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Some Ramblings - Avatar
By Srinivas Kanchibhotla

Recall this moment in 'Titanic' after the leviathan hits the iceberg, and the compartments down below submerge, pulling the rest of the behemoth under the surface of the water, causing the stern of the ship to be hoisted in the air. The people who have either voluntarily jumped off forcibly pushed off the ship, try to swim and stay afloat, causing hundreds of tiny splashes around the supposedly unsinkable but fast sinking ship, letting out agonizing shrieks that fill up the air of an otherwise still wintry starry night in the Atlantic. It is not just the scale of the spectacle - the mighty cruise liner with its massive propeller blades suspended in the mid air - that has everybody on the edge of their seats. It is the juxtaposition of the human element with the enormity - the thousands of tiny splashes, the scores of shreiks and shouts, the gasps of frozen breaths, in such a hostile environment, that shocks and shakes up the audience. Consider another example in 'Jurassic Park' (not the ones involving the digitally and mechanically created monsters brought back from extinction). It is the same shot that bookends the movie, at the beginning and at the end. It is the of flying of the helicopter to and from the Isla Nubar, over the vast expanse of the ocean, past a mighty rock jutting out of it, and with a bunch of winged creatures accompanying it alongside. And with the majestic musical score in the background, the evoked emotions are one of awe, wonder, serenity and importantly humility. The dwarfed human element humbly submits to the vastly overpowering environment and it is this interplay that tugs at the heart, however subconsciously, than the obvious technicality involved in the creation of the spectacle, which highlights the fundamental requirement for movies as these - the organic nature of the environment in which the human element interacts. It doesn't matter if the subject matter is about extinct species, never seen before aliens or even giant asteroids. It is for the same reason the Terminator feels more relatable than the Transformer.

Inception - Despite all its eye-catching gadgetry and eye-popping effects, Cameron's movies have always been simple and straightforward, never complicated or abstract, and most of the times about imploring the humanity to grow a heart. Be it 'The Abyss', 'The Terminator' series and even the 'Titanic', the focus has never shifted to the whiz-bang action, and is firmly rooted in the core values of human existence - compassion, empathy and co-existence. He has been exploring the same theme in different milieus coming up with interesting commentary about the human condition. In 'The Abyss' the emphasis is on the denouncement of the (war) practices of the human destruction claiming that the most potent and dangerous weapon of mass destruction known to the mankind is the human mind itself. 'The Terminator (2)' is how a machine finds the humanity in itself while the world around hurtles towards mechanization and weaponization, all in the name of modernization. Though 'Titanic' is primiarly about the sinking of the ship, he still finds a way to focus on the basic emotions - pride, greed and love. And the glaring irony in all these movies, including the current outing, is how he uses technology to find a way back to the human heart. The Termniator (2) doesn't understand what causes a person to cry, and by the end of the movie, when it chooses itself to terminate the mission, and thereby itself, in spite of the paternal bond that he develops with the kid, he understands (not just knows) why people cry, which raises the question, if a hard-wired machine can empathize with human suffering, why can't soft tissued humans chisel away at their differences. In 'The Abyss', the underwater alien understands the significance of sacrifice, when the oil rig worker chooses to defuse the nuclear weapon by putting his life on the line, and when he asks the alien as to why it saved him, ignoring the great risk that his fellow human posed to their race, the alien types back the same message he gives his wife before jumping into the abyss to defuse the weapon - 'It is a way one way ticket baby', meaning he never intends to come back and yet volunteered for the job. Value for life is his perennial theme, and finding a way to it is his never-ending mission.

Vision - It is not often that filmmakers have to create their own paradigm, their own language, to translate their vision into celluloid speak, and yet Cameron has performed this feat consistently with every single one of his outings, setting new benchmarks and standards for the rest of the world to follow and adopt. If the requirement was for a shape-shifting water form for 'The Abyss', he (along with the wizards at ILM) invented the prototype for morphing technology, which he later perfected it for his liquid metal morphing Terminator for 'Judgment Day'. If the script called for a closer look at the wreckage of Titanic that is sitting on the sea bed, he came up with his own under-water camera equipment that could withstand that enormous water pressure at those depths, and still capture the debris up close and personal. And with 'Avatar', he upped the ante by not just creating a different language for his vision, but layering it with all the nuances, intricacies and complexities, that would together constitute a brand new way of film making.

The science behind making this movie would easily rival the great steps that Hollywood has taken, right from the silent era's special effects features ('The Thief of Baghdad') to the latter day stop-motion favorites ('Jason and the Argonauts') or the science fiction favorites - '2001: A Space Odyssey' or the more recent 'Star Wars' (the first one). Here are, not just one, but three major challenges that Cameron took upon himself to realize 'Avatar' - 1. fully organic motion capture technology 2. interaction of the virtual and real elements in a virtual environment IN REAL TIME 3. All this in a 3-D, to boot. Though there were baby steps taken in the direction of motion capture technology (with real characters standing in for virtual characters and have their motion captured and imparted on the virtual ones (and hence the name)) with the Gollum character in the Lord of the Rings, the technology wasn't entirely successful to warrant a whole movie basing on it (which the previous ventures Robert Zemeckis' 'Polar Express' and 'Beowulf' vouch for), on account of the fact that the virtual characters felt very lifeless (specially with the eyes) and their motion, not entirely smooth and seamless, which brought up the whole argument about, why use real characters to double up for CGI counterparts, with restricted movement and zombie-like look. Here is the second challenge, these motion capture characters have to interact with real flesh and blood elements in a computer generated environment. The problem isn't as simple as it reads. It isn't like the regular live characters sharing space with CGI, which Hollywood has already perfected in the past 15 years. Here a real character, standing in for a virtual character, has to, for example, fight with a flesh and blood character, all the while interacting with virtual elements, like foliage, water and dragons, AGAIN, IN REAL TIME. What? What! and WHAT?!!. There is no precedent for this, as there never was a requirement for this.

It feels as though Cameron always turns situations as these to his advantage - if there is no precendent for doing it, no one could tell him what could not be achieved; if there is no knowledge, there are no limitations or restrictions either, seems to be his operating principle. And so he invents his own new virtual camera, and with it a new technology, where a live character, portraying a motion captured virtual character, performing against a green screen, can find himself interacting in a virtual environment with other existing/non-existing elements WITHIN THE CAMERA IN REAL TIME. There would be an army of computers feeding into the camera creating the virtual environment, which the live character uses it as a reference, by means of a special head gear attached to his person, while performing, and all of this action and interaction as captured by the camera, fed back into the computers in some sort of a regenerative feedback loop, for later further modification and enhancement. His ventures sound/read like science projects than mere artful interpretations of the script. But the end result, when all the elements work, is nothing short of an experience. Riding a roller-coasting, para-jumping, deep sea diving - all these aren't mere adventures or sports. They account as experiences. And Cameron, with his seamless mix of art and science, makes his movie-viewing as experiences unto themselves creating a visceral reaction, which could be the highest compliment that a film-maker can receive. And, by the way, all this in 3-D!!

Execution - 'Avatar' is so many things - a triumph of technology, the next great leap in film-making, a decent script that accommodated the technology, and even allowed it to run wild, at times. But it should also be equally credited for the amount of discipline and great restraint and it (he) has shown from getting giddy and going overboard with the new tools at play. Here is a simple example to substantiate that claim. In the 3-D presentation of the feature, NOT ONE, and this needs repeating, NOT ONE, shot was expended at using the 3-D to throw things, shoot or poke at the audience, causing them to flinch or duck; NOT ONE. Which leads to believe that the medium was chosen not for the usual shock/entertainment value, but as canvass to exploit the depths, the heights and other positional advantages that aided and enhanced the story-telling. And not enough words can describe (praise to sky) the beauty of each of those frames. Cameron takes the time to paint each frame and fill it with such exquisite beauty as has never been seen (shown) in such rich and lush detail on such wide a canvas. And the smoothness of the action sequences (something he is known for), amid all these, is, simply, jaw-dropping. From the mighty - the majestic landscape of a far away land, replete with floating mountains, plunging waterfalls, dense forests, humongous trees - down to the minutiae - the tiny dandelion like creatures, the 'soul tree' with fluorescent branches that hang down from great heights, the tiny colorful insects, the natural looking flora - all these against the backdrop of environmental consciousness and the 'dharmO rakshati rakshita' theme - 'Avatar' is true to its name, it is the reincarnation of the modern film form, as the world knows it.

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More Ramblings on films
Inglorious Basterds
District 9
The Hurt Locker
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Slumdog Millionaire
Quantom of Solace
The Dark Knight
Wall - E
The incredible Hulk
Indiana Jones and the kingdom of crystal skull
Speed Racer
Iron Man
Jodha Akbar
There will be blood
Chrlie Wilson's War
No Country for Old Men
Om Shanti Om
Lions for Lambs
American Gangster
Michael Clayton
Happy Days
Chak De India!
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Simpsons Movie
The Grindhouse
Casino Royale
The Departed
Lage Raho Munnabhai
Superman Returns
The Da Vinci Code
Sri Ramadasu
Rang De Basanti (Hindi)
Jai Chiranjeeva!
Munich (English)
Sarkar (Hindi)
Mangal Padey (Hindi)
Kaadhal (Tamil)
Anukokunda Oka Roju
Batman Begins (English)
Radha Gopalam
Mughal E Azam
Virumandi (Tamil)
Lakshya (Hindi)
Yuva (Hindi)
Kakha Kakha (Tamil)
Mr & Mrs Iyer
Nuvve Nuvve


This article is written by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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