Sunday, December 20, 2009

What It's Like to Watch Avatar in IMAX

Director James Cameron's science-fiction visual opus, Avatar, was highly anticipated in 2009 not so much for it being his first film since the blockbuster Titanic, but primarily because of its use of his new IMAX Fusion Camera System developed in large part by his company, Hemdale Pictures. Unlike the old IMAX camera, Cameron's version mimics the way the eyes focus and promises a new visual treat that plays well with the eyes.

Apart from the new IMAX camera, Cameron also used a more advanced performance capture technique popularized by director Robert Zemeckis in films like The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. This advanced system allowed more of the subtle actions and expressions of the actors and actresses to be captured for the animated characters to display.

Cameron promised realism in Avatar, a film that mostly has computer-generated images and characters. It can be hard to tell which things are real and which are not. And even when you know that the blue-skinned N'avi are animated, you don't think it while watching the movie. The texturing, expressions, movements, and other subtle nuances that let you "know" what you're watching is real, are all present and there's hardly a moment in the film where you'll say, "Hey, that looks computer-animated!" But, you may notice that the N'avi don't sweat (or it wasn't obvious) even when they should.

In an IMAX theater, you see everything bigger than life. The sharpness of the picture together with the brightness of the projector and the surround sound, all make for a convincingly and virtually real experience in the confines of a theater. All you have to do is keep your head straight with your eyes looking straight ahead at the screen. But at nearly three hours long, it can be a really tiring show and the viewer's bottom and neck will definitely experience discomfort after an hour or so. When the back of your neck starts to tire, you'd likely look for a knob under your seat to make the backrest lean back a bit. But of course, you'd not find it and you realize that you have to endure the discomfort until the movie ends.

Avatar also has plenty of camera movement. It's not a lot, and they're never overdone. These make action scenes more dramatic and dynamic, but in big-screen IMAX 3D, the viewers will experience the kind of motion sickness felt when riding a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and octopus rides. If you've ever experienced being stuck in traffic and thought that your car is moving backward, when in fact, it's the vehicle next to you that's moving forward, then you have an idea of the kind of motion sensation you can experience in Avatar. It's also like the sickness you will feel when playing a first-person shooter (FPS) game for the first time.

The aerial sequences in Avatar can cause nausea and viewing the movie in IMAX will magnify this sensation, especially when the camera spins. In the opening scenes, for example, our space travelers wake up inside a space ship and the camera slowly swivels - making you feel like you're also weightless in space. Director Cameron kept the slow spins to no more than two or three seconds, but they're enough to make your head spin just slightly and make you close your eyes for fear that you'd vomit on the floor. For those viewers who like to play FPS video games, this sensation may not manifest as they are already used to that kind of visual effect.

An hour and a half in IMAX is enough to make you realize that Avatar is making you sick. You may tend to close your eyes more often for some dizzying scenes. But the need to do this becomes less as the story and the action picks up. There could be a number of reasons why you'd feel less nauseous and one explanation is that your body could be masking the dizziness as it emotionally responds to what's happening on the screen, and there's a lot to see!

The story of Avatar isn't really unique. You've seen it before in Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves and the ending can be predictable with problem resolutions anticipated from previous story element revelations. But it's watching the whole story getting to the end that's the thrill of Avatar in IMAX. If you last without puking, then you'll likely get your money's worth, if it's just to see the new face of 3D movies that began with Avatar. Don't worry, Cameron said that if the first one is does well, there's likely going to be a second and a third one. Let's hope he makes the scenes less sickening with less camera spins and movement. Audiences would definitely prefer to be entertained more than sick in a movie house.

This is a limited edition artwork of one of Avatar's aerial battles. It's a paper giclee and limited to only 125 pieces worldwide. It's illustrated by Ryan Church, and comes with a certificate of authenticity. Click here or on the image to make this a part of your collection. Or, if you prefer, you can get this fine action figure of Neytiri. Click here or on her to make your purchase!

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