The Motion/Captured (P)review: ‘Avatar Day’ in IMAX 3D

08.25.09 8 years ago 15 Comments

20th Century Fox

I’ve been giving this some thought over the weekend, and my honest opinion, after all is said and done, is that Fox probably did the best job they could have done in terms of trying to turn the debut of a trailer into a cultural event, and despite my own rabid interest in the film, I’m sort of proud of the general public for not buying into the idea that they needed to make a destination on a Friday evening out of seeing a 15-minute chunk of a movie that’s being released in less than four months.

When I go do an editing room visit with a filmmaker, the amount of footage I see is typically about the same amount of footage that the public was shown if they went to one of the theaters that participated in “Avatar” Day on Friday.  And when I look at one of these presentations, several things come into play.  First, obviously, I’m not looking at a finished film, so making pronouncements about a film’s overall quality is preposterous.  Second, the stuff I’m seeing isn’t in context, so it’s hard to judge how something works dramatically since you’re not seeing the lead-up or the pay-off.  Finally, I have been involved in film production since the early ’90s, and visiting sets since the early ’80s.  At this point, I think I can objectively look at the bits and pieces of a film and talk about it as a process.  I would argue that’s actually a skill set you develop over time, and that most people who walk into a presentation like “Avatar” Day haven’t ever had to develop that skill set.  So when someone starts a website called “Avatar Sucks,” I’m thinking perhaps this is the textbook definition of kneejerk.

Not to say that reactions are uniform on this one, or that they should be.  I think some very smart people have stated quite emphatically in the last few days that they hate what they’ve seen from the movie already, and specifically, they seem to really hate the design of the Na’vi, the native species of Pandora, the planet where the film is set.  If you hate the design, I don’t know what to tell you.  I think they’re definitely extreme, stylized, and it’s taken me while to really decide what I think of them.

Overall, I think they are the most effective CGI character design since the debut of Gollum, and for many of the same reasons.

[more after the jump]

It’s no accident that WETA Digital is the house behind the hero’s portion of the work on this film.  I think the Na’vi really do represent that evolutionary step in performance capture that filmmakers have been talking about ever since they started visiting the set for the film.  What’s amazing is that until the work was finished, there was no way for those other filmmakers to really know if the character work would come together.  There’s a scene that we were shown in both the Comic-Con footage and, in shorter form, again at the “Avatar” Day screening, and I think it’s the moment that best illustrates what I’m talking about.  Jake’s Avatar faces down two creatures in a row, and as he does, Sigourney Weaver’s Avatar tells him what to do.  And watching them and their interplay, I wasn’t looking at animated characters… I was looking at Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver playing a scene together.  There was nuance and spontaneity in the interplay in the way that, until now, I’ve only seen happen between flesh and blood actors.

I guess a big part of your reaction to all of this is the notion of whether or not performance capture is interesting or valid.  So far, in the hands of Robert Zemeckis, I consider it a big “almost but not quite.”  But Gollum and Kong both made me a believer, and the work here looks to be built from that foundation.  I think an interesting comparison to make at the end of the holiday season will be between “A Christmas Carol” and “Avatar,” both of which represent different directions of effort in terms advancing this particular art form.  The actors I’ve spoken to who have done this sort of performance work seem to adore the process.  In particular, both Gary Oldman and John Malkovich raved to me about how liberating and exciting they found it in general, and how they feel like it’s a new frontier for actors. 

And before you mention “District 9” to me… yes, that’s performance capture, too.  In fact, most of the Prawns in the film were played by Jason Cope, one actor.  It’s essentially no different than a make-up role at this point.  A very high-tech make-up role, sure, with different limitations, but still… it’s the same idea.  As a result, when I see someone in, say, the AICN Talkback freaking out because Cameron “obviously hates actors now and will only work with CGI crap characters,” it forces me to realize that some people just don’t get what they’re looking at anymore.  Actors are not just part of this process… they’re still the key part of the process.  Without an actor, you’re not getting anything.  In a way, the making of “Avatar” is no different than the story of “Avatar.”  These people were all picked to basically upload their personalities into these strange new bodies, and when you look at each Na’vi, you can see the DNA of the performer in there.  And if it all works, you’ll believe that they are alive.  You’ll forget they are effects in any way.  I’m going to bet that for most audiences, that is exactly what’s going to happen come Christmas time.

I decided to do a little market research here in my own house, because at this point, I’m already interested, and I know enough about the film that I’m not a good judge of how well the trailer worked at actually selling people on the idea of “Avatar.”  And remember… that’s the ultimate goal of a trailer.  Not giving fanboys footage to micro-analyze.  Selling the movie to the general public.  And that’s the thing that the “Avatar” materials have to be judged by in the end.  Did this help introduce this film to the mainstream, and if so, what impression did they take from what they saw?

The first person to see the trailer:  my wife.  I showed it to her full-screen on my oversized monitor.  No preamble, the way I show her most trailers.  My wife pays no attention to 99% of my nerd rambling, so she represents a fairly blank slate for this sort of thing.  She watched it silently, then when it was over, shook her head and looked at me.  “What the H was that?”  That was her whole reaction.  The fact that this is from the same director as “Titanic”?  Made no difference to her at all.

Victim #2.  Toshi.  He requires an introduction before he watches something.  Nay.  He demands it.  But he always lets me know when he’s got enough information.

“Daddy, what’s this?”


“What’s ‘Avatar’?”

“It’s about outer space.”

Ding.  That did it.  He hopped up onto my lap, commandeered the mouse so he could start the trailer on his own, and then played it.

First time through, no talking at all.

“So, buddy, what’d y…”

“Shush, Daddy.”

He pressed play a second time.  And a third.  And it was only once he was sated that he finally started talking and asking questions.  And he kept asking questions for the entire rest of the day.  He also kept sneaking into my office to watch the trailer again and again, at least 12 times over the weekend.

He has also now asked me if we’re going to see “Avatar” in the theater tomorrow at least 375 times.  I would say that, in his case, the trailer appears to have been slightly successful.

I called my parents, who are just shy of 70 years old, and told them how to get to the trailers page.  My dad had to actually install Quicktime before they could watch the trailer, so you can see how much time they spend watching clips and trailers online.  They watched it while I was on the phone.  Verdict?  My dad didn’t really care for it, and my mom (a huge SF reader) thought it looked interesting, but had no idea what any of it was.  They both felt like the trailer failed to explain what they were looking at.

Even my screenwriting partner Scott Swan seemed underwhelmed by the trailer online.  “I trust Jim Cameron,” he said, “but I don’t really get that.”

He changed his tune after joining me at the IMAX 3D presentation at The Bridge on Friday, though.  I thought the footage was technically impressive, but I also feel like I’ve talked about the tech a lot at this point.

Now that I’ve seen the Comic-Con footage, the trailer, and the IMAX 3D footage, I can say that I really like the world and the characters we’re seeing, and that’s what has me hooked.  I like the scenes that I’ve seen a couple of times now.  The extended version of the moment where Jake (Sam Worthington) first connects to his Na’vi Avatar and wakes up on the table is great stuff, very POV, and the joy and delight that Jake feels as he manages to wiggle his feet, then move his legs, then finally stand… that’s all character, all very experiential.  Same thing on the longer more involved version of the sequence where Jake tries to capture and tame one of the flying creatures.  I thought it was completely engrossing and quite visceral when viewed on the bigscreen.

Having said that… “Avatar” did not mend the crippled or cure cancer or change the face of cinema during the presentation I saw.

You know why?

Because it’s just a movie.

Over the weekend, someone was complaining that any bad energy out there is all Cameron’s fault for “hyping his stupid movie too much.”  I disagree.  I don’t think they’ve hyped “Avatar” much at all.  Until Comic-Con, I would argue that they hadn’t hyped “Avatar” at all.  Hype, by my definition, is generated from within a production as a way of hopefully building buzz on that project.  Now, buzz is an organic thing.  Buzz has a life of its own.  Often hype is used as a way of trying to control buzz.  Buzz can come from people on the film, people near the film, people at other studios, or just people out there in the world reacting to vague currents in the wind.  Hype is manufactured.  Buzz happens.  And both can be fatal to a film if mismanaged, because both create expectations that can ruin a film for an audience. 

“Avatar” has had major buzz around it since it was announced, and for fairly obvious reasons.  It’s the first film for Cameron in 12 years.  There are members of the target audience for this movie who have never seen a James Cameron film in the theater.  In fact, I’d say that the majority of the target audience for this movie has no memory of “Terminator 2” or “The Abyss” or “Aliens” or “The Terminator” on the bigscreen, and they have little or no investment in Cameron as a director.  The early buzz, in my opinion, has mostly been the result of other filmmakers visiting the set and reacting to what they’ve seen while they were there.  Phrases like “it’s a game changer” are being used now as weapons to beat the hell out of the film pre-emptively, but I think for anyone who wants to tell large-canvass fantasy or SF films, the tools that Cameron is using are indeed game-changing tools.  And that’s what these filmmakers are saying.  More and more, the only limitation for what you can show onscreen is what you can imagine.

Look, I’m a “Star Wars” kid.  For me, the world of filmmaking became a lifelong obsession the moment that first Star Destroyer rolled overhead back in 1977.  And one of the things that “Star Wars” seemed to promise was that we were going to be seeing a lot more world-building in film.  Instead, we’ve seen very little of it.  I think it’s a big investment for a creator to try to introduce a whole new world and a whole new species and a whole new society… and very few filmmakers ever find themselves in a position where they can try to do that.  James Cameron was driving a truck when “Star Wars” came out, and it motivated him to get into filmmaking.  It does not surprise me, then, that he would be the guy to step up and try to construct his own galaxy far, far away.  It looks to me like he’s trying to fulfill the promise from that summer of ’77, and I’m happy to let him try, and to give the film my full attention before I decide if I like it or not.

As far as the designs and the color palette and the way fandom seems to be freaking out… big surprise.  I’m convinced that there is only one aesthetic choice that fanboys like, and that’s grim and dark and dirty and gritty.  Anything else confuses and upsets them.  You want a fanboy hit?  Just rip off “Blade Runner” for the 8,000th time.  They’ll go nuts for it.  Whatever you do, don’t use any primary colors and don’t set anything in the daylight and don’t try to tell optimistic stories or include anything that remotely smells of whimsy.  Everything has to be dark and depressing… right?  Because that’s what I want… a film culture where we only allow one particular flavor of SF to survive.  Dystopia or bust, eh, boys?

I think Cameron picked the palette for a few reasons.  Obviously, he has spent a lot of time on deep-sea dives, and the bioluminscence and much of the coloring of the film seems to be based on those excursions.  But more than that, I think he made the film as bright as he did because he knows that 3D glasses automatically cut some of the color and the brightness, and this way, the film still comes across as bright and colorful.  I think the material we’ve seen so far practically glows.

Yes, you can make superficial comparisons to things like “Delgo” or “Ferngully” or “Battle for Terra” or Roger Dean’s Yes album covers if you want to.  But they’re superficial comparisons, and that’s all.  It’s not the JFK assasination, so all of you yappy little Jim Garrisons who think you’ve blown the roof off of something can sit down now and wait for December.  If the movie is just “Dances With Wolves” with blue Indians, then feel free to get all up in arms at that point if that bothers you so much.

But right now, I think what Cameron has shown is just enough to suggest that we’re going to get something really special in December, something on a scale that few other filmmakers would ever even attempt, much less accomplish.  Do I think it’s a sure thing, a guaranteed good film?  Nope.  No such thing.  But do I trust that James Cameron has always been a guy who pushes himself and who pushes his crews and who pushes the audience?  Yes.

So consider my ticket to Pandora booked.  Looks like at the very least, I’ll have Toshi along for the ride.  And despite the vocal fanboy community, I suspect that for most people, the jury’s still out on this one, and I think there’s a real hunger out there for the new.  I hope Cameron is able to deliver on that on December 18th.

I’m sure Fox does, too.

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