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The Future of Film through IMAX and Digital Cinemas: A sneak peek at James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ and looking into the current digital cinemas in the Philippines

Experiencing “Avatar” is seeing the future of film technology right before my very eyes.

The realms of CGI and 3D technology on this age of filmmaking are definitely starting to write their own history already. From the initial experimentations to the developing of the medium to the hype of the format, both the filming process and the theatrical playing field prove that the evolution of cinema technology is really revolutionizing our film experiences in various levels.

Gone were the days when imagination becomes a limited audio-visual fare to filmmakers. Creative exploration is now equated by technological innovation. Leveling up to a new chapter of filmmaking history has truly started — and it continues to polish itself in every new cinematic venture exploring its prowess. From educational documentaries to children’s animated entertainment to narrative film offers, CGI and 3D technology create a larger scale of sensory high at this fast-paced and competitive era of infinite information and entertainment available to more and more people.

The rare sensation delivered by the 3D look for both animation and live action projects takes on the viewers to extraordinary cinematic journeys that have already yielded results of astonishing variety. We had the likes of “Deep Sea 3D” establishing a captivatingly fresh and interesting look to documentary productions. We had Polar Express pioneering the 3D family movie funhouse. We had “Beowulf” achieving that larger-than-life treatment and absolutely high-tech makeover to a literary classic. We had “U2 3D” breaking new ground for a new form of concert experience. And we had a number of live action offers as “Harry Potter” experimenting on the crisp and sparkling 3D look in selected parts of the films. And now, we have “Avatar” with its ambitious visual texture combined with humanly emotional depth creating a 3D spectacle amazinglyexploring both live action shots and computer-generated images.

“Avatar,” James Cameron’s first directorial debut since “Titanic,” offers such a sense of wonder with its jaw-dropping images. Being part of the select audience to get a first look on the filmmaker’s hand-picked scenes of the film in 3D at IMAX Theater SM North Edsa last Aug 24, 2009, I should say, it is definitely something to look forward to starting on Dec. 18, 2009, the schedule for its regular showing. This motion picture epic pioneers two unrelated technologies – e-motion capture which uses images from tiny cameras rigged to actors heads to replicate their expressions and digital 3D. From the said exclusive peek at the ultimate 3D technology that is yet to revolutionize our movie experience, this motion picture epic has definitely provided me much anticipation for what the future of cinema has begun to realize.

“Avatar” was conceived by Cameron 14 years ago, when the means to realize his vision did not exist yet. Now, after four years of actual production work, the film delivers a fully immersive cinematic experience of a new kind – with the revolutionary technology invented to make the film disappear into the emotion of the characters and sweep the story with unprecedented craftsmanship.

The movie takes the audience towards the spectacular new future where pulse-pounding action sets forth from a mythical planet named Pandora.  Embroiled in the new world is a reluctant hero (Sam Worthington) that embarks on a journey of redemption and discovery as he leads a heroic battle to save a civilization. It shall be distributed worldwide in the following formats: IMAX 2D, digital 3D, digital 2D and 35mm to be available in local theaters nationwide this December through 20th Century Fox as distributed by Warner Brothers Philippines.

It is too early to give the best distinction for this ambitious film venture as I have only seen bits and pieces of some scenes. It will just be fair to give my true thumbs up or thumbs down once I get to watch the whole film and find out for myself if more than just the film’s mind-dropping technical prowess and fascinating audio-visual spectacle, the storytelling delivers an ultimate triumph for this project. But so far, with what I have witnessed firsthand at the IMAX Theater, this film is not just a mere technical exercise of the new technology. During the sneak preview, I have watched the 20-minute excerpt of the film three times. I’m calling the first opportunity to see the footages as level 1 watching – where I merely enjoy and immerse myself in seeing the film for the first time. Level 2 is where my filmmaker side provides a more conscious study on the kind of film language utilized in the selected scenes I have watched. I become more keen in the kind of shots chosen, the movements of the camera, the production design, the utilization of the various elements present on the screen, among other things. Level 3 provides me an opportunity to evaluate the more technical aspect of the making of the film – considering the fact that it’s a newly explored advancement on this kind of film technology.

As a director myself who is also venturing into some animation projects at the moment, I have been in total awe with what I have seen. Watching it for the third time allows me to examine how superior the filmmaking process is for the film – I have been trying to see if there are technical and aesthetic compromises, if there is something not rendered well, if there are compositing issues, if the movements of the background does not match well with the movements of the actors and actresses and if the backgrounds separate too much from the main subject/s, if the shadows are missing or not on the right parts, if the motion captured expressions of the live performances have something questionable for the needed genuine expressions, among other things. Kudos to Cameron and his team. The fast cuts and action shots don’t look like they are cheating the audience’s eyes. Of course, it could be a more in-depth evaluation if I can do like a frame-by-frame examination of it (which is something that I really am interested to do because after trying to really see if there’s something not seamless on the shots and even the sound, the only thing I am considering to check again so far is if the dinosaur scene with the main character really perfectly matches the supposed movements of the vines that the huge, monstrous animal is stepping in, plus other little things that make me curious on the process that they further went through, regardless of missing something small along the way or things were just made to be at their most effective really), but basing it from what I saw three times, the technical and emotional parts of the film definitely look so promising. The idea of losing some needed emotional punch for the sake of technological show-offs is not an issue with the scenes I have seen. And the sound quality is no less than impeccable.

Digital Cinemas in the Local Playing Field

For the Philippines, it is but a dream to explore filmmaking on this foray of big budget, ambitious 3D projects, but it is a positive thing that we are part of the audience already benefiting on the improvement of the playing field of cinema’s freshest technological breakthroughs. We have around a dozen of digital cinemas and two IMAX theaters in the country this year compared to less than five last year. We have IMAX at SM Mall of Asia and SM City North Edsa (we used to have only one at Mall of Asia for the past few good years). We have digital cinemas at Gateway Cineplex 10, SM City North EDSA, Trinoma, Greenbelt 3, SM Megamall, Robinsons Galleria, and SM Mall of Asia (we used to have only one at SM City and two at Gateway Cineplex 10 for the past few good years) – and I have heard from a reliable source that a mall in Cebu is already on the works for their own digital cinema as well.

This is a great news for the country. It reflects how Filipinos can now go a notch higher not just in watching Hollywood blockbusters but also showcasing our own films with top quality 2K resolution –which is actually within the reach of our own productions. In fact, the Filipino independent filmmaking community has been on the forefront of this. Interestingly, more independent Filipino films are pushing the boundaries of HD projection than local commercial film projects. This provides a significant sign that limited budget independent film ventures have great opportunities to level up the technical quality of their films already. And another good news is that there are commercial theaters catering to HD and 2K film projections helping out even the local independent film projects. And I’m a living testimony to this as even my short films were given the chance to be premiered in HD format courtesy of Outpost Digital Frontier who is currently at the forefront of DCP (Digital Cinema Package) release of our local films, and courtesy of Gateway Cineplex 10 and Araneta Group who have gladly provided their Dolby Super Digital Cinema (Cinema 5) for the films’ theatrical projection a few months ago. And we are yet to see Cannes Palm d’Or Winner Raymond Red’s film “Himpapawid” (Skies) which is also working on its DCP – which explores great possibilities to being catered by the growing number of digital cinemas in the country.

In a realistic sense, the utilizing of digital cinemas is very much favorable to the Philippine film industry – both commercial and art-house films. Why and how? Shooting in HD, which cuts the production cost with such a significant amount as compared to shooting on film, can go two preferable routes for cinema projection: 1) blowing up to the standard 35mm prints for nationwide release of bigger film projects; and/or 2) projecting in HD which is file-based and needs no film prints anymore which can further cut the production cost especially to those films only catering to a specific audience like film buffs and people who are into watching art films. It may be a smaller market, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t make its own decent way into the box office especially if it is shown in digital cinemas where the saturation of its audience can be found in proximity with it. And in its case right now, tapping areas like Quezon City, Ortigas, Makati, and Manila (where the recent digital cinemas in the country are situated) are truly formidable grounds to the audience of art and independent films. And in the future, it will also be wise to start investing on digital cinemas in other key cities around the country as Cebu, Bacolod, Davao, Baguio, Ilocos, Laguna, etc. to further cater to the decent market of such films all around the country. And it is really “high time” that more Filipino producers, whether for commercial or art-house projects, be more inspired by all these.

The high resolution and mostly file-based filming in HD cameras make it easier for the footages to be utilized for post-production work. The file-based showing of films becomes a real advantage to film theaters as there are no more scratches and noises due to wear and tear of a 35mm print and there are no more possibilities for human error in rewinding and queuing up prints. All these, in the long-term, entails lower cost than using film-based projections; thus, making it more feasible for the Philippines to catch up with the technology in the global perspective.And as more and more digital cinemas come into the picture, the opportunities are getting bigger and bigger for Filipino filmmakers, producers, distributors, theater owners, and cinema-goers. 

We may not be on the level of using the technology that “Avatar” has already maximized for itself, and it may take some decades before we reach that status; but if filmmakers, producers, distributors, theater owners, media people, and the film audience all work together, reaching out to the future of cinema with a global mindset on the technological breakthroughs of the likes of IMAX and digital theaters will be ultimately beneficial for us… And realistically speaking, it’s not too far away for us… We can both dream and achieve more and more in our own developing country with a slowly, but surely thriving film industry – now producing a great number of films garnering awards and receiving critical acclaim all over the world.

Indeed, we are all part of this new, astounding cinematic revolution with the most brilliant efforts for “filmmaking” and “film watching” within our midst – whether in such top Hollywood film projects or in our own steps forward in very our local films. Together, let’s develop our film industry further and appreciate the technology we are also starting to see, learn, and experience through Hollywood films that are already investing on cinema’s greater options for the future.

Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne is a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. From mainstream essentials to independent flair, she knows the drill in making entertaining and well-meaning productions. She can lead a pack passionate about extreme action and technological edge; she can breathe an endearing and sentimental style for a team with a sweet disposition.

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