Saturday, January 23, 2010

Avatar: Progression Not Revolution

Avatar was one of the better movies of the year.  The 3D CGI and motion capture was extremely well done and the story was okay.  Overall it was a thoroughly entertaining film and I want to give it the credit that it deserves.  James Cameron did a great job utilizing the latest technology to see his dream come to the screen as best as possible and I want to commend him for that.

I keep hearing the word “revolutionary” attached to this film however, I don’t see anything revolutionary about it.  I have heard quotes such as “It will change the way filmmaking is done forever”, but I’m not so sure anything will change as a result of this film.  Film is progressing like it always has.  There are two, maybe three recent films that I can think of that warrant quotes like that and changed the way films were done forever.  They were pioneers in the industry and took big risks on the technology they were using.

The first one being Jurassic Park.  I have never seen an audience more surprised when they saw “live” dinosaurs walking around.  This was done by using a combination of “revolutionary” computer generated effects and model dinosaurs.  This film helped start the CGI revolution and inspired many films after it’s release.  That film has some of the best looking effects, even with today’s standards.  That was back in 1993.

The second film being Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.  This was the first film I can think of that used computer generated effects and motion capture to model “life-like” human characters and sci-fi landscapes for the entire film.  People were saying that this technology would replace live actors one day.  That was in 2001.

Well, they were sort of right.  This technology had advanced and was then used in the epic trilogy Lord of the Rings.  The character of Gollum really utilized facial recognition technology.  That was from 2001-2003.

Since all these movies have come out, I have learned what the computer can do.  It has been an invaluable resources for editing as well as post production special effects and since I have seen movies like these, I have learned never to be surprised at what Computer Generated Imagery can do.  As technology gets better, it just makes sense that the effects will get better and easier to implement over time.  Movie goers have come to be surprised at these effects and have forgotten that the backbone of a film is the storyline.  Filmmakers have forgotten about this as well and have learned to cover up poor writing with spectacle and special effects, but I’ll save that for another article.

Having said all that, James Cameron gave credit in interviews to films like these as his inspiration (specifically Lord of the Rings and King Kong).  Most of the thanks for Avatar has to go out to the wonderful effects artists at WETA Digital, and I was pleasantly surprised with James Cameron at The Golden Globes for thanking them throughout his speech.  They are the geniuses behind the movie and they brought Mr. Cameron's vision to the screen nicely.

So, when people start throwing bold phrases around like “revolutionary” and “changing the face of film forever”, they should think about what they are saying and not just doing it for promotional purposes.  If they don’t explain what they mean, it makes them look ill-informed.  I’m not saying what Cameron did wasn’t good for film and I’m not even saying that this isn’t the best display of CGI effects to date, but it is a progression that will keep getting better in time and will be outdone in years to come.

On one hand, maybe I’m the ill-informed one, and movies will never be the same after Avatar’s release, but I don’t want people to be fooled by spectacle over story.  On the other hand, Avatar may not change the way films will be made, but I know for sure that CGI/Motion capture movies of the past changed the way Avatar was made.  Revolutionary or not, future movies will be inspired by Avatar.  I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

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