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Two Vectors of Avatar’s Cinematic Achievement: Affect and Space Interface

There were two primary technological achievements that guided the transmutive possibilities that mark out what made James Cameron’s Avatar special innovations organized around aesthetic problems, and here I just want to sketch them out to give greater depth to my other thoughts about the film: Avatar: The Density of Being,  Avatarship and the New Man: Reading Ideology, Technology and Hope. Each of these two indicate the very dimensionality of human aesthetic avatarship – the ability, or path to reading worth through inhabited subjectivity – or at least suggest a landscape for future digital and so-called “virtual world” aesthetically culled interactions.

The first of these was the problem of the Uncanny Valley, the way in which approximations of human beings, if too proximate, create a disturbing sense of alienness such that one cannot (or should not) identify with the portrayed subject. (I thoroughly reject a Fruedian or even Lacanian reading of the Uncanny, for both its essentially optical and repressive analogies, but certainly the effect of the Uncanny Valley is an epistemically important one.) The problem that Cameron faced was that no matter how much tweaking was done to motion capture, the actorly performance, the emotionality, one might want to say its reality, was lost within this valley. The Pandorans were both too human, and not human enough. In short I would say this reality involves a kind of temporal and physionomic threshold of reflection, the way in which internal events (taken to be subjective and expressed facially) within certain thresholds of timing and intensity, can be read as expressing both the states of being, as well as their causal relationships to a shared and external world. The reality of this causal interface is one in which something like the musicality of the actor (emphasizing both the structure and expression) allows internal events to enforce the reality of external ones, confirming the appropriateness of our own internal events-experiences, the three of them forming a data-rich, self-supporting resonance. The overcoming of the uncanny valley in faces was achieved by the actors wearing small cameras which hovered over their facial expressions, along with painstaking, algorithmic conversion of that capture into the avatar’s digital “rig” (a framework of facial representations). A feedback loop of Cameron’s aesthetic approval and technique adjustment fine-tuned the effect such that actorly experiences and expressions found their proper topological space within a virtual and artistic world.

The second problem answered was that of Cameron’s own directorial powers, the ability to author directions to actors in the realtime context of the imaginary enviroment itself. This was achieved through a lens-less “swing camera” which in low-resolution allowed Cameron to drift through the volume (virtual environment) in such a way that his vision and actor performance was granted a threshold of interface which surely imbued communications between them with a specific vital co-expression. The result was that the actor’s spontaneous expression driven by character was melded through the director to an unseen environment, in real time.  The actor could express and m0ve with a certain watery autonomy, and her or his director could side by side focus the actor’s attention to this or that, viewing the sythesized result. Intersubjective triangulation  attained a kind of spatial freedom never before in human expression, we might risk,  a ring of Gyges vector of invisible yet corporeal cohesion holding together the creative agents. It was as if Van Gogh could enter his painting and talk to his paints (which is something artists “do” in one way or other all the same). An odd product of this technology of performance and capture was that the actors no longer had to act TO the camera (or even the space), but rather could lock onto the narrative itself, almost with stage purity, freed from even makeup and costume (this freedom is not entirely new, but it is linked to a new communicative assemblage). The volume in a sense, came to be enveloped around them, directed in real time, back upon the narratological thread which inhabited the actors, through the intersubjective creativity of the director. In this manner, narrative and characterization acquire a near novelistic isolation, appearing at the surface of the actor’s affective skin and muscular terminus, forming a layer, sewn back into a wider fantastic perspective come out of the technological and auteur armature, through which the actor is guided. A final remarkable aspect of this artistic process is that the director, after a performance, can then move back through the volume and performance and rephotograph it, in the real time of the performance itself, allowing the performance and volume to dictate to the camera in unanticipated catalysis with the director’s experience of both the space and the emotion. And this synthesis becomes that of the audience member as well, threading the affect and space interface into its final product, aesthetic avatarship proper.

What is sure is that these new capacities: actor freed from camera and costume, director freed to create volume and actor counterpoint, the intersubjectivity of the communications between the two resewing narrative (and character) to volume in a different way, and lastly the emotional richness of a facialized register (a plane on which it all can cohere and appear to emanate), create a synthesis beyond thresholds previously conceived, wrenching out a powerful redistribution of what can be done with the twins: affect and space.

The above produced out of information found at Popular Mechanics: How James Cameron’s Innovative New 3D Tech Created Avatar

[click on either for larger image]

Here in diagram and example are the two registers of space and affect which Cameron’s techique worked to free from each other, an aesthetic freedom of camera/eye selection which both can coordinate performance amid the fantastic environment (volume), and also select out a framing of that performance with temporal autonomy. The actor is given relative narrative freedom from staging, the director becomes inter-subjective toggle, and the facialized plane grounds the emotional and volume real.

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Avatar: The Density of Being

Let’s just say that I am recovering. It is a carefully sculpted onslaught, discretely spaced with only a few flaws, but an onslaught nonetheless. And I am recovering. It’s Pocahontas meets Full Metal Jacket meets The Diving Bell and the Butterfly meets Alien meets Coming Home meets Dragonheart meets Dersu Uzala  meets Brainstorms meets Total Recall meets The Legend of Zu meets Tron meets Dances with Wolves meets Final Fantasy IV meets Logan’s Run, all of this meeting Ecological Crisis ideology meets Indigenous nostalgia meets Disney ethnic cliché and New Age ascension, and all of that sum colliding with the categorical mytho-aesthetic effect of the first Star Wars and possibly 2001. The storylines and plot topologies proliferate at animation-cell frame rates so synthesized, so graced, they are no longer borrowings, but rather operate like flipped gateways for infusions that simply cannot be qualified, nor controled. The movie downloads the viewer with such ferocity and such poetic space the film bends back cinema upon itself, and introduces its content – the question of Avatarship – into the very experience, pulling out from technological increase and its inherent relatability the buried question of sensitivity, connection and projected identification, in short, the implied organic mutuality in everything our machines have brought us. Cameron and his magicians in such a threshold defying 3D invade our bodies and throw out our affects into the arms and sinews of operators which defy all of our repeated attempts to take map of where we are. This past movie recognition, this ethnic familiarity – are the Pandorans African Maasai, elegant Native American Indians, Thai-Myanmar Pa Dong Karen, naked Amazon natives, or even cats – inundates and torques the viewer in a transport that is more than pleasured, more than reflective. It is free…free in only the sense that aesthetic renewal can be free. One is tossed outward amid the equally familiar ideological landscapes of ecological nightmare (however this reads for you), and you are vividly aware of its artifice. But in that practical synthetics the technological nervature examines you and opens you out across the help even to your well-honed intellectual compass. You rifle through cartographies, all of them familiar, all of them critically engaged, but grid on grid, none of them suffice. The imagined-to-be trite self-discovery of the main character’s authentic warrior thymotic spirit (that template) sheds all of is scales amid an interaction with image and physical movement that perhaps only equals the dislocations and alien projections of scuba or spacewalk. If anything else is communicated here, technology is sense, and sense is technology, within the scope of global concern. Nevermind that every Na’vi looks the connotations of every supermodel distortion of mundane biology. Nevermind that videogame freedoms populate with every stigma of ideological absorption. Nevermind that mythologies fragment into flattened space confrontations. The whole thing escalates far beyond its means, revealing how Ideals throw us forwards, how when technologies and techniques are sufficient, they compel the spirit into new-born orbits of extreme decay and apogee, flights that must have been there in the thousands of memory verses when one of Homer’s avatars was repeating the invented history of the Greeks with muscular hexemeter and rhythm in the residue glow of camp-fires.