While flying over the spanning greenery of Pandora’s forest for the first time, viewers were mesmerized by the dark green vines and trees and the soft blue of the spores, close enough to touch. The jungle paradise of the three-dimensional blockbuster “Avatar” sucked the audience in, as millions worried about the plight of the planet Pandora, where the film takes place. As I watched, I found myself transfixed, transported to a world that — until 2009 — existed only within James Cameron’s imagination.
And yet, leaving the theater, not a single line from the film stuck with me.
“James Cameron, generally, isn’t all that worried about poetic dialogue,” Caetlin Benson-Allott, assistant professor of film and digital media, said. “He’s never going to win best original screenplay.”
For years, though, dialogue has been just one of the aspects that make for a popular film. Neither “Terminator” nor “True Lies” relied upon mind-bending conversation, but both still succeeded in their goal — to be entertaining and visually-gripping films.
In an Oct. 26, 2009 New Yorker profile, Cameron admitted, “It’s all just an excuse to do helicopters versus pterodactyls.”
For Cameron, visual stimulation took precedence over mentally-gripping drama. And Cameron’s 3-D epic has made an astounding $2.7 billion, making it the highest-grossing film in cinematic history.
3-D movies saw moments of popularity in the 1950s and 1980s. Whether they are contributing to the improvement or a degradation of American cinema, the trend is back again, and it’s more technologically advanced than ever.
This year’s 2010 summer lineup will feature many 3-D titles, including “Toy Story 3,” “Shrek Forever After” and even a 3-D Playboy Playmate of the year — the only thing still popping for Hef without pills. One wonders how the new technology will change the course of film. Is 3-D the next logical step in the artistic progression of film, or does it mark the end of the emotionally-stirring drama as we know it?
Benson suggests Hollywood has shifted its focus from emotional stimulus to a visual one.
“I think Hollywood has been on that road for a long time,” Benson-Allott said. “Since ‘Jaws,’ Hollywood has learned that giving people an adrenaline thrill will get more butts in more seats than developing character.”
Transcending the Screen
While watching “Avatar,” you cannot help but realize — this is not your parents’ 3-D experience. Gone are the days of the cardboard glasses and ketchup-colored blood flying out at an astonished audience.
With the latest and more lightweight 3-D camera, a more maneuverable camera that can shoot simultaneously in 2-D and 3-D — which Cameron challenged visual equipment designer Vince Pace to develop — the 3-D film can now create alternative universes with arresting realism.
The technology allows for more enticing action sequences than were possible with the previous generation of 3-D cameras, which weighed up to 450 pounds. In the same Oct. 26 New Yorker profile, Cameron recounts that stuntmen had to run half speed during the filming of a 3-D short for the “Terminator” ride at Universal Studios theme park, to allow the camera to keep up.
With Pace’s new camera, 3-D has become a much more practical technology. And while film has always allowed people to enter an alternate reality, the realism and spanning widescreen of the new style of 3-D, dubbed RealD, makes escape through film far easier.
“Even though film is already a medium that you can’t really separate yourself from, because the lights are off and you get so absorbed in this world, there was still the division of screen,” third-year film studies major Rachel Forman said. “3-D takes that division away.”
Film can now connect with the audiences in ways it never has before, according to Forman. Leo Neldiav, a fifth-year art major, thinks directors will continue to find ways to traverse the division.
“I think it is a turning point in film,” he said. “Film will change and take hold of this new form of art.”
But what will the change leave behind?
The Threat of Demystification
As early as the 1910s, filmmakers were attempting 3-D film. The genre had waves of success in the 1950s and 1980s — but both times, audiences’ interest in the new style of film faded, and Hollywood looked for other strategies to fill seats.
Based on the history of cinema, the power that the new technology holds over the audience may prove to be temporary, according to Forman, who is applying for a concentration in production.
“Film goes in waves,” she said. “The things that were revolutionary in 1960 and 1970 are not so revolutionary today. 3-D is revolutionary right now, but who knows where it will go.”
“Star Wars” was released in 1977 and changed the way films were made forever. Suddenly, there was a new focus upon special effects that has only grown in the 33 years since.
History lecturer Bruce Thompson, whose research includes film history, gazes into the distance and gets starry-eyed when reminiscing about the silver-screen icons of the past, like Laurence Olivier and Grace Kelly.
He said that while the film was instrumental in the course of cinematic history, it was not its story line or screenplay that grabbed audiences.
“If you go back to ‘Star Wars,’ which was tremendously influential and popular, the story was extremely conventional, a recycling of other genres,” he said. “The real emphasis was on the special effects and what you could do with those.”
Cameron has mystified viewers with “Avatar” the same way that George Lucas grabbed a generation’s imagination with stunning special effects despite formulaic dialogue, according to Thompson.
But as the magic of a style of special effects begins to dissipate, dialogue and storyline must return to the forefront of cinematic focus.
The Maturation of 3-D
Michael Taylor, senior vice president of business development for ActiVideo Network, believes that filmmaker Cameron has laid the groundwork for using the new technology.
He says other directors will now begin to find intriguing ways to fully realize the 3-D film’s potential.
“When movies first came out, they really just took a stage play and put it on film,” Taylor said. “But eventually, the creative community got really behind it and realized it was a whole new medium with lots of advantages.”
Thompson said that early film maker Georges Méliès began using camera tricks and special effects to transform the visual reality through film as early as 1896. Méliès, who was a magician before becoming a filmmaker, helped introduce special effects to cinema, which has become Cameron and many other directors’ bread and butter.
Taylor said that as with any new medium, it will take some time before creative minds get behind the 3-D technology.
While some directors have attempted to use cheap tricks to cash in on the public intrigue with 3-D, Professor Benson-Allott credited Cameron and Henry Selick, the director of “Coraline,” with beginning the visual maturation of the 3-D film.
‘“Coraline’ is all about these long tunnels, falling down passageways, spider webs opening out, wells,” she said. “And ‘Avatar’ really wants to open up the vista of the widescreen, quite effectively, I think.”
By understanding the depth of field and how utilizing the special relationships upon the screen can completely revolutionize the viewing experience, these directors have used 3-D for more than just a gimmick.
Art major Neldiav has been working on a 2-D film installation that generates the feeling of a 3-D film. With a fan and loud speakers, Neldiav’s piece mimics the sensory experience of being in a subway, while a webcam and green screen technology allow the viewer to see himself in the subway.
“I’m working to incorporate senses rather than just viewing,” he said. “It’s a different way of thinking of 3-D — to be involved in the space.”
In Neldiav’s opinion, theaters should begin integrating sensory stimuli into 3-D films. He says that incorporating the other senses would create an even more engaging viewing experience.
Cashing in on the Cultural Climate
In the midst of two wars, the threat of terrorism, and an economic recession, last Christmas weekend was the highest-grossing weekend in the movie industry’s history, according to Bloomberg.com. Hollywood made $278 million during that one weekend to cap off its first ever $10 billion year in 2009.
“Obviously the more problems we have in our world, the more people look for escapist entertainment,” Thompson said.
However, lecturer in Psychology Ralph Quinn thinks that defining 3-D film’s success as a hunger for escapism is an oversimplification.
“We could definitely justify the interpretation that in hard and trying times, our need to escape into the mythic or be replenished by the mythic is probably stronger, but I prefer to think it was a more synchronous event,” Quinn said. “James Cameron’s story and the technology of 3-D wedded and produced a film that would have knocked our socks off at any time.”
Quinn admits that watching a film is inherently passive, but he believes there is something greater than escape at work in the viewing of a RealD film.
“How do we enter the mythic? Most often it involves a story, either a story we’re told or a story we read or a story we experience through film,” Quinn said. “It allows us to suspend disbelief and through our imaginative process enter into a mythic realm.”
The Changing Industry
Since the creation of cinema, Hollywood has asked the audience to suspend disbelief while watching film. In the 1970s, suspending disbelief for the mechanical movement of the model shark in “Jaws” took some effort. The characters in Cameron’s epic are easier to believe in, with strikingly anthropomorphic movement and features.
Yet the Na’vi and their Avatars, for all their life-like features, are still computer-generated animation, and the movie still takes place on a mythical planet. The trend toward special effects in film, which the popularity of RealD has hastened, has made it extremely difficult for important real world dramas to get made, according to history lecturer Thompson.
“It’s harder and harder to make a film like ‘The Hurt Locker’ or any serious subject, because all of the money goes to the big blockbusters with the special effects,” he said. “If you no longer have a market for real, serious films, I think that is very regrettable.”
Though professor Benson-Allott thinks it is too early to predict whether storyline and dialogue will become more of a focus in the RealD film once the initial wonder begins to fade, she does believe that “Coraline” bodes well for the future of the 3-D cinema.
“Henry Sellick had already demonstrated with ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ that he wanted to use animation to tell good stories, which is different than just blowing things up,” she said.
But if the film industry continues to take a drastic move toward animated RealD films, as it will this summer, the premium on great acting in film could begin to fade.
Looking back on a favorite sliver screen actor, Thompson said that would be a great shame.
“Who the hell wants to see a bunch of movies with actors doing voice-overs for computer generated images all the time?” he asked. “I want to see Laurence Olivier — I don’t want to see special effects.”