James Cameron’s Avatar: More Than a Movie.

About a week ago I went and saw James Cameron’s return to the big screen in the form of Avatar. I’m the worst when it comes to seeing movies in the theatre but I knew that I needed to see this one in the cinema since everyone I had talked to had urged me to go. Even 2 weeks after its release the cinema I was in (Dendy Canberra) still had every seat occupied. I’d never seen this before, even with the big names like The Matrix and Lord of the Rings, which were packed on the first days but were basically empty a few weeks later. I knew I had made the right decision coming to see Avatar while it was at the movies.

We went to Dendy because I had heard that they used shutter type 3D glasses (in fact they were the XpanD ones pictured in the link) which were supposed to provide the best 3D. Since almost everyone has asked me this question already here’s a breakdown of the three main types of 3D and their respective qualities:

  • Anaglyph (Red/Blue): This was the first kind of 3D to hit cinemas and the technology itself has been around for over 100 years. In essence 2 images are laid over the top of each other with separate colour layers that are separated in order to produce the 3D effect. I saw a couple movies done in this way almost a decade ago when I visited Tokyo Disney land and it definitely provided the feeling that things were jumping out of the screen. Still the image quality suffered somewhat and the colours looked all off, but it’s definitely the cheapest way of doing 3D since you don’t need a new projector to do it.
  • Lens Polarization: A more recent development that has been making its way through cinemas for the past few years is glasses that have different polarizations for each eye. You can tell these ones from the other kinds of 3D because the glasses used look just like regular sunglasses, albeit cheap looking. They come in 2 forms: vertical/horizontal and circular polarization.

    In the vertical/horizontal glasses one eye is polarized vertically and the other horizontally, meaning that one eye can only see light that is coming at you vertically and the other horizontally. In the circular polarization one eye will only see light that is circling clockwise towards you, the other anticlockwise. If this all sounds confusing it is (I usually do a lot of hand waving explaining this) but the Wikipedia article on it is very good if you’re looking for a better explanation.

    If you’re wondering what kind of polarized glasses you got there’s a simple trick you can use to find out. Grab your phone or any device with an LCD screen in it. Look through the glasses at it and turn them slowly, does the screen change brightness? If so you have yourself a horizontal/vertical pair, if not circular. This happens because LCDs work by polarizing light coming from behind it and since the glasses are polarized there’s a sweet spot where they’re polarizing in opposite directions, blocking all the light. Polarized glasses like this are also very good at picking out weaknesses in glass, have a look at your car window through them for a hidden rainbow!

    The better of the 2 of this type of 3D is the circular one, since you can tilt your head and still get the 3D effect. The others rely on you basically staring dead on at the screen, which can be a bit annoying when you’re reaching for the popcorn 😉 These also require a special projector (or more commonly, 2 of them aligned) to project the dual images, but it’s still not the most expensive of the lot.

  • Shutter type: These are the most advanced form of 3D glasses and they’re supposed to be the easiest on the eyes, since there’s no fooling around with the incoming light. In essence you have a pair of glasses that can completely block the light from one eye whilst the other still sees. In order to make sure that the eyes are seeing the right images most of them use a infrared dot somewhere in the movie theater to sync the glasses with the projector. This can be both a blessing and a curse since the cinema I visited only had one infared source which was somewhere to the bottom right of the cinema. This meant I had to aim my head in that direction (I was up the back left) for the whole movie lest I lost the 3D effect. Annoying, but if I had know I would’ve bought seats accordingly.

    This kind of 3D needs yet another kind of projector, the most expensive of the lot. This is because it has to display one image at a much higher rate than the other technologies, usually greater than 120 times a second. This is about double the rate of normal movies and traditionally would only be done with digital projectors. Up until recently most of them would still be good old film projectors and as such, would need to be replaced in order to provide this kind of 3D. That’s also not mentioning the cost of the glasses, since they’re not the throw-away kind and run about $100 a pop. For a cinema seating 100 people that’s quite an expense, and the ticket price certaintly reflected that.

The result? Absolutely stunning 3D. The world of Avatar is an expansive place with many high cliffs and aerial scenes. Without the 3D effect you wouldn’t get that feeling of being really high up, or surrounded by mountains on all sides. Thankfully those “zomg you’re watching 3D” moments are few and far between, with only a few casual occurances happening (like when one of the technicians is rinsing a container and he sprays water towards the camera). Depth of field is something that only recently got adopted into computer games and Avatar makes extensive use of this, with characters who are close up in focus while the background fades out gradually. It really was something to behold.

As for the movie itself? A beautiful space opera. Whilst it’s not the hard sci-fi we had been spoiled with this year in the form of District 9 and Moon it still tickled my science side in just the right way. The world is beautiful and the realism imbued in the world is awe inspiring. Granted Cameron takes some liberties with science but they are all in aid of the story, not ignorance of the actual science. I had a good chuckle at the unobtainium reference, although I think I was of 5 in the theatre who got it. Overall I’d highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it and to not put it off any longer. Because if you do you’ll be waiting a long time before you can get the same experience at home, that is unless you pony up a substantial amount of cash.

The reason why I say it’s more than a movie is for the same reason I spent half this post explaining a technology: the 3D. Cameron has been wanting to make this film ever since he saw Star Wars and cursed George Lucas for making the blockbuster he wanted to make. After pulling success from the jaws of defeat with Titanic he was ready to make the film, but the technology was behind. He spent the next 10 years pioneering the latter 2 3D techniques I described, pushing cinemas to install the technology and encouraging other film makers to use it. The result is that today every theatre in the world worth their salt either has polarized or shutter type 3D installed and James Cameron’s name is now cemented in all cinema go-er’s heads.

It’s this kind of dedication to an idea that I and everyone else can aspire to. Truly Cameron has shown dedication far exceeding that from his peers when it comes to realising a dream. If you had listened to his ideas 30 years ago everyone would’ve thought he was bonkers, but it seems more often than not it’s those crazy people who end up making real change in the world. It reminds me of a quote from Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Indeed, and this is why Avatar is more than just a movie. It’s the realisation of a dream, a turning point in visual media and of course, an amazing 3 hour experience.

3 Comments

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  1. great post dave, i hadn’t bothered to look into the different types of 3D so that was really interesting.

    I saw it with the polarised glasses, i’m not sure there’s a cinema in Adelaide that uses the shutter type. I’d be interested to hear from someone who’s seen it in both types. I found it was a bit dark and put some strain on the eyes for at least the first 45 minutes.

    Absolutely loved the movie btw.. simple plot but it’s exactly what you want with a movie like that, pure escapism, brills.

  2. I’m considering going to another cinema to see it with the polarised lenses. Whilst the 3D effect was good it was marred by there only being one sync location (at an awkward head angle) and the glasses being dirty. If you ever do find a place with the shutter ones I highly reccomend a cleaning close and some cleaning spray, unless the theatre does it themselves.

    The shutter ones do darken the scene a bit as well but I think they compensated for that as the screen was brighter than average when I took the glasses off.

    It really is a brilliant bit of space opera. Highly immersive and has ensured that my next TV purchase will be one that supports 3D.

     

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