Avatar: The Way Of Water, and the search for digital realism

Avatar - The Way Of Water
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With Avatar: The Way Of Water, James Cameron’s franchise continues to push boundaries – but in its search for realism has it gone backwards? 


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If you were impressed with the motion capture performances and 3D animation in 2009’s Avatar, you might be pleased to hear that its sequel – which has notched up around a half a billion dollars in its opening weekend – relies on it even more. Now protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) inhabits a Na’vi body, has four Na’vi kids and travels to explore a new aquatic area of Pandora filled with wondrous creatures, it’s fair to say the film is heavily reliant on its visual effects.

Both the original Avatar and The Way Of Water make use of motion capture technology to have real actors play alien roles. This much is known. Able to capture not just movement, but also facial expressions, the tech lends itself to creating a sense of realism and believability – even if characters are obviously fantastical. We’ve seen this work on a couple of very notable occasions, not just with Avatar, but with Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. What would Gollum be like if not for Andy Serkis?

Known for being a steadfast pioneer of new cinematic technologies, director James Cameron has pushed the boat out further for his belated sequel. He’s again intended for the movie to be viewed in 3D, but also, as we discussed last week, varied the frame rate.

We’ve seen rates of 48fps (frames per second) used before to varying success, but with The Way Of Water Cameron has worked with both the faster rate and the traditional 24fps. The latter is used for low-action scenes involving dialogue, while the former sharpens the intense action sequences.

It’s cutting edge technology, but after watching the film it’s clear there’s an obvious problem – the motion capture, 3D and high frame rate combine to make the film look an awful lot like a glorified video game cutscene.

In its quest for realism, The Way Of Water ends up taking you out of what could be an extremely immersive experience. That it’s hard to buy into what’s happening before you.

Still of an aquatic creature in Avatar: The Way Of Water.

In terms of the blockbuster formula, it’s certainly got all of those familiar elements. Adventure, gorgeous visuals and exciting action sequences – but there’s an uncanniness to it that I couldn’t help but find off-putting.

As soon as the first fight scene comes along you notice the fluidity of movement. The use of 48fps has a smoothing effect on motion, meaning that even when the camera is travelling quickly and characters are rushing around there’s no blur to the movement. It is, however, almost too smooth. Too polished. When we watch fast-moving things in real life, there’s definitely some blurring, so the lack of it seems, on the whole, quite unnatural.

It’s an aspect of the film that heightens the artifice of the entire thing. It has a snowball effect: once my attention was drawn to one uncanny thing, I noticed more and more. That’s where the 3D comes in. The way it’s used in The Way Of Water is to create dimension and depth in the frame. It does this successfully, but the caveat is that the CGI characters and creatures sometimes stand out awkwardly against the landscape in the background.

When I was younger I used to love watching old cartoons: chiefly the 1969 series of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! This might seem like a bit of tangent, but bear with me. In those cartoons, the backgrounds were always very painterly and looked like pieces of art – because that’s exactly what they were, a backdrop. In the foreground, you’d notice that the characters and all the props that were meant to move would be considerably brighter and stuck out like a sore thumb.

This was exactly the impression that Avatar: The Way Of Water gave to me. I haven’t seen the 2D version, so it may be entirely up to the use of 3D, but there was a stark gap between foreground and background that became increasingly noticeable.

It’s important to recognise the work that’s gone into the film, and technologically speaking it’s incredibly impressive what Cameron and crew have achieved. However, if it’s possible to draw a comparison between this film and a 1960s cartoon, surely it goes to show that striving for realism in what’s essentially an animated film isn’t always the best choice?

What’s wrong with a film about aliens being unrealistic, anyway? Perhaps Avatar and The Way Of Water would be more immersive and compelling if they committed to the Na’vi being animated characters, rather than unfortunately residing somewhere in the uncanny valley. Perhaps the newest technological feat isn’t always conducive to an audience-friendly viewing experience.

Perhaps I’ll just watch it in 2D next time. Just don’t tell Mr Cameron…

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