Whether you’re a rabid fan who can’t wait to smear yourself in blue body paint for the next comicon, or a cinephile who can’t get over the fact that “Avatar’s” storyline indulges in archetypes that were old hat way before “Dances With Wolves” or “Pocahontas,” pretty much everyone can agree that James Cameron’s “Avatar” is a groundbreaking visual experience. Combine that with its snowballing box office take (it was number 1 for the sixth week in a row this weekend), and there’s no doubt “Avatar” is set to exert a massive influence on the future of 3-D films. Still, with so many strong opinions about the plot being lobbed around, there’s been very little discussion of exactly what, in terms of technique, really sets “Avatar” apart form its high-concept 3-D predecessors.
At the most basic level, “Avatar’s” real innovation is its sensibility. This is the first film that fully engages the new generation 3-D technology on a holistic, multifaceted level. With “Avatar,” James Cameron is attempting to deploy and reconcile the sensory illusion of digital 3-D with the century old foundations of two dimensional film language. “Avatar” is the first film where every shot, every 3-D effect seems calculated with something more than visual punctuation or cheap gimmickry in mind, the first 3-D film that seems to have an overarching aesthetic plan. In short, James Cameron and his cinematographers were thinking in 3 dimensions every time they looked through a camera lens, and that mindfulness comes through in almost every shot of the film.
The first image fires a quiet but portentous opening shot in “Avatar’s” 3-D revolution. It also instantly establishes Cameron’s determination to reconciliate traditional film techniques with 3-D cinematography. “Avatar” opens with an extreme close-up of protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) awakening from hibernation in a cryo-pod. In the shot’s foreground, floating above the plane of the screen, several hazy smudges drift back and forth in the frame. So early in the film, the unacclimated viewer’s first thought is that, perhaps, these wisps are some unintentional digital artifact, a glitch. Then, suddenly, the camera’s focus changes, snapping the floating smudges into 3-Dimensional clarity and blurring out Worthington’s face. The smudges are revealed as globules of liquid floating in zero-gravity and floating above the plane of the screen in 3-D. What seems like a defect turns out to be an element in the frame. The shot uses a tried and true cinematographic effect, the rack focus, a shallow-focus shot that draws the viewers attentions form one object to another by changing which is in focus during the shot. When the technique is used in conjunction with 3-D, there is an added affect, the effect of disorientation giving way to revelation. Initially the indefinable smudges create a separation from the world on screen, but that distracting separation suddenly settles into empathy when the objects are pulled in to focus, connecting what the viewer sees with what Sully sees. Thus, at the earliest moment in “Avatar” we see 3-D photography deployed for empathy and acclimation rather than spectacle and an old trick is redefined by taking a new technology and manipulating it through basics cinematography.
Cameron has little desire to break the foreground plane of the screen just to send objects flying out into the audience. This alone sets him miles ahead of most of his 3-D predecessors. There are precious few indulgent shots of jungle monsters leaping into the theater in “Avatar”, no spaceships zooming straight into the camera and off the screen. Unlike most of his 3-D predecessors, Cameron seems to know that the cheap gimmick of reaching into the audience with extreme 3-D effects actually shatters the film experience by calling attention to the separation between the world on the screen and the world of the audience. Rather than throw the film out of the screen and into the audience, Cameron constantly uses the multiple planes of 3-D depth to pull the viewers into the screen.
Cameron most often uses the 3-D to create a sort of “shadowbox” effect. His goal seems to be not just to flavor 2-D cinematography with bits of 3-D, but to establish a constant 3-Dimensional space on film that is both separated from the viewer by the plane of the screen, and still rendered in an immersive 3 dimensions. What Cameron has done in “Avatar” is create a sort of infinitely malleable, virtual theater stage, a stage with depth that can be rotated, expanded and contracted in 3-D without limits. Unlike a theater stage, the plasticity of the “virtual stage” is limitless. Through cinematography and editing, the viewer’s perspective can pull back, rise above, penetrate deeper into the frame, or be pulled within inches of the smallest detail in the 3-D space. Essentially Cameron doesn’t “break” the frame and send his cinematic world spilling out into the audience, he controls and manipulates the audience’s position both inside and outside the 3-D cinematic environment to forward his narrative.
This sensibility allows Cameron to use 3-D thematically in a way no director before seems to have been much interested in. It’s fitting, then, that one of the most extreme and ingenious instances of the manipulation of depth in “Avatar” actually occurs in a quiet moment of character development. It comes during a sequence that depicts Sully spryly bouncing about the jungle in his lithe, blue body. In the midst of the montage, Cameron cuts away from the jungle to a shot of the wheelchair bound Sully back at the base camp. Cameron frames the shot of the frustrated soldier with Sully recessed far, far at the “back” of a deep 3-D composition. Multiple planes of foreshortened lockers intercede between Sully and the audience in the foreground. The imagery accentuates the hardship of Sully’s wheelchair bound existence by using 3-D to communicate exaggerated distance form camera to subject. The multiple planes also call attention to physical obstacles within the character’s space, heir dimensionality accentuating their obstructive nature. The purpose of the shot is not to dazzle the viewer or take them on a roller-coaster ride, but to use 3-D to subtly convey the difficulty and frustration the wheelchair bound Sully experiences in the jarring return to his “real” body. In short, the shot is about character. The same shot rendered in 2 dimensions might communicate a similar feeling, but undoubtedly the 3-D enhances the sentiment, giving the shot more emotional as well as visual depth.
Even when Cameron’s experimentation falls short, it’s interesting. In “Avatar” Cameron experiments with shallow focus shots in several dialogue scenes. When it comes to 3-D photography, conventional wisdom dictates that deep focus is a necessity. After all what is the point of having multiple planes of depth on the screen if only one object on one plane is in focus? Cameron nevertheless uses shallow focus shots multiple times in “Avatar”, using them to concentrate the viewers’ attention on a character in the foreground, just as he would in a 2-D film. The success of this particular experiment in 3-D is debatable. In these shallow shots, blurred backgrounds certainly keep the viewer’s attention focused on the desired subject, but in tandem with the 3-D photography, the blurred background accentuates the flatness of the foreground object, giving a distracting, artificial effect. The shallow focus shots do not maintain the illusion of depth, but, rather, make the foreground figure look like a cardboard cutout placed in front of a poorly focused photograph. Its distracting and self-conscious in a way that could be harnessed in a more expressionistic film to convey detachment or solitude, but in “Avatar” it seems showy and out of place. Still even this failed technique is an example of Cameron’s bold approach to the 3-D technology, important even if it just establishes what doesn’t work.
Cameron’s commitment to maximizing the 3-D experience while maintaining the integrity of the world on screen constantly reveals interesting limitations. For an attentive director, 3-D limits shot choices. The “virtual stage” Cameron attempts to construct through 3-D cinematography requires him to compose shots with 3 layers, 3-planes of 3-D images so to speak. There needs to be a deep background plane to establish a sense of depth, the middle plane, usually depicts the primary action, and includes 3-D objects that help establish scale and figurative “distance” from the viewer, and the foreground layer “frames” the boundaries between the viewer and the film environment, preventing the gimmicky “reaching” into the audience. To maintain this effect, you’ve got to put most of your action and most of your characters in that middle plane, and putting the object of attention in the middle ground means you’ve got to rely on medium-distance shots. If you cut to a real tight close up of someone’s face, for example, you can’t really put something in the foreground to frame it so to speak. In close-ups you wind up with heads floating out in space away form the screen, and the 3-D effect is impossible.
Another quirk of 3-D is that If you pull back really far for a huge scenic shot, the distances become so massive, and the scale so big, the 3-D effect practically disappears. At long distances the camera also loses the ability to foreground objects, because there is nothing in the foreground to put in the frame. Most of all, the human eye has a tendency to flatten objects seen at extreme distance, even in real life. As a result, one thing Cameron didn’t crack in “Avatar” is how to integrate the epic landscape shot. There is certainly some real geographic eye-candy in “Avatar”, but the jaw dropping scenery in the film, such as the levitating, monolithic hallelujah mountains, always seem just one or two Peter Jackson-style helicopter shots from the realm of the awesomely epic. Cameron’s reserve has nothing to do with an inability to recognize when there is a need for a lingering, David Lean-style panoramic shot. Cameron realizes that, after seeing the lushly multi-layered 3-dimensional rain forests of Pandora, a flattened extremely-long scenic shot comes off kind of limp, no matter how conceptually cool those floating mountains may be. Cameron’s strategy instead is to frame the floating rock formations relatively tight in the film and cutting away from the long shots prematurely. Once he brings the camera in closer Cameron can really layer the shots with receding crevasses and jutting spurs of rock. The hope is that the texture of the 3-D will make up for the fact that the viewer doesn’t always get to drink deeply of the large-scale scenic wonders of Pandora. This close-in layering is also crucial in the film’s aerial battles. The floating boulders and mountains allow Cameron to layer the epic dragons versus gunship battle royal near the film’s end with the multilevel shadowbox effect that invigorates the more intimately scaled 3-D jungle scenes.
The added element of depth also makes the viewers “adjustment” period to a new shot after a cut significantly longer. There are several moments where it seems like “Avatar” should be cutting to another angle to cover the action on screen, yet Cameron holds back. With 3-D adding another element of information for the senses to process, a viewer must be allowed to settle in to each shot more gradually to avoid disorientation, and cuts must be reserved for maximum effect. This may be the reason Michael Bay is reportedly fighting 3-D tooth and nail. 3-D may also hasten the end of the oft embraced, but even more often maligned “shaky cam”. Just imagine the mass migraines and nausea that would ensue from a 3-D Paul Greengrass “Jason Bourne” flick.
But like any good director, Cameron knows that this disorientation itself can be harnessed to manipulate his audience. Witness the scene in “Avatar’s” third act where Cameron gives us a sweeping, panoramic 3-D shot of massing warriors assembling in the Pandoran jungle. In the shot, Sully stands in the foreground looking on as thousands of Na’vi move in the recessed 3-D background. The music swells, the 3-D effect entrances the viewer with a moment that is massive, dynamic and inspiring. But, as the scene reaches its crescendo, Cameron abruptly cuts to a shot of the the evil Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and his mercenaries assembled in a shadowy, meeting room within the humans’ corporate compound. The effect of the cut is like a trap being sprung. The viewer is initially presented with a deep, broad scenic environment with the lush exterior shot, only to have that virtual space suddenly contracted in upon them in a quick cut to a tight close up of Quaritch, and the subsequent crowded interior shots. This comes at a moment in the narrative when the heavily armed mercenaries seem trapped and overmatched for the very first time. The claustrophobic effect of contracting depth achieved by the relationship of the two shots communicates this plot point on a subliminal, gut level. 3-D enhances this effect and gives the sequence more impact. More than swirling dragon-fights and exploding battle scenes, it is moments like these that show Cameron at his most innovative, and speak quite eloquently as to why “Avatar” is a technical breakthrough.
Film is a medium where the art lies not simply in plot or dialogue or narrative. What you say can take a backseat in importance to how you say it. Artists have taken simpleminded, and even repulsive, in the case of D.W. Griffiths racist “Birth of A Nation” stories, and fashioned them into masterpieces through technical virtuosity and command of the language of film alone. From the standpoint of charting new visual territory “Avatar” stands to become one of those films whose enduring aesthetic merit sweeps aside issues of derivative plotting or broadly archetypal characters. If the 3-D era studios are pushing truly comes to pass, “Avatar” is likely to be the textbook a new generation of filmmakers will look to. It is too much to say “Avatar” is another “Citizen Kane,” but it may very well serve future 3-D filmmakers in much the same way “Kane” did their 2-D forebears: by showing what is possible when all of the 3-D filmmaker’s tools are integrated thoughtfully, expressively and with audacity.