The popular myth of the coming of the sound cinema is that The Jazz Singer was the decisive film. It may have been an important moment, but if you read The Speed of Sound by Scott Eyman you will see that the story is more nuanced. Today we have a candidate for the 3-D Jazz Singer: Avatar.
Lately I’ve attended several conferences where there were panel discussions and speakers who made the Jazz Singer/Avatar connection and that taken with the same notion articulated in the press has made me aware that Avatar – possibly because of its enormous financial success – is being hailed as the Jazz Singer of 3-D. It has called attention to the stereoscopic medium like no other film, but in terms of its technical accomplishments (which are considerable), it’s not a trailblazer. The quality of the image is wonderful and it’s comfortable to look at – at least when it’s well projected. (I’ve seen it four times and once or twice it was well projected.)
However, the work that was done by two stereographers, Rob Engle (Sony Pictures ImageWorks, and Phil McNally (first at Disney then at DreamWorks) predates Avatar by years and set the standard for stereoscopic image quality and comfort with films like The Polar Express and Meet the Robinsons. They set the bar high, fortunately for the medium. All subsequent 3-D movies, CG or live action, ought to live up to that level of accomplishment, and Avatar does. Rob and Phil’s aesthetic defies the ‘punch them in the face’ effects of early IMAX and theme parks and has informed this generation of filmmakers, including Mr. Cameron.
Cameron, after coming off of his two undersea documentaries for IMAX, must have been sensitive to the many complaints that were made because portions of them those films were hard to look at. Part of the problem was that Cameron had a side-by-side rig with a fixed interaxial too large by far, and that rig also used toe-in. When shooting with toe-in and wide angle up close there will be, upon projection (if there is no rectification in post) asymmetrical trapezoidal distortion so that homologous points can have significant vertical offset, especially at the corners of the images. Attempting to fuse these kinds of images is like drinking a scalding cup of coffee.
So Cameron toned down the stereo in Avatar; following the first rule of stereoscopic filmmaking: do no harm. It isn’t Avatar that has set the bar high; it’s that Avatar has created awareness. But everyone who’s making a 3-D movie, whether it’s created with live-action cinematography, or CG animation, or motion capture, owes a lot to Rob and Phil because they came up with a way to make 3-D movies deep and comfortable and just plain beautiful.