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James Cameron, Part III: The Future of 3D & Visual Effects

by Nathanael Griffis

So I’ve talked about James Cameron’s past, and Avatar, his present; now is the time to consider his future. He has prophetically spouted his greatness across the land. As annoying as that is, it is hard to deny. The evidence stands undeterred by the critical masses hoping that 3D is not the wave of the future, hoping that movie studios will just make normal films, hoping that we’ll still have money in our wallet at the end of the year. I hate having to pay four dollars more just because the movie is in 3D, and I have only seen two 3D movies (Avatar and Resident Evil: Afterlife) for that reason. Yet, I found myself regretting at times that I was so cheap and didn’t suck it up for, say, How to Train Your Dragon.

You’d think for a million-dollar camera they would have included red-eye removal.

3D is here to stay as long as it keeps making money, and there is no sign of it slowing. Some 3D films are losing at the box office, but others are taking in massive profits. Cameron’s Avatar would have kept on going if it hadn’t been for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which stole the 3D screens from him. There is another reason 3D is here to stay, and the reason is simply James Cameron himself.

Seven years ago Cameron decided he wanted to develop a 3D camera that allowed for better control of the depth of field. The issue with most 3D cameras is that they use side by side images. The idea comes from the way our eyes perceive depth, which works when something has actual depth, but film does not. Cameron realized the old red-green filtered images of 3D were stagnant and did not show continuous depth of field. What he needed was a camera that allowed one to adjust the focal point exactly. Enter the Cameron/Pace 3D Fusion camera, and by “enter,” I mean walk down a seven-year-long hallway.

Two cameras for the price of... two cameras.

The Fusion camera differs in that it does not film two side by side images. It utilizes a beam-splitting 50/50 mirror that cuts the actual singular image, giving it depth. It places one camera lens inside the other, essentially. The most amazing thing about the technology is that it is not some massive rig. It’s a small 28-pound camera that’s silent and handheld. The cameraman has complete control of the 3D focal point as he films, and he has to be aware of how he’s filming, because the point needs to shift as the camera moves.

Cameron explaining to his cast something that proves he’s smarter than them.

It’s fascinating stuff, and what’s all the more amazing is that, from everything I’ve researched at least, it was Cameron who worked on it. It wasn’t someone under him; it was him. He also did all the handheld shots in Avatar to make sure the focal point was where he wanted it. (This is not unusual for Cameron, who did most of the camera work for The Abyss, Titanic, the Terminator films, and Aliens as well). The innovation he’s developed has reinvigorated the technological presence of 3D. It’s not a false pseudo-3D with the red-green image. Yes, it still requires glasses–I’ll get to that. There is an actual focal point in the film that our eyes adjust to. This focal point is the main cause of discomfort when you’re watching a 3D film. Your eyes see the depth of the screen and the depth of the image. They are then confused by the fact that there are two conflicting focal points, making your head hurt.

Owwies and boo-boos aside, these innovations will matter, mainly because it will open the door for more innovation. Already, Nintendo is risking a 3D handheld system that eliminates glasses. Televisions are being released with 3D capability. Would any of this have been possible without Avatar? No. Avatar was the movie that the industry was waiting to use as a litmus test for how they should move forward with 3D, and it blew the door down. A note on the glasses: I think they will eventually be eliminated because that is still the major complaint of viewers. Will Cameron be the one to do it? I don’t think so. Too many companies are interested and invested in this technology now. Cameron had seven years without much competition to develop the Fusion camera; this is not the same environment now.

The beauty of Avatar is that the 3D is used, not forced. It never felt like a movie that had to be in 3D. A sword didn’t fly out of the screen at you. It shows the difference between gimmick and technique. It made audiences, and filmmakers, aware of the proper usage of 3D and encouraged a demand for the non-gimmicky display. Cameron’s place in film has long been solidified as a director. Now, unless unexpected events crop up in the next few years, we’ll have to accept that his place as a technological innovator is all but solidified as well. He started off in special effects, and it’s to his credit that he’s never left that behind but improved the entire art form.

–Nathanael Griffis