Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Avatar and the language of 3D

Continuity editing, the dominant style of narrative cinema and TV, is about how much you can get away with: two actors can film on opposite sides of the Earth, ten years apart, yet the viewer can be made to believe they are looking into each other's eyes and sharing an intimate conversation. It's also about what maintains this illusion and what disrupts it. An example is the infamous 180 degree rule: the camera should remain on the same side of two characters so they do not reverse their left-right onscreen positions.

Note that these are not rules punishable by death. You can "cross the line" using a moving transition shot; or the sense of disorientation caused by breaking this rule may actually be of dramatic use or might suit a more edgy style of direction.

Which brings me to Avatar which is a huge experiment in 3D cinema: a feature-length film combining live action and CGI, with characters, a (simple) narrative, and a great deal of action. For me it succeeded in it's own right as a film: not just impressive but enjoyable.

However, whether Avatar succeeds or fails for other viewers, it is also a huge seam of material to be studied. 3D is not just a better version of 2D. Some initial thoughts on the new language of 3D:
  • Speed is important. Get it right and the viewer is twisted or thrown around with the action; move the camera too fast or too jerkily and she becomes detached from the action.

  • 3D can be used to flesh out foreground or background but rarely both - if there's a lot of foreground depth then the panoramic background will still look like a painted scene.

  • Focus pulls are just plain wrong in 3D. So, predictably, are any other shots that make use of a forced depth of field effect. The viewer can switch their own focus from background to foreground in a 3D projection - if you artificially defocus part of the field then what exactly are you doing? Damn.

  • The 180 degree rule stands. If anything 3D is less forgiving of this.

I can imagine that one day the majority of films might be made in 3D, from high concept sci-fi to low-budget gritty-reality indie drama. When this happens, we will need a new version of continuity editing and we will learn our new rules about what works by going through Avatar frame by frame.

Sigourney Weaver - still cool in any number of dimensions.


Mauricem said...

Really good points. I had never thought about this stuff and you're right. The lack of focus on foreground images really messed with my head in 3-D, but the background really popped out. I'm looking forward to more. Say, do you want to trade links? We seem to have similar themes.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

Now that's interesting Mauricem - I had more trouble with backgrounds failing to pop out (although they were still pretty impressive flat). If people see 3D scenes differently then that's a whole new kettle of worms.

Hmm. I wish it was easier to shoot live 3D as an amateur and try to work some of this stuff out for myself - 3D CGI is easier but I'm seriously tempted to bolt a couple of Canon MVs together and see what happens...

indiescifi451. com said...

Wow. So long time ago already. Do you think it looks dated now?

Sci-Fi Gene said...

So how are things back there in 2009?

Interesting question. Personly I think Avatar still looks OK although you are welcome to differ, but disappointingly we may be at peak 3D now and it hasn't really delivered. We've all seen what a superhero blockbuster or an animated children's film look like in 3D, and they're cool, but is that it? I'm disappointed we never got to see what Mike Newell, Lars Von Trier or even Woody would do if they got behind a 3D rig. And there's no sign of those four Avatar sequels either...

indiescifi451. com said...

I totally agree with you on both points. When it was out, I went to see both version in 2 days.

3D now seems like what was thought of AI in the 60-s or 70-s, when everybody predicted that in 50 years we will have smart self-conscious robots but nothing like that happened. I cannot say though I am a huge 3D fan right now exactly due to the reasons mentioned, but if somebody else - except for superhero movies - used it in a more artistic way that would be incredible.

I guess nearly 100 years of 2D left an indelible mark on human consciousness.