3D arrives in a big way

18 Jan

Director James Cameron significantly advanced 3D technology in making the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar”.

January 18, 2010

By Geoff Meeker

I finally got out last week to see “Avatar”, the movie everyone is talking about.

And I was not disappointed. The film, which took James Cameron 15 years to produce and a budget of more than $300 million, has dramatically expanded the boundaries of movie-making technology.

It is the best movie I have seen in quite a while, not so much for the power of the story – which is pretty good, if predictable – as for its astounding achievement in special effects. The movie is set on the fictional planet of Pandora, a richly detailed world of dense jungle, teeming with alien plant and animal life. Even a cynic would have difficulty not being drawn into this fantastic world.

Cameron and his team developed several new technologies to render this world, and its characters, so believably. I won’t list them all, but there are two that stand out, and will change animation as we know it.

What impressed me most about the film was how readily I accepted the Na’vi life forms as real, breathing creatures – not computer generated cartoons. And I like to think I have a pretty good eye for these things. This realism was enabled by motion capture technology, in which actors – the human kind – wear high-tech suits outfitted with motion-sensors, which imprint the actor’s movements directly onto their animated counterparts. The result is a much more realistic-looking range of motion. The technology isn’t new, but Cameron advanced it considerably for this film

Perhaps more importantly, Cameron and crew devised a new way to capture facial expressions. You’ve seen digital animations where the faces are devoid of personality or soul (“Polar Express” leaps to mind). When shooting “Avatar”, the actors wore skullcaps fitted with small cameras, mounted right in front of their faces, which filmed every smile and wink. This, too, helped the animators breathe life into their characters and enriched the look of the movie.

But the innovation that everyone talks about most is 3D. “Avatar” is just one of several recent 3D film releases, but it has been the most effective at incorporating 3D seamlessly into the story, without those tacky, self-conscious sight gags. (Cameron has been working with technicians since 2000 to develop a more advanced digital 3D camera that records ‘stereo’ images in breathtaking clarity.)

For “Avatar”, theatergoers are paying a premium ($11.99 per ticket) to put on the special glasses and watch in 3D. And believe me: the rich, colourful, visuals in this film are worth a little extra.

Speaking of 3D, this is the year that 3D TV goes mainstream – or, at least, attempts to do so. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, 3D TV was all the buzz, with the unveiling (or imminent release) of 3D televisions from Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba, LG and Samsung. As well, Sony announced it will launch a 3D TV channel in North America, in partnership with Imax and the Discovery Channel.

There was little information about how much the new 3D TV sets will cost, but you can be sure they will sell at a premium.

The question consumers must ask now is, ‘Should I sit this one out, or be an early adopter?’

I say wait, for a number of reasons.  First of all, the technology will continue to evolve, long after roll-out, and the quality and reliability of the units will only improve.

Second, the TVs will be expensive – possibly double that of standard sets in the same size – and the price will inevitably come down.

Third, there is very little 3D content out there right now. Yes, more and more movies will come out in 3D. But I don’t see the networks and specialty channels, which have only recently transitioned to high definition, rushing to adopt 3D technology.

Finally, I am not sure that 3D TV is worth getting all that excited about. It makes sense in movie theatres, where one is immersed in a big-budget spectacle that has been produced with this experience in mind. However, do we want to see the evening news in 3D? How about programs that are cranked out in 3D as an afterthought, or, even worse, converted from 2D to 3D?  What about commercials?

It takes the eye up to a second (give or take) to assimilate the three-dimensionality of a shot. For this reason, dedicated 3D productions have longer scenes and smooth transitions (rather than rapid cuts) to allow our eyes to relax into the 3D environment. Programs then, with fast cuts – like rock videos – will not translate well into 3D. As well, quick movement will often cause a strobing effect, as the eye struggles to process the visual information. For this reason, sporting events, such as hockey and football, may have limited appeal in 3D – unless the shooting style is overhauled to compensate for the 3D format.

Finally, I’m just plain cynical about all this. More than anything, I think 3D TV is all about a greedy technology industry. Now that the vast majority of homes are outfitted with high definition widescreen TVs, the manufacturers want us to engage in another orgy of buying.

To that, I give both thumbs down.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.


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