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James Cameron, 3-D and Avatar


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#1 Chris D Walker

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Posted 10 July 2008 - 06:25 PM

Having been delayed from March 2009 now to December 2009, James Cameron is set to release his first narrative film in over ten years, Avatar; a 40% real, 60% digital science fiction film shot completely in 3-D on his made-to-specification Reality Camera system which, among other things, will attempt to seamlessly blend real actors with synthespians (computer-generated humans) and create the most realistic artificial world ever conceived. As always, James Cameron has seemingly given himself an immensely difficult task with his new project.

I would like to hear some thoughts about James Cameron's words in an article several months ago (I can't recall which one) in which he said that he would rather shoot 48fps at 2K rather than 24fps at 4K after his work on Avatar. I should also note that in a perfect world he wishes for 48fps at 4K, but is being realistic in terms of production costs and special effects work as they currently stand.

My first thoughts are concerning Avatar's CG effects, as twice as much footage would need to be rendered than a in standard Hollywood film; and if it ever came into fruition that Cameron would make his 48fps 3-D follow-up to Avatar there would be quadruple the amount of work required to make it happen, perhaps made even worse if shot at a higher resolution than HD. At this point I would see large studio budgets get even higher than they are now with perhaps less return. The question then becomes: would this type of film be special venue only or is it a realistic vision of where theaters could be heading?

Other considerations:

Real-D vs. IMAX 3-D?

An entirely digital workflow?

Perceptions of resolution?

Is James Cameron's dream just a dream?

Thanks for any replies.
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#2 Michael Lehnert

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Posted 10 July 2008 - 08:52 PM

I have been following this project for considerable time, and have seen so many changes in the cine-technological set-up and suggested workflow, that I really would sit-back and wait - any debate is futile as it's obsolete as soon as it reaches the printing press of Variety. Cameron has surrendered his content to technological development to make it happen, so any claims on 2K@48 or 4K@24 are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Who knows if he won't be able to do 4K@48 by next summer 09?

Cameron is a great storyteller above all - I fear that this time, his drive to use technological excellence to tell his stories has taken over his schedule.

I would rather like to hear anyone's take on what this is actually supposed to mean:

It will attempt to create the most realistic artificial world ever conceived.


Can anyone explain to me to what extent and how an artificial world can be in any way realistic? Isn't the very nature and purpose of artificality to be unrealistic? Or: as if an artifical world can be anything else but unrealistic? :huh: :unsure:
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#3 Chris D Walker

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Posted 11 July 2008 - 06:55 AM

Artificial in the respect that it doesn't exist. Realistic in the sense that it looks as if it does. Much like there was a whole ecosystem made for Skull Island in King Kong (2005 version) which plotted the evolutionary progression of individual species over millions of years (although this was never mentioned in the film), James Cameron wants Avatar to have a planet that carries ecosystems, civilizations and numerous cultures to enable the viewer to suspend their disbelief to such an extent that their concerns would be for only the characters within the story instead of the science fiction locale. Being in development for who knows how long, a great deal of time was made to create an extremely detailed cultural, evolutionary and planetary history. The question of whether this will pay off is something else.

Maybe instead of writing 'realistic artificial world' I should have written 'excessively concise fictional world'.
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#4 Will Earl

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Posted 11 July 2008 - 07:39 AM

Films tend to rely on the whole fake-but-looks-real thing all the time.

If however your prerequisite for something looking realistic is that it needs to actually exist, then sure artificial does not equal realistic.
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#5 John Hoffler

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Posted 11 July 2008 - 09:55 AM

I've enjoyed reading some of Jim Cameron's emails to Ain't It Cool, where he discussed how excited he is about developing the technology, but he never went into much detail on the technology itself. He said he is having to create (modify is probably the better term) new tech as they continue to shoot to achieve what they are going for.

I am curious to what the end product will be.

Edited by John Hoffler, 11 July 2008 - 09:56 AM.

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#6 Jason Maeda

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Posted 11 July 2008 - 06:45 PM

I'm sure it will be well done if for no other reason than there will be ONE strong leader running the show. It seems to me that a lot of films that rely heavily on new technology can suffer as a result of too many chefs. I've worked with Cameron before... he's insane, and I mean that as a compliment.

Edited by Jason Maeda, 11 July 2008 - 06:45 PM.

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#7 LeeFordParker

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Posted 19 July 2008 - 11:31 PM

Other considerations:

Real-D vs. IMAX 3-D?

An entirely digital workflow?

Perceptions of resolution?

Is James Cameron's dream just a dream?


The first film project I ever sold, back in 1982, was a "THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT" of 3D. The film was called THE 3D MOVIE. Besides being the creator, I was Associate Producer (HA! Yes, I fell for that one) and the Technical Director.

I was in charge of the technical aspects of converting scenes from 76 feature films and shorts, shot in 17 different 3D formats, correcting the 3D technical errors of each, into a single 3D format. Additionally, I helped to create a process for a motion control down shooter(animation stand) that could shoot a 3D slit-scan sequence, like that known as the STAR GATE sequence of 2001 (which technic was not created by either Doug Trumbal or Stanely Kubrick, but by the avante guard filmmaker, John Whitney, Sr.) We used the algorithm to make flat art into 3D and shoot historical 3D photographs to tell the history of 3D. Sean Phillips used the animation stand and our algorithm for creating slit-scan 3D in the title sequence for JAWS 3D. Unfortunately, THE 3D MOVIE was never released. Our 3D slitscan tunnel sequence was only ever seen by a handful of people. C'est la vie.

But everyone who ever saw it, pretty much reacted the same way - Wow! I had spent 6 month searching for a rumored stereo pair of Abraham Lincoln, taken with a Carte de Viste (photographic business card) that made it into the movie. I also found out that Hitler was a nut for 3D, and had commissioned Lennie Riefenstahl to photograph some of the 36 Olympics in 3D. Every American who saw Abe Lincoln said the same thing - "Wow! I never thought about it, but when you see Abe in 3D, it was like he was really human." "I've never thought about it, but the only time I have ever seen him, he's flat, one dimensional." The same was true for Hitler. Seeing him in 3D sent chills down everyone's spines. Giving Hitler dimension suddenly made him real, real in a way he's never been for most of us.

I mention all this, so you can appreciate why I think I know a bit about 3D, in the hope that what I say next will have a bit more weight to it.

Motion pictures themselves are optical illusions. No matter what process you want to speak of, they are a sequence of still images, presented so fast that the brain operates under the illusion its looking out of a window.

3D is a triple optical illusion. Not only are there two streams of still images, creating the illusion of motion, but the effect inside the brain converts these two image streams into a single three dimensional image. This process is called "Cyclopean Perception", after the Greek monster Cyclops who had only a single eye in the middle of his forehead. 8-10% of the human beings do not have Cyclopean Perception for one reason or another. For anyone interested, there's a fantastic book on the subject of why we see one 3D image with two eyes, and it includes tests for 3D perception, just like color blindness tests. The book was shown to me by the aforementioned John Whitney, Sr, who was one of my Professor at UCLA. This book was the inspiration for the film that became THE 3D MOVIE. The book is called THE FOUNDATIONS OF CYCLOPEAN PERCEPTION by Bela Julesz. You may think it a bit dry, but to anyone interested in how and why we perceive the world, which really should be the goal of every Cinematographer, the book is a marvel.

A movie, ie a feature film, is a sequence of still images that are combined to tell a story. As these still images are perceived as motion inside the brain, the story, the interaction of the characters in motions, "living" the story, also takes place in the brain. And the part of the brain that combines these otherwise physically irrational events, is the same part of the brain where dreams are processed. This is why we don't see the cuts, the close ups, the long shots etc. The great director Frank Capra noticed this in tests he did up in Santa Barbara. He also noticed that in the "dream state" of watching a motion picture, the perception of time speeds up, so the action slows down. To compensate for this effect, he had the actors talk faster, deliver their lines faster. You can read about this in the best book ever written about being a motion picture director called NAME ABOVE THE TITLE.

The ideal objective of any filmmaker is to put, and keep, the audience in this "dream state". This is the place where the theater fades away and we are no longer "watching" a movie, some how, however irrational, we are IN it. Many great directors and DOPs talk about looking into the viewfinder, and seeing the image the audience sees as if it was in a movie theater. It isn't an image on a ground glass or an HD monitor, its a movie on a movie screen in a dark theater.

Ok, what's all this got to do with your questions? ANYTHING that draws you out of the "dream state", draws attention away from the illusion of the story has created in your mind is BAD. Every time you to withdraw from the "dream state" and re-enter the world of the theater, your over all experience is diminished. It's like your Mom waking you up in the middle of an awesome dream. Split stereo surrounds are one of these things. You hear a helicopter behind you in the theater - wow, cool, but there's the T word, the theater. 3D is one of these things. Too many times filmmaker's use 3D for 3D's sake, ie "Ok, now lets have the character throw a ball at the camera" If this action has nothing to do with the illusion of the story, even a child will return to the theater to laugh about the ball in his face.

You can take the same idea an apply it to any aspect of the film you might be making. If you want to be a great filmmaker, you want to care all about maintaining the illusion of the dream state. Nothing else matters. Even Shakespeare understood this 400 years ago, when he stated "The Play is the thing."

This doesn't mean forget 3D? Or forget computer simulated actors? Or forget computer generated backgrounds? Not at all. It means, as we should all well know, these things must be slaves to the story, not the Master of the scenes. Andre de Toth was the Director of the famous 3D movie, Warner Bros, HOUSE OF WAX. He only had one eye, but at the end of his experience shooting HOUSE OF WAX in 3D, he said it best:

"Next time I'm going to make a movie in 4D - 3D with a story"

Will simulated actors ever work? Yes. With 3D ever work? For 90% of movie goers. Will Holograms replace HD projectors, as they are now replacing film? Yes.

Will psychological motivation of our brains to seek out stories change? No, not so long a we remain humans with conscience.

Why conscience? At Expo 67 someone created the first "interactive" movie (talk about disrupting the dream-state!) in which the movie would stop and the audience would choose what the character should do. As one example, (and I'm paraphasing because I didn't see the movie) the character comes to a stop in his car. He sees a beautiful woman in a sexy dress standing in the door. We see by his hand on the steering wheel that the character is married. Well, just because you're on a diet doesn't mean you can't enjoy the menu, so he's checking her out as any healthy male might. Then the beautiful woman beckons him with her finger and she backs into the doorway.

At this point the movie stops, and the audience votes as to whether or not the character should follow the woman inside or stay outside and remain faithful.

What do you think the audience voted?

Even with women comprising 48% of the audience, 99.9% of the entire run of the film at Expo 67, the audience voted for the character to follow the woman inside the room!

The "interactive" movie wasn't interactive at all.

Why? Because in a movie, or a novel, or a comic book, or a video game, you can explore the moral dilemmas of our lives without REAL consequences. We can see what going with the woman would be like because 99.9% of us would NOT follow the woman if this same thing happened in reality - married or not. Conscience is the overall term of all those things that comprise our moral existence - lying, cheating, cowardice, fear, lust, hate, war.

If we make a movie so "real" its real life - we'd hate it. We already have a real life, and none of us are too happy about it, no matter who we are. The real consequences of our actions can be painful. Our loved ones die. Real life is a tragedy because we all die in the end.

As human beings with conscience, our minds seek out "perspectives on our moral dilemma in order to understand the choices we make in our lives. It's the same reason our brains "dream" every night we go to sleep.

Any kind of storyteller, be it filmmaker, novelist, playwright, poet, photographer, who loses sight of this simple truth, who allows himself to be seduced by flashy, but empty, technology is doomed to fail.

The first 3D device know as the STEREOSCOPE was introduced with photography, as far back as 1853. It was the famous stereophotographer Eadweard Muybridge who notice that the sticky shutters on his stereo camera captures a still image sequence in time. This lead him to the idea of modifying a multi-lens Carte de Viste camera to capture a multi-image sequence in time. In this sense, the very existence of our business and the existence of this forum owes itself not just to the creation of photography, but the creation of 3D photography.

So why has 3D taken so long to become a standard of entertainment?

I believe its because movies transcended it own ability to mimick reality, advancing as a medium like written novels, in which we can explore WHO WE ARE.

3D, simulated actors, complete computer graphics have not yet made this transcendence.

I remember the talk about how word processors would create more Shakespeares by making it easier to write. This was 30 years ago. Where are ANY new Shakespeares? If anything, the invention of word processing has coincided with the worse drop in literacy in a century. The average person today has a vocabulary 2/3rds of the same person 50 years ago.

Word Processing doesn't make it easier to write, it makes it easier to type. The RED makes it faster to capture images, but it does not make them better. Non-linear editing makes it easier to edit, but harder to be a good editor. Anyone who has wandered through the miasma of YouTube has seen that it is not the moving images themselves but the meaning of the images to us as human beings contained therein that makes the difference between diamonds and sand.

Technology does not equal art. And it never will.

Our lives are short, we will only spend our time for diamonds.
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