With the science fiction adventure Avatar, director James Cameron fulfills his promise to bring the 3D movie experience to a wide audience. The film marks the culmination of years of work with 3D, including developing the Fusion Camera System in order to film the large-screen documentaries Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep. Still, doubters outnumbered believers when Cameron announced in 2003 that his next fiction feature would be shot and released in 3D.
Filmmakers have tried to develop a comfortable, reliable three-dimension process since the earliest days of cinema. The anaglyph system, which uses red and blue filters to achieve a stereo effect, dates back to the 1920s; a process using polarizing filters came a decade later. Both had their greatest successes in the 1950s, when studios used 3D along with color and widescreen processes to combat the growing popularity of television. But until recently, directors have shown little interest in 3D, using it primarily for exploitation films and documentaries.
It took an entirely new process to persuade Cameron, director of what is to date the most successful film of all time, Titanic, to make the creative leap to 3D. Jon Landau, Cameron’s producing partner since that film and part of the creative team behind Avatar, credits the new feasibility of 3D to two breakthroughs. Older systems used stereo cameras on fixed mounts, which meant that the convergence point–the point where viewers’ eyes focused–also remained fixed. As a result, viewers’ eyes tended to cross when following objects that moved towards the lens. Convergence wasn’t a serious problem if filmmakers were only interested in using 3D as a stunt–to hurl spears and arrows towards viewers, for example. But for a director intent on exposing filmgoers to the dramatic possibilities of space and depth, eye fatigue became a real factor.
“With this new system,” Landau explained, “we can use what’s called dynamic convergence. The camera mounts aren’t fixed, they can move, they can actually change their point of convergence, creating a much easier viewing experience for the audience.”
The second breakthrough, in Landau’s opinion even more crucial, is digital projection. Properly equipped, digital projectors can throw alternate left- and right-eye frames at frequencies high enough that viewers perceive them as stereo images. Unlike earlier processes, the effects persist even when viewers turn their heads. Landau, who has been projecting test footage for audiences for the past year, claims that the angle of viewing is much wider than with previous processes. Even aisle seats, and not just those in the center, offer true 3D viewing. And the system helps alleviate eye fatigue, a crucial factor for longer films.
Landau insists that shooting in 3D is no more complicated than shooting in 2-D. Smaller, lighter, and more convenient to use, the new cameras free filmmakers from restrictions imposed by previous systems. “Even a simple over the shoulder shot in the past might create a stressful 3D experience,” the producer says. “Now you can make it a much more pleasing shot.”
Landau gives some more examples. “When Jim was shooting Terminator 3D, in scenes where actors were running, he had to have them run at half speed because that was as fast as he could move these behemoth cameras we were using. You simply couldn’t use a lot of the techniques that filmmakers take for granted. Steadicam, for example. With the new set-up, you can throw a camera rig on a Steadicam, up onto a crane, use it handheld, in fact shoot no differently than a director would shoot any other movie. Yes, you need additional cameras–every rig needs a second camera. But that’s not much to ask to be able to use a great new tool for creativity.”
Cameron agrees. “You know, I went back and screened Titanic to see if it would have looked good in 3D. I realized I wouldn’t have had to change my style at all on that film. As long as I don’t have to change my style, the way I would set up a shot or frame a shot or anything like that, then there’s no downside to it.”
Still, Landau is careful to point out that 3D is a tool, not a crutch. “Movies are, first of all, about the story and the acting. We can throw 3D at them, we can throw anything else at them, but it all comes down to who these characters are, is it an involving story. And I want to point out that 3D works with all kinds of stories, not just action. I think that’s led to some confusion. 3D lends itself very well to dramatic stories, because it puts the audience in a perspective where they are in the room with the characters. It’s a much more immersive experience.”
Set in the future, Avatar concerns a wounded veteran who joins a battle for independence on an alien planet. Cameron and his crew will first shoot “virtual reality” footage, then later in the year live-action footage involving the cast, which stars Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, as well as screen veterans like Sigourney Weaver, CCH Pounder, and Wes Studi. The film relies heavily on CGI as well as 3D effects. In a first, the new system will enable Cameron and the crew to see these effects live in a viewing area adjacent to the sets.
Landau points to Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, to commitments by directors like Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson, to decisions by studios like Warner Bros. to retrofit features, and to the strong support he and Cameron have received from Twentieth Century-Fox as proof that a tipping point of sorts has been reached for 3D. Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopulos is especially excited about backing Cameron’s project. “Jim’s movies raise the bar, both in storytelling and use of technology,” Gianopulos says. “Avatar will be a seismic change in the movie-going experience.”
As far as Landau is concerned, infrastructure is the primary problem now. Some fifty theaters could project Aliens of the Deep in 3D; Meet the Robinsons will open in eight hundred. Cameron and Landau would like to see that number grow by the time Avatar is released in 2009. “There’s been a hesitancy on the part of the exhibition community to embrace digital projection, in part because the consumer couldn’t ascertain the difference between digital and 35mm. But with 3D, all of a sudden there’s a real reason to put in a digital projector. You are creating something that you can’t get with a 35mm projector.”
Once digital projection is installed into a theater, additional costs for 3D are minimal. And while the Fusion process will allow for 2D versions of Avatar, 3D offers protection against piracy. As Landau says, “You can’t pirate the 3D experience. You can’t go in with a camcorder and tape anything usable off a 3D screen.” The producer feels that a time will come when every theater will be a 3D capable theater.
“Digital 3D is the next evolution of creative filmmaking. You can look at film, cinema, as the great visual art form of the twentieth century. And yet for the last fifty years there has been no real improvement on how we present a film visually. We’ve gone from mono to six-track stereo and beyond, but visually nothing’s really changed since widescreen color back in the 1950s. And I think as filmmakers we have a responsibility to create an experience that audiences can’t get at home.”
Cameron has been open about the need to “turbo-charge” the viewing experience. “There’s no question about it, movies have gotten damn good visually. But you’ve got to keep people coming to the theaters, you can’t give up theaters to the home environment, to peer sharing, to ripping and burning DVDs. We’ve got to keep the theater experience compelling.”
And as Landau says, “Digital 3D is not about gags coming off the screen. 3D is about erasing a barrier that has existed between the audience and the film, making the screen disappear. It is an immersive experience, one in which viewers lose themselves in the movie, in the story you are telling.”