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Avatar: changing the face (and depth) of films?

My criteria for seeing Avatar were that it had to be on the largest screen possible and in 3D to get the fullest experience. And so I ended up at the BFI IMAX at midnight (on a side note, I really miss midnight screenings) with its bigger-than-a-house screen. My review is up, but in short this is something you really must experience. Unusually I say this without any real intellectual connection to the film or its characters, but rather from a purely emotional/entertainment perspective. The audacity of the project is incredible, as is the fact James Cameron was able to conceptualise it 15 years ago and finally realise and see it through to completion. It turns out “exploring another world” hyperbole was in fact entirely accurate.

Some critics are querying whether this is a game changer in terms of how we give awards for performances since Zoe Saldana’s character is only ever seen in CGI, but it is undeniably her performance that comes through. Should the award go to her, the effects people or both? Of course this debate really dates back to Andy Serkis’ Gollum which was very much his performance, since even the facial animation was based upon his acting. However the facial mapping in Avatar‘s new breed of performance capture is incredible.

This is also the new benchmark for 3D films, to the point where I hope other films won’t bother unless they’re going to do it properly. Up to this point, Coraline has been my touchstone for 3D since as a stop-motion film it was “real” 3D filmed with stereoscopic cameras. The subtler into-the-screen 3D is definitely the right way to do it (and the reason I was unimpressed by the 3D Alice in Wonderland trailer as, despite impressive detail, far too much was unnecessarily flying out of the screen), but these two films highlight two fundamentally different approaches. With Coraline you are offered a 3D window to observe, so the trick to avoiding a headache is to learn to look around as in the real world, focusing on individual parts rather than attempting to take in the entire screen at once as with traditional films. Avatar merges this with traditional narrow depth-of-field shots, meaning the viewer is not always free to look around as they wish. Instead the trick is to relax and allow your eyes to be guided to whatever is in focus. It is perhaps disconcerting, but it does provide a more cinematic effect.


  1. Zoe Saldana is wonderful, a totally underrated actress. Hopefully, this role will jumpstart her leading-lady career, because she truly deserves it. I was overwhelmed with emotion the whole way home from the cinema, just from the truly profound way in which she expressed her character’s pain. Amazing.

  2. My only previous exposure to Saldana was in the recent Star Trek film, in which she was good but in a supporting role had less with which to work. I certainly have huge respect for actors who can bring emotion to green-screen performances where enveloping oneself in the role is considerably harder than in midst of an evocative set.

  3. I loved this film even though the story line was fairly crappy and the bit when the whole tribe were rocking made me laugh out loud (on both occasions…)
    I completely agree that 3D is all about looking into the film and this is where I think 3D has changed from the 3D rides you get at theme parks where it is all about jumping out of the screen.
    I really found watching the film tough in a couple of places because there were times when the camera was focused in on a character in the foreground but I wanted to look at the character in the background but couldn’t because it wasn’t in focus – I think that this is a tribute to how realistic the 3D is – it fooled my brain into thinking it could focus on whatever it wanted!

  4. And on a side note, did anyone else watch the trailer for Battle for Terra and think, “this looks like a crappy Avatar”?

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"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

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