 3D movies must show everything in focus. We, the viewers, shift our focus, creating the illusion of depth.
2D films don’t do that. The camera replaces our eyes and focuses on whatever objects the director wants us to see, leaving the rest blurry and out of focus.
Accomplishing clear, universal focus in any shot takes a whole lot light – which cost money – and special lenses – which cost even more money. Sometimes a really clever director shows off by creating clear focus for all objects within a certain shot, but it is so rare that every time it happens it is noticed as exceptional.
Orson Wells did it in Citizen Kane. In a very famous scene Charlie Kane is typing in the foreground – his form totally in sharp focus; in the background – far off in the distance – Hezekiah (Joseph Cotton) enters through a door, and he is in sharp focus, and stays in focus as he walk forward towards the camera.
The technology to accomplish this did not, at that time, exist. Wells did it using a split screen. He shot himself typing using perfect light and sharp focus. After that, Wells shot Joseph Cotton walking towards the camara. Then Wells joined both pieces of footage side by side to make it look like it was happening in one shot.
An even more spectacular example is this scene from Citizen Kane showing three different people at three different distances from the camera – all in sharp focus:
But, as already pointed out, this sort of sharp focus throughout a shot is hard to do and is rare, so rare and expensive that even James Cameron couldn’t do it. It is apparent that Avatar was shot like a conventional 2D movie and that converting it to 3D was clearly an after thought. The scenes devoid of computer magic were shot like any other movie – which means focus shifts within shots. Close things are clear, the background is blurry, unless it comes into focus because someone enters the room, or for some other reason.
When 2D is converted to 3D, the viewer keeps trying to shift focus from close to far like they would do in the real world, but the blurry backgrounds stay blurry, and that can be – and was – really annoying.
But most of the movie is fully computer animated, and that means everything can be in focus to allow the viewer to shift from object to object enough so that the 3D is far less annoying, and even enjoyable, enhancing the experience.
Was Avatar the best movie ever made? No. Will it change the way movies are made? Not likely. Was the story original? No, but it was a story worth telling and wonderful to watch being told in such spectacular fashion. I am definitely going to see it again.
But when I do I am going to see it in 2D.
I’ll let you know what happens.