Posts Tagged‘avatar’

3D Cinematography is Still an Art.

I can still remember my first 3D experience in a cinema, it was almost a decade ago now when I was in Tokyo Disneyland. My then only recently acquainted friend and I were in deep teenage angst about our current predicament having exhausted most of fun out of the place in a few hours, with our stay not scheduled to end any time soon. Having heard about this 3D show called Honey, I Shrunk the Audience! (don’t judge me) I dragged him along to try and past at least some of the time we had remaining. The show itself was quite a spectacle with the floor being able to move around and many other real world effects to augment the 3D. The actual movie itself was pretty dull and the 3D effect, whilst impressive at the time, really didn’t do a lot for the movie. My memory may have been sullied by the fact I wasn’t feeling too good that day but it was several years before I went out of my way to encounter 3D again.

My mind was changed when I saw James Cameron’s Avatar. Whilst I had troubles with the gear at the cinema it still didn’t detract from the experience. There were a few obvious “we’re doing this to remind the audience that they’re watching 3D” but for the most part the effect enhanced the story and greatly increased the immersion I felt. After seeing the movie I became somewhat obsessed with the technology behind such a feat, researching the different methods and finding out just how such a movie was made. I went as far to say that our next TV purchased had to be 3D, because really anyone serious about cinema would have to have it.

I think I underestimated just how wrong the world could get 3D. Just like the initial buzz that surrounded 3D movies that came out almost a decade ago nearly every recent major theatrical release has had the option of being viewed in 3D. Worse even are some films that have restarted filming just to start using 3D, wasting months of effort. I can kind of understand when it’s a completely CGI film and the 3D option is just another day or two of rendering time (well, probably more than that) although the effect is debatable as most 3D films tend to have a flat focus. The fact is that whilst 3D has been around for a while filming for it is still in the realms of “black art” and very few have mastered the technique.

Cameron managed to do quite well in Avatar as his dedication to bringing 3D into the mainstream had given him extensive experience in using the technology. Two of his mostly unknown documentaries were shot using 3D many years before Avatar graced the silver screen. Many of the directors who are now scrambling to use 3D for their movies have no such experience and as such the results have been quite underwhelming. The fact is that since regular cinema has been around for well over a century many of the nuts and bolts of it have been worked out. 3D on the other hand poses a whole new set of challenges to overcome and getting the basics right is still mostly art.

Sure there’s still an element of art to regular cinema as well (note I’m not talking about the plot or anything that both 3D and regular cinema share) but with such a rich history to draw on it’s a far simpler task to create a certain feel with traditional cinematography than with 3D. Notably whilst you still have depth of field in regular cinema when venturing into 3D it becomes a whole different ball game as you’re manipulating the end user’s DOF rather than just the camera’s. Additionally the use of things that jump out of the screen, whilst a cute reminder that we’re watching 3D, can easily serve to break audiences out of the movie. With 3D being so young all these variables that haven’t got a well defined sweet spot can easily swing a decent movie to a 3D disaster, something which I’m sure we’re all familiar with.

Until the industry learns that 3D is a tool with which to enhance story telling and not just something that “has to be done” we’ll continue to see films that incorporate the technology just because they feel they have to. Hopefully the 3D fad won’t last much longer and it will then be left to the experts to define and curate their art which will flow on to future works. Whilst I haven’t changed my mind about getting a 3D TV (it seems I won’t really have a choice soon anyway) I more than likely won’t be buying 3D media for quite some time. Not until the industry and technology matures at least.

Diving Deep Into The Internet’s Underbelly.

My friends and long time readers will know that I’m no stranger to the darker sides of the Internet. Whilst I don’t spend every spare minute seeking out the depraved sanctuary that many of those sites provide I do love a foray onto the wrong side of the railroad tracks every so often just to see what happens when you grant a large audience an ability they didn’t have before. To be honest it’s probably more apt to describe it as a kind of Internet adrenaline sport although I must admit the rush is nothing compared to say, Zorbing in New Zealand (highly recommend that by the way).

With this in mind you can imagine the slightly perverted part of my subconscious perked up when he heard about a new site called Chatroulette. Stay your hand before clicking that link though as what lies beyond is not for everyone and most assuredly, not safe for work. I came across the site in my usual daily intake of random tech-oriented awesome over at Boing Boing, and throwing caution to the wind about the warnings of penises a plenty I decided to fire up my poor web cam (which has the IR filter removed, making most things appear strangely coloured) and see what came out on the other end. Needless to say I was in for a surprise.

The first bunch of people on the other end looked to be mostly college students, staring intently into the camera probably hoping for girls on the other end of the line to show them some skin. I say this because most of them spent about 2 seconds looking at me before hitting the next button. Feeling slightly disappointed that my random Internet encounters weren’t going to turn up a passable conversation I decided to unleash my inner 4chan troll and mess with the people on the other side of the camera.

This is when things started to get weird.

At first I just tuned into one of my favourite trance channels and turned up the volume loud enough for it to be heard on the other end whilst pointing the camera at a nearby wall. The first of my victims seemed to like the music and it inspired him to dance whilst intently watching the screen. After about 10 seconds I decided to spook him by pointing the camera at myself and yelling, which led to a very surprised reaction and a quick click of the next button. I wasn’t done with Chatroulette yet and decided that whilst providing random dance music to strangers was all good there was something missing. My web cam needed an actor.

One of the side effects of my collector’s edition addiction is the swath of various figurines and models that adorn my computer desk. They then became my avatar in this world of random encounters. From a Cylon to a Daeva from Aion to an Optimus Prime Potato Head they all got their 15 seconds of fame with those who were connected to my den of cheesy trance music. For the most part people just clicked straight on but occasionally I’d get the obviously inebriated college student who would just stare blankly at the screen for several minutes. Despite my hopes of conjuring up a good conversation with phrases like “I’m a Cylon :D” or “Where the hell did I drop my nose?” many of them would just click on, still on the hunt for random Internet strange.

And then there was the torrent of male genitalia. I’d have to say that at least 1 out of every 5 of the strangers I was connected to was a single male with the camera pointed directly at his wedding tackle. I’m sure most of them were hoping for a free peek at some Internet strange but really, why bother? It’s possible they thought that just putting it out there would hopefully make any female that was using Chatroulette to stay more than the second it would take to load up the first frame from their web cam, leading to a IRL hookup.

I think it would be more likely that they’d get their junk struck by lightening, but I’m somewhat of a realist.

You can then imagine my shock and surprise (or lack thereof) when I saw the New York Times publishing an article on the site:

Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University who researches how people share and record video on YouTube, said Chatroulette was a “very exciting reuse of existing technologies.” But he warns parents to educate their children. “I can’t say that I would want my kids on there,” Mr. Wesch said, “but I know they are going to eventually find the site anyway.”

From my experience on the site, echoed by those I’ve spoken to, it seems as if 90 percent of users are genuinely looking for novel and unexpected conversation; the rest — well, let’s just say they have debauchery in mind.

Either Bilton is using a completely different site to the one I was on or he somehow managed to avoid the 20% penis rule that I encountered. For the most part the users I connected with were only interested in possibly seeing some random woman’s privates, even the ones who weren’t flashing their trouser snake to the world. The few who attempted to engage in conversation with myself or my various avatars barely managed to get past the first sentence before moving along which is what led me to indulge my inner troll.

What all of the stories on this new sensation fail to mention is that it is basically a direct rip off of another service called Omegle. Granted this service is text only but it has been around for a lot longer and appears to have a steady following. Honestly the people using Omegle were far more interested in a real conversation with someone on the other end of the line than the people using Chatroulette were and, much like Twitter, the limitations of the service are what drive the real creative uses of it. Sure adding video would attract more users but then you’d just end up with the same torrent of random boobie trollin’ strangers that plague Chatroulette’s service.

Both of these sites play into the dark side of us that strives to cast off our identity in order to create a new one that is free from all the boundaries that we’ve built around ourselves. Just like their predecessors they attract both those who seek genuine value from the service and those who seek to unleash their inner deviant. Thrusting myself into this world was an interesting experiment as I went from a seeker of genuine to connection to /b/tard in record time. I can’t see myself going back anytime soon but if I do you can be assured that the return of the trance loving Cylon isn’t too far away.

Urge to troll rising….. 😉

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.

Your Virtual Self.

When you step into a virtual world these days, whether that be an actual simulated world like Second Life or your run of the mill game like World of Warcraft, you’re playing as what most computer type people would call an avatar. A virtual representation of either yourself, an alter ego or the character themselves. Games over the past decade have become increasingly more detailed and as a result many of them allow a user to customise their appearance in game. This can range from simple choices like tall or short all the way through to the little details like eye colour or the amount of stubble on your character’s face. There are now many games which have the ability to manipulate almost all features of an avatar, allowing you to recreate yourself in the game.

I’d never really played around with the in depth character customisations like that of Oblivion and the like, I just wanted to play the game. However that all changed when I got Mass Effect, and I wanted to recreate myself so I could literally play through the game. Queue about 10 minutes worth of me fumbling with the controls and an awkward picture of myself taken on my digital camera to try and get all the features right. I didn’t do too well and my fiancée and one of my female friends decided they could do a much better job, and I became their model for the next 30 mins. We eventually got pretty close, most of the major features were correct but it was still a little way off from being exactly me. It was at this point we realised that there were just some things you couldn’t do and left it at that. He did bear an uncanny resemblance to me however and I must say this did make me empathise just that little bit more with the character, as whenever the camera switched to him speak it was like looking through some futuristic space mirror image of myself.

I’ll be honest and say that I find that the fairer gender seems to enjoy the customisation a lot more than us typical blokes. Whilst at least 50% of my creations in customisation wizards are hilarious uses of the extreme levels offered (sure you can have a nose half the size of your face!) I’ve found any game I’ll give to my fiancée that allows her to customise the character she will spend a good 30 minutes creating either herself or what she considers the most pretty avatar. She always does well with this (damn her creativity!) and I think this is where most of the joy is for her. I’ve also noticed quite a lot of my fairer World of Warcraft players keeping vast wardrobes of pretty things to dress up their characters with. Although I must admit I keep a lot of junk just for the novelty value as well.

Ever since then I’ve noticed the tendency whenever I’m playing a game to naturally gravitate towards either recreating myself in either appearance or play style. Whilst I did enjoy my second play through of Mass Effect being a right evil bastard I didn’t do it with the character that looked like me, and I think I would’ve had a tough time doing it if I did. I guess I empathise pretty deeply with my characters and customising them to be closer to me only serves to deepen that. Although I do see the other side of the coin though, and sometimes its great to abstract yourself away from the norm and do things that you normally wouldn’t do, that’s why the Grand Theft Auto series is so popular.

Customisation is one of those meta aspects of gaming that traditionally you don’t take much notice of. With the advent of games like the Sims the focus shifted heavily and now many games feature in depth customisation which draws you even further into the game. Whilst I found myself none to bothered with it initially I’ve grown accustomed to recreating my virtual self and it never ceases to take add about 30 minutes worth of game time (depending on the editor). It’s a little bit of extra value that I’m starting to look for in any future game.

Or maybe it’s that repressed creative child in me trying to escape after being imprisoned by the cold adult engineer, who knows! 🙂