'Avatar' footage hotly divides Fantastic Fest audiences
Great. So now I'm "the angry guy."
I'm not, though. I'm just passionate about what I've seen, and I'm increasingly irritated by some rote reactions that I think are dismissive and, frankly, demonstratably inaccurate. I guess I'm just at the point where I feel like someone who has rejected the "Avatar" footage we've seen so far is on such a different wavelength than I am that I can't really find a common ground in what we're looking at. Just as they can't see what I'm reacting to, I can't see what they're reacting to, and that gulf is frustrating.
Tonight, Jon Landau brought about a half-hour of foootage to the Drafthouse as part of Fantastic Fest, and while much of it was familiar for those of us who saw the Comic-Con presentation and the "Avatar" Day footage, there were two new scenes, and it was nice to see how the Real-D version of the film is going to look, having seen the IMAX 3D presentation on "Avatar" Day. Afterwards, I had about five different conversations with five different groups of people, as well as several smaller conversations, and I've definitely seen a major divide.
The main narrative knock I keep hearing is that it's "just 'Dances With Wolves' in outer space." Fair enough, although I don't think Kevin Costner created this particular basic storyline. He just happened to hit a pop culture home run with his version. I think it's a fairly simple and, yes, familiar spine for a movie: a guy from our culture encounters a native people who he is drawn to, and the more he engages with their culture, the more he wakes up to the things that are wrong with his own culture. It's a fish out of water story, and it's also a story about our own values as seen through new eyes. If that automatically bothers you, then nothing's going to suddenly win you over and convince you. There are several people I've spoken with now who just plain hate that storyline, and my guess is that they'll feel the same way after the film as they feel right now. If I hate romantic comedies about people who lie and lie and lie and lie and suddenly succeed in spite of all that, then I can pretty much count on each and every Kate Hudson film annoying me. Sometimes, a film isn't made for you, and it's better to accept that and just recuse yourself than it is to pound on a movie for what it's not, rather than what it is.
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The main design knock I keep hearing is that the Na'vi just don't work for some people. At all. Which is fine. I like the Na'vi more every time I watch footage, and in particular, I think the work that's been done on the Zoe Saldana character is jaw-dropping. She's one of the most successful digital characters I've ever seen, and it's because of the huge strides in performance capture. When I watch her sequences, I see a soul in that body. I see life in those eyes. If you don't like the designs, I can see that, but now I'm hearing over and over, "That looks just like a video game."
I'll be clear here: bullshit.
I'm hereby officially challenging everyone who says that to show me the video game they're talking about. I want to own the video game that looks like "Avatar." And when I mentioned this on Twitter, several of you responded, "Hey, man, the 'Avatar' game looks like the 'Avatar' movie." I sat through the E3 presentation on the game, and as much as I enjoyed what I saw, and as much as I was curious about it because I wanted to see the Pandoran designs in motion, it doesn't look anything like the movie. Games simply aren't as visually sophisticated as the work done for this film. I've never seen any game with performance capture work that even approaches this, and there's no game made by anyone anywhere that features an environment as fully-realized and rendered as Pandora. I'm willing to be proven wrong, but I won't be. And I am not talking about a design element you think is similar... that's not what people are saying when they say "That looks just like a video game." And if it is, then they're not saying what they mean. WETA Digital proved themselves to be a major industry force with their "Lord Of The Rings" and "King Kong" work, and I would say that what we're seeing in "Avatar" so far would indicate that they're still way out in front.
That inability to discern the difference between your reaction to a design and your reaction to the technical execution is where I think I'm having trouble articulating myself in conversations with people who are having bad reactions to this footage. And I think ultimately, I need to set it aside. The technical conversations are irrelevant in the end. Either "Avatar" will work as storytelling, or it won't, and if it doesn't, then it doesn't matter how accomplished it is in terms of craft. And until December, there's little or nothing new we're going to learn about the movie as a narrative experience.
There is definitely a difference between the Real-D 3D version and the IMAX 3D version. The most immediate difference is that all the 2D versions and most of the Real-D screens will be projected at the 2.35:1 ratio, while the IMAX 3D version will be projected at a 1.78:1 ratio. It's all about immersion and the way it works best in each theater. I'm guessing I'll see both versions. I'll be curious to see what psychological difference there is in the wider image versus the taller image. The Real-D projection tonight at the Drafthouse was astonishing, crystal clear. I attend screenings at the Clarity Screening Room often, which is located across the hall from the Real-D offices and which is their official screening room, meaning it's tweaked to top technical specs. Tonight's screening of this footage was just as sharp and clear and bright as anything I've seen at Clarity, so Landau and Real-D should be very pleased.
After the movie, I was talking with some friends about the footage, and I was evidently loud enough that several people asked me why I was so angry about the movie. I hate sometimes that I have this big booming voice, because it sounds like I'm angry even if I'm not. For me, "Avatar" looks like a great adventure movie, a great SF experience, and a genuine step forward in the art of performance capture and world-building on film. I am absolutely worried that so far, even in three very distinct presentations, they've basically just shown us the same pieces of footage with minor variations. I hope they're holding back the big iconic moments of the movie out of confidence.
On December 18th, we'll see.
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