Thursday, January 14, 2010

Avatar: First Oscar Worthy 3-D Movie?

The inherent technical difficulties in the production and distribution of 3-D movies notwithstanding, will James Cameron’s Avatar be the first ever Oscar-worthy 3-D movie?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got started back in 1927 with 2,075 members. This cultural organization composed of producers, actors, technicians and others associated with the film industry had never considered 3-D movies to be Oscar-worthy enough to receive one of their prestigious annually dispensed awards. But will it be eventually changed when the first ever Oscar-worthy 3-D movie called Avatar could win this year’s Oscars?

As a whole, 3-D movies are not known historically to be big box office draws or Academy Award-worthy. When one looks into the 1950s – were most movie buffs believe to be the Golden Age of 3-D movies – its very hard to miss that 3-D cinema usually means B-Movie science fiction and creature feature horror flicks. Even the 3-D version of Jaws – probably the highest grossing 3-D movie before Avatar came along – fall into this category.

Sometimes I wonder if James Cameron’s high statistical probability of box office success was down to his flirtations with Marxist-Leninist socialism. I mean the salient feature of his 1998 remake of Titanic was about class struggle, right? If it worked for Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein’s Potemkin – you know, that 1925 silent film classic about a shipboard mutiny in Odessa – surely, something like it would be a success in today’s capitalism weary post credit crunch world.

Thus came Avatar, a 400 million-dollar anti-imperialism Marxist-Leninist socialism leaning science fiction epic that has been touted as this year’s main Oscar Best Picture contender. Not only because of the technically brilliant use of contemporary state-of-the-art visual effects, but also a story line reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s vision of revolutionary idealism set in the backdrop of everyone’s contemporary weariness of capitalism by the masses disenfranchised by the empty promises of the Protestant Work Ethic.

Though the movie Avatar leans more in reminding us on the environmentalist leaning ideals of Friedrich Engels, the salient feature of the movie has always been the critique on where our current “Imperialistic Organized Christianity” is heading. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is just a foreshadowing of the up and coming excesses of the good old days of the Inquisition. The movie – as a morality tale for the supposed present day arbiters of morality – may not be perfect. Nonetheless, it might just prove on what the Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing used to day about science fiction – that they are more social, rather than science, driven stories.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

3-D Movies: Future Prolix?

Given that our current cinematic knowledge is now over a century old, will 3-D ever become a cinematic standard due to the recently renewed interest?

By: Ringo Bones

Did academia’s early foray into experimental psychology – especially on how the visual aspect of our mind works - was probably more influential to the art and science of movie making than once previously thought? A hundred years ago, a young psychologist named Max Wertheimer took a train bound for the Rhineland for a summer holiday back in 1910. Unexpectedly, he was suddenly struck with an inspiration that led him to get off the train at Frankfurt. While there, he went to a local toy-shop and bought a stroboscope, which later made him borrow a little space at the University of Frankfurt for his experiments – which lasted for six years. By the way, a toy stroboscope is a device that shows a series of still pictures in rapid succession, thus giving the illusion of movement to the observer.

The decision for Wertheimer to buy that toy stroboscope came about due to his speculations about the phenomena that had puzzled psychologists for some time back then. That humans thought they saw motion when two similar objects appeared in quick succession. The most obvious example, of course, is the appearance of motion given by a succession of discrete photographs that make up motion picture frames, which we see as “moving pictures”. A similar effect can be achieved by placing two lights side by side in a dark room, switching them on and off alternately. To the observer, one light seems to dance to and fro. To Max Wertheimer these phenomena, and the effects produced by the toy stroboscope, were convincing proof that sensation alone could not account for our perception of motion; Wertheimer was sure that something more than the five senses was involved in perception.

For the next 30 years, Max Wertheimer and two colleagues, Wolfgang K√∂hler and Kurt Koffka, became the principal spokesmen for what became known as the Gestalt School of Psychology. Gestalt – which mean “shape” or “form” – has come in psychological terminology to mean “whole”. The “gestalt experiments” – i.e. those experiments done by Wertheimer and colleagues as they are now known – were designed to prove that perception is a more extraordinary phenomenon than the combination of the separate elements of sensation. Wertheimer and team argued, rather, that perception operates, so to speak, in reverse by concluding that we tend to perceive a whole configuration first and then the separate elements. The “Gestalt School” believed that immediate, meaningful perception is arrived at by our mental ability to create relationships.

If the preceding topic is deemed too pedantic and too clinical for your average film school graduate, be reminded that the “gestalt school” probably influenced the pioneers of “movie making” the now familiar aspects of cinematography and film scene editing. Not to mention pointing to the proper direction on how film / motion picture medium can be used to tell a meaningful story, while still retaining a broad scope of cinematic artistic license. Thanks to the insights gained by the founders of the Gestalt School of Psychology when it comes to our own visual perception.

This is why if our current renewed interest in 3-D movies ever becomes economically viable enough to become an industry standard – rather than a mere gimmicky fad during the previous decades of the 20th Century. The new generation of cinematographers interested in 3-D movie making should reexamine the Gestalt School for inspiration. This 100-year-old or so “old school” thinking will probably inspire a generation of young cinematographers to create a 3-D movie that’s even better than James Cameron’s 400 million dollar anti-imperialist epic called Avatar.

Stereoscopic Vision: More Than Just for Mere Entertainment?

Given that all of our senses are there mainly for our species’ survival, is our eyes’ binocular / stereoscopic vision capability more that just an under-exploited sensory target niche for the entertainment industry?

By: Ringo Bones

It has been a long known fact that the left and right ear-pieces of a physician’s stethoscope allows for better early diagnosis for symptoms of an impending heart problem compared to older types that send sound to only one ear. But this had not hindered the music and hi-fi industry from using it in marketing stereo sound. And given the recent renaissance of 3-D movies, is our eyes’ ability for stereoscopic vision more than just an under-exploited target market for the ailing entertainment industry?

If your keeping track on the evolution of the marketing / moneymaking side of the entertainment industry since the end of World War II. You’ll notice that movies and still images aimed at our eyes’ stereoscopic vision capability was ironically left behind during the Golden Age of Stereo when stereo sound gained more popularity and commercial success than its 3-D movie cousin. More ironic still, 3-D imaging technology dates back from the Victorian era, a few decades before Thomas Edison and others invented our technical ability to record the sound of speech and music. But stereoscopic vision / 3-D vision’s finest hour is yet to come.

Cameras for taking “stereo pairs” were used extensively by photo-reconnaissance aircraft during World War II and then studied in detail by photo interpreters in an effort to learn the secrets of enemy airfields and factories. One such stereo pair revealed to a sharp-eyed examiner the presence on a German airfield of a V-2 rocket – the first visual proof to the British intelligence that such a weapon existed. If this WW II-era WMD had then been pictured only in a single conventional aerial photograph – without the three-dimensional effect of stereoscopic photography – its identification as a rocket would have been much more difficult.

Biologist had known for awhile that binocular vision / stereoscopic vision is not the sole preserve of humans, diurnal (daylight active) meat eating predatory creatures rely on binocular / stereoscopic vision to effectively hunt their prey. Although it is only humans who can verbally describe this physiological quirk of how we visually perceive our world. Ever since the time of the Gestalt school of Psychology, scientist had now reached a consensus that the phenomena of binocular vision / stereoscopic vision / spatial vision is no longer a paradox of philosophy – like the religious-leaning humanists used to think – but rather a factual result of physiological stimulation.

How binocular or stereoscopic vision physiologically works remained a mystery for such a long time because the receptive surface of the eye – the retina – is for all intents and purposes a flat surface. Yet we humans do not see the world as a flat photograph or an etched windowpane, we see it in all its dimensions - Which enables us humans to make visually sound judgments – which can be a matter of life and death – about the position, distance, shape, and size of objects with security and exactness that enabled our species to survive for more than a million years.

Our ability to perceive depth - via our two eyes spaced two and a half inches apart from center to center - had even the great 19th Century German scientist Herman von Helmholtz to point out that binocular vision “ is the necessary foundation for all our actions. From threading a needle through a tangled skein of silk to leaping from cliff to cliff when life itself depends on the right measurement of distance.” Binocular / stereoscopic vision even allows NASA space shuttle pilots to perform a dead stick landing – an indispensable feat of survival in our contemporary technological world.

3-D Imaging Technologies: Completely Compatible to How We See?

Given our on again – off again fascination with various 3-D imaging technologies, including 3-D movies, are these imaging technologies completely compatible with our visual physiology's ability to perceive depth?

By: Ringo Bones

The now famous 3ality Digital Systems, Inc. – thanks to James Cameron’s Avatar movie – had come a long way since the company presented their “White Paper” describing their flat-panel auto stereoscopic technology at the Stereoscopic Displays and Applications Conference in Santa Clara, California back in January 2003. The company’s widely technologically compatible to current movie theaters – not to mention economically viable – 3-D imaging system had added the “third dimension” to the previously 99.99% of all images that are monocular in nature. But, is this latest incarnation of the 3D movie really physiologically compatible to the way our eye-brain system perceive binocular / stereoscopic images – or even reality?

Most previous 3-D movie imaging systems that had managed to gain commercial viability include those red / green, red / green 3-D glasses for viewing monochromatic / black and white 3-D movies made during the 1950s. Improved colored 3-D movies made during the 1970s and the 1980s that require Polarized 3-D glasses to view them, LCD shutter IMAX technology, experimental holography exhibited in various consumer electronic trade shows during the early 1990s. And some more esoteric 3D imaging systems that work on the principle of density delta / persistence of vision. Not to mention jiggle-vision, which is a 3-D movie system where the camera constantly moves up and down a small amount to give the brain what needs to construct a 3-D world as long as proper moving cues exist in the film.

On the 3-D still picture front, we had the now rare “stereo” photos that need those 1950s era red / blue and red / green 3-D glasses to perceive the “depth” of the third dimension. Much improve ones that use polarized 3-D glasses to direct the left and right images to the “right” eye to impart a perception of depth. The old stereoscopes from the Victorian era, really expensive still holograms and zography – 3-D still pictures whose depth dimension is imparted via a vertical lenticular surface. Although in terms of bang for the buck performance, nothing beats the good old 1970s era (even though it was first marketed way back in 1939) View-Master 3-D slide show device. During my exploration of still 3-D imaging systems since childhood, only the Victorian era stereoscope and the View-Master 3-D are the most likely still image 3-D viewing systems one would encounter this day and age.

When it comes to the matter of whether these systems are truly physiologically compatible to the way our ear-brain system perceives depth, most of these visual cues can be supplied by either our left or right eye. Unfortunately, there are certain cues to depth and distance that can be obtained only when both of our left and right eyes are working together. By focusing both eyes on the same object, our eyes register images that vary slightly because our eyes themselves are on average two and a half inches apart. In fusing the two images, our brain notes the slight disparity between them and uses it as a cue to a composite three-dimensional image.

The ability to combine two different images is called stereoscopic vision, and is the principle behind how a stereoscope works. Stereoscopes were as popular in Victorian-era living rooms as TV is in our present living rooms. A typical stereoscope requires two separate of a scene – known as a “stereo pair” – taken from slightly different angles. These photographs are put into a small viewer, which permits one photograph to be seen by the left eye and the other by the right eye. The brain accepts the disparity between the pictures as normal and blends them into a three-dimensional or 3-D view. The much improved 1970s era View-Master works the same way as a Victorian-era stereoscope, except that the View-Master uses color film slides instead of photographs.

The curious disparity exaggeration - or the “Diorama Effect” I noted when watching the 3-D version of the movie Avatar – was mainly caused by the muscular action of our eyes that also play a role in depth perception. This remarkable but still little understood range-finding process of our eyes enables us to estimate both the distance to various objects and the distance between the objects themselves. The process – most efficient at distances up to 20 feet – depends for its cue on the on the muscular convergence of our eyes – i.e. their inward movement as they turn to focus. Since our eyes must turn more to see a near object than a far one our brain automatically “measures” the amount of convergence and adjust its stereoscopic depth perception accordingly. Thus making scenes in the 3-D version of the movie Avatar that fall within the 20 to 30-foot scale seem to have the most seamless sense of depth and dimensionality. Especially the shots where the 3ality 3-D cameras are only 10 to 20 feet away from those Bell UH-1 Huey / Iroquois type transports.

The disparity exaggeration / Diorama Effect of our eyes depth perception is not only the preserve of stereoscopes, View-Masters, and 3-D movies, but also of us looking though a pair of binoculars. This phenomenon is very noticeable when you find yourself lucky enough to use one of those “pay-per-view” binoculars on the observation platform of the Empire State Building, or by peering through a medium powered – 12 X 50 – binoculars while riding on a helicopter in a scenic flight / aerial tour over the Manhattan skyline or over Dubai. This disparity exaggeration that produces the stark cardboard cut out Diorama Effect – a very curious stereoscopic effect that draws the viewer to the scene. Thus giving him or her the erroneous impression that he or she is looking at a highly detailed scale model, rather than a real skyline of a real city. Like those moderately distant trees and rock outcroppings in the movie Avatar. Maybe the tech guys at 3ality Digital Systems who designed the proprietary software that runs their 3-D cameras should take note of this curious visual effect and find ways to compensate for it to make their 3-D system more physiologically compatible to how our eyes perceive depth.