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How to avoid getting a 3D headache while watching Avatar


Cameron's new SF epic may have changed the rules on a staple of cinematography...

Avatar and depth of field



Just out of pity for those (I admit we are a minority) who have tended to suffer from '3D headache' whilst watching James Cameron's Avatar, I thought I would mention how I managed to stave it off at last week's press screenings, having suffered grievously from it during the August previews at London's IMAX theatre in Waterloo.

Recent web-discussions on the issue of 'Avatar h3dache' seem to agree that the problem lies in presenting the viewer with a fairly rich 3D environment, but no opportunity to choose to focus on a part of the scene that was filmed ( or rendered) 'blurred', i.e. out-of-focus foreground elements such as leaves. Some of us seem to be fighting Avatars determination to make these choices for us, and getting our cognitive perception in a twist in the process.

In his determination to avoid criticisms of traditional 'jack-in-the-box' leveraging of 3D (wherein a director will engineer a shot so that things deliberately swing out at the viewer) Cameron seems to have compromised by shooting as much of the movie as possible with a very limited depth-of-field, in order to accentuate the 3D illusion.

On the plus side, this effective cinematographic technique, much beloved of directors such as Alan J. Pakula and Ridley Scott, is a good method of drawing our attention to a particular element in a scene.

On the negative side, we are long-since wise to directors who try and convey important information in the unfocused area of a frame, and we consequently tend to check that area out. Horror movie directors particularly enjoy the pantomimic 'it's behind you, idiot!' benefit of having their villains and monsters enter frame out-of-focus...

Janet Leigh gets menaced from the circle of confusion in 'Psycho' (1960)

Likewise directors know that we are often more than curious to see what they are deliberately throwing out of focus...

Janet Leigh nude and out of focus in 'Psycho' (1960)

In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, this shot of Deckard in the out-of-focus area of the frame emphasises and enlarges the artificially-created 'eye reflection' that leads so many fans of the film to conclude that he is indeed a replicant. Without the exaggerated effect of the depth of field, this visual detail might not even be apparent...

Rick Deckard shows what he's made of in 'Blade Runner' (1982)

So we've learned by now that even if narrow depth of field (such as in the picture above where Rachel is in focus and Deckard is not) is telling us to go one way, we ought to be checking out that blurred portion for out-of-focus information that we need.

Unless we're watching Avatar or any of the other movies that will inevitably be made with James Cameron's ground-breaking 3D cameras.

Examining unfocused areas of the frame in Avatar is literally quite a headache, and counterintuitive to our enjoyment of the 'baked and locked' 3D planes that we are being presented with. Knowing that depth-of-field is all he has to play with if he's not going to shoot rocks directly at us, Cameron doesn't hold back - he relentlessly racks focus in scene after scene.

So the trick to avoiding a headache when watching this movie is to be obedient, and concentrate on the parts of the shot that the focus tells you are 'important'. Once I understood this at the preview screenings last week, my headache began to clear up, but I was conscious too of the effort of having to 'zip over' to the next point of rapid-focus in order to keep up and preserve the 3D illusion.

I guess the next wave of 3D, perhaps in twenty or thirty years, will present 'real' planes that we can focus on at will - now that's going to be something special for your grand-kids.

In the meantime, we may have to learn how to watch 3D movies anew in the Cameron era. And cinematographers working under the system may have lost a useful dramatic tool on the altar of 3D movies.

I gratefully acknowledge the corrections of my original article text regarding the 'circle of confusion' from Chris and others. - MA



#1 3D Cures Headaches? Redflash 2011-04-10 14:54
When I watch a 3D film with a headache my head feels completely better. Especially 3D without glasses.

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