Ever since 1895, when the Lumiere brothers staged the first paid public screening of a film, the trajectory of cinematic art has been twinned with technological advancement. The first patent for a 3D movie process, which creates an illusion of depth, was filed around the same time. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the ‘golden era’ of 3D or stereoscopic filmmaking began — a short flowering with mixed results. After shooting Dial M For Murder in this format, Alfred Hitchcock was famously unimpressed, remarking that 3D was a “nine day wonder — and I came in on the ninth day.” The release of James Cameron’s stunningly successful Avatar demonstrates that 3D today has no resemblance to its earlier, primitive avatars. By combining stereoscopic effect with cutting edge digital production technologies, the truck-driver-turned-director has left audiences gasping at the technical wizardry in his visually breathtaking interstellar epic located in a faraway planet with fantastical creatures, exotic flora and fauna, and an endearing race of blue-skinned humanoids called the Na’vi. Cameron dreamed of making such a film before Titanic, which did anything but sink, grossing a record $1.8 billion and sailing to a record-equalling 11 Oscars in 1998. If he waited so long, he says it was because technology needed to catch up with his vision.
In Cameron’s hybrid world, where actors and computer-graphics characters flit in and out of live environments and those created by computerised imagery, illusion and reality are merged to produce a stunningly photorealistic experience. Avatar’s innovations include a new form of performance-capture technology, which created computerised images of the Na’vi from real facial expressions and movements of actors, and a new and more nimble 3D camera, designed by his team, which allowed Cameron to film his actors live in the virtual world. Avatar’s over-earnest storyline is prosaic and somewhat disappointing. But will it change the way we watch films? It’s hard to say, but it is certain to provide a fillip for stereoscopic cinema, which is in the midst of a strong resurgence. Against six in 2008, an estimated 40 3D films are in various stages of production. Last year, there were about 1,500 3D-equipped screens in 30 countries, a number that has already quadrupled and is set to grow rapidly. One reason for the excitement about stereoscopic cinema is that it is less vulnerable to the threat of piracy: you need a cinema hall and polarised glasses to enjoy a 3D film. Cameron has shown that the leap in technology provides a giant leap in the movie-watching experience.