Tag Archive for Avatar

Tachyon Reading Series

My publisher, Tachyon, asked me to do a reading for their YouTube channel from my upcoming novel, Nucleation. Being the supreme tech-geek that I am, I decided to go just a little bit further. I’ve assembled a series of six AR and VR avatars currently available and recorded one page from Chapter One wearing each. Here’s Avatar One, Chapter One, Page One for your enjoyment.

Success and Failure

There was a big (well, big in the circles I hang out in anyway) furor over Avatar when it came out, the crux of the issue in many peoples minds being the story itself, that even couched in something as spectacular as a completely computer generated world, the story line was tired and old.

In contrast to that “failure” I’d like to bring to mind another equally CGI heavy film, one I was looking forward to easily as much as Avatar, but one that, in sharp contrast, didn’t take the time and effort to make the storyline solid enough to support the weight of a
thousand effects shots.

Clash of the Titans is a do-over of the classic Harryhousen-type effects film from the 80’s. Granted, while the original had a classic style rogue-hero story, it did hold together, the roles of the characters clearly defined, the progression of the story straight and true. Not innovative, not new and nifty, but still solid.

This is where I feel the key difference between these two Effects Spectaculars lies. Both films reflect the bleeding edge of CGI technology, even though Clash of the Titans composites in live actors, pretty much everything else has been kissed with a digital brush. Both films tell a story set in a fantastic world, both films feature fight and flight scenes with amazing, otherworldly creatures, both films feature stories that have been told before.

So why so different?

The storyline. Avatars story was not, perhaps, unique, but it was tried and true, a solid and well-known story that everyone, from the Twilight- loving tween to the grandparent who still remembers the Boer War like it was yesterday, was familiar with. It served as a grounding-point, the place you could refer back to when the whirling blue-skinned montages befuddled your brain.

In contrast, the storyline for Clash of the Titans *should* have stayed simple and clean, they should have kept the High Concept, that Man can overcome anything, even a God and chucked the whole Zeus vs Hades as a plot element. Instead what we have here feel like someone read Percy Jackson halfway through production and decided they didn’t want to confuse the 10yo audience. The story we’re left with feels cobbled together, it gets
muddy, particularly where Perseus hatred of the Gods is concered, which, as it turns out is really just hatred of Hades, but really he just wants to prove that Man doesn’t need Gods, but then he just wants to find his place in the world..

The mauling of the story puts me in mind of other, similar retellings, the Island of Dr Moreau being the one that stands out the clearest, where, in an attempt to reboot and modernize the story, they have not only lost their way, but have layered reshoots and fixes until we are left with something that simply loses the narrative flow and comes across as chaotic and confusing.

New Under the Sun… Thoughts on Avatar

What the hell do I say about Avatar that hasn’t already been ranted upon? I made some comments and predictions a couple of posts ago, before I went to go see the film, and now that I have seen the digital extravaganza that is Cameron’s latest Opus, my opinions, particularly regarding simplicity of story as a choice, rather than a travesty, remain unchanged. In a film as visually rigorous as this, you are going to need a story that everyone can relate to and tales of this stripe have been pounded into our collective, guilt-ridden heads all through elementary school, college, literature, media, music, pretty much everywhere. It’s not a new story, but because of that, we can use it as a springboard to bring *everyone*, not just the sci-fi and escapist fantasy geeks, into this world that Cameron and his teams have created.

Let me instead go with the visuals. This is my core field, 3d animation, modeling and texturing. Like so many in my field, slippage is usually easy for me to spot, I can derive as much enjoyment from just watching for technique, brilliance and fail and most people do from watching character development or sex. So I went into this film intending to deconstruct the visuals, watching for places where they had restored to compositing in real-life elements, watching for slips in the physics, the bits where they had to hand-animate versus mo-cap. I knew the New Zealand teams and some of the more elite hands in the industry had been pulled in on this, so I was expecting the bar to be raised.

I was not expecting the bar to be removed entirely and replaced with a brick-wall with “Nyah Nyah Nyah” in graffiti on it for anyone who dared to follow.

Forget stunning, any decent studio can get the guys to do *stunning* when it comes to visuals, it’s a tired and overused word, and it doesn’t do justice to the mind that guides the camera. What we see here in Avatar is love, pure and simple. Each time we see a new area of the environment we get an excruciating level of detail, from the divots in the tree bark to the spiders and underfoot critters scurrying away from the shot. Most people look at a scene and think, “well, yeah, but the computer handles all that stuff” like there’s some big flashy, neon cyberpunk-esque button you can punch that will grow trees, design flora and animate the wind from a helicopter rotor.

There’s a reason that mistakes slip through and we are left with bad composites of live environments and GCI characters. This stuff is TIME CONSUMING. Every tree had to be built, every leaf designed and painted, then programmed so it could be called up, changed just a touch and then used over and over again so seamlessly that to the naked eye it looks like a thousand different leaves. Every single square inch of the world has to actually be built. Every blade of grass needs to have physics applied; does it bend in the wind? How far? Does it twist? Does it lose leaves? Does it *always* lose leaves? And while, yeah, there is a certain amount of this that can be left to the computer program, you have to remember, above all else, that the computer is an idiot. It can’t think for you, and it most certainly can’t guess what you want a scene or a physical mesh or a texture to look like. You don’t have the luxury of applying a generic wind modifier, chucking in a little gravity and bingo-bango-bongo, there you have it.

I went in to this movie with a gimlet eye, looking to tear the CGI apart and maybe learn some new tricks in the process. Instead of tricks, however, I found that the studios behind Avatar went to the trouble to put in this level of detail. Instead of finding ways to cheat the eye and cut costs wherever possible, they had simply gone ahead and done the extra work. Out of the entire, nearly 3 hour running time, I picked up on perhaps 5 glitches total. Most of them were in the scenes where we were working with “humans” and “Na’vi” in the same shots. Some of them might not even be errors, for example, in some shots the proportional size of the Na’Vi head and neck appear to be different than they do in others, it could be because of the camera angle or type of lens (yes, in CGI you can use different types of lenses, just like you can with a physical camera). Because we are working in CGI however, it is equally possible that the proportions have been tweaked in some shots to direct the focus of the viewer, to make the Na’Vi look more or less alien depending on how they want us to feel about the characters at that point in the film. Some CGI films go to this level of illustration, some don’t. The point is that these could have been stylistic choices.

The same goes for changes in the physical appearance of Sully’s Avatar form. In some shots he has rounder, more human looking musculature on the shoulders (I’m singling this out because of the effect it has on his silhouette) but in others he more closely resembles the sleeker form of the Na’Vi people. Again, if we were talking about traditional 2d animation, this would probably be the result of deliberate fiddling in order to push or pull the emotions of the viewer. Because this is CGI (and the rules are still evolving) this could easily have been because the shot was done by a different studio, because something went awry in the programming for the skinning or the rigging wasn’t done right, because someone couldn’t find the Sully body and threw in a Na’Vii body in a rush. I choose to believe (given what I have heard about Cameron as a Director) that these elements, that some might see as mistakes, are instead the result of this type of deliberate manipulation.

Good show guys!  Thanks for giving us all a new challenge :D