Thought Leadership


By Colin Walls

I am not a film buff. I go to see a movie a few times a year – there is no movie theater [cinema for us Brits] in the town where I live, but I plan to fix that [not planning to build one, just move house, but that’s another story]. I have always enjoyed science fiction and the big screen experience often suits the genre. So, when I head about Avatar, I was immediately interested. When I heard it was 3D, I was intrigued, as I had never seen a 3D movie. I enjoyed the experience on two levels: first, the content – the concepts and the story; second the technology of the making of the movie …

The story of Avatar is relatively simple and, as many reviewers have pointed out, not particularly original. I like my sci fi to be as credible and consistent as possible – I am not good at simply suspending belief. In that respect, I guess the movie delivered. It is set, I seem to recall, about 150 years hence. They do not seem to have cracked faster than light propulsion, artificial gravity or automatic language translation. Most of the “new” technology does seem reasonable: the see-through, snap off displays looked like a futuristic Apple product and the Avatar technology itself made some sense. However, the weapons systems all had a rather 1960s feel about them; they still use bullets! I thought it was interesting how, at the beginning of the movie the Na’vi seem rather large, unlikely and awkward. But, by the end, they seem graceful and natural and the humans look small and podgy. I did wonder whether the references to unobtanium were meant to be a joke. It is a long movie, but, for me, did not drag. The last 2 seconds are, IMHO, just brilliant cinematography [though my daughter’s reaction was “yeah – been done before”.].

The making of the movie is interesting in many ways. It is a blend of computer generated imagery [CGI] and conventional footage. The way the real humans interact with the CGI aliens and environment is awesome – I certainly could not see any disconnect. I was particularly intrigued by the subtle, but unmistakable, resemblance that the avatars had for their human counterparts.

I do not know how the 3D effect is actually achieved for the filmed parts of the movie. I appreciate that they use two cameras and, somehow or other, arrange for the image from one to be fed to the right eye and the other to the left. I do not really care which of a number of technologies are used to achieve this. The results are interesting, but they are NOT 3D; they simply give the illusion of 3D. No technology currently exists whereby a movie could be shot and shown in TRUE 3D [although I have an idea …].

What do I mean by “illusion of 3D”? The images appear to have depth, but the view does not look quite real does it? The reason is to do with focus. Normally, the human eye will focus on something in particular; other objects that are nearer and further away are visible, but not sharp. At any given moment, you choose what you wish to look at. The eye has limited “depth of field” – this is a characteristic of any optical system. This is true of a camera. A photographer or cinematographer using 2D will use this to draw attention to parts of an image by making it sharp and allowing other things to be blurred. This is still true with a “3D” camera! So, when you are watching the movie, the only sharp things are those that the director has chosen to be sharp. No matter how you try, you cannot focus on, say, the background if the subject is sharp.

So, I question the whole point of “illusional 3D”. I do not think that it adds anything useful to the normal 2D experience. It is just a novelty, which is not worth the aggravation and expense. Anyone, who is willing to spend $6000 on the recently announced 3D TV from Panasonic, has more money than sense, IMHO. It is not 3D people!!

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at