Movie Technology: Avatar, District 9 and Paranormal Activity

In a decade’s time film buffs will reflect back on 2009 as a watershed year for movie technology and they’ll muse with awe as to how three movies released in close proximity to each other happened to alter the landscape of filmmaking. The first of the triumvirate to arrive was District 9, a movie that threw down a gargantuan gauntlet. With a budget of only $30mil, Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson proved that $150mil is not required to deliver an action-packed CGI extravaganza. The only prerequisite one needs is vision; vision to know how to efficiently prepare a film for post-production digital magic.

As a teenager, Blomkamp experimented with computer-graphics design using readily attainable hardware. When films like Jurassic Park popularize techniques, a trickle down effect begins and the hardware and software blossom forth. When someone is struck with inspiration, they will seek out how to recreate what inspired them. For those that stick with it, recreation will eventually spark creation. Call this the “I Could Do That One Day” cycle.

Though I’m positive Blomkamp’s success has already had a Spielberg-effect on countless future CGI masters, its immediate effect will be on studios who cite the profitability of D9 as a reason to take risks when it comes to financing original motion pictures. $30mil may seem like a lot of money to indie filmmakers scrounging what they can, but it’s within a price range studios are comfortable betting on, as evidenced by the recent news that an aspiring Uruguayan director who made a CGI-heavy short film about a giant robot attack has been given a Hollywood gig by Spider-Man honcho Sam Raimi.

So if D9 yields “I Could Do That One”, one need only look at 2009’s second watershed film for the “I Could Do That Today” influence: Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity. Unlike Blomkamp, Peli had no idea how to make a movie. He’d never done special effects before, let alone directed a short film, yet Peli delivered one of the biggest collective audience gasps of ’09 when he yanked a woman out of her bed by an invisible force. His movie cost less than $15k to make, was shot on cameras anyone can buy at an electronics store, and featured simple special effects made with off-the-shelf software and Internet tutorials. PA is, without question, the most successful offspring the democratization of media has ever produced. Every element of Peli’s production was ordinary, and yet he delivered one of the most indelible films of the year. Its record as the most profitable film of all time is likely to never be broken, but people will try.

They’ll try because Peli made it look easy. The technological barrier, though present, appeared non-existent. Little may come of the horde of works that imitate his film, but for a new generation of tech-savy netizens, PA will be a gateway drug to Do It Yourself filmmaking.

Yet while Peli is hooking newbies on his brand of DIY, James Cameron has convinced industry titans to drink his Kool Aid. The earliest Avatar buzz to leak out revolved around directors like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson walking onto Cameron’s set, looking at the toys he spent years developing, and walking away changed men. Even without seeing the final film, it’s a no-brainer to understand why. There’s a lot of techno mumbo-jumbo, but basically Cameron’s company refined a system that allows one to alter a digital world in real time. All green-screen heavy films utilize pre-visualization, but Cameron was able to make unprecedented decisions while filming by reversing the traditional process.

Think of it this way: Before Avatar, a director shot an actor in front of a green screen and later created the world around them. Avatar refined the tech to create a world ahead of time and insert an actor into it instead. That’s a dumbed down explanation, but it’s the gist of why people who have been making movies for decades are excited by the innovation. Spielberg and Jackson have already implemented a similar system on their future films; and they’ll be the first in a long line to do so.

The effect of Avatar will clearly have the most macro-level influence of 2009’s tech-trio, but as with Lord of the Rings before it, and Jurassic Park before that, and Terminator 2 before that, and Tron before that, and so on and so on, Avatar will trigger a new descent of trickle down technology. Not just in the motion-capture department, but in 3D as well as home video exhibition. It’s poised to be the new killer app of filmmaking, regardless if people think the trailers looked like Dances With Smurfs.

This isn’t hype. I have no idea if all of this will yield a great film, but some day the Oren Peli’s of the world will become the Neill Blomkamps, and the Blomkamps will become the Camerons, and the Camerons will retire as forefathers. The technological momentum of 2009 will unquestionably be felt. It’s only a matter of time.