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When technology costs more than human

Movie director James Cameron waited 15 years for technology to catch up before it was sufficiently advanced for him to create the much-anticipated upcoming film, Avatar.To be released in 2D and 3D, the production is marketed as a breakthrough in moviemaking technique, where Cameron was able to work with a virtual camera and watch directly on a monitor how computer-generated characters would interact with human actors in real-time, then tweak and reshoot scenes accordingly.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor on

Movie director James Cameron waited 15 years for technology to catch up before it was sufficiently advanced for him to create the much-anticipated upcoming film, Avatar.

To be released in 2D and 3D, the production is marketed as a breakthrough in moviemaking technique, where Cameron was able to work with a virtual camera and watch directly on a monitor how computer-generated characters would interact with human actors in real-time, then tweak and reshoot scenes accordingly.

"It's like a big, powerful game engine," Cameron said in a 2007 The New York Times report. "If I want to fly through space, or change my perspective, I can."

In another article, he described virtual filmmaking as a "form of pure creation". "Where if you want to move a tree, or a mountain or the sky, or change the time of day, you have complete control over the elements."

And the man behind mega blockbuster Titanic has no qualms producing work in, well, titanic proportions. In fact, according to a CNN report, Avatar is the most expensive 20th Century Fox has ever made. The Wall Street Journal estimated that the bill could have rung to the tune of US$300 million. In comparison, Titanic cost US$200 million.

That's a whole lot of moolah for a production that assumingly should have spent less on casting overheads, since it involves fewer human actors and more computer-generated characters.

Is a movie created with a large dose of technology and computer-generated characters more appealing than one produced on good old traditional human talents?

It was exactly seven years ago in December 2001 that I watched one of the first movies touted to feature some of the most advanced digital effects of that time, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The production cost US$100 million and took four years to complete, running on several hundreds high-performance servers, visualization systems and workstations.

The lead female character's hair, all 60,000 strands of it, took hundreds of hours to perfect. The virtual cast was so real A-list human actor Tom Hanks remarked then that the use of technology in filmmaking may put Hollywood's most celebrated artistes out of job. He told The New York Times then: "I am very troubled by it but it's coming down, man. It's going to happen. And I'm not sure what actors can do about it."

I didn't agree with Hanks then. I had watched Final Fantasy and failed to identify with the digital characters because I saw no soul and no depth in their computer-generated eyes. There was no life behind them because there was none.

Star Wars director George Lucas also rejected Hank's proposition: "I don't think I would ever use the computer to create a human character. It just doesn't work. You need actors to do that."

Avatar, though, is said to include technological innovations that feature an enhanced way of capturing facial nuances, where a tiny camera attached to a skullcap gathers information about an actor's eyes and facial expressions, and transmit this data to computers.

According to Fox, the technical advancements provided Cameron more fluidity in the production process and to "construct the movie in the manner he thought creatively was best".

I realize now that technology isn't created simply to replace humans. Rather, and more importantly, it affords the opportunity to create works that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

That's perhaps why Cameron decided to still include human actors in Avatar, using technology instead to create the alien characters and aid in producing action scenes and building locations that would have been too tough or impossible to shoot.

It's not about whether technology-aided productions are more costly than those crafted purely by humans. It's about how humans can use technology to perform tasks and create works that would not have been humanly possible.

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