Friday, 15 January 2010

Avatar - effects, colour, subtitles

I got round to seeing Avatar this week. The delay was because of the preview (which didn't appeal much) and also because director James Cameron made Titanic. Even the director of the great Terminator and very good The Abyss has to work hard to get me back in the cinema after that.

But back I went, to experience the cultural phenomenon and the 3D effects. It happily surprised me as an enjoyable film, despite many problems: among these, a limited script; Sam Worthington as a marine doesn't have the real screen presence to carry the film, and as an avatar is quite Disney-esque; lame puns like Na'vi (for Navajo, surely), Pandora, unobtainium for the precious mineral; the white guy wins the day; having to ponder how the marine and the alien had sex since, although almost nude, the aliens carefully avoid revealing any imagined body-parts. (This is a family film, and although there is a high body count in the inevitable conflict at the end, little is shown of that either.) Oh, and Sigourney Weaver's avatar looks disconcertingly - and somewhat confusingly - like Jodie Foster in Flightplan.

Weaver in Avatar, right, and Foster in Flightplan, left - in a reversal of skin and eye colour

But its heart - and the heart of its story - is in the right place. That story, despite such glitches as mentioned, ultimately just holds up. The planet special effects reveal dedicated hard work sweating over a hot computer, and imagination in both how they are made and the result. It's a special-effects landscape very fully realised. The novel avatar effects, added "live" as the actors performed, work very well.

Or at least in 3D it works reasonably well. (3D is an additional special effect in the movie - all the real imagination and work has gone into the overall look.) Just before the native fight-back started in the movie, I lifted my 3D glasses to give my eyes a break. Wearing 3D glasses over regular glasses is not that comfortable. Up until that point I'd been wondering if I could really equally share the New Yorker's unbridled enthusiasm at "how lovely Avatar looks, luscious yet freewheeling, bounteous yet strange". Certainly, it had a richly imagined landscape: but, wow, without 3D glasses it was stunning - glowing, molten colours, liquid oranges, greens, blues, appearing both "alien" and "real". For even the blue-skinned aliens - which up until then had all seemed, while superbly made, just somewhat... made - looked more seemlessly part of the overall vision. The colours leaped out at you in a way I haven't seen in a film for a long time.

Maybe it was just the welcome change after wearing 3D glasses, but I don't think so. One of the main problems with 3D (apart from any question of its necessity) is that at this stage in its development you have to watch it through special glasses, which is like watching a regular film through sunglasses. I haven't seen this mentioned much, but it must take 30 percent of the light away. (I still remember the excellent Up, for example, as a dimly lit animation rather than full of colour.) Without the glasses, suddenly Avatar's alien landscape looked glowing, bright, flaring onto your retinas, rather than the sub-marine, rather struggling light that had been apparent up to then.

I watched the rest of the movie in 2D, putting up with the double images where the 3D imagery was being formed (much of the time, though, the central focus was sharp enough) in favour of the rich colours and the "realistic" integration they helped engender. I don't know if the 2D release will be brighter - judging from the promotional stills I guess not as they are also mostly toned down. Was this part of Cameron's vision, and the brighter version is to allow for the dimming of 3D, or is there a compromise between bright and dull in the 3D release which the 2D version has been altered to match, so the film is experienced at the same brightness for either? (They can't accidentally match, the regular 2D film will have to be dimmed down to match a film viewed through dark glasses.) Personally, I'd opt - as I did for a good 20 minutes of the film - for the brighter version if such a version was released.

And a final note from Japan: the Japanese subtitles were integrated into the film. They weren't just printed onto the film (or rather into the "rendered image" as Nicolas Roeg has now referred to what used to be called "film") but given a positioning within the 3D (so that without glasses sometimes there were two, well-separated subtitles, and sometimes they merged). That seems like hard work which I'm guessing not all 3D films will manage or afford. In one scene they also move up and over objects as the camera tracks so as not to disturb imagery. More good attention to detail in a film which demonstrates much of that.

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