Augmented Reality and Avatar (Part One)
— By Jose-Luis Moctezuma | January 6, 2010
James Cameron‘s Avatar has by now very likely recouped and surpassed the exorbitant amount of money with which it was made, in everything from shooting and production costs, to mass-scale distribution and marketing. By some reports, the film was made for at least $300 million; others place it (including the distribution and marketing costs) above $450 million. Either way, Avatar is the most expensive film ever made, and it is on track to becoming the most lucrative film in history as well. These facts, however, are not enough to justify any considerable excitement over the film’s value; other less sophisticated movies (such as Pirates of the Caribbean or Spider-Man) have accomplished as much in their time. But Avatar has become a must-see event for other stranger reasons.
As anyone plugged into the matrix will know, Avatar is an event film for reason of the boundary-pushing technology that powers its spectacle. The technology I refer to is not so much the 3D aspect (the use of which has existed since the 1950s, though perhaps never as spectacularly, or as integrated into the bone of the narrative, as it is used in Cameron’s film); rather, it is the innovative virtual camera system that Cameron developed for the manipulation of live-action within a hybrid CGI world which has dramatically upped the standards for film and camera technologies. Virtual camera technology is one unknown to most filmmakers because it has been mainly used to design video game environments in popular games like the Resident Evil series or the immersion-heavy Bioshock. Resident Evil is one such game that, to my mind, was greatly responsible for demolishing the old and ordinary standards of horror cinema. I can think of no horror film this past decade which consistently delivered such purely cinematic feats of terror as those that arise in the Resident Evil games. To the cineaste, such a statement will undoubtedly arouse indignation: video game art should not seriously be compared to film art, should it?
Yet ironically, Resident Evil plays out a consummately pastiche experience that summarizes more than 50 years worth of zombie and monster films in its absurd unfolding. The original game is remarkable for its selection of finely placed shots, lighting and sound effects, which create mood and terror (much like in a film) as you navigate the character along shadowy hallways and past ominous creaking doors. The ‘director’ of the game is not any one person but an army of designers who utilize an intelligently scripted camera system that switches and selects its shots as you proceed in the game. While the game is on the surface played by you, the player, the computer or AI-engine that creates the environment you interact with (much like how a film environment is taken, if momentarily, to be a real one in which you are a mere spectator of some one else’s vision) is at bottom the controlling agent responsible for the shaping of a sensory experience. The video game player will often find herself prodded through a world that is the fabrication of a different kind of demiurge, the thinking, dreaming AI computer.
If Resident Evil is a prime example of a video game property that was influenced by the movie culture of the past century, then it was also an exemplar of how video games have surpassed films in graphic technology, aesthetic design, and (in some countries) overall sales. The inferiority of the Resident Evil movies to their video game counterparts is evidence enough that popular films have for some time been unable to compete with the high-quality graphics and immersive experience that video games guarantee their players (so long as they willingly participate of course). But Avatar is significant for this reason: it is an instance in which film art has finally caught up with video game technology, indeed surpassing it, in producing an environment of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco call “hyperreality.” The effects on display in Avatar are such that no computer game can boast to replicate (at least not for any time soon).
James Cameron’s synthesis of video game design with live-action and performance capture is one that invites metaphoric speculation. For one, there is the use of special stereoscopic cameras designed by Cameron and his digital crew to simulate human sight. The action on display in Avatar is never blurred or made indefinite by the 3D visualization: the action, whether involving live or computer-generated characters, is augmented by the 3D camera scope, so as to impress on the viewer the sensation that the CGI world is at one with the physical movements of the characters as well as with your own inert but conscious body. The use of the 3D stereoscope, much like in the mechanics of the human eye that distinguish distances between the foreground arising from the background in a continuous spatial plane, creates a metaphysical sense of the hyperreal, or the more-real-than-real. In Umberto Eco’s words (speaking of holography), “It isn’t cinema, but rather a kind of virtual object in three dimensions that exists even where you don’t see it, and if you move you can see it there, too.” Avatar‘s world continues to exist even when we don’t see it, after we’ve left the theater: it is a world that, for the average media-glutted consumer, diminishes the sense of wonder we have for our own. The 3D which we were forced to undergo for nearly 3 hours in the movie theater suddenly becomes noticeable again when we walk outside, astonished to remember that human sight was already set to three dimensions.
Avatar, thus, is a video-game-movie that can not strictly be considered ‘cinema,’ but is still cinema in a hybrid sense. The hybridity is one that compounds the absolutely fake (the cinematic world in Avatar, symbolically named “Pandora”) with the totally real (in the film’s scenario, the use of real human actors alongside their CGI “avatars”; or in our case, the presentiment – or even the strong desire – that a magical moon-planet like Pandora can virtually exist in a way similar to our own Earth). For something to be more ‘real’ than real, it must be inverse, that is, perfectly fake. Eco explains that “to speak of things that one wants to connote as real, these things must seem real. The ‘completely real’ becomes identified with the ‘completely fake.’ Absolute unreality is offered as real presence.”