The Way of Water Should Spark a Revolution in Low-Budget FX – No, Really (column)

When ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ premiered in London last week, director James Cameron declared with a big ‘King of the World!’ It’s about cinema.” That’s a sentiment to which many filmmakers might respond, “Nice job if you can get it.”

Cameron’s Cinema of Attractions offers unparalleled delights. His virtual camera plunges through Pandora into imaginary underwater reefs with a hyper-realistic glow that underscores ambition at every turn. Even as someone who appreciates rugged and personal creative vision, I reveled in this blockbuster author’s ability to create images that transcend any visual category beyond invention of their own. There’s blunt agitprop about saving the whales and a climactic showdown that borrows more than it innovates, but the sheen of 21st-century innovation sees Cameron infusing familiar tropes with fresh energy.

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That said: It’s a 192-minute film with a budget of $350-400 million that could go for around $900 at a frame rate of 24 or 48 per second per frame. There are no on-screen dollar signs, but it’s impossible not to marvel at the cost along with the visual splendor.

Cameron’s work with Weta Digital to transform his actors into expressive blue creatures utilizes the most modern avenues of mocap storytelling, but you don’t need a multi-billion dollar franchise to make satisfying special effects films. Last year I covered the release of HTV Vive Tracker, a wireless tracking device that attaches to any object and mimics its movement in virtual reality. Since then, competitors have released their own trackers, positioned as tools for a very different kind of avatar – the type used in VR headsets for Metaverse experiences. However, this technology is equally applicable to otherworldly storytelling, which Cameron achieves on a much larger scale.

Vive trackers are $2,100, while Sony’s Mocopi wireless system (which goes on sale next month) is $365. It takes six sensors placed on an actor’s head, body, legs, and arms to capture roughly the full range of motion. An enterprising filmmaker could snag a two-pack and shoot an alien version of Before Sunrise for less than a second of Avatar’s screen time. Just as mini DV cameras changed the nature of low-budget cinema, these tools could inspire a mix of intimate storytelling and special effects to create small-scale spectacles.

HTC Vive trackers allow full body tracking.

HTC Vive trackers allow full body tracking.

They won’t look as polished or convincing as Cameron’s Na’vi, but realism doesn’t have to be the only aesthetic standard. Imagine Everything Everywhere All at Once, which only employed seven VFX artists, hurtling through a variety of handcrafted green screen effects, not all of which look quite believable. It does not matter. The story’s emotional entries allow the device to take on allegorical power, like caricatured sketches in the columns of a larger metaphysical equation.

When the first Avatar came out in 2009, mocap was a prohibitive undertaking that only Cameron and his ilk could afford. Now it’s fertile ground for experimentation as virtual production is further democratized by a falling price point. At last year’s virtual Sundance, I was blown away by “Cosmogany,” a live dance piece that featured mocap performers in tracksuits as they traveled through a series of shifting environments and an ever-changing scale. The latest “Avatar” tickled my eyes, but also gave me hope that filmmakers watching from the sidelines would see the potential in the game.

As readers of this column know, I welcome feedback that challenges your assumptions. Maybe I’m missing a critical example of a low-budget mocap project that’s already achieving the possibilities outlined here — or maybe there’s a reason nobody’s really used the technology on a small scale yet. Enlighten me: [email protected]

The last part of this column suggested five “simple” steps to save the art house. Here are a few notable responses I received.

Art house cinemas have been pushing TV networks to air their shows for over a decade, and the answer has always been “no,” with very rare exceptions. The excuse we usually get is that most talent deals for TV shows don’t include theatrical rights, and the network’s legal departments insist that a theatrical release would require a renegotiation of all talent contracts. However, the occasional very successful exception makes me think there must be a way around this problem. Another challenge is that most networks don’t have anyone to handle these types of requests. Just finding the right person to talk to can require numerous emails and phone calls, and the result of all these efforts is almost always a resounding rejection. The few screenings that actually take place seem to come from the broadcasters’ advertising departments. I’ve made screening requests going all the way back to the original “Twin Peaks” in the 80’s and never gotten a positive response. Netflix has presented the Stranger Things events you reference in the column, but they almost always turn down requests for screenings of both their TV series and their non-theatrical films. Art house theaters have long strived to screen television shows. The advantages are apparent. It is the networks that have consistently prevented this.
-Dylan Skolnick, Co-Director, Cinema Arts Theater, Huntington, NY

I enjoyed this week’s column and was wondering if you’ve considered an art house theater joint venture subscription service or alliance with MoviePass 2.0. I recently spoke to a leading indie exhibitor who believes there is real potential in a subscription service for their theaters, but doesn’t have the financial resources to build the technology required. He’s hoping MoviePass 2.0 will work, but if it doesn’t, maybe art houses will band together and build it themselves.
– Anonymous sales manager

If they monetize their data the way they do everything from the concert business to the local car dealership, theaters could be charging distributors who would happily pay them to reach preferred customers. Moviepass is what every cinema already has – the data – and all they have to do is process it in a way that it reaches audiences in their markets. As you know, almost every business works like this today. You’re not looking for things you like. They come to you on the internet.
– Anonymous Sales Manager #2

Browse the previous columns here.

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