State of the Digital Art

It takes a big man to admit when he is wrong. For those of you who know me, you know I am not petite, so I guess I have to admit I was somewhat incorrect…maybe not exactly right…a smidge on the in error side of the equation when I said that 3D is not worth watching. We went to see Avatar Friday night at the AMC Dunvale theater off of Westheimer, which boasts a digital projection system (for those who haven’t seen a digitally projected film, run—don’t walk—to the nearest theater with one). The film is one of a bunch of movies filmed in 3D that have been hitting the theaters since last summer. I could not have chosen a better film to demonstrate the improvements in 3D film technology.

3-d-glasses-traditional.gifOld 3D movies used a color-shift system to fool the eye into seeing a picture with depth of field. The viewer must wear glasses with one red lens and one blue one to get the 3D effect. This was fine for black and white movies since it did not affect color reproduction, but today’s movies are filmed with exceptional color reproduction and a color shift system makes them look muddy. The other technology for 3D uses polarized lenses that pick up slight shifts in the wavelength of the light image from the screen. This technology was first used in the 80’s and failed to gain much support with audiences. It has come a long way since then.

In fact, both technologies suffer from a fundamental problem which will keep 3D movies nothing more than a novelty: the viewer needs to wear glasses to get the 3D effect. People don’t like the glasses. If and when scientists perfect a holographic viewing system that give full 3 dimensional image recreation without the need of glasses, then you will see people flocking to get it. More about 3D in another blog.

But that having been said, I have to say Avatar was definitely worth seeing in 3D. James Cameron has a history of setting film budgets huge, then blowing that budget by a factor of three. He did it with The Abyss, Titanic and Avatar. The amazing thing is that it is worth it. Cameron delivers a film that rises above the movie experience to the level of art form.

He uses a digital brush and paints a canvas of the most vivid imagery and color to create a beautiful other-wordly landscape of his planet Pandora—which is the setting of the film as well as one of the main characters. As I watched, I couldn’t help but mutter “so much to look at” every 5 minutes of the beginning of the movie. The detail is intricate. The design is imaginative. Nothing was overlooked. The use of lighting and color tells as much about the story as the plot and characters.

Avatar.jpgThe biggest star of the production has to be the digital characters. Fans of CGI animated films like Up and Wall*E may love the details of texture in inanimate objects, but when CGI tries to look human, it usually falls short. The Polar Express and Beowulf illustrate the problem as characters look mannequin-like and plastic. In Avatar, that is not an issue. The skin of these characters seems so life-like you come to think of them as organic. You could not tell where the CGI ends and the live actors begin. The movements are fluid and real, not choppy and stiff. Skin stretches and moves along with the actors’ movements. It has pushed state-of-the-art to a whole new level.

While Avatar is a visual feast, it is also a compelling–if not completely original–story. The film is 160 minutes long, which for you math-challenged means two-and-a-half hours. That is a long time to sit still with no bathroom break. The good news is that you get so drawn into the story, you lose track of time. The film runs like an emotional rollercoaster taking the viewer on a ride to awesome heights before screaming into a plunge that pulls the heart strings and rocketing around a thrilling plot curve.

The story is kind of Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves meets The Abyss. A big, bad corporate mining operation wants a mineral deposit located beneath the home of an indigenous tribe who do not want to move and cannot be bought with human temptations. With the ever-present threat of a military solution, they try diplomacy, using mindless cloned hybrids of the aliens that are linked to human minds using technology. These clones, called avatars are like an avatar from the Second Life game, they become the person in the alien society. One avatar is piloted by our hero, a paraplegic ex-marine who is looking for his purpose in life. He finds a purpose as he becomes entangled in the politics and intrigue of trying to juggle two lives with two cultures on a collision course.

This is the finest film of the movie season and may find itself with a best picture nod. The special effects Oscar is a gimme at this point. No other film out now can touch it, and I doubt the rest of the movie season will come close.

I have never recommended a movie as strongly as I recommend Avatar. It is not just a must-see. It is a if-you-don’t-see-it-you-miss-one-of-the-greatest-movies-ever see. The plot, characters and direction alone would be worth it, but they pale next to the visuals. I don’t mean the special effects (which are quite impressive), I mean the whole visual experience. It is simply the most stunning example of movie as art form EVER. See it.


Filed under Media, Reviews

3 responses to “State of the Digital Art

  1. Mary

    Loved your blog and loved the movie!!! You are right on!


  2. Angela

    I have to say that Avatar was a visually stunning movie that I’ve seen before. It was called Dances With Wolves and wasn’t in 3-D and the people were Native Americans.

    Visually stunning, but I’ve heard this story before.


    • Well, that is pretty much what I said in the blog. I also blogged about the dearth of original content in movies and on TV before. It will only get worse. Nothing new is being written because Hollywood knows they can make money on a formula.
      Still, Avatar does a nice spin on the formula and it does engage the audience, which is the best we can hope for in this new media market.


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