There is a new bar for visual effects, and it is Avatar.
I don't see movies in the cinema very often anymore - it's expensive, a hassle to get there, and the viewing experience is usually a lot less pleasant than watching a DVD at home. To counter the drain of theatregoers to their own home cinemas, they have reintroduced a superior version of 3D to films, which are widely accepted and are, against my expectation, going gangbusters at the box office.
I personally don't see that 3D adds anything to the experience, and I have only seen two 3D movies. One was Pixar's UP, and the other was Avatar. I decided that they were both worth the expense and inconvenience because of their expected entertainment value for money. I was not disappointed, both times.
There's no doubt the 3D works well, and is a pleasing added dimension, to use an obvious pun, to the movies, even if it is wholly unnecessary to get the same amount of pleasure from the film. It's much improved over earlier versions, and as long as the film doesn't have in-your-face nonsense all the way through it, it just adds depth and a degree of realism that 2D doesn't already offer.
But Avatar is more than just a 3D experience. Widely dismissed by many nerdy geeky types who have seen the trailer and disregarded it as merely a retread of Dances With Wolves or Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, but with blue fake-looking CGI aliens, they have unfairly cast judgement on something that has much more to offer than just that.
For one thing, the Ferngully plot is only a backdrop to a wonderful journey of discovery of a completely alien, yet familiar, world. Filled to overflowing with unique creatures that really feel like they genuinely could really exist, rather than as mere nightmarish monsters, and lush with new foliage that borrows much from familiar tropical (and ocean bed) plants but have an all new twist (sometimes literally a twist), it is a dazzling tour de force, a visual symphony, of glorious vivid colour. At moments I genuinely believed it was all real, and I wished I could have visited it.
The biggest leap in CGI technology wasn't the landscape, though there were leaps and bounds made in the believability and interactive nature of that too. No, instead we saw the best motion capture, both for the bodies and especially the face, than anything we have ever witnessed. It's made leaps and bounds even since Gollum and Kong. Robert Zemeckis will be tearing his hair out at what James Cameron has managed to develop, and I'm sure we'll see it reflected in his next epic (rumoured to be, incidentally, a new Roger Rabbit film).
Apparently, the biggest, and yet simplest leap in motion capture was that the facial capture happened at the same time as the body capture, so they moved in tandem, rather than needing to be married together from separate performances. That, and an improvement in smoothness and accuracy, has finally abolished the flaws that marred the technology for so long, and opened up a more reliable way for actors to inhabit CGI bodies.
I came away from Avatar absolutely breathlessly stunned. Though the movie is long in minutes, it feels exactly the right length because there's just so much to see. Perhaps repeated viewings, and familiarity after watching on DVD, will make it seem a tad long, but for now it felt just perfect.
The characters you're supposed to hate I really hated, the characters you're supposed to cheer for I loved, and the characters that could've gone either way were nicely nuanced and were handled just right.
It's not the most original story, and borrows a lot of its ideas, both visual and narrative, from many sources, but as a whole, it is a spectacle like you have never seen, and sets the bar for epic adventure fantasy that won't be matched for a long time.
4 days ago