I spend an awful lot of time here (and elsewhere, for that matter) staring up at space that you’d be forgiven for thinking that I don’t pay as much attention to things that are going on back down on Earth. Whilst my true passions lie in the final frontier I still have a keen interest in the multitude of projects that have the same level of complexity as running about in space does and you’ll often see me getting lost in all manner of weird things like deep sea drilling rigs or military hardware. One project that’s really captured my attention of late, mostly due to the fact that I knew nothing about it until just recently, is James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger project which has just begun its journey to the bottom of the ocean.
The purpose of Deepsea Challenger is to travel to what we believe is the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench. Now this isn’t the first manned dive to visit this part of the ocean as back in 1960 the Bathyscape Trieste was the first manned craft (and first craft overall) to land on the bottom of the world’s oceans. They didn’t spend much time on the bottom though, only staying for a mere 20 minutes after the nearly 5 hour journey to get there, and the craft kicked up quite a bit of silt which limited their view. Despite that though they did report that there was vertebrae life forms down there meaning that even at the most extreme of conditions complex life could still form.
Deepsea Challenger is straight out of a science fiction novel by comparison. It’s about half the size of the Trieste but it’s jam packed with all manner of equipment that Cameron intends to use whilst he’s down there. It’s also quite novel in its design favouring a torpedo like structure rather than the sub + pressure sphere that the Bathyscapes had. This design will allow Deepsea Challenger to reach the bottom in a mere 2 hours, an incredible improvement over nearly all other deep sea submersibles. Cameron then intends to spend up to 9 hours filming (in high-def 3D no less) and collecting samples before making the trip back to the surface.
The reasons why this sub matters is simple: the insights it can give us to how life evolved and continues to thrive down there gives us a much clearer idea of where life could possibly evolve elsewhere. With such extreme low temperatures and high pressures you wouldn’t expect to see anything above simple life forms, but the observations from the Trieste indicate that complex life has managed to thrive down there. Extrapolating this idea further it then means that the possibility of life on other planets in our solar system, like Jupiter’s moon Europa, is much more likely than we previously would have thought.
The reveal of Deepsea Challenger coincided with Sir Richard Branson’s announcement of yet another arm of his Virgin line of companies. This time it’s Virgin Oceanic and they’re looking to offer trips to the Mariana Trench (and other deep sea locations) to willing punters. This year will see their craft, called DeepFlight Challenger, visit 5 different locations around the world to both test the craft and generate some PR. Compared to the Deepsea Challenger its quite different, opting for a kind of submersible plane configuration that uses wings to “fly” through the water. This means that unlike the Trieste or Deepsea Challenger DeepFlight will be able to cover some serious ground while its down there. It will be very interesting to see how that craft goes in comparison to its predecessors, especially considering it’s future as a commercial venture.
Considering that we’ve only explored a mere 3% of the ocean depths the progress being made here will open up a whole new frontier for scientific research, as well as a little tourism on the side. I can’t wait to see what these two vessels discover on their journey down there and I’m sure that the discoveries will keep coming for a long time to come after their initial journeys down there. It’s hard to believe that we still have so much of our world undiscovered when we’re so connected these days but it shows that there are still many challenges to be had, and those willing to take them on.
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.
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:
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.
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.