James Cameron's much-hyped Avatar is being lauded in Hollywood as a significant leap forward in the evolution of digital special effects.
The Cameron effect
When an audience at the Dubai International Film Festival today becomes one of the first in the world to don 3D specs and watch James Cameron's Avatar, a number of things could happen. If the pre-release hype and any number of early reviews are to be trusted, they will leave the screening having seen something that will change cinema forever. Alternatively, they will have sat through the most expensive vanity project in film history; a two-and-a-half-hour-long special-effects marathon with only the power, according to one report, to induce mass vomiting.
The science-fiction epic, which has reportedly been in the works for 14 years, takes place on the mythical world of Pandora, a lush, jungle-covered moon. It focuses on a conflict between humans, who are seeking to benefit from Pandora's natural resources, and the Na'vi, the race of tall blue aliens who have featured prominently in the film's promotional campaign. If the trailer is anything to go by, expect giant robots and helicopter gunships battling spear-throwing aliens on beast back.
The buzz from the production company Fox is that Avatar represents a quantum leap for special effects, akin to the likes of King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jurassic Park. But many fear that, due to its heavy reliance on digital effects, Avatar is just as likely to become the next Phantom Menace. Despite these early reservations, the small number of reviews that have emerged in the past few days have been largely positive. The trade paper Variety called Cameron's new world "a place worth visiting" and The Hollywood Reporter refered to the "jaw-dropping wonder" of Avatar.
"Special effects have become more than just embellishments within films, now they seem to be the driving force behind the way films are conceived and marketed," says Simon Hunter, the president of the New York Film Academy, Abu Dhabi. "Home cinemas have changed the reasons why we go to the movies, and now Hollywood is looking to create event pictures with extraordinary special effects that force people to see something on the big screen."
Throughout his career, Cameron has pioneered the use of computer-generated imagery in films such as Titanic, Terminator 2 and The Abyss. Although much of Avatar is computer-generated, its live-action elements were filmed using the Fusion 3D camera system, invented by Cameron for the project. "The potential pitfall is that when you have too many toys to play with and the focus becomes the toys and not the story. Story is still everything in filmmaking," warns Hunter.
Avatar also uses the same actor-driven motion-capture technology that brought Gollum to life in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and can currently be seen in Robert Zemeckis's A Christmas Carol. To craft the most technically ambitious film in cinema history, Cameron enlisted the services of three of the world's top visual-effects companies: Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic and the London-based outfit Framestore.
"It involved a hideous number of man hours. We simply didn't do conventional working days," says Jonathan Fawkner, a VFX supervisor at Framestore. The company won an Academy Award for its work on the 2007 film The Golden Compass and has also provided digital effects for the Harry Potter films, as well as The Dark Night and many others. Avatar demanded that nearly 150 of Framestore's artists and animators work 11 hour days for seven months - all for just three of the films special-effects sequences. By contrast, the team at Weta Digital spent almost four years on the film.
Having worked so intensely on Avatar, and with an acute awareness of the technological challenges involved, Fawkner believes that the film's reputation as a giant leap forward in the evolution of special effects is well deserved. "Does Avatar represent a pinnacle? I think so," he says. "The technology is the best that's available and James Cameron doesn't set the bar low. There's no wool to be pulled over his eyes. If he could have come to London and pushed a mouse around, he probably would have."
When Framestore came on board, the company's artists were not only given the raw footage of the actors' performances, but also a digital template made by the director showing exactly how each shot should look. "The principal photography was all finished nearly two years ago," says Fawkner. "Cameron made incredibly detailed decisions about the position of this helicopter or that helicopter, or how a certain abstract thing like a branch is important at focusing the viewer in on a character's eyes. He was very meticulous."
As well as having a reputation as an innovator, often embracing new technology long before his peers, Cameron is also known as a filmmaker who makes great demands on those he works with and is more than willing to give out a tongue-lashing when things don't go to plan. While the creative process was under way at Framestore, the director demanded lengthy videoconference sessions with the artists. "We would do torturous hours and hours going through shot by shot. I think our record was five hours," says Fawkner. "He's certainly a passionate man. He doesn't leave any question about what it is he wants to happen."
The release of Avatar represents Hollywood's greatest financial commitment so far to 3D. In recent years, a number of major filmmakers have re-embraced depth-perception technology, which reached the height of its popularity in the 1950s and last had a resurgence in the early 1980s. "The 3D technology has got a lot better, but it's also a measure to combat piracy, which has become a major problem for the studios," says the New York Film Academy's Hunter. "You can't download a 3D movie and use the polarising filters that they have at the cinema. It means people have to go to the movies."
While a growing number of high-profile voices have expressed scepticism about the future of the current 3D renaissance (particularly with the additional cost being passed on to moviegoers), Hollywood seems resolute that it is here to stay. The point was clearly illustrated at the Las Vegas trade event ShoWest in 2005, when Cameron was joined on stage by the directors George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Robert Rodriguez and Randal Kleiser - all wearing 3D specs, confidently predicting to have found the next big thing in cinema.
But an early review, posted anonymously on the Hollywood gossip site gawker.com, could make difficult reading not just for Cameron, but the entire Hollywood machine that is banking on Avatar and 3D to be a success. It claimed audience members at a test screening had problems "cutting in between 3D focal points and perspective." Also that "the mind cannot adjust to it without a buffer - thus, Avatar is literally vomit inducing".
However, Framestore's Fawkner believes audiences who see the completed film will react differently to its 3D images. "If you're talking about making photo-real visual effects, I think 3D actually helps," he says. "It adds an element of believability, even to far-fetched science-fiction-orientated material, and tricks the mind somehow. You inherently believe it a little bit more because it's in front of you."
But whether or not the 3D technology causes audience members to suffer, some may simply object to Avatar's reliance on CGI. Because the technology is capable of making almost any illusion appear real, some feel there are few surprises left for audiences. Others claim the technology has fuelled lazy filmmaking and stifled innovation in special effects. "They do overuse CGI, yes," says Mike Kelt, the managing director of Artem, a London-based company that specialises in physical effects. The company has worked on numerous films, including The Brothers Grimm, Troy and Tomb Raider 2.
"There are certainly things that don't really work digitally, like flames, explosions and interaction with the environment. Look at 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was all done with traditional technology and it was stunning and still looks stunning today. It can be done that way." Many films now have at least 25 per cent of their budgets set aside for post-production. But some have suggested that the term is a misnomer; visual effects companies often become involved in the early stages of production, creating test footage, and remain involved long after shooting has finished.
Such technology has also made filming substantially cheaper, with a growing number of movies shot entirely on green screen, without sets, props or wardrobe departments. What's more, CGI is now not only used to create incredible worlds and characters, but also to retouch make-up, remove unwanted shadows and fix wardrobe malfunctions. "Often when you look at something, you know it has been done digitally because it's flat," says Kelt. "The difference is often that the guy sitting at the computer doesn't quite understand what an image is, whereas a sculptor in our workshop is physically dealing with an object.
"I would think that the best 3D computer modellers would come from a sculptural background because they understand physical volume," he says. Although many still have misgivings about CGI, Hollywood has shown little desire to revert to more traditional methods for special effects. Quite the reverse, its tent-pole releases are invariably those that are most reliant on digital technology. "Ever since the Star Wars prequels came along, there has been a backlash," says Fawkner. "But, really, that backlash should have been against trying to smother the cracks of a poor story with impressive visuals."
The explosion of CGI has meant that almost any image that a filmmaker might want can now be realised. But whether that image deserves to be created is another matter. Whether you find the idea of a two-and-a-half-hour-long, unfathomably expensive special-effects extravaganza exciting or terrifying, few people would blame the visual-effects artists. "Avatar was hard to work on," says Fawkner. "The T-shirts that they wore on The Abyss said: 'I survived a James Cameron movie.' Well, we all feel like we had 'survived'." email@example.com